Brian Garfinkel/Associated Press
Rice will challenge for league MVP
Ravens running back Ray Rice will be a contender for the NFL MVP this season, and he'll get off to a quick start against the Eagles, Patriots, Browns and Chiefs - four teams which finished near the bottom in rush defense in 2011. Rice will end up with the rushing title.
Eric Lars Bakke/Associated Press
Johnson vs. the Jets will be a mild affair
If you're expecting fireworks from Stevie Johnson and the Jets, you will be disappointed. The two teams square off in Week 1, when Johnson will be on his best behavior on the heels of a new deal. And the two teams don't meet again until Week 17, when the Jets have long been eliminated from the playoffs.
Aaron M. Sprecher/NFL
Don't draft Dalton
Don't take Bengals QB Red Dalton in your fantasy draft, as six of the team's first seven opponents finished in the top 12 against the pass in 2011. But good news for the team which is looking to make back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time since 1981-82 - the Bengals face only one 2011 playoff team in the first six weeks, including two games with the Browns during that stretch.
Tony Dejak/Associated Press
Don't expect Tannehill
If the Browns do select Ryan Tannehill (don't do it) in the draft, they'll likely let Colt McCoy take the lumps in the tough opening stretch against the Eagles, Bengals (twice), Ravens and Giants in the first six weeks. Seriously, do your quarterback a favor and draft Trent Richardson.
Ed Andrieski/Associated Press
Welcome back, Peyton
So much for the Broncos challenging for the AFC West title. Peyton Manning gets a baptism by fire against the Steelers in Week 1 (and I'm guessing Pittsburgh will be motivated). In all, the Broncos open with three 2011 playoff teams, the Raiders and then a road trip to New England and San Diego before their bye in Week 7. Best case scenario would be 3-3, but 2-4 or 1-5 is far more likely. I'm going with 2-4, because I'm generous. Your welcome.
Aaron M. Sprecher/NFL
The AFC favorites
The Texans will open the season as the favorites in the AFC, and should get off to a hot start. The Texans will play only one 2011 playoff team in the first five weeks. And even then, it's Denver, which barely counts as a playoff team from last year. The Texans will split with the Packers and Ravens at home in Weeks 6-7 and coast to the best record in the AFC.
Colts seem lucky
Unlike his predecessor who has moved on to Denver, Andrew Luck will saunter into the NFL with games against three teams that finished in the bottom third against the pass in 2011 (Bears, Vikings and Packers) and the Jaguars, who nobody bothered to throw against because they were so lousy. Luck gets his first look at Revis Island and the Jets in Week 6. But he'll already be the toast of the league by them, and some pundits will be calling for his bust in Canton before that game.
Paul Spinelli/Associated Press
Take down the tarps in Jacksonville, because Tim Tebow is coming to town in Week 14. The hometown hero should be well established as the Jets quarterback by this time. Or maybe he will have already have blown his chance and the Jets will have turned to Greg McElroy as the team's starting quarterback. Even so, he has an SEC tie, too.
G. Newman Lowrance/Associated Press
Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs are one of those enigmas heading into the 2012 season. Can Romeo Crennel succeed in his second stint, much like his mentor Bill Belichick? Can Jamaal Charles rebound from his injury? The Chiefs will get a quick read with games against the Falcons, Saints, Chargers and Ravens in the first five weeks. My guess is the Chiefs will be contending for the AFC West title. Although, seven wins means you're contending in this division.
Stephan Savoia/Associated Press
The Dolphins wanted to make a big splash during this offseason. But the team missed out on Peyton Manning, traded away Brandon Marshall and is left with Reggie Bush as its long bankable star. The good news is the Dolphins don't have to worry about the Patriots until Week 13. But a first-week showdown with the Texans is not picnic, though.
Primed for a letdown?
The Patriots have the easiest schedule, based on 2011 records and only play two playoff teams from last year in their first 13 - including a showdown with Peyton Manning in Week five. But teams with the easiest schedules have missed the playoffs in the last five consecutive seasons. Plus teams coming off a Super Bowl loss tend to struggle. Don't worry, the Patriots will reverse the trend this year and, along with the Texans, are the front runner in the AFC.
When will it be official?
All right, here's the question of the day - when does Mark Sanchez officially get benched in favor of Tim Tebow? Here's the answer: Week 6 against the Colts. The Jets face the Steelers, Dolphins, 49ers and Texans early to give Sanchez enough time to fail as a starter. And then it's Tebow time. Not that any of this will matter for the Jets long term.
Gary A. Vasquez/NFL
Early bye week for the Raiders ... again
Will Mark Davis follow in his father's footsteps and accuse the league of having it out for the Raiders? Because he might be one to something. The Raiders' bye is in Week 5. This is the seventh time in the past 12 seasons the Raiders bye has come in Week 5 or sooner. The Patriots have had a bye week inside of Week 5 only three times during that stretch. It's like the Tuck Rule. The Raiders also open and close the season with the Chargers.
Tom Hauck/Associated Press
The AFC North division
The Steelers schedule seems similar to a college football conference slate, as the team closes the final seven weeks of the season with five AFC North clashes. The two non-divisional opponents the Steelers face are at home against the Chargers and one the road against the Cowboys. So it's not going to be an easy road for the Steelers who looked old against the Broncos last year.
Marcio Sanchez/Associated Press
The league has placed an emphasis on divisional games over the last few weeks, though Chargers fans won't notice. Look at this closing schedule starting in Week 12 (after a road game at Denver): Baltimore, Cincinnati, at Pittsburgh, Carolina, at New York Jets in prime time on Sunday night and Oakland. Sure, four of those games are at home. But that's three playoff teams, two more who are expected to compete for the playoffs this season and a late game on the East Coast in December. Did Vincent Jackson draw up this schedule?
David Duprey/Associated Press
Contenders or pretenders
The Titans will get an early read on their playoff hopes with an opening schedule which includes the Patriots, Lions and road games against the Chargers and Texans. The Titans are looking at 1-3, and the Jake Locker era starting at Minnesota in Week 5. But that should mean more chances for Chris Johnson who will challenge Ray Rice for the rushing title. That's right, CJ will be back.
Paul Connors/Associated Press
The Cardinals figure to have a hotly contested quarterback controversy this summer. Well, at quarterback controversy at least. The winner will have a chance to succeed, with only one game against a 2011 playoff team in the first seven. The Cardinals need to race out to an great start, but the team closes with games against the Lions, Bears and 49ers - so good luck to John Skelton in those games.
Matt Slocum/Associated Press
The Falcons are one of those teams poised for a fast start, as they open with only one 2011 playoff team in their first eight games, but will somehow find a way to stumble out of the gate. Both of the games against the Saints are after the magical eight-game mark, which will end up costing the team a playoff spot.
Bob Leverone/Associated Press
The Panthers are going to start the season undefeated! They'll be on 1-0 when they beat the Buccaneers in Week 1. Wait, not bold enough? The Panthers will beat the Saints (aftermath of the suspensions), the Giants (on a Thursday night in Carolina), the Falcons (duh) and the Seahawks to be 5-0 for their bye week. All of you flaming me in the comments section can tweet me your apologies after this comes true. None of this counts if Newton is on the cover of Madden, of course.
Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press
If the Bears are going to challenge the Packers for the NFC North, they are going to get an early chance in Week 2. Of course, they are going to have to go on the road to do it on a Thursday night. But don't sleep on Jay Cutler and his reunion with Brandon Marshall, as the Bears will make the playoffs this year.
James D. Smith/Associated Press
Tony Romo's struggles in December have been well documented (including a 1-5 mark at the end of last year including a January date) and are the source of celebration among the Cowboys haters. So the schedule maker did Romo and the Cowboys a solid with five out of their last seven games coming at home. Well, it's a solid if Miles Austin doesn't lose the ball in the lights this time.
Rick Osentoski/Associated Press
A roaring start
The much-anticipated shakedown between the Lions and 49ers will happen in Week 2 (how was this not a Monday night opener?). And it will mark the only time the Lions play a 2011 playoff team in the first nine games. The Lions will own the NFC North lead early in the season, but this time, they hang on for the division crown even with a brutal closing stretch against the Packers, Cardinals, Falcons and Bears. At least one of those games will be easy (looking at you, Atlanta).
Matt Ludtke/Associated Press
Oh, the Packers and 49ers will open the season (all right, you are forgiven for not having the shakedown kickoff the season) in Week 1. The Packers will face a challenge with the 49ers, Bears (on Thursday night), the Seahawks and Saints. A three-game road trip at Indianapolis, Houston and St. Louis follows. The Packers don't figure to start 13-0 this year, but they will make the playoffs as a wild card, which judging from the last two seasons, is probably for the best.
Genevieve Ross/Associated Press
How effective will Adrian Peterson be during his return to the NFL? We won't get a real sense in the first two weeks, as the team opens with the Jaguars and the Colts. Seriously, those are really just extended preseason games. But back-to-back games against the 49ers and Lions will give a better picture.
Bill Feig/Associated Press
Drew Brees' contract squabble and residue from the Bountygate scandal is a recipe for a slow start. A favorable schedule will help as the team plays only two 2011 playoff teams in its first eight games. But that could be misleading as the Saints will be fortunate to be 4-4 in that stretch.
The Giants started 4-0 during their last title defense, but will face four up-and-comers this year, the Cowboys, Buccaneers, Panthers and Eagles. The Giants won't start 4-0 again, but will go 3-1. If you haven't been reading along, the Giants will lose to the Panthers. That's right, the Panthers are going 5-0 sto start the season.
Brian Garfinkel/Associated Press
Nightmare in Philadelphia 2
The Eagles "Dream Team" started last season 1-4 last year (after a Week 1 win), and the schedule sets up that way again this year. The Eagles open with the Browns, but from there it's the Ravens, Cardinals, Giants, Steelers and Lions. If you think this team will start out 4-1, you're dreaming. And if you think it gets easier after that, they have the Falcons, Saints, Cowboys and Redskins after the bye.
L.G. Patterson/Associated Press
Let the comparisons begin
Fair or not, Sam Bradford will forever be linked to Robert Griffin III, the player St. Louis could have had. The hundreds filling the Edward Jones Dome will get a first-hand look at RG3, as St. Louis opens its home schedule with the Redskins in Week 2. For the record, Bradford will have a stellar NFL career - which is excellent news for the fans in Los Angeles.
G. Newman Lowrance/Associated Press
Pretenders or contenders II
If the 49ers are going to take the next step after losing in last year's NFC Championship Game, they will face a stiff challenge in the first two weeks, going up against the Packers and Lions. But think about this: The Packers have Aaron Rodgers and the Lions have Matthew Stafford. The 49ers have Alex Smith. Which of these things are not like the other? The 49ers got away with it last year, but won't this season.
Kevin Casey/Associated Press
Pretenders or contenders III
When Pete Carroll was at USC, he traditionally opened the schedule with tough games, so he should feel right at home with an opening slate against the Cardinals, Cowboys and Packers. The Seahawks have posted back-to-back 7-9 seasons, and this is a critical year for coach Carroll who will be relying on the recently-paid Marshawn Lynch. Don't worry coach, running backs who score huge contracts always perform well, just ask Chris Johnson. Oh wait...
Gregory Bull/Associated Press
You know new Buccaneers WR Vincent Jackson has Week 10 circled on his calendar for the 2012 season. Mostly because that was the week he'd typically end his contractual holdout. And as luck would have it, Jackson will face his old team the Chargers in Week 10 (savvy move, schedule makers). Well, at least Buccaneers fans can be sure Jackson will be interested in at least one game this season.
Jose Yau/Associated Press
The Redskins have waited years for a franchise quarterback, so the league had to pile on by adding two extra weeks to Robert Griffin III's home debut in our nation's capital. Something tells me this will be worth the wait for RG3, who ends up with better numbers than Luck this season.
More Photo Essays:
- Mind-blowing stats for the Hall of Fame Class of 2014
- A history of RB holdouts and statistical decline
- Mind-blowing stats for training camp
- Top 10 fantasy risks
- NFL rookies with most to gain in training camp
- New arrivals. Difference makers?
- Fantasy signs to look for in 2014
- NFL Head Coach Power Rankings
- Fantasy stock watch