There are two kinds of people right now. The ones saying, "Well, we HAVE to win this season because the Schedule Gods have touched us." And the other ones saying, "Hey, why are you hatin' on us so much, Goodell?"
(Note: Click on each team for full schedule analysis.)
Cincinnati Bengals: Life is good for the Bengals. Sure, you open up the season with a tough trip to Baltimore on Monday night, but then your follow-ups are games against Cleveland, Washington, Jacksonville, Miami and Cleveland again? You could make everyone in the AFC North try to catch you. I bet you plenty of Bengals fans were looking for a third game against the Browns somewhere later in the season.
Dallas Cowboys: While the 'Boys seem to find a way to blow things when they're in the driver's seat, they also seem to find a way to stay in contention. If we assume this holds true through the first 10 weeks this fall, Dallas encounters a very manageable three-game homestand: Cleveland, Washington (on Thanksgiving Thursday) and then a 10-day rest before hosting Philadelphia. And let's face it: The Eagles could be starting Bobby Hoying by then. All the Cowboys need to be is 5-4 before this stretch and they could take control of the NFC East after it's done ... before blowing it in Week 17. (But let's look at the positives!!!)
Miami Dolphins: After a tough opener on the road in Houston, the Dolphins return home to host the Raiders and Jets before traveling to Arizona and Cincinnati. Then in Week 6, they get St. Louis at home before a bye. Am I crazy? Matt Moore/David Garrard/Jay Fiedler could have the Fish at 4-2, thanks to this smooth road -- at which point Gloria Estefan and J. Lo will record a song called "I'm a Louboutin Dolphin."
Minnesota Vikings: You know how we always spotlight the teams that come out of the gate at 2-0? We point out the statistical likelihood they're going to the playoffs, and fans get really excited. A surprising team on this year's list could be the Minnesota Vikings (that is, if they're still playing in Minnesota). They're home (and again, I use that term loosely) against the Jaguars in Week 1 and then at Indianapolis with Andrew Luck still figuring out driving directions from his condo to Lucas Oil Stadium. Then reality hits in the form of every other team they'll play, but they'll always have Paris (not that they're moving there -- it's from a movie) and early September.
Oakland Raiders: All you can ask -- without being greedy -- is that your team has a manageable schedule. Raider Nation, rejoice. I can't remember how many times I looked at Oakland's schedule and said, "That one's a toss-up at worst for them." (OK, I can remember. I said it 12 times.) Seriously, 9-7 may win the AFC West this season, and the Raiders are good enough to do that. But so are the Broncos, Chiefs and Chargers.
New Orleans Saints: Sure, the Saints may not have a head coach or enough players to field a team when the season begins, but a 3-0 start isn't out of the question. The Redskins, Panthers and Chiefs are all eminently beatable, with only Carolina on the road. And then suddenly the "Fire Joe Vitt" chants start -- before he's ever coached a game. They don't even do that in New York.
St. Louis Rams: The "2012 schedule is 180 Degrees from 2011" Award goes to ... the St. Louis Rams! Last year, they were supposed to take the next step, but with a grueling schedule early, they were 0-6 before they could blink. Within the first six weeks of action this time around, an improved offense has potentially winnable home games against Washington, Seattle and Arizona before a pick 'em matchup at Miami. The Rams could start 4-2, which normally is good enough to clinch the NFC West, but the 49ers may have something to say about that. Then five of their final six games see them facing off with the Cardinals, Bills, Vikings, Buccaneers and Seahawks -- all potentially winnable games. St. Louis is my official selection for surprise team, thanks to what is probably the easiest schedule in football.
Cleveland Browns: With every yin, there is a yang. And the Browns are that yang. It's time to play America's favorite game show: "Let's Find a Win on the Browns Schedule!" We'll go out on a limb and say they start out at 0-6. They play at Indianapolis in Week 7. After that, their next possible win might not come until a home game against Washington in Week 15. If Robert Griffin III, whom they couldn't trade up to get, keeps them winless? You can put them on the clock.
Denver Broncos: How much do you want to bet John Elway looked at this season's scheduled opponents back in January and said, "We can't go into next season with Tebow. He'll be the second-best QB on the field every week. Let's go get Mark Sanchez. Wait, scratch that. Let's go get Peyton Manning." Seriously, seven of Denver's 10 games outside the division are against playoff teams from last season. And two of the others are against Cam Newton's Panthers and the Buccaneers, who spent at least a billion dollars to improve the team this offseason. Peyton could go 4,000 yards/35 TD and the Broncos could still go a Tebow-like 8-8. Seriously, this may be the hardest schedule in the history of the game. (What, there's no way to replace the Browns tilt with a game in Green Bay?) Honorable mention goes to the Giants' 2012 docket, but you can't complain when you're the defending champs.
Houston Texans:"Hello, everyone, I'm the new Travel Secretary for the Houston Texans. I just wanted to let all of you know you will get frequent-flier mileage for our three straight road games at Detroit, Tennessee and New England starting in November and ending on the 4th of July. I'm sorry you won't be home for Thanksgiving, but you should be able to get a free flight at the end -- er, sorry. With miles regulations, it's more like you'll earn enough for free headphones on a future flight. But at least it's something!"
Tennessee Titans: The Titans could be much-improved over 2011. Chris Johnson could get back on track, Jake Locker could become a star and Kenny Britt could be return to his pre-injury form. And they'll still start 0-4. (Cue the "Price Is Right" Wa-wa-wa-wa-waaaaah.) New England, at San Diego, Detroit and at Houston to start 2012. ... Hey! Then we get the Vikings in a breather! Oooh. Then we get the Steelers in a short week. Wa-wa-wa-wa-waaaaah.
Individual player beef
Andrew Luck: If I'm Mr. Luck, I'm getting excited about putting that horseshoe helmet on and starting for the Indianapolis Colts right off the bat. I'll have a big fat contract, be an immediate superstar and have St. Elmo Steak House all to myself. Then I check the schedule and see we open in Chicago. Really? I couldn't start off at home, say, against the Jaguars? Whatever happened to "Superstar Rules?" The turf in Soldier Field is really hard. And Brian Urlacher eats a lot of Chunky Soup. At least all that money can buy a lot of ice packs ...
Matt Ryan: So, is Ryan elite or not? After the Atlanta Falcons playoff stinker against the Giants, it's that kind of year for Matty Ice. And he'll have plenty of opportunities to prove his worth, matching up against Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers and Cam Newton (twice). So that'll be a challenge he's looking forward to ... Oh, wait -- he also gets Michael Vick, Tony Romo and Drew Brees (twice). So he's really going to be able to -- oh ... um ... and Eli Manning and Matthew Stafford are on the slate, too. Is there really any way he's going to succeed this season with that murderer's row of quarterbacks staring him in the face? This season could be a step back for Ryan's Falcons.
Mark Sanchez:"Hi, 'Tone. It's Mark. Yeah, Mark Sanchez. Listen, I was just looking at the schedule -- OK, really I was leafing through a Victoria's Secret magazine searching for a date on Friday when I found out the schedule came out. Anyway, we have the 49ers and Texans back-to-back in Weeks 4 and 5. Chances are I'll play poorly, since they're two of the top three defenses in the league. And as you know, I don't like playing against good defenses. So I'll need your support as my coordinator, because if that happens, Tebow is starting the next week at home against Indianapolis. So hit me back. Sanchez out."