The NFL schedule is famously hard to handicap. A section of the schedule that looks difficult in April often turns into cupcake city when injuries and surprisingly poor seasons become evident. But we're going to try to predict what happens anyway.
The first thing to look at is the out-of-division schedule. The NFL formula for opponents is set years in advance, so this isn't about getting "lucky" on schedule making day (we already know 14 of 16 opponents for the 2017 season for instance). The best route to a disappointing 7-9 record is a slate without any soft spots.
After examining the 2016 schedule, here are the teams we believe have the toughest slates in 2016:
September matters so much, especially for new-look programs like the one in Miami. And the start of the Dolphins' season could hardly be more brutal. Try to come up with a tougher start than a trip across the country to Seattle followed by a trip to Foxborough. The Dolphins are staring at an 0-2 start.
New York Jets
The schedule eases up in the second half of the season, although the Jets get both of their Patriots matchups in the final six weeks. As colleague Dan Hanzus said in our NFL Now segment, the Jets will be very lucky to escape the first six weeks at 3-3. I could have listed the Patriots and Bills here as well because the AFC East is going up against the NFC West and AFC North in inter-division contests. Those were our top two divisions in our recent division power rankings.
Playing in the AFC North means the Browns have six difficult division games. We fully expect the Ravens to bounce back this year, and a home game against Baltimore in Week 2 is one of only two home games for Cleveland in the team's first seven contests. The other home game in that difficult stretch is against New England.
San Francisco 49ers
Four games against the Seahawks and Cardinals looks like four automatic losses, and the Rams are no pushovers. After starting the season on Monday Night Football against Los Angeles, the 49ers have to go to Carolina on a short week and then head to Seattle. That's a rough start for a rebuilding team with a new coach and shaky quarterback situation.
Los Angeles Rams
They are giving up one home game to London, and playing their other seven home games in a temporary facility that figures to have plenty of fans rooting for the road team. USC games at the L.A. Coliseum limit flexibility early in the schedule, resulting in the Rams having only two true home games before Nov. 6.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The NFC South has a difficult out-of-division schedule in general, facing the two western divisions. The Bucs start the season with two road games and they face three super powers in the first five weeks: Arizona, Denver and Carolina. Two of those games are on the road.