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2018's toughest NFL schedules: Hard road for NFC East, Rams

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Strength-of-schedule analysis is overrated. It is usually centered around last year's results, and last year doesn't mean all that much in the NFL.

When looking for the toughest schedules in April, I try to look at the bigger picture for any clues. Which divisions have the toughest out-of-conference slates? Which teams have to give up a home game for the International Series or play three straight games on the road? Considering that all 12 playoff participants started 2-2 or better, which squads have a tricky first quarter to navigate?

With that in mind, here's a look at the teams that can't be thrilled after finally getting their copy of the 2018 NFL schedule.

Every team in the NFC East

This is the second straight year I included NBC's favorite division in this exercise after noting that the Cowboys' slate was particularly worrisome last year. The divisional games are always competitive, with a potential juggernaut forming in Philadelphia. But I listed the NFC East again here because they drew perhaps the most difficult slate of out-of-division games.

The division has to face all four teams in an NFC South loaded with quarterbacks and talent. Out of conference, the Redskins, Eagles, Giants and Cowboys drew the AFC South, just when that division is finally emerging from its long slumber.

Oakland Raiders and Los Angeles Chargers

The biggest disadvantage on the schedule is giving up a home game to play overseas. The Raiders and Chargers both have to do it while facing other challenges. The Raiders open with a difficult Monday night game against the Rams, then head on the road for two weeks. Jon Gruden's Oakland team also drew the short straw by participating in the league's only Christmas Eve game -- in prime time -- before heading to Kansas City on a short week for the regular-season finale.

The Chargers' home-field advantage is already shaky in Los Angeles, but it's eye-opening that the team won't play there from Week 6 to Week 10. That stretch includes a road game, a trip to London, a bye week and then two more road games.

Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints

The entire NFC South has it rough, because they have to play each other. But the Falcons have an especially difficult opener in Philadelphia against the defending champions. They also have difficult road games in Pittsburgh and Green Bay and a two-game road swing to end the season in Carolina and Tampa. Combine all that with a short week headed to New Orleans for a Thanksgiving night game, and the Falcons' schedule has its share of potholes.

The Saints make the list primarily because they get three straight road games after that Thanksgiving tilt against Atlanta, facing Dallas, Tampa and Carolina on the road in Weeks 13-15. The Saints play only one game on Sunday during that four-game stretch.

Los Angeles Rams

Being the NFL's It Team doesn't make life any easier. They give up a home game to play the Chiefs in Mexico City on Nov. 19, part of an incredible 10-week stretch that includes only two games in Los Angeles before a Week 15 corker against the Eagles. Sharing a stadium with USC has its disadvantages, which includes a three-game road stretch in October.

Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens

Marvin Lewis' Bengals start with three of four games on the road, which is never easy in a league where fast starts mean plenty. The Ravens similarly start with four of six games on the road, including a Thursday night game in Week 2 in Cincinnati and three straight road games from Weeks 4-6. Both the Bengals and Ravens are part of an AFC North with an unenviable out-of-conference slate that has them going up against the loaded NFC South.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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