The impact of the NFL schedule is very, very real.
With a relatively small sample size -- 16 games over 17 weeks -- one particularly fortuitous stretch of the schedule, or one monster month, can be the difference between teams winning a division or missing the postseason entirely. This is particularly true in a league in which games, and divisional standings, are often so close.
So I fear some for the 2010 upstart teams, such as St. Louis. The Rams, a sexy pick after their surge last season, face Philadelphia, the New York Giants, Baltimore, Green Bay, Dallas and New Orleans in six of their first seven contests. The good news is the nine games in the second half of their schedule are loaded with weak opponents (the Steelers are the lone team with a winning record last season) and six divisional games. But man, what a start.
Another surprise 2010 team, the Chiefs, face a daunting string to end the season. The Chiefs go to New England in Week 11, host Pittsburgh the following week, then have back-to-back road games against Chicago and the New York Jets before they welcome the Super Bowl champions in Week 15. Their season ends with division games against Oakland and Denver. The three primetime games for the Chiefs are against the Chargers (Week 8), Patriots (Week 11) and Steelers (Week 12).
A number of other teams appear to have more forgiving stretches in their schedules. The Redskins, for instance, could very well finish at the bottom of the NFC East again. But they do have out-of-division road games at St. Louis, Carolina, Buffalo and Miami, a schedule that should help buoy them closer to respectability.
While the Buccaneers' much-improved 2010 season would generally result in a tougher schedule, I like how things line up for the Bucs after Week 12. They face Carolina twice, as well as the Titans, Jaguars and Cowboys before finishing with the Falcons in Week 17. Consider that Atlanta might already be locked into a playoff position by then. That late-season stretch might set up pretty nicely for the Buccaneers.