|Stephan Savoia/Associated Press|
|Tom Brady and the Patriots could be looking across the line at the Packers in February if things fall just right.|
Yes, it's somewhat crazy, given how much the league changes from year-to-year. And how unpredictable this is. And how every year a team with a seemingly brutal schedule ends up just fine, while a team with an "easy" schedule ends up finding out it's catching all the surging teams at just the wrong time.
Truth of the matter is, we just don't know.
But for what it's worth now, two days into the start of the offseason workout programs for the vast majority of the league, I like the way things set up for the New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers.
You can't say the Pats aren't sitting pretty on paper. This is a team that came within a Wes Welker drop of possibly winning another Super Bowl. Due to playing in a so-so division and getting to match up with the NFC West, New England seems to have a nice path through the regular season. Especially when compared to other AFC teams like Baltimore, Denver, Cincinnati, etc.
In the NFC, the Packers don't have quite the relative cake walk, but I like the fact they have a tough start -- no waltzing to 13-0 this year -- with challenging but winnable games. I especially love the fact that five of their six division games come after the bye, in the second half of the season.
Why Pats will win AFC
Let's begin our review in New England ... or should I say Tennessee, where the Patriots open up. Three of the first four games are on the road, but the last of them is at Buffalo -- yes, the Pats lost there a year ago, but tough to see it happening twice in a row. In the meantime, the Pats get Arizona flying Eastin Week 2 and do have a tricky AFC championship re-match, in prime time, at Baltimore on Sept. 23.
New England could roll through October. It starts with Denver at home. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels knows the Broncos well and few teams know Peyton Manning better. At Seattle, at home against the Jets and vs. St. Louis (in London) closes the month, and the Pats get plenty of rest at the right time with the midseason bye.
The next four opponents -- the Bills, Colts, Jets and Dolphins -- could make November a time of celebration, as well. Things step up a notch with Houston and San Francisco in prime time, but both are at home and the 49ers game might end up being a less meaningful game with both teams perhaps already in good postseason stead.
And finishing off with Jacksonville and Miami? Yeah, um, I like New England's chances to have a first-round playoff bye -- again.
Furthermore, most of the Patriots' chief competition has a more daunting road. Baltimore and Denver, quite simply, have pretty brutal routes all the way through. There are few chunks of consecutive games that look "easy." Pittsburgh, an older team, has a bye way back in Week 4 -- having to play all of that cumulative football down the stretch will be a test. The Bengals, last year's upstart in this conference, face this in December: at San Diego, vs. Dallas, at Philly (on a Thurs), at Pittsburgh, vs. Baltimore. Yikes.
I also like the way things generally set up for the Texans. First few weeks break well with Matt Schaub coming back from a long absence, and the Titans have Murderer's Row all the way through, which should boost the Texans' strong chances of repeating at AFC South champs.
Why Packers will win NFC
In the NFC, I have to be honest. I didn't see a runaway champ in the schedule category among the contenders the way New England jumped out at me on the AFC side. But I like the way things set up for Green Bay in what should continue to be a highly competitive division.
A year ago, the chase for perfection seemed to be a bit of a distraction, and then Green Bay lost to Kansas City late, went with non-starters against Detroit, and things got away from them in the playoffs. The Packers should be hungry and the first couple of games -- San Francisco and Chicago (Thursday night) -- will tell much. I like the fact that both are at Lambeau.
At Seattle is never a gimme, and this could be an emotional day for Matt Flynn if he's facing his former teammates as the Seahawks starter (as most expect). September closes with the Saints. Yeah, it's tough, but I believe Green Bay comes out of it 3-1 and no worse than .500. Then the Packers get three straight on the road; again, not ideal, but the fact it's against the Colts, Texans and Rams helps, with a good chance to win at least two of three.
Jacksonville and Arizona at home looks good, and after the Nov. 1 bye, the Packers control their own destiny with five divisional games. They get the Vikings twice in the final five weeks, with Tennessee at home, as well. In fact, San Francisco in Week 1 is the only real elite team Green Bay faces at home. And for a team that has proven in the past it can close with the best of them, I'd take having an easier back end of the schedule than front.
Conversely, the Super Bowl champion Giants, who ended Green Bay's 2011 season, better not have one of those years where they crumble in December, as has often been the case. New York has a rough patch after October: Pittsburgh, at Cincy, bye, Green Bay, at Washington (Monday night), New Orleans, at Atlanta, at Baltimore, Philadelphia. That could throw a wrench into any repeat attempt.
Follow Jason La Canfora on Twitter @JasonLaCanfora