2018 NFL schedule rankings, NFC West: Cardinals facing nightmare, 49ers look good

The 2018 season seems like a perfect time for the 49ers to end their four-year playoff drought with two big advantages over the other teams in their division: They have a quarterback who has never lost and they're going to play the easiest schedule in the NFC West. 

With the regular season still more than two months away, you might be wondering how we already know that the 49ers have the easiest 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. Here's a quick example of how that works: Although all four teams in the NFC West will play the Packers this year, not all the games are rated equally. 

For instance, the Rams will get the Packers at home in October, while the Cardinals will get them on the road in December. Although the strength of schedule formula counts both games the same, we don't. Under our formula, the Cardinals have it tougher because they're a dome-team that has to go to Lambeau Field in December, where it's almost impossible to win. Aaron Rodgers is 10-0 in his last 10 December home games. 

On the other hand, the Rams get to skip out on a trip to Lambeau because they'll be hosting the Packers in Los Angeles. 

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 six NFC teams with the best Super Bowl odds right now are the Eagles, Rams, Vikings, Packers, Falcons and Saints, and unfortunately for the Cardinals, they have to play four of those teams on the road. That's a big reason why the Cardinals have the toughest schedule in their division and second-toughest schedule in the NFC under our formula.  

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. 

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.  

Finally, one thing to keep in mind here is that we use the term "easy" very loosely when talking about the NFC West. Although the 49ers have the "easiest" schedule in the division using our formula, it's not that easy compared to teams in the NFL's other conference. If San Francisco was in the AFC, it would have the second-toughest schedule in the entire conference, behind only the Chiefs

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 right now. For the AFC, just click through on your favorite division here: AFC EastAFC SouthAFC North and AFC West

For the NFC, you can check out the schedule rankings by clicking on each division here: NFC East, NFC South and NFC North. The full schedule rankings of all 32 teams will be released later this month. 

Ranking the NFC West schedules

4. San Francisco 49ers

Schedule difficulty rating: 96.25

Easiest stretch: Any time you get to play four straight games against teams that didn't have a winning record last season, that qualifies as your easiest stretch and that's exactly what the 49ers will be getting halfway through the season. Starting in Week 8, the 49ers will hit a very winnable stretch that includes a game at Arizona, followed by consecutive home games against the Raiders and Giants, before heading to Tampa for an away game in Week 12. The good news for the 49ers is that they get a bye before facing Tampa, which means they'll get an extra week to try and figure out how to win a game in the Eastern time zone. As you'll read about in our weird notes section, the 49ers have had some trouble playing in that time zone over the past few years. 

Roughest stretch: The 49ers are the only team in the NFL that will open their season with four straight games against teams that finished with a winning record last year. Not only do the 49ers have to deal with that fact, but three of those four games will be played on the road (at Minnesota, Detroit, at Kansas City, at L.A. Chargers). Although that's a brutal gauntlet of games for the 49ers, they did catch one break: They'll get to face two quarterbacks who might not be fully adjusted to their new teams. The game in Minnesota will mark Kirk Cousins' first start with the Vikings and it wouldn't be a surprise to see him struggle a little bit. In Week 3, Patrick Mahomes will be making the first home start of his career with the Chiefs, and it wouldn't be shocking at all if he had a few jitters going into that game.  

Weird scheduling note: The 49ers only have one game in the Eastern time zone this year, which is good news for them, because they've been terrible over the past few years when they have to fly across the country. Since the beginning of the 2015 season, the 49ers are 0-11 in the Eastern time zone and the only shot they'll get to end that streak this year will come in Week 12 against Tampa Bay. 

3. Seattle Seahawks

Schedule difficulty rating: 97.25

Easiest stretch: When you open your season with three of your first four games on the road, that's not usually considered an easy stretch, but with the Seahawks, that's exactly the case for 2018. Although Seattle will only get one home game during the first month of the season, there is some good news in there for the team: All three road games are very winnable. Starting in Week 1, the Seahawks travel to Denver, before moving on to Chicago for a Monday night Week 2 game against the Bears. After that, the Seahawks will finally get to have a home opener, when they host the Cowboys in Week 3 (The Seahawks are one of just three teams in the NFL -- along with the Chiefs and Texans -- that don't get to play their first home game until Week 3). After facing the Cowboys, the Seahawks will close out their season-opening road show in Week 4 with a game in Arizona. The upside of starting the season on the road is that the Seahawks will get to play four of their final five games of the season at home. 

Roughest stretch: After watching Russell Wilson spend most of the 2017 season running for his life, the Seahawks better have this offensive line thing figured out by Week 10 this year or things could get ugly. Starting that week, the Seahawks will face a brutal five-game stretch — at L.A. Rams, Green Bay, at Carolina, San Francisco, Minnesota — where they'll see some of the top defenses in the NFL. Although the Panthers and Vikings fielded a top-10 defense last season, Wilson might want to worry more about the Panthers and Rams, the two teams that led the NFC in sacks last year. 

Weird scheduling note: If you're looking for a team that might be able to make a late season playoff push, then make sure you keep the Seahawks in mind later this year. Of the five games that Seattle will be playing in December, four of them will be at home. The Seahawks are one of just two teams in the NFL -- along with the Titans -- that will get to close the season with four home games over the final five weeks. 

2. Los Angeles Rams

Schedule difficulty rating: 98.50

Easiest stretch: If the NFL was smart, it would have settled the Los Angeles situation on the field and had the team play for the right to move to the city. Of course, I'm only mentioning that, because this year would have been the perfect year to do it. The Rams easiest stretch of the season is basically a  "Loser leaves Los Angeles Round Robin" that will run from Week 1 thru 3. The Rams open with one team that originally wanted to move to L.A. (the Raiders), then play the Cardinals, before hosting their cohorts in L.A.  (the Chargers). The advantage here for the Rams is that they'll be getting Jon Gruden, who just took 10 years off. If you've ever taken 10 years off of anything, then you probably already know that things can be a little dicey when you return. In Week 2, the Rams will get a Cardinals team that will have a new quarterback (Josh Rosen or Sam Bradford). In Week 3, we're going to get an all-out battle of Los Angeles and you can bet Rams owner Stan Kroenke will have Sean McVay utilize every trick in the playbook to beat the Chargers. 

Roughest stretch: Facing Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Russell Wilson in the same season is tough enough, but facing them in consecutive weeks is even worse and that's exactly what the Rams are going to have to do midway through the season. Starting in Week 8, the Rams have a rough stretch where they'll play the Packers, Saints and Seahawks in a row. The only upside for the Rams is that two of those games will be played at home (Green Bay, Seattle). Making things rougher is that the Rams won't exactly get a breather after this stretch is over. After playing the Seahawks in Week 10, the Rams have to fly to Mexico City to face the Chiefs. The Rams will also go through an interesting stretch where they'll only play one game in Los Angeles over a month and a half period (Nov. 12 thru Dec. 29). 

Weird scheduling note: The Rams will be joining the Saints 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 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 Rams, who will be hitting the road for a three-game trip starting in Week 5.  

1. Arizona Cardinals

Schedule difficulty rating: 105.75

Easiest stretch: The Cardinals get their easiest stretch starting in Week 1, when they host the Redskins. After that, they get two of their next three games at home (at L.A. Rams, Chicago, Seattle). One important thing to keep in mind here is that we're only calling this an "easy" stretch because the Cards get to play three of the four games at home. The Cards don't really have an easy stretch, which is probably why their schedule was ranked the second most difficult in the NFL, behind only the Giants. This is definitely the kind of schedule you don't want when you have a first-year coach and a starting quarterback who's never taken a regular season snap in your team's uniform. 

Roughest stretch: The Cardinals schedule is so stacked this year that more than one-third of it is part of the team's roughest stretch. Starting in Week 12, the Cardinals will play six straight games against teams that finished the 2017 season with a winning record and four of those six games will be on the road (at L.A. Chargers, at Green Bay, Detroit, at Atlanta, at L.A. Rams, Seattle). Oddsmakers in Vegas don't really like the Cards chances of winning any of these games. When the opening spreads were released in April, the Cards were an underdog of seven points or more in three of those games and only favored to win one (Lions). 

Weird scheduling note: A big reason the Cardinals ended up with the second most difficult schedule in the NFL is because of their nightmarish road slate. Of the eight road games that Arizona will be playing this season, six of them will come against teams that finished 2017 with a winning record (Rams, Seahawks Vikings, Falcons, Chiefs, Chargers). To put that in perspective, the Rams and Seahawks only have three road games against teams that finished with a winning record in 2017, while the 49ers have five. Oh, and the Cards also have a road game against the Packers, who aren't even included on the above list since they finished 7-9 last season. This is all bad news for a team that's gone 3-5 on the road in each of the past two seasons. 

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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