Who has the toughest road to Super Bowl 54? Ranking the path for all 32 NFL teams

If you're getting tired of watching the Patriots play in the Super Bowl, then I have some bad news for you: Their streak of three consecutive appearances might not be ending this year and that's because out of all the teams in the NFL, New England has the easiest path to Super Bowl LIV, at least according to our scheduling formula. 

If your first thought after hearing that is that the Patriots always seem to have the easiest schedule, I don't disagree, and I ask that you send all complaints and conspiracy theories about that subject to Roger Goodell. I would send those for you, but he stopped answering my emails a long time ago. 

As for the Patriots' schedule, if you're wondering how we already know that they have the easiest path to the Super Bowl, it's because we devised a formula and ranked every team's path to the game that's being played on Feb. 2, 2020. Basically, we looked at all 32 NFL schedules, dissected all 256 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 LIV in Miami. 

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 AFC East will play the Steelers this year, not all the games are rated equally like they are in the strength of schedule formula. 

For instance, the Patriots open up the season at home against the Steelers, which means they have all offseason to prepare for Pittsburgh. On the other hand, the Dolphins have to hit the road to play the Steelers on a Monday night this season. 

From a strength of schedule standpoint, the game is the same: Both teams are playing the Steelers. However, the Dolphins game is viewed as more difficult in our formula since they'll be playing a Pittsburgh team that is 13-2 on Mondays under Mike Tomlin and has never lost a Monday game at home with him as coach. Those individual nuances are factored into the schedule ratings. 

After looking at schedule difficulty, we also looked at Super Bowl odds and that's because the oddsmakers in Las Vegas seem to know what they're doing. If you look at last year's odds, the Patriots and Rams were the two favorites to play in Super Bowl LIII, and guess who ended up playing in Super Bowl LIII? Yup, you guessed right. 

Basically, the oddsmakers are smarter than you and they're smarter than me, 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. 

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. 

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, and when I say that, I'm directly looking at fans of the Jaguars, Redskins and Dolphins, who have three of the most difficult early season schedules according to our formula. As a matter of fact, if you're a fan of one of those three teams, you might want to just click here and look at our 2020 mock draft instead of reading on. 

For everyone else, let's keep going. 

One other thing that's worth noting is that 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.  

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 Eagles dueling it out in Miami. I'm sure everyone would love that, and by everyone, I mean no one outside of Boston or Philadelphia. 

Without further adieu, let's find out who has the toughest road to Super Bowl LIV, starting with the Bears, who have the toughest road of all. Sorry, Bears fans. 

Toughest Road to Super Bowl LIV

1. Chicago Bears

The NFL clearly doesn't care that the Bears are celebrating their 100th anniversary this season, because Chicago got handed the most brutal schedule in the league this year. After going 12-4 last season, the Bears are almost certainly going to have a worse record this year, mostly because that's what pretty much happens to every team following a year where they go 12-4. From 2015 to 2017, 13 teams went 12-4 or better and out of those 13 teams, 12 of them had a worse record the next season. Of course, none of this is stopping Bears fans from betting big money on their team to win the Super Bowl this year.

The problem with betting big money on the Bears to win it all is that it's basically the same as setting your money on fire, at least that's what Will Brinson told me. 

 Schedule difficulty rating: 110.875

2. Minnesota Vikings

Not only do the Vikings have the second most difficult schedule in the NFL this year, but they also have five primetime games, which could be an issue for Minnesota since their quarterback has trouble winning at night. Kirk Cousins has played a total of 18 primetime games in his career and in those games he's gone just 5-13. If it's not too late, the Vikings might want to think about getting their primetime games moved to an earlier time slot. Schedule difficulty rating: 110.625

3. Denver Broncos

The award for toughest schedule in the AFC goes to the Broncos, although let's be honest, it's not really much of an award. If the Broncos are going to overcome their schedule, they're definitely going to need an elite season from Joe Flacco, who hasn't really been playing at an elite level since about 2012. The good news for the Broncos is that they have an elite defense led by a head coach who was an elite defensive coordinator last year, which might be enough to make up for things in case they don't get elite play from their starting quarterback. Schedule difficulty rating: 109.375

4. Houston Texans

The Texans had one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL last year, and although the unit might be slightly better in 2019, that's probably not going to matter much due to the fact that Houston will be facing a brutal schedule. Fortunately for the Texans, if there's one guy in the NFL who can survive brutal schedule playing behind a horrible offensive line, it's Deshaun Watson. After all, this is the guy who got sacked a league-high 62 times in 2018, played part of the season with a broken rib/partially collapsed lung and still led the Texans to the playoffs. If Watson somehow makes it through the entire season unscathed, he should win some sort of award. Schedule difficulty rating: 109.0

5. Oakland Raiders

The only thing more painful than getting frostbite in a cryotherapy chamber is being a Raiders fan in Oakland. If you're a fan in the Bay Area, not only is your team ditching you this year, but based on the Raiders' schedule, there's a good chance their final year in Oakland is going to get ugly. After opening the season against the Broncos, the Raiders play consecutive games against the Chiefs, Vikings, Colts, Bears and Packers. With a stretch like that, Antonio Brown's helmet grievance might end up being the highlight of the entire season. Schedule difficulty rating: 107.375

6. Miami Dolphins

Based on how their schedule is set up, the Dolphins might be mathematically eliminated from the playoffs by the end of Week 3. According to our scheduling formula, Miami has one of the most difficult opening three-game stretches of any team in the NFL this year (Baltimore, New England, at Dallas). They also play the Chargers in Week 4, which is a brutal opening slate of games for a team that doesn't even know who its starting quarterback is going to be yet. Brian Flores might not get his first NFL win until October. Schedule difficulty rating: 106.5

7. Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks have the most difficult schedule in the NFC West, but that doesn't really matter, because they have have Russell Wilson. If Wilson has proven one thing during his career, it's that he can lead the Seahawks to at least 10 wins no matter how difficult their schedule is or who his offensive coordinator is or how many different running backs Seattle decides to use. Basically, it doesn't matter what the circumstances are, Wilson finds a way to win. Schedule difficulty rating: 106.125

8. Green Bay Packers

The Packers better hope that Aaron Rodgers has mastered Matt LaFleur's offense by the time Week 1 rolls around, because there's not going to be time for any sort of adjustment period early in the season. Over the first three weeks, the Packers will be facing what might end up being three of the best defenses in the NFL with the Bears, Vikings and Broncos. The Packers are also the only team in the NFL this season that will have to play a road game the week after playing a Monday night game on the road. Basically, the schedule-maker didn't do Green Bay any favors. Schedule difficulty rating: 105.375

9. Detroit Lions

If the rookie quarterbacks in the NFL all end up being flops this year, that will be good news for the Lions, because there's a chance that they'll be facing every QB who was taken during the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft. The Lions open up the season against Kyler Murray and then could end up facing Daniel Jones (Week 8) and Dwayne Haskins (Week 12) if those two have earned a starting job by then. The Lions also face the Broncos in Week 16, which means they could end up facing Drew Lock if Denver has given up on Joe Flacco by then. The Lions better take advantage of the fact they potentially get to face so many rookies, because the rest of their schedule is brutal. Schedule difficulty rating: 103.75

10. Tennessee Titans

This is a make or break season for Marcus Mariota, and unfortunately for the Titans quarterback, the NFL schedule-maker seems to prefer that second option. The Titans will be opening their season with three of their first four games on the road, which isn't an ideal situation for a quarterback who's never led Tennessee to a winning record on the road in his career. There's no quarterback controversy now, but there might be if the Titans jump out to a 1-3 or 0-4 start. Schedule difficulty rating: 103.625

11. Dallas Cowboys

"Zeke who?" 

According to our scheduling formula, the Cowboys have the easiest opening three-week stretch in the NFL this year, which means it wouldn't be crazy to see them shoot off to a 3-0 start. That's good news for the Cowboys, but bad news for Ezekiel Elliott, because if that happens with Tony Pollard as their starting running back, Jerry Jones might actually forget who Zeke is.  Schedule difficulty rating: 102.75

12. Kansas City Chiefs

When Patrick Mahomes is your quarterback it doesn't matter how hard or easy your schedule is because Mahomes has proven that he's basically unstoppable. As a matter of fact, the only defense that was able to stop Mahomes last year was his own defense, which you may have noticed when they gave away the AFC title game to the Patriots. If you need a quick refresher, Dee Ford lined up offsides on what would have been a game-sealing interception of Tom Brady in the fourth quarter, and the Chiefs defense also let the Patriots convert three third-and-10s during the game-winning drive in overtime.  Schedule difficulty rating: 101.75

T-13. Pittsburgh Steelers

With Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown officially out the door in Pittsburgh, we're going to find out if addition by subtraction actually works in the NFL. Although the distractions are gone, that doesn't necessarily mean that Steelers are going to be better than they were last year. The one thing that could hurt the Steelers in 2019 is the fact that they have the most difficult schedule in the AFC North. One of the reasons for that is because they'll be starting the season with a brutal stretch of three games. First, they'll be facing a quarterback they've never beaten on the road (Tom Brady). After that, they get the Seahawks in Week 2 followed by a game in San Francisco in Week 3, which could be a problem, because Big Ben and Mike Tomlin have never won a game together in the pacific time zone (The Steelers are 1-5 overall with Tomlin out west, but Michael Vick was the starter in the only game they won. Big Ben is 0-5). Schedule difficulty rating: 100.75

T-13. Los Angeles Chargers

The Chargers streak of having the worst preseason injury luck of any team in the NFL will definitely be continuing this year. Not only have they lost Derwin James for a substantial amount of time, but Keenan Allen's status for Week 1 is also up in the air. Basically, it doesn't matter how easy your schedule is if you don't have enough players to field a team. Schedule difficulty rating: 100.75

15. Baltimore Ravens

If the Ravens decide to go the entire season without throwing a forward pass, that might actually end up working out in their favor. As analytical expert Warren Sharp explained to us on the CBS Sports Pick Six podcast recently, the Ravens are playing quite a few teams this year who struggle to stop the run, which is good news for the Ravens, because they love to run. As a matter of fact, the Ravens get to open their season against the two teams -- Miami and Arizona -- that were the worst against the run in 2018.  Schedule difficulty rating: 100.5

16. Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons road to the Super Bowl would probably be easier this year if their schedule consisted of only NFC South teams. In 2018, the Falcons went 4-2 in the division, but just 3-7 against all other teams. The Falcons road to the Super Bowl would probably also be easier if they had an offensive line that could block, but right now, they don't have either of these things. Schedule difficulty rating: 99.125

17. Arizona Cardinals

If Kyler Murray hasn't figured out how to make Kliff Kingsbury's offense work by the time December rolls around, we should probably just go ahead and sign up the Cardinals for the top overall pick again. If Murray and Arizona are struggling heading into December, things are only going to get worse, and that's because they close the final month of the season with games against the Rams (Dec. 1), Steelers (Dec. 8), Browns (Dec. 15), at Seahawks (Dec. 22) and at Rams (Dec. 29). Schedule difficulty rating: 98.75

18. Carolina Panthers

The Panthers better hope that Cam Newton's surgically repaired shoulder makes it through the entire season, because if he starts to struggle like he did last year, things could get ugly for Carolina, real ugly, especially over the final three weeks of the season. The Panthers are one of just two teams in the NFL this year that will have to close out the season with three straight games against 2018 playoff teams (Seahawks, at Colts, Saints).  At the end of the 2018 season, Newton couldn't throw the ball more than 30 yards downfield, so if he throws just one 31-yard pass in December, that's a plus for the Panthers.  Schedule difficulty rating: 98.25

19. Washington Redskins

The Redskins don't know who their quarterback is going to be, their left tackle doesn't want to play for the team anymore and they're one of just three teams in the NFL that has to open the year with three straight games against teams that made the playoffs last season. The Redskins road to the Super bowl isn't ranked as the most difficult, but it might as well be, because there's no way they're getting there. Schedule difficulty rating: 98.0

20. Los Angeles Rams

The Rams didn't take Todd Gurley to Hawaii for their preseason game against the Cowboys, but they probably should have, just see how his knee would react to the long flight, and that's because he's going to have to deal with a lot of long flights this year. During the 2019 season, the Rams will be traveling more miles than any other team in the NFC and the second most miles in the NFL. The team's 29,974 travel miles will rank second in the league, behind only the Raiders (32,023). Schedule difficulty rating: 97.625

21. Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars have one of the easier schedules in the NFL, but that doesn't really mean anything if your offense can't score points. Basically, Nick Foles better show up wearing his Super Bowl MVP pants to start the season because he'll be leading an offense that scored the fewest points per game in the AFC last year (15.3), and his first game is against a Chiefs team that scored more points than anyone (35.3). Schedule difficulty rating: 97.00

T-22. New Orleans Saints

If the NFL wanted to be fair, they would give the Saints an unlimited amount of pass interference challenges this year since they were the team that got screwed the worst in 2018, but the NFL isn't fair, and we know that, because just look at the Saints schedule. New Orleans is one of just two teams in the league this year that has to open the season with four straight games against teams that made the playoffs in 2018 (Texans, at Rams, at Seahawks, Cowboys).  Schedule difficulty rating: 96.75

T-22. Indianapolis Colts

When it comes to Andrew Luck's ankle, it's not quite panic time yet in Indy, but if he's not on the field in Week 1, then pretty much everyone in the state of Indiana should start panicking. The reason for that is because the Colts have never made the playoffs in any season where Luck has missed at least one game. Schedule difficulty rating: 96.75

24. San Francisco 49ers

If Kyle Shanahan can't turn things around this year in San Francisco, it might be time to get rid of him. Not only is he getting Jimmy Garoppolo back, but the 49ers also have the easiest schedule in the NFC West, according to our formula. Of course, if Shanahan's going to turn things around, he's probably going to want to start that by getting Jimmy to stop throwing interceptions in practice.

If Shanahan's going to turn things around, he's probably also going to need to figure out how to win a game in the eastern time zone. Since 2015, San Francisco has gone 0-12 when playing in eastern time. Schedule difficulty rating: 96.625

25. Cincinnati Bengals

If you've been saving up your jokes about how average Andy Dalton is, you better use them this year, because this could be the last time we see him in a Bengals uniform. It won't cost the Bengals anything to cut Dalton after the 2019 season, and there's a very real chance that will happen if he ends up struggling in Zac Taylor's system. That being said, the Bengals might think about signing Dalton to a lifetime contract if he can lead them to the playoffs this year, and although that sounds crazy, they do have one the easiest schedules in the NFL.  Schedule difficulty rating: 95.75

26. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Although the Buccaneers have one of the easiest schedules in the NFL, there's a giant asterisk here: Our formula has no idea how Tampa's players are going to respond to being SENT ON THE ROAD FOR SEVEN STRAIGHT WEEKS, because there's just no way to account for that. Oh, and just in case you missed it or forgot, 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. Schedule difficulty rating: 95.00

27. New York Giants

The Giants have one of the easiest schedules in the NFL this year, which means their season is likely going to go one of two ways: They're going to surprise everyone and actually compete for the NFC East title, or it's all going to implode in their face and Eli Manning is going to be benched by Week 8. If you plan on betting on this, Option B probably should be the way you go. Schedule difficulty rating: 93.00

28. Philadelphia Eagles

If Carson Wentz can actually make it through an entire season healthy, the Eagles are definitely set up to make another Super Bowl run. Not only do they have the easiest schedule in their division, but they also have the easiest schedule in the entire NFC. As for Wentz, if he doesn't get hurt this year, the MVP award should go to the Eagles offensive line and/or the team's training staff. Schedule difficulty rating: 91.75

29. Cleveland Browns

After missing out on the Super Bowl for 53 straight years -- they've never played in the game -- this finally feels like the year where the Browns might be able to break through. Not only are they talented enough to win the division, but they also have the fourth-easiest schedule in the entire NFL, according to our formula. Now, we just need to find out whether or not Freddie Kitchens can actually coach, because some people out there don't seem to think he can.

Schedule difficulty rating: 88.00

30. New York Jets

Not only do the Jets have one of the easiest schedules in the NFL this year, but they'll also have one other advantage over every other team in the league: They'll be traveling the fewest miles. The Jets will be flying a total of only 6,730 miles to get to their eight away games this season, making them the only team that's not traveling at least 8,000 miles this season. Schedule difficulty rating: 87.125

31. Buffalo Bills

If you're thinking about making the Bills 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 13, because starting with Thanksgiving, they have a brutal four-game stretch that includes games against the Cowboys (Away), Ravens, Steelers (away) and Patriots (Away). On second thought, maybe the Bills shouldn't be your dark-horse playoff pick this year. Schedule difficulty rating: 85.75

32. New England Patriots

Based on our formula, the team with the easiest road to Super Bowl LIV is the New England Patriots, which probably won't come as a surprise to anyone, because the Patriots seem to have the easiest road every year. Although it seems like a vast NFL conspiracy to keep the Patriots on top, the fact of the matter is that we really just need to blame the Jets, Bills and Dolphins for not being competitive at all over the past 20 years. Anyway, we should probably just all save ourselves some time and go ahead and pencil them the Patriots in for the Super Bowl. Schedule difficulty rating: 84.375

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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