If you're looking for a surprise team to make the Super Bowl this year, here's a small bit of advice: Don't pick the New York Giants.
With the 2018 NFL season right around the corner, now seems like a good time to figure out who has the toughest road to the Super Bowl, so that's exactly what we decided to do this week. Basically, we looked at all 32 NFL schedules, dissected all 512 regular-season games and studied the Super Bowl odds to figure out who has the most difficult schedule, and therefore, the toughest path to Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta (Spoiler alert: It's the Giants).
The easiest way to rank each schedule in the NFL is to use strength of schedule, but we decided to throw that out the window, because that's not exactly the most efficient way to rate schedule difficulty. Instead, we came up with our own formula to rank each schedule.
To devise our formula, we started by going through each individual game on each team's schedule, so we could rank the games based on difficulty. If you're wondering how that works, here's a quick example: Although all four teams in the NFC West will play the Packers this year, not all the games are rated equally like they are in the strength of schedule formula.
One of the problems with using strength of schedule is that it doesn't factor where your playing a team home or away. For instance, in our NFC West example, 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. And when we say "almost impossible," we actually mean "impossible:" Aaron Rodgers is 15-0 in his last 15 December home starts. On the other hand, the Rams get to play the Packers at home in October, which theoretically should give them a better chance to win. Basically, the Packers game is ranked as more difficult for the Cardinals than the Rams.
After looking at schedule difficulty, we. If you've ever been to Las Vegas, you've probably noticed how nice everything is, and that's because the house always wins, then uses that money to build nice things like new hotels, and then you go to those new hotels and the house beats you some more. What I'm trying to say here is that the oddsmakers in Vegas are almost always right about everything, so if they think your team's going to be a contender this year, then your team is probably going to be a contender, which is why we're using Super Bowl odds as part of our formula.
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The final part of the formula involves 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.
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 year. The other 11 teams either started the year 2-1 or 3-0. In 2016, 10 of the 12 teams that made the playoffs started the season with a record of 2-1 or 3-0.
This basically means that if your favorite team has a murderer's row over the first three weeks of the season, you should probably just give up on 2018 and start studying draft prospects for 2019, and if you decide to go the draft route, here's.
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.
As for this year's Super Bowl, if these rankings are any indication, it's starting to look like we're going to end up with the Patriots and the Packers dueling it out in Atlanta. And just for the record, picking the Packers to get to the Super Bowl is not a requirement here at CBS Sports, even though it's kind of starting to feel that way. With their early Super Bowl picks, both Tony Romo and Pete Prisco , which, by the way, will be televised by CBS.
Without further adieu, let's find out who has the toughest road to Super Bowl LIII.
Toughest Road to Super Bowl LIII
1. New York Giants
A total of 12 teams made the playoffs last year and the Giants will be playing five of those teams over the first seven weeks of the season. Our formula thinks that's a recipe for disaster. Of course, the silver lining here for Giants fans is that nothing could possibly be more disastrous than last season. Schedule difficulty rating: 106.75
2. Arizona Cardinals
It's a good thing the Cardinals are getting David Johnson back, because they're going to need his help if they're going to navigate their way through the second-most-brutal schedule in the NFL. 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). Oh, and that doesn't even include a December road game against the Packers. Not to mention, the Cardinals will be facing all this with a first-year coach and a quarterback who's never started a game for Arizona (either Sam Bradford or Josh Rosen). Schedule difficulty rating: 105.75
3. Washington Redskins
After watching Jim Harbaugh and Andy Reid give up on Alex Smith, it might be time for us to give up on him, too. At least for this season. Not only did the Redskins already (Derrius Guice), but they have the third-toughest schedule in the NFL, according to our formula. Three of the Redskins' final five games of the season will come against teams that made it to at least the conference championship game last year (at Eagles in Week 13, at Jaguars in Week 15, Eagles in Week 17). If Smith somehow wills the Redskins to the playoffs, they should triple his salary for 2019, give him a key to Washington DC and let him make his own amendment to the Constitution. The wild thing is that an NFL quarterback making an amendment to the Constitution probably wouldn't even qualify as one of the top-five craziest things that has happened in DC lately. Schedule difficulty rating: 103.00
4. Kansas City Chiefs
The award for toughest schedule in the AFC goes to the Chiefs, and it isn't really an award that anyone should want to win. Andy Reid has officially handed over the offensive keys to Patrick Mahomes, and now, Reid is going to have to hope his new quarterback doesn't drive the offense off a cliff. A big reason the Chiefs schedule ranks so high here is because of their opening slate. The Chiefs open their season with four of their first six games on the road -- at LA Chargers, at Pittsburgh, San Francisco, at Denver, Jacksonville, at New England -- and this includes games against both participants from last season's AFC title game. This stretch also includes a game in Pittsburgh. Schedule difficulty rating: 102.75
5. New Orleans Saints
Although the Saints have the fifth-toughest schedule in 2018, they do have one scheduling advantage that no other team in the NFL will have this season: They get to play their first two games of the season AND their final two games of the season at home, which is good news for a team that went 7-1 at home last season. Schedule difficulty rating: 102.25
6. Carolina Panthers
Yes, the Panthers have one of the toughest schedules in the NFL this year, according to our formula, but they will have one advantage over everyone else: They won't be traveling very far. The Panthers will be flying to get to their eight away games this season, making them the only team that's not traveling at least 8,000 miles. Schedule difficulty rating: 99.75
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Based on how their schedule is set up, the Bucs might be mathematically eliminated from the playoffs by Week 3. Not only is Jameis Winston suspended for , but our formula says that Tampa has the most difficult opening three-game stretch of any team in the NFL this year (at New Orleans, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh). Schedule difficulty rating: 99.00
8. Atlanta Falcons
Literally speaking, the Falcons actually have the easiest road to Super Bowl LIII and that's because it's being played in their stadium. However, the downside of that fact is that no team has ever made it to the Super Bowl when their city is hosting the game. If the Falcons are going to collapse in 2018, it will probably come at the end of the season when they have to play three December games outdoors. The Falcons are just 4-6 in their past 10 outdoor games played in December. Schedule difficulty rating: 98.75
9. Los Angeles Rams
If Aaron Donald is still unsigned by Week 8, the Rams should probably just give him a blank check, because they're going to need him on the field for a brutal stretch on their schedule. Starting with that week, the Rams will be facing Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Russell Wilson in consecutive weeks. After that, the team will be making a trip to Mexico and let's be honest, no one wants to miss a free trip to Mexico. Schedule difficulty rating: 98.50
10. Philadelphia Eagles
If you're wondering how much the oddsmakers in Vegas love the Eagles this year, Philly is listed as an underdog in only one game through the first 16 weeks of the season. Of course, that could change fast if the Eagles don't have a healthy quarterback going into Week 1. With Nick Foles battling a shoulder sprain and Carson Wentz coming back from an ACL injury, the team's medical staff will be the real MVPs if the Eagles are completely healthy going into the beginning of the year. Schedule difficulty rating: 98.25
11. Seattle Seahawks
If the Seahawks' offensive line can keep Russell Wilson alive through the first 12 weeks of the season, the team is going to catch a small break starting in Week 13. Over the final five weeks, the Seahawks are one of two teams that get to play four games at home (along with the Titans), which is good news for a team that's gone 23-9 at CenturyLink Field over the past four seasons. Schedule difficulty rating: 97.25
T-12. Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys might have the 12th-toughest schedule based on our formula, but there is an upside: They have the easiest schedule in the NFC East. This seems like it's going to be the season where the Cowboys finally break through and make it to the NFC title game or Jason Garrett finally gets fired. The crazy thing is that although the Cowboys are America's team, I'm not actually sure which option America would be hoping to see more. Schedule difficulty rating: 96.50
T-12. Minnesota Vikings
The last time we saw the Vikings, they were being rolled by the Eagles in the NFC title game, and hopefully they've recovered from that, because they have a brutal opening stretch this year. The oddsmakers in Vegas seem to really love three certain NFC teams this year -- the Rams, Eagles and Packers -- and it just so happens that the Vikings will have to face all three of them on the road over a four week span starting in Week 2. Schedule difficulty rating: 96.50
14. San Francisco 49ers
Jimmy Garoppolo has never lost a start in his career and if he can keep that undefeated streak going through the first four weeks of the season -- when the 49ers play three of four games on the road (at Minnesota, Detroit, at Kansas City, at L.A. Chargers) -- then we'll all have learned an important lesson about the offseason. Now, I'm not sure what the lesson is, but it definitely has something to do with how going on dates with adult film stars isn't a terrible way to prepare for the season. Schedule difficulty rating: 96.25
15. Chicago Bears
If the rookie quarterbacks in the NFL all end up being flops this year, that will be good news for the Bears, because there's a chance that they'll be facing most of them. Of the five quarterbacks selected in the first round, the Bears could be facing three of them -- Josh Rosen, Josh Allen and Sam Darnold -- before the calendar hits November. Schedule difficulty rating: 95.75
16. Cleveland Browns
The Browns went 0-16 last year, their coach is 1-31 over the past two years and they haven't won a game on a Sunday since 2015, and somehow, this team still ended up with the most difficult schedule in the AFC North. It's almost as if they're destined to be bad forever and never get to the Super Bowl (or even the playoffs). The good news for the fine people of Cleveland is that they'll be getting some free beer if the Browns can . Sure, one free beer won't make up for 20 years of misery, but it's a start. Schedule difficulty rating: 95.00
T-17. Indianapolis Colts
Although the thought of the Colts getting to the Super Bowl seems farfetched, they have made it to the playoffs in each season where Andrew Luck has managed to play in all 16 regular-season games. Basically, every single one of Luck's doctors should get a Super Bowl ring if he somehow manages to play in all 16 games and lead Indy to a Lombardi Trophy. Schedule difficulty rating: 94.75
T-17. Detroit Lions
After missing out on the Super Bowl for 52 straight years -- they've never played in the game -- the Lions finally decided to try and fix things this season by bringing in people with Super Bowl experience. Not only did they hire a coach (Matt Patricia) who has three Super Bowl rings, but they signed a running back (LeGarrette Blount), who's been on the winning team in each of the past two Super Bowls. Is any of this actually going to help? We have no idea, but when you're 0-for-52, it can't hurt. Schedule difficulty rating: 94.75
19. Denver Broncos
If Case Keenum can get used to the mile-high air quickly, Denver could get off to a fast start in 2018. Our formula loves that fact that the Broncos get to play three of their first four games at home. On a completely unrelated note, the Broncos will also get a chance to avenge the two of the worst Super Bowl beatings in NFL history this year in games against the 49ers (lost 55-10 to San Francisco in Super Bowl XXIV) and Seahawks (lost 43-8 to Seattle in Super Bowl XLVIII). Schedule difficulty rating: 91.75
20. Buffalo Bills
If the Bills are going to start Josh Allen this season, they might want to wait until Week 5. According to our formula, the Bills have the toughest schedule in the AFC East and a big reason for that is because they have to play three of their first four games on the road. Oh, and it gets worse. Two of those road games are at Minnesota (Week 3) and at Green Bay (Week 4). Also, the one home game will come against a Chargers defense that ranked fifth overall in the NFL last season in sacks. Maybe they should just keep Allen in bubble wrap until 2019. Schedule difficulty rating: 91.25
21. Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens' season is starting to seem like it's going to go one of two ways: They're going to surprise everyone and make a run to the postseason, or it's all going to implode in their face and Joe Flacco is going to be benched by Week 10. Either way, it should give us some elite entertainment. Schedule difficulty rating: 90.75
22. Tennessee Titans
The Titans' road to the Super Bowl would probably be easier this year if their schedule consisted of only AFC South teams. In 2017, the Titans went 5-1 in the division, but just 4-6 against all other teams. The nice thing about the Titans is that even if they're bad this year, they'll still be worth watching, if only for their awesome new uniforms. Schedule difficulty rating: 88.25
23. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers' road to the Super Bowl has started off pretty smoothly over the past four years, but the problem is that once they get to the playoffs, they usually hit a Tom Brady-sized pothole, wreck their car and don't end up making it to the Super Bowl. The good news for the Steelers this year is that they're a heavy favorite to win the AFC North, which means they should have another smooth ride to the postseason. The bad news is that Mike Tomlin hasn't really figured out how to avoid those giant playoff-sized potholes in recent years. Schedule difficulty rating: 88.00
T-24. Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins' final five games of 2018 are all against teams that made the playoffs last season. According to our formula, that has crash-and-burn written all over it. And according to Ndamukong Suh's formula, the middle of the Dolphins' defense isn't going to be very good this year. Schedule difficulty rating: 87.75
T-24. Los Angeles Chargers
It doesn't matter how easy your schedule is if you don't have enough players to field a team. The Chargers have, and at this point, it feels like they're path to the Super Bowl is going to go through at least one hospital. The Chargers should just be hoping that they can make it to their season opener in one piece. Schedule difficulty rating: 87.75
26. New York Jets
If you're thinking about making the Jets a dark-horse playoff pick, this might be the year to do it, and that's mainly because they have one of the easiest schedules in the NFL this season, according to our formula. Of course, if they're going to make the playoffs, they better have a spot wrapped up by Week 15, because they close the season with consecutive games against Aaron Rodgers (Week 16) and Tom Brady (Week 17). Gambling is now legal in New Jersey and there's a good chance everyone in that state will be betting against the Jets in those two games. Schedule difficulty rating: 87.25
T-27. Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jags have one of the easiest schedules in the NFL this year, which kind of makes sense, especially when you think about it from Jalen Ramsey's point of view. Ramsey thinks sucks, and I'm guessing he probably feels the same way about nearly every team in the league except for the Jags. Schedule difficulty rating: 86.25
T-27. Green Bay Packers
Although the Packers have the most difficult strength of schedule in 2018 -- something-- they actually have the easiest road to the Super Bowl in the NFC, according to our formula. The biggest thing our formula likes about the Packers is the fact that they'll be playing three of their first four games at home. Our formula also loves the fact that Aaron Rodgers is 15-0 in December home games since 2009, which is good news for the Packers because they have three December home games this year. Oh, and those three home games -- which will all be played on the arctic tundra of Lambeau Field -- are against three teams that normally play indoors (Atlanta, Arizona, Detroit). Schedule difficulty rating: 86.25
29. Oakland Raiders
If the Raiders are bad this year, Jon Gruden's not going to be able to blame the schedule. According to our formula, the Raiders have the easiest schedule in the AFC West and the fourth-easiest road to Super Bowl LIII. Of course, the team might want to start working a little harder to get Khalil Mack under contract and that's so they can take advantage of the fact that they have eight games this season against teams that will be starting a new quarterback in 2018 (Broncos twice, Dolphins, Browns, Chiefs twice, Colts, Cardinals). Andrew Luck and Ryan Tannehill qualify as new starters in 2018 because they didn't start in 2017. Schedule difficulty rating: 83.75
30. Cincinnati Bengals
Whenever the Bengals make the playoffs, part of the fun for most of the country is trying to predict which new and wild way they'll eventually lose. However, that hasn't been possible for the past two years, because the Bengals haven't made it to the postseason. Fortunately for America, that playoff drought could end this year and that's mostly because the Bengals will be playing one of the easiest schedules in the NFL, according to our formula. Schedule difficulty rating: 82.75
31. New England Patriots
The Patriots' schedule would be a lot more difficult if they could play themselves, but they can't, so here they are, near the bottom in our strength-of-schedule ranking. With the second-easiest road to the Super Bowl this year, we should probably just go ahead and pencil them in for the game. Schedule difficulty rating: 80.00
32. Houston Texans
Based on our formula, the team with the easiest road to Super Bowl LIII is the Houston Texans. Of course, our formula doesn't take into account the fact that nearly every key player on Houston's roster is coming back from a serious injury this year. Although the Texans have an easy path, they might not be able to take advantage of it if players like Deshaun Watson, J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus don't come back at full strength. Schedule difficulty rating: 77.75