Schedule release day in the NFL is rarely met with a cacophony of cheers from the league's head coaches. That's because winning games in the NFL is not easy. No matter how the schedule breaks down, it will take a gargantuan amount of luck, effort and talent to reach the postseason. But like I mentioned last year, there are some advantageous pockets within every schedule where teams can do some damage.
In that spirit, here are five teams that have a softer side to their 2017 slate of games:
This is strictly by last year's collective winning percentage -- the Colts' opponents this year had an average winning percentage of .424 percent in 2016 -- but any team in the AFC South could be eligible for this slot. The Texans, Colts, Titans and Jaguars all get to play the woebegone Browns and 49ers, while the Jaguars also field the Jets on the road in Week 4 -- a very winnable game in Tom Coughlin's return to MetLife Stadium. So what makes the Colts' schedule a little bit more fortuitous in my opinion? A back-and-forth stretch between Sept. 10 and the end of October where you can't find two devastatingly difficult games in a row. The Colts travel to Los Angeles before taking on the Cardinals and Browns at home. Then, they go to Seattle before hosting the 49ers. Then, to Tennessee before hosting the Jags and traveling to Cincinnati. If a healthy Andrew Luck is on a roll, the Colts have a good chance of hitting the halfway point in first place.
The Steelers are one of the few teams that elicited an immediate "wow" after my initial view of the 2017 schedule. Of any team, Pittsburgh has one of the best chances of heading into its bye week (Nov. 5) undefeated, thanks to a schedule that breaks quite nicely. The Steelers start the year on the road against Cleveland before a difficult home opener vs. the Vikings. After that? The Bears, the Ravens in Baltimore a week after they return from London, the Jaguars, the Chiefs, the Bengals and the Lions. Of course there are going to be some challenges there -- the Vikings at home, a road game against Kansas City -- but arguably Pittsburgh's hardest game against the division-rival Ravens comes when the team is just barely getting back on EST. The Steelers also finish the season against the Texans and Browns, which is advantageous in any sort of tight divisional scenario.
We are assuming the Cardinals will not have another down year. That being said, the Seahawks -- like the Colts -- have avoided a brutal stretch altogether in this year's schedule. Most of their harder games are fairly isolated. The season opener against the Packers on the road is not enviable, but the following week Seattle hosts the 49ers. A game against the Titans in Nashville will be a test, as will the following week against the Colts. After that? A short road trip to play the Jeff Fisher-less Rams in Los Angeles. A cross-country trip to face the stout Giants is followed by very winnable games at home against the Texans and Redskins. A "Thursday Night Football" matchup against the Cardinals gives the 'Hawks a 10-day rest before facing the defending NFC Champion Falcons on "Monday Night Football" (another 49ers game follows that). Assuming Russell Wilson and Seattle can rip off a few winning streaks, they could be in better shape than the Cardinals. Arizona opens with two games on the road (Lions and Colts) before facing the Cowboys at home on "Monday Night Football."
San Francisco 49ers
I'm not saying these 49ers will take advantage of it, but their schedule actually breaks quite nicely after the Nov. 19 bye week. It might not matter by then, but games against the Bears, Texans, Titans, Jaguars and Rams make up the friendliest final stretch for any team -- save for maybe the Patriots (Dolphins, at Bills, at Dolphins, at Steelers, Bills, Jets). Should the 49ers draft a rookie quarterback, this would represent the perfect window of time to get his feet wet. Kyle Shanahan wants to win now, but with a six-year contract, he'll be able to hang back and identify stretches like these as crucial team-building moments for a young roster.
Despite a fairly strong strength of schedule, the Falcons have several solid reprieve games and play all of their AFC East opponents right in a row toward the beginning of the season (Bills in Week 4, BYE, Dolphins, at Patriots, at Jets). The Jets game also sits between a prime-time game against New England and a road-trip closer against the Panthers, breaking up the stiff competition nicely. While the Falcons must travel to Foxborough, they do get Green Bay at home in their NFC Championship Game rematch. Their only other premier road game comes against the Seahawks on a Monday night, giving them seven full days rest following an afternoon showdown against the Cowboys on Nov. 12. It was tempting to include an AFC East team on here, simply because playing the Jets and Bills twice this year could be an advantage. The Falcons get most of those same benefits with only one game against the Patriots.