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Teams with roughest September, December slates


The NFL schedule dropped Tuesday, and we're still poring through it with the rest of you.

At first blush, here's a look at some of the teams facing an uphill climb early on -- and down the stretch.

Rough-and-tumble September:

It's critical to open strong in the National Football League. For three playoff teams from a season ago, that looms as a stiff challenge in 2012.

1. Denver Broncos -- Pittsburgh, @Atlanta, Houston, Oakland: Peyton Manning's chemistry with his new offense will be tested out of the gate, but at the same time, teams won't have much film on the Broncos' revised attack. Footage of Tim Tebow rolling student body left won't help anyone here.

2. San Francisco 49ers -- @Green Bay, Detroit, @Minnesota, @N.Y. Jets: The 49ers' feel-good run of a season ago earned them a first-place schedule in the NFC West. The Packers and Lions will be hungry to take down Jim Harbaugh and Co. Honey badger don't care.

3. Green Bay Packers -- San Francisco, Chicago, @Seattle, New Orleans: Expecting the Packers to duplicate their outrageous 15-1 regular season of a year ago isn't fair. Exiting September above .500 is a tad more realistic considering that opener against the 49ers.

Honorable mention: Baltimore Ravens -- Cincinnati, @Philadelphia, New England, Cleveland: I can't put them in the top three because Cleveland projects as a win at home, and we don't know what to expect from the Bengals or Eagles.

Long December:

And now for three teams handed an ugly stretch drive by the schedule-makers. At least one of them -- the New York Giants -- showed last season that a brutal final month can prime a team for January.

1. New York Giants -- @Washington, New Orleans, @Atlanta, @Baltimore, Philadelphia: The Giants were saddled with the league's toughest schedule in 2012, and December never lets up. The final four meetings are a trail of tears, but New York faced a rugged stretch run in 2011 and we know something else: This is when Eli Manning turns it up.

2. Washington Redskins -- N.Y. Giants, Baltimore, @Cleveland, @Philadelphia, Dallas: If Robert Griffin III is under center in December, he'll get a serious taste of the NFC East, plus a chance to duel Drew Brees.

3. Minnesota Vikings -- @Green Bay, Chicago, @St. Louis, @Houston, Green Bay: Coach Leslie Frazier is under pressure to turn the Vikings around. He better do it early, because the final five games don't offer much breathing room.

Honorable mention: Pittsburgh Steelers -- @Baltimore, San Diego, @Dallas, Cincinnati, Cleveland: Pittsburgh's final month takes the Steelers deep into the heart of AFC North. If the Chargers finish strong and the Bengals live up to their 2011 performance, it's a challenging December for the Black and Gold. Maybe their special uniforms will save them. Stranger things have happened.


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