So much of what makes for an easy NFL schedule is injury related or impossible to forecast. The teams that faced Aaron Rodgers early last season were unlucky, while fortune favored the ones that matched up with Rodgers' post-injury replacement, Brett Hundley, later in the year. The Tom SavageTexans were miles apart from the Deshaun WatsonTexans.
Expectations can also change quickly. The Raiders appeared to be a tough 2017 draw at this point last year, but teams that faced them in December found a squad that couldn't wait to get to the offseason.
It is then with extreme caution that I attempt to figure out which teams caught a few breaks when the NFL schedule was released Thursday. Let's go:
Green Bay Packers
The schedule-makers gave the Packers -- who jumped to a 4-1 record before Rodgers broke his collarbone in Week 6 -- every chance to get out to a fast start again. They open with two straight home games, and their only road game in the first quarter of the season is in Washington. While a two-game road swing to Los Angeles and Foxborough in Weeks 8-9 will be challenging and require them to rack up a lot of air miles, the out-of-division schedule is more forgiving than usual. (The Packers' strength of schedule officially ranks as the hardest, which either shows the uselessness of that stat or this article. You decide!)
The rest of the NFC North
There isn't an obviously terrible division in the NFL heading into this season, but the NFC North has to be pleased to have drawn the AFC East and NFC West. While the Patriots are always a handful, the other three AFC East teams have pressing quarterback questions and face uphill battles to playoff relevance. The NFC West is also diminished compared to previous years, with the Seahawks and, especially, the Cardinals both shuffling the deck after impressive runs over the past few years. Add it all up, and the NFC North is a strong candidate to have two playoff teams in 2018, with more in the mix.
The AFC South
Perhaps the NFL's most up-for-grabs division -- especially if Andrew Luck is healthy -- the AFC South did well in the NFL's divisional-matchup rotation this season. Facing both the AFC East and the NFC East means a matchup against last year's two Super Bowl participants, but it also includes six games against teams stuck in the middle -- or in quicksand, depending on how generous you're feeling. It wasn't long ago that the AFC South was the division with floundering rosters and few franchise quarterbacks, but the AFC East looks a lot shakier now.
The Case Keenum era in Denver starts with two straight home games against Seattle and Oakland, the beginning of a slate that doesn't include many tough matchups on the road. The Chiefs are the only playoff team from a year ago that the Broncos will travel to play (in Week 8), with most of their toughest games (Rams, Steelers, Seahawks) coming in the friendly, thin-air confines of Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
There's a lot for new coach Steve Wilks to worry about, especially on offense. The early schedule, however, should provide the potential for a soft opening to his tenure. The Cardinals open with three of their first four games at home, with only one playoff team from 2017 in the season's first five weeks. The schedule looks much more difficult after that, so Wilks will need to pile up some early wins.