2018 NFL schedule rankings, NFC North: Packers have easiest schedule in the NFC

If you're thinking about picking a team from the NFC to win the the Super Bowl this season, this might actually be the year you'll want to go ahead and pick the Packers

For one, Tony Romo is already locked in on them, and if we learned one thing about Romo last year, it's that he's almost never wrong about anything. 

"I think the Packers probably got better, maybe more than any team I saw this offseason," Romo recently told WTMJ-TV in Milwaukee. "If the secondary is a little bit better, I think they're the team to beat this year."

Not only has Romo been impressed with their offseason, but the Packers also have something else going in their favor: They're playing the easiest schedule in the NFC this year. With the regular season still more than two months away, you might be wondering how we already know that the Packers have the easiest schedule in the NFC, and that's because we devised a formula to rank all 32 schedules in the NFL. 

Back in February, we ranked each team's 2018 schedule using strength of schedule, but that's not exactly the most efficient way to rate schedule difficulty. To fix that, we've devised a formula that gives a more accurate look at what each team will be facing during the upcoming season. For instance, if you use strength of schedule, which is the combined 2017 winning percentage of a team's opponents, then the Packers have the hardest schedule in the NFL this year. However, under our formula, their schedule difficulty is tied for 27th overall.  

To devise our formula, we started by going through each individual game on each team's schedule and ranked it based on difficulty. After that, we also looked at Super Bowl odds. Since the oddsmakers in Las Vegas seem to know what they're doing, we incorporated their odds, which is a big reason why the Vikings ended up with the hardest schedule in the NFC North. Although each team in the division has to play the Patriots this year, the Vikings are the only team that has to play both Super Bowl participants from last season. The Vikings have to play at Philadelphia in Week 5 against an Eagles team that went 7-1 at home in 2017 and thrashed Minnesota in the playoffs (38-7). 

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One final thing we used to tabulate this formula is the first three games of the season. We weighted those three games slightly more than the other 13 games because they tend to be a good indication of how a team will play throughout the season. Basically, teams that go winless in their first three games almost never make the playoffs. 

Since 1990, only three teams have started 0-3 and made the playoffs (1992 Chargers, 1995 Lions,1998 Bills).

On the flip side of that, 3-0 usually means good things in the NFL: From 1990 to 2010, 75.9 percent of the teams that started 3-0 made the playoffs. Those odds drop to 54.9 percent for 2-1 teams and 23.3 percent for 1-2 teams. 

You can look at last year's playoff field as proof of how important the first few games are: Of the 12 teams that made the postseason, only the Saints (1-2) didn't have a winning record through the first three weeks of the season. The other 11 teams started the year either 2-1 or 3-0. 

This basically means that if your favorite team has a murderer's row in the first three weeks of the season, you should probably just give up on 2018 and start paying attention to 2019. Now, I'm not saying Bears fans should start scouting the 2019 draft, but Chicago does have a rough opening slate with games against the Packers (away) and Seahawks during two of the first three weeks of the year. 

The reason we're not giving the final three games of the season more weight is because the final games don't always mean the same for everybody, especially when a team is resting its starters. The Saints went 0-3 in their final three games in 2009 and still won the Super Bowl. The Ravens went 1-2 in their final three in 2012 and also won the Super Bowl.  

Alright, that's enough rambling, let's get to these rankings. 

Wait, one more thing, if you're interested in checking out the schedule rankings for every other team in the NFL, you can do that here. For the AFC, just click through on your favorite division here: AFC East, AFC South, AFC North and AFC West. For the NFC, you're going to have to wait until the end of the week. Although we've already hit the NFC East and NFC South, we won't be releasing the NFC West rankings until Thursday. 

Ranking the NFC North schedules

4. Green Bay Packers

Schedule difficulty rating: 86.25

Easiest stretch: The Packers actually have two easiest stretches, which shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone, since they have the easiest schedule in the NFC. The Packers will be playing three of their first four games at home (Chicago, Minnesota, at Washington, Buffalo), which means there's a good chance they could get off to a hot start. Although the Minnesota game won't be easy, the Packers do have a small advantage in that Kirk Cousins will be playing only his second game ever for the Vikings. If Cousins isn't comfortable yet in Minnesota's offense, that could turn into a Green Bay rout. 

As for the other easy stretch, Green Bay could end up running the table during the final month of the season and that's because the Packers have a December schedule that's basically an early Christmas gift from the NFL (Arizona, Atlanta, at Chicago, at NY Jets, Detroit). Before we move on, please take a second and look at those three home games. Can you guess what they have in common? They're all being played against domed teams. That's right, the NFL is sending three domed teams to Green Bay in December, which is basically the last place that any domed team wants to play during the coldest month of the football season. The first problem for the Cardinals, Falcons and Lions is that Rodgers is 15-0 in December home games dating back to 2009. The second problem for the three teams is that they are all .500 or worse in their past 10 December road games played outdoors (The Falcons and Lions are 4-6, the Cardinals are 5-5). 

Roughest stretch: Although the Packers have the easiest schedule in the NFC, they still have one absolutely brutal stretch this season. Starting in Week 8, the Packers will play four games on the road in five weeks and if that sounds tough, just wait until you hear who they play. The stretch includes road games against the Rams (Week 8), the Patriots (Week 9), the Seahawks (Week 11) and the Vikings (Week 12) with all of those -- except for the L.A. game -- scheduled to air in primetime. Oh, and did we mention the Seahawks game is on a Thursday, which means the Packers will have to fly halfway across the country to play a game on three days rest. The breather in all of this will come in Week 10, when the Packers host the Dolphins. The good news for the Packers is that they have a bye in Week 7, which means they'll have an extra week to get healthy before starting their nightmare stretch.    

Weird scheduling note: Assuming Aaron Rodgers stays healthy this season, the Packers trip to New England in Week 9 will mark his first ever game at Gillette Stadium. The last time the Packers played at New England came in 2010, but Rodgers didn't play in that game due to a concussion, which means this will likely be the first and only time we see Rodgers and Tom Brady duel it out at Gillette. 

3. Detroit Lions

Schedule difficulty rating: 94.75

Easiest stretch: The Lions are 9-1 in their past 10 games against the Bears, so picking the easiest stretch on their schedule was easy: Just find the Bears and go from there. The Lions actually lucked out this year because they get to face the Bears twice in 11 days, and no, that is not a typo. After playing in Chicago in Week 10, the Lions will turn around and host the Bears on Thanksgiving Day in Week 12. In between, the Lions have a Week 11 game against the Panthers, which won't be easy, but it is at home, so going 3-0 during this stretch definitely isn't out of the question. 

Roughest stretch: The Lions better beat the Jets in their regular season opener, because if they don't, things could get really ugly after that. The Lions' roughest stretch of the season starts in Week 2 and it could make or break the year for Detroit. After opening on a Monday against New York, not only do the Lions have to play on a short week, but they have to travel across the country to San Francisco. As if that's not bad enough, they have to face a quarterback who's never lost a regular-season game (Jimmy Garoppolo). After that, things won't get any easier because the Lions will be hosting the Patriots on Sunday night in Week 3. The only upside to those two games is that new Lions coach Matt Patricia is familiar with Tom Brady and Garoppolo after spending most of his career in New England. After facing the Patriots, the Lions get a road game against the Cowboys and a home game against the Packers. If the Lions take a winning record into their Week 6 bye, that will be a minor miracle. 

Weird scheduling note: The Lions and Bears will be facing each other twice in 11 days, which is definitely weird, because that's never come close to happening. Before this year, 14 days was the closest the two teams had ever had two of their games. Since 1970, that gap has happened three times (1983, 1990, 2003). 

2. Chicago Bears

Schedule difficulty rating: 95.75

Easiest stretch: There were four quarterbacks who got selected in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft and there's a chance that the Bears will be facing three of them over a seven-week stretch where they could definitely rack up some up some wins. Starting in Week 3, the Bears' schedule looks like this: At Cardinals, Buccaneers, bye, at Dolphins, Patriots, Jets, at Bills. If you don't count the Patriots, every other team in that stretch currently has some huge question marks. For one, the Cardinals, Jets and Bills could all be starting rookies by the time they play the Bears. As for the Dolphins, they have a quarterback in Ryan Tannehill who hasn't taken a regular-season snap since 2016. Oh, and the Buccaneers are also having some quarterback issues. The game against Tampa is in Week 4, which theoretically means that it could end up being Jameis Winston's first game back from suspension. Since Winston won't be able to practice with the Bucs during the suspension, the Bears would see a rusty quarterback when they host Tampa. 

Roughest stretch: If the NFL scheduling office was hoping to ruin the holiday season for Bears fans around the country, it almost certainly got the job done. Over the final four weeks of the season, it wouldn't be shocking to see the Bears go winless and that's because they have a December gauntlet. Starting in Week 14, the Bears have consecutive games against the Rams, Packers, 49ers (away) and the Vikings (away). The silver lining here for the Bears is that ... you know what, let's not get anyone's hopes up, there's no silver lining here. 

Weird scheduling note: The Bears are basically going to become an honorary member of the AFC East this year. Starting in Week 6, the Bears will face all four teams in the division over a period of four weeks. If the Bears were to sweep that stretch, they could add an "AFC East Champs" T-shirt to the collection they started last year after going 4-0 against the AFC North

And no, that is not a mistake: The Bears went 4-0 against the AFC last year and just 1-11 against the NFC.  

1. Minnesota Vikings

Schedule difficulty rating: 96.50

Easiest stretch: Although the Vikings got hit with the most difficult schedule in the NFC North, it's almost like they got to handpick their final three games of the season, which just happens to be their easiest stretch. Starting in Week 15, the Vikings will close the year with two home games over the final three weeks (Miami, at Detroit, Chicago), which is good news for a team that went 7-1 at home last season and is 23-9 overall in Minnesota since Mike Zimmer took over as coach in 2014. Things could get really ugly for the both the Dolphins (Zimmer is 6-1 in his past seven home games against the AFC) and the Bears (Zimmer has never lost at home to them, going 4-0).

Roughest stretch: Kirk Cousins better figure out the Vikings' offense quickly, because Minnesota's toughest stretch of the season starts in Week 2. After a home opener against the 49ers, the Vikings will have to play three of their next four games on the road (at Green Bay, Buffalo, at LA Rams, at Philadelphia). First, they'll be going up against Rodgers, who will likely be out for revenge. After a winnable game against the Bills, the Vikings have to turn around on a short week and play a Thursday game in Los Angeles. As if that's not bad enough, the Vikings then have to play the defending Super Bowl champions. If you watched the NFC title game, then you're well aware of why Minnesota might struggle in Philadelphia. If you didn't watch the NFC title game, well, it was a 38-7 massacre in favor of the Eagles. By the way, the Vikings actually have two rough stretches: The second one starts in Week 12 when they play the Packers, Patriots (away) and Seahawks (away) in consecutive weeks. 

Weird scheduling note: Although the Vikings have the toughest schedule in the NFC North, they're nowhere near the top of the entire conference when it comes to our formula. To give you an idea of how easy the NFC North has it compared to the rest of the conference, the Vikings' overall schedule is tied for 11th most difficult, and every other team in the division is below that. The full schedule rankings, which will include all 32 teams, will come out later this month. 

CBS Sports Writer

John Breech has been at CBS Sports since July 2011 and currently spends most of his time writing about the NFL. He's believed to be one of only three people in the world who thinks that Andy Dalton will... Full Bio

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