After sending three teams to the playoffs in 2017, don't be surprised if the NFC South takes a step back this year.  

For one, it's been a rough offseason for most of the division. We have one team dealing with a suspended quarterback (Tampa Bay), one team dealing with an investigation into its former owner (Carolina), another team dealing with a disgruntled star receiver (Falcons), and then there's the Saints, who will be playing the toughest schedule in the division this year. With the regular season still more than two months away, you might be wondering how we already know that the Saints have the most difficult schedule in the division 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. 

To devise our formula, we started by going through each individual game on each team's schedule and ranked it based on difficulty. When you have to play a bunch of playoff teams from the prior season, that's usually not a good thing. In 2018, the Saints and Buccaneers will both be playing a total of eight games against teams that made the playoffs in 2017. That means HALF THEIR SCHEDULE will be against playoff teams from last season (The Ravens are the only other team this season that will play that many games against 2017 playoff teams). 

For the second part of our formula, we looked at Super Bowl odds. Since the oddsmakers in Las Vegas seem to know what they're doing, we incorporated their odds. The three NFC teams with the best Super Bowl odds right now are the Eagles, Rams and Vikings, and the Saints have to play all of them in 2018. The other three NFC South teams don't have to play the Rams or Vikings this year. 

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, and yes, I'm looking at you when I say that, Buccaneers fans. Not only is your quarterback going to be suspended for the opening three weeks of the season, but your team will basically be facing the most brutal opening three-game stretch in NFL history.  

When it comes to the opening three weeks of the season, the NFC South definitely got the short end of the stick this year. Besides the Bucs, the Falcons also have to open their season with three straight games against playoff teams from 2017 (At Eagles, Panthers, Saints). Tampa and Atlanta are the only two teams in the entire NFC that have to deal with that this year. The Chargers are the only AFC team that has to play three playoff teams over the first three weeks of the season. 

By the way, 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, here's how things are going to work with our schedule rankings: On Tuesdays and Thursdays through the first week of July, we'll be going division by division to rank every schedule in the NFL. After hitting the AFC over the past two weeks --you can click here for the AFC East, AFC South, AFC North and AFC West -- we'll be moving on to the NFC this week with the NFC East and NFC South. 

Ranking the NFC South schedules

4. Atlanta Falcons

Schedule difficulty rating: 98.75

Easiest stretch: If the Falcons get off to an ugly start this season, which is completely possible considering who they play in their first five games, there's a good chance things will take a turn for the better starting in Week 6. After a rough Week 5 road game against the Steelers, the Falcons will get their easiest stretch of the season. First, they'll get two very winnable games at home (Buccaneers, Giants) followed by their bye week. After that, a rested Falcons team will get to play on the road against the Redskins and Browns. According to the oddsmakers in Vegas, Atlanta is favored to win all four of those games, so don't let the oddsmakers down, Falcons.  

Roughest stretch: Unfortunately for the Falcons, they get the dreaded "Pennsylvania Sandwich" to start the season, which isn't an actual sandwich, but it probably should be. Atlanta's roughest stretch of the season starts with a game in Pennsylvania (Week 1 vs. the Eagles), ends with a game in Pennsylvania (Week 5 vs. the Steelers) and includes three straight homes games in the middle (Panthers, Saints, Bengals). If you're scoring at home, that means the Falcons will be opening the year against five teams that went a combined 55-25 last season. That five-week stretch includes games against four playoff teams from 2017. With an opening stretch like that, the Falcons should probably be putting all their focus on getting this contract stuff with Julio Jones figured out. Those first five weeks could be rough if Jones misses any time or isn't in football shape because he missed most of training camp. 

Weird scheduling note: The Falcons have to play three outdoor games in December, which is only notable because playing outdoors in the middle of winter isn't exactly a strength for the team. In their past 10 December games played outdoors, the Falcons are just 4-6. 

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Schedule difficulty rating: 99.00

Easiest stretch: If the Buccaneers can somehow keep their head above water for the first nine weeks of the season, they'll finally get to a patch of winnable games starting in November. In Week 10, the Bucs will play two of three games at home, with those games coming against the Redskins, Giants (away) and 49ers. The upside of that one away game is that the Bucs will be getting a Giants team that will coming off a short week. Before playing Tampa, the Giants have a cross-country Monday night game in San Francisco. As for the 49ers, the Bucs will be getting a San Francisco team that's 0-10 in their past 10 trips to the Eastern Time Zone. The 49ers haven't won America's favorite time zone since November 2014. 

Roughest stretch: Although we mentioned the Buccaneers first three games of the season earlier, let's go ahead and mention it again, because it also happens to be the team's roughest stretch of the season (at New Orleans, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh). Even if the Bucs had Jameis Winston for these first three games, I'd say their best-case scenario would be 0-3. Without Jamies Winston, well, let's just say Ryan Fitzpatrick doesn't have a great track record against any of these three teams. 

So if 0-3 is the best-case scenario with Winston, then what's the worse-case with Fitzpatrick? Glad you asked. The answer to that question is also 0-3, but in the worse-case scenario, Fitzpatrick gets hurt in Week 1, forcing Ryan Griffin -- who has never taken an NFL snap -- to start in Week 2 against the defending Super Bowl champions. The worse-case scenario would also probably involve Fitzpatrick losing his Harvard degree. Oh, and it's also probably worth mentioning that after this brutal stretch, things don't be getting any easier for Tampa because they'll be playing four of their next five games on the road from Week 4 thru Week 9. 

Weird scheduling note: If someone asks you when a random Buccaneers game kicks off this season, just say "1 p.m." and there's a 94 percent chance you'll be right. The Bucs are one of just two teams in the NFL this year currently scheduled to play a total of 15 games at 1 p.m. ET (The Bills are the other).

2. Carolina Panthers

Schedule difficulty rating: 99.75

Easiest stretch: The Panthers easiest stretch starts with a home game in Week 3 against the Bengals, which I'm counting as continuation of the 2014 game where the two teams tied. The Panthers have actually been dominating AFC teams over the past few years. Since October 2014, Carolina is 10-3-1 against teams from the AFC. After playing the Bengals, the Panthers will get a bye, before playing the Giants and Redskins (away). If the Panthers end this stretch with a losing record, it's likely going to be a long season in Carolina. 

Roughest stretch: The Panthers better get off to a hot start in 2018, because the guys in the NFL scheduling office basically threw the kitchen sink at Carolina over the final seven weeks of the season. Starting in Week 10, the Panthers have to play four of five games on the road (at Pittsburgh, at Detroit, Seattle, at Tampa Bay, at Cleveland) and as you'll notice, the one home game in that stretch will come against the Seahawks, which isn't a good thing for the Panthers, because Russell Wilson has never lost a regular season game in Carolina. As if that's not rough enough, the Panthers then have to close the season with three straight divisional games (At Saints, Falcons, Saints). The Panthers went a combined 1-3 against those two teams in 2017. 

Weird scheduling note: The Panthers have the easiest travel schedule this year. The team will only be flying a total of 6,938 miles to get to their eight away games. To put that in perspective, the Panthers could play their entire road schedule four times and they still wouldn't travel as much as the Raiders (31,732 miles), the team that will be flying the most in the NFL this year. The Panthers actually have two weird scheduling notes: Carolina will be the last team to play in night game in 2018. The Panthers won't make their primetime debut until November when they play the Steelers in Week 10. 

1. New Orleans Saints

Schedule difficulty rating: 102.25

Easiest stretch: The Saints might have the hardest schedule in the division, but don't be surprised if they repeat as NFC South champions, and that's because there's a good chance New Orleans will be getting off to a hot start in 2018. The Saints easiest stretch of the year will come during their first seven weeks of the season (Tampa Bay, Cleveland, at Atlanta, at NY Giants, Washington, bye, at Baltimore). First, the Saints get to open the year against a Bucs team that won't have Jameis Winston. After that, they host a Browns team that hasn't won a regular season game since December 2016. The Browns are also 1-12 in their past 13 games against NFC teams. The Saints' Week 3 game against the Falcons will mark the only time they'll play a 2017 playoff team through the first seven weeks of the season. 

Roughest stretch: Remember all of the teams that made the NFC playoffs last year? Well, the Saints will be facing almost all of them during a savage five-week stretch starting in Week 8. To quickly rehash, the six NFC playoff teams from last season were the Eagles, Vikings, Saints, Panthers, Falcons and Rams. During their five week nightmare, the Saints will be facing the Vikings (Week 8, at Minnesota), the Rams (Week 9, in New Orleans), the Eagles (Week 11, in New Orleans) and the Falcons (Week 12, in New Orleans). The only game in that stretch where the Saints might get a breather is in Week 10 against the Bengals, but even that's not a guarantee. Drew Brees and Sean Payton have combined to go just 1-2 against the Bengals in their career together. 

Weird scheduling note: The Saints will be joining the Rams and Ravens as the only teams in the NFL to play three-straight road games this year. To give you an idea of why that's a bad thing for those three teams, consider this: Between 1990 and 2017, there have been 138 instances where a team had to play three-straight road games and of those 138 road trips, the visiting team came away with a winning record (3-0 or 2-1) only 35.5 percent of the time (49 times).

That means that on the 64.5 percent of those road trips (or 89 times), the visiting team either went 1-2 or 0-3. Teams have actually gone 0-3 (25 times) on three-game road trips more than twice as often as they've gone 3-0 (10). None of this is good news for the Saints, who will be hitting the road for a three-game trip starting in Week 13. Of course, before that trip starts, the Saints will get to host a Thanksgiving game for the first time in franchise history.