2019 NFL schedule rankings, NFC South: Buccaneers have easiest schedule, Saints could make Super Bowl run

When the 2019 NFL schedule came out back in April, no team was more upset than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

NFL coaches don't usually complain about their schedules in public, but that didn't stop Bruce Arians from ripping the league after the Bucs were given a brutal schedule (Just as a refresher: The Bucs schedule includes a span where they'll go 49 straight days without playing a single game in Tampa). 

"Am I happy about [the schedule]? Hell, no," Arians said of the schedule in April. "I think it's ridiculous, and I voiced my opinion to the people in New York."

Although the Bucs got the short end of the stick when it comes to certain parts of their schedule, it's not all bad news for Tampa: According to our NFL schedule ratings, the Bucs actually have the easiest schedule in the NFC South this year. 

According to our formula, not only do the Bucs have the easiest schedule in the division in 2019, but they also have the third-easiest schedule in the NFC. With the regular season still three months away, you might be wondering how we already know that the Bucs have the third-easiest schedule in the NFC, and that's because we went ahead and ranked all 32 schedules. 

The easiest way to rank each schedule in the NFL is to use strength of schedule, but the problem with going that route is that it's not exactly the most efficient way to rate schedule difficulty, which is why we went ahead and devised a formula. 

So how does this formula work? Glad you asked. 

First, we looked at Super Bowl odds from the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook. Since the oddsmakers in Vegas seem to know what they're doing, we incorporated their odds into our formula, which worked out well for the Bucs, who will play multiple teams this year that aren't really viewed as Super Bowl contenders in Vegas (Detroit, NY Giants, Arizona, Tennessee, Carolina x 2)      

Another part of the formula is the first three games of the season. Those are going to be weighted slightly more than the other 13 games because they tend to be a good indication of how a team will play throughout the year. Basically, teams that go winless in their first three games almost never make the playoffs. 

Since 1990, only four teams have started 0-3 and made the postseason (1992 Chargers,1995 Lions, 1998 Bills, 2018 Texans). Although the Texans pulled off the feat last year, there's a reason it's only happened four times in 29 seasons, and that's because it's nearly impossible to pull off. 

Although an 0-3 start almost always means you'll miss the postseason, 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. 

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 2019 and start planning for the 2020 draft. One team to keep an eye on through the first three weeks is the Saints, and that's because their first three games of the year rank as the most difficult opening stretch for any team in the NFL. 

Of course, the Saints have a much more manageable schedule after those opening games, so starting at 1-2 or 0-3 might not be the end of the world. Actually, maybe it will be, and that's because starting off the year with a winning record through the first three weeks has almost become a prerequisite for getting into a conference title game. 

Over the past four seasons, 15 of the 16 teams that took part in the AFC and NFC title games started the season at 2-1 or better. That doesn't necessarily mean your favorite team will make it if they start 2-1, it just means they almost certainly won't make it if they start 1-2 or 0-3. (Since 2015, the one team that bucked this trend was the 2018 Patriots, but the Patriots have bucked a lot of trends over the years and it's unlikely that another team would be able to emulate them). 

On the other end of the schedule, the reason the final three games of the season aren't being given 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, each individual game on each team's schedule is also being ranked based on difficulty. For instance, the Saints have to travel to Seattle to face the Seahawks this season. On the other hand, the Falcons get to play the Seahawks at home. 

From a strength of schedule standpoint, the game is the same: Both teams are playing the Seahawks. However, the Saints game against Seattle is viewed as more difficult in our formula, because they have to go on the road to face a Seahawks team that's 29-11 at home over the past five seasons. On the other hand, the Falcons will get to host a Seahawks team that has been somewhat beatable on the road over the past few seasons (Seattle is 12-11-1 away from home since 2016). Those individual nuances are factored into the schedule ratings. 

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 over the next few weeks, 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 (June 25) and NFC South (June 27). We'll then close things out during the first week of July with the NFC North (July 2) and NFC West (July 4). 

Ranking the NFC South schedules

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Schedule difficulty rating: 95.00
Overall NFL schedule difficulty ranking: 26th 

Easiest stretch: The Buccaneers have a chance to get off to a hot start in 2019 and that's because their easiest stretch will come during the first three weeks of the season. First, the Bucs get to open at home against the 49ers, which is good for two reasons. The first reason is that Jimmy Garoppolo might still be working off a little rust since he'll be playing his first game back since tearing his ACL. The other reason is that the 49ers tend to struggle in the Eastern Time Zone. Since 2015, the 49ers have gone 0-12 in eastern time, which includes a 27-9 loss to Tampa last season. After opening against San Francisco, the Bucs will play their only primetime game of the year on a Thursday in Week 2 (at Carolina). After that, the Bucs will then have 10 days to prepare for a home game against the Giants. 

Roughest stretch: Someone in the NFL scheduling department must really dislike Bruce Arians, because that's the only way to explain the schedule Tampa was given for the upcoming season, which is Arians' first with the team. 

As you may or may not have heard, the Buccaneers were handed one of the worst traveling schedules in the NFL this year. Not only will they go 49 days without playing a game in Tampa, but during that span, their schedule is absolutely brutal. Here's what the six weeks away from Tampa will look like: at Rams (Week 4), at Saints (Week 5), Panthers (London -- Week 6), BYE (Week 7), at Titans (Week 8), at Seahawks (Week 9). Basically, the Buccaneers play five straight games where they'll almost certainly be underdogs and four of those will be coming on the road against teams that all finished the 2018 season with a winning record. 

Here's a look at Tampa's entire schedule. 

Weird scheduling note: We just mentioned it, but it's worth mentioning again: The Buccaneers will go 49 straight days without playing a home game in 2019. If that seems unfair, the NFL actually agrees with you, and we know that because the league's schedule-makers basically apologized for how Tampa's schedule turned out. 

3. New Orleans Saints

Schedule difficulty rating: 96.75
Overall NFL schedule difficulty ranking: 22nd

Easiest stretch: If the Saints struggle through the first half of their schedule, there will still be plenty of time to turn things around and that's because their easiest stretch of the season starts in Week 8 with a home game against the Cardinals. That game will kick off a stretch where the Saints get to play three of four games at home -- Cardinals (Week 8), BYE (Week 9), Falcons (Week 10), at Buccaneers (Week 11), Panthers (Week 12) -- which is a good thing for a team that's been nearly unbeatable at home over the past two seasons (13-3). In Week 13, the Saints will be traveling to Atlanta for a Thanksgiving showdown, and you know what, let's go ahead and include that in their easiest stretch since the Saints have won three in a row against the Falcons. 

Roughest stretch: The Saints have been one of the worst September teams in the NFL over the past five years, which isn't good news for a team that will be rolling through it's roughest stretch of the year during the season's opening month. Over the first four weeks of the season, New Orleans has to play four consecutive games against teams that went to the playoffs last year. Here's a look at that stretch: Texans (Week 1), at Rams (Week 2), Seahawks (Week 3), Cowboys (Week 4). Ouch. According to our formula, the Saints have the roughest opening stretch of any team in the NFL. Although the Saints got off to a hot start last year in September (3-1), that almost never happens. Between 2014 and 2017, the Saints went just 2-11 during the month of September. 

Here's a look at the Saints' entire schedule.

Weird scheduling note: The Saints are one of just two teams in the NFL, along with the Dolphins, that has to open the season with four straight games against teams that made the playoffs last year. The reason the Saints opening stretch of games ranked tougher than Miami's is because the Dolphins get three of their four at home while the Saints only get two games at home. (In our formula, the first three games are weighted more and the Dolphins  get two of their first three at home, unlike the Saints, who have to hit the road for two of the their first three). 

2. Carolina Panthers

Schedule difficulty rating: 98.25
Overall NFL schedule difficulty ranking: 18th

Easiest stretch: As long as Cam Newton's right arm is functioning like it's supposed to, the Panthers could get off to a surprisingly good start in 2019, and that's because their easiest stretch will be coming early in the season. Starting in Week 2, here's what the Panthers' schedule looks like: Buccaneers (Week 2), at Cardinals (Week 3), at Texans (Week 4), Jaguars (Week 5), at Buccaneers (Week 6 -- London). Carolina's first game against the Bucs will be played on a Thursday, which bodes well for the Panthers when you consider that home teams went 13-4 during Thursday games in 2018. The Panthers stretch will also include two games against teams starting a new quarterback (Nick Foles in Jacksonville, Kyler Murray in Arizona) and two games against a coach (Bruce Arians) who's returning to the NFL after taking a year off. 

Roughest stretch: The end of the season could turn into a disaster for the Panthers, and that's because their roughest stretch will happen over the final three weeks of the year. Starting in Week 15, here's what Carolina's schedule looks like: Seahawks, at Colts, Saints. That's three games against teams that all made the playoffs last season, which is especially notable, because the Panthers are one of only two teams in the NFL this year that will have to close out the season with three straight games against 2018 playoff teams (The Titans are the other one). 

Here's a look at the Panthers' entire schedule.

Weird scheduling note: Panthers fans across the pond are finally going to be able to watch their team play. After waiting patiently for 12 years, Panthers fans in England will finally get to see their team play in London this year. Since the international series started in 2007, 29 of the NFL's 32 teams have played in England, with the Packers, Panthers and Texans being the only three teams that had yet to visit. The Panthers will be making their first trip in October when they play the Buccaneers at the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium (The Texans are also scheduled to play in London this year, meaning that once the 2019 season is over, the Packers will be the only team that hasn't played in England). 

1. Atlanta Falcons

Schedule difficulty rating: 99.125
Overall NFL schedule difficulty ranking: 16th

Easiest stretch: The holiday season could turn into a fun one for Falcons' fans, and that's because Atlanta's easiest stretch of the year covers the entire month of December. The Falcons will only be playing four games during that month, and here's what their schedule looks like for those four weeks: Panthers (Week 14), at 49ers (Week 15), Jaguars (Week 16), at Buccaneers (Week 17). Of course, this is the NFL, so there's always a chance that Santa will put coal in the Falcons' stockings and they'll lose all four of these games. 

Roughest stretch: If you're looking for a spot where the Falcons season might start to fall apart in 2019, then you should probably just go ahead and circle Weeks 7 thru 10 on your calendar. During that four-week span, that Falcons will play three of their most difficult games of the season. The stretch will start with a home game against the Rams followed by another home game against the Seahawks. After that, the Falcons will get a bye before hitting the road in Week 10 to play New Orleans. That's a brutal stretch that could send the Falcons off on one of their patented midseason meltdowns. 

Here's a look at the Falcons' entire schedule.

Weird scheduling note: The Falcons aren't really going to have to deal with Mother Nature this season and that's because they'll be playing indoors for 13 of their 16 games. The Falcons also might not really have to deal with any cold weather this year, and that's due to the fact that their only outdoor games are being played in Charlotte (November 17), San Francisco (December 15) and Tampa Bay (December 29). 

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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