The NFL schedule has been released and you've quickly studied the 16-game slate of your favorite team and their biggest rivals. Have you found any potential roadblocks provided by the schedule-makers?
Of course, no fan base should be getting too upset. The NFL schedule is a labor of love, concocted over a period of months by a group of individuals who lock themselves in a room in the league's Park Avenue home office.
The formula is relatively simple: Six games are played against division opponents. Eight games are based on a rotation of out-of-division games. The final two games match up conference teams that finished in the same position the season before. For example: The Jets (who finished fourth in the AFC East) get fellow cellar-dwellers in the Raiders and Browns.
The order in which these games are laid out is where potential advantages and disadvantages come into play. With that in mind, here are some teams that face added challenges in 2015:
Falcons, Bills, Dolphins and Jaguars
It's hard to win outside your building in the NFL. Only six teams had a winning record on the road, and if you throw out the Cowboys (a head-scratching 8-0 aberration), no team escaped their road slate with less than three losses. This isn't great news for the four teams above, who all have a three-game stretch of road matchups. The good news: The Bengals went 3-0 in the same situation a season ago. Hope!
At the time of Le'Veon Bell's impending suspension, we wrote about how the Steelers would love to avoid getting the Patriots on the road in the Week 1 kickoff game. That's exactly what happened. But the real concern for the Steelers is their post-bye schedule. Here's what they have after Week 11: at Seattle, home to Colts, at Cincinnati, home to Denver, at Baltimore, at Cleveland. Ouch.
Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears
It ain't easy sharing a division with the Packers. For the Lions and Bears, things get trickier when you factor in schedules that present early challenges. Chicago opens the season at home against Green Bay, then hosts the Cardinals before hitting the road to face the Seahawks. Those three teams went a combined 35-13 last season. The Lions, meanwhile, open with three road matchups in four weeks (San Diego, Minnesota and Seattle). The one game that's not on the road is a Week 3 matchup against the Broncos. Not a gimme to be found.
The Panthers aren't known for getting off to fast starts in the Cam Newton era, but that better change in 2015. After a highly manageable first four games (at Jacksonville, Houston, New Orleans, at Tampa Bay), Carolina gets an early bye in Week 5. They come back to a war of attrition: at Seattle, Eagles, Colts (Monday night), Packers. If Carolina isn't careful, they could be buried at midseason. Then again, that didn't stop them last year.
The NFC West, even when factoring in the 49ers' arduous offseason, remains one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL. Battles will be fierce within that group of four, but the West will also have to contend with the AFC North, which fielded three playoff teams a season ago in the Steelers, Bengals and Ravens.