For the Detroit Lions, this is perhaps the best possible time to have the schedule they do.
The AFC South is comprised of a good-but-beatable team and three in full-on rebuilding mode. The NFC West is built roughly the same way, but any of those teams could break out and surprise everyone this year (with the exception of the 49ers, who did that it year).
That being said, there's one unavoidable problem. The Lions play in the NFC North, the league's toughest division (the AFC North is a close second). So even when they get a relatively soft schedule, they still have to play the Packers twice a year.
But is that the toughest game the Lions will have all year? And who stumbles into the role of "statement game victim" this year?
And where do the other 14 games fall? Read on to find out.
This may seem easy, and in many ways it is. They're picking first overall in the draft for a reason.
But I still struggled with this. By this point in the season, Andrew Luck could have worked himself into a groove, and that could make the Colts a challenge.
That won't be enough, though. It didn't show up while Peyton Manning was in town. But the talent level on this team has been deteriorating for years, and as I pointed out a few days ago, the 2012 Colts should greatly resemble the 2009 Lions.
Unless you think the 2009 Lions are better than the 2012 Lions, this should be a walkover win.
I have no idea who the quarterback is for this team, but I like the team's chances against Kevin Kolb, John Skelton or a player to be named later.
It isn't so much that the Cardinals are the second-worst team on the Lions' schedule, but they should have a difficult time matching up with the Lions' pass rush. The Cardinals gave up the second-most sacks in the league last year (54), and couldn't keep any of their quarterbacks healthy.
Considering the Lions get the Cards in Week 15, there's a good chance the Cards are in another QB scramble. The Lions should be thinking playoffs while the Cardinals think draft, so motivation is clearly on the Lions' side.
If I had to give the Cardinals an advantage, it's that the Lions are traveling out West after a Sunday Night matchup against the Packers at Lambeau Field, so they're likely to be a little beat up and worn out. But that shouldn't be enough to knock out a vastly more talented team.
The Jags aren't quite close to turning a corner, and Blaine Gabbert has a lot of work to do to grow into his role. But they get credit for sticking to their rebuilding plan instead of blowing it up for a temporary boost to the fanbase.
Tebow would have enthralled the city for a while, but what's going to spruce up that franchise again is wins.
That being said, they have other issues that are going to keep them out of the win column this year. Gabbert needs somebody to catch his passes, and the defense needs help just about everywhere.
This is a rebuilding team with no identity right now, and while I expect them to improve (and develop that identity) throughout the year, the Lions should still be more than a match for them.
Yeah, I know the Rams were technically the second-worst team in the league last year.
But as I remember, the Lions weren't very good when they were missing Matthew Stafford, were they? Now consider Sam Bradford's absence from the Rams last year and try telling me that didn't torpedo the season. We're talking A.J. Feeley and Kellen Clemens, people.
The Rams are a scary team because they're an unknown with Bradford returning. They have quietly assembled a pretty solid defense, and if they use the draft to acquire some offensive weapons, it's hard telling what they could accomplish this year.
Steven Jackson has terrorized the Lions over the course of his career, but he's aging and can't be the entire offense anymore, which is why the Lions should still be able to handle their season opener.
This was the scene the last time the Titans and Lions played.
It was Thanksgiving. Rod Marinelli was coaching the Lions, Jeff Fisher the Titans.
Rookie Chris Johnson was rushing for over 7.5 yards per carry. Daunte Culpepper was under center for the Lions.
And Jesse McCartney was the halftime entertainment to give Lions fans a break from the 47-10 beatdown being laid on the home team.
That was just a bad day all around.
The outlook should be better this time. A lot has happened in the last four years, and while the Titans certainly aren't a team that will just roll over on the Lions, they still have some things to figure out (like when to transition to Jake Locker).
The Lions are in a much better position to win right now, and Cortland Finnegan's departure from the team will give Calvin Johnson's an opportunity for a massive game early in the season.
If this ranking were based just on the overall talent level of the teams on the Lions' schedule, this game would be further down.
But the fact that the Vikings are a bad team isn't the only issue at play here. This is a divisional game, and that tends to bring the final score a lot closer together.
Last year, the Lions were far and away better than the Vikings, yet they won their two games by erasing a 20-point deficit to win in overtime, and getting away with a face mask on the last play of the game to stop a Vikings comeback.
On paper, the Lions ought to dominate this game. In reality, Adrian Peterson and Jared Allen dominate the Lions every time up, and they make the Vikings a dangerous opponent every time, regardless of what the matchup says on paper.
There's no telling how dangerous Matt Flynn could make the Seattle Seahawks (or not).
Flynn might have lit up the Lions with video game numbers while at the helm of one of the best offensive Packers teams in history, but he'll need time to adjust to the rebuilding Seahawks.
That said, there is more talent on this team than there appeared to be last year. They were just missing it in key areas, specifically quarterback.
Now, despite Flynn's impressive relief efforts in Green Bay, the fact remains he's still a relative unknown. I doubt he's as good as the Lions' secondary made him look in January, but he has to be better than Tarvaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst, right?
Regardless of how good Flynn is in his first season as a starter, his new offense isn't loaded down with talent. As a Packer, he had weapons as far as the eye could see. As a Seahawk, he has Marshawn Lynch, Sidney Rice and former Lion Mike Williams.
That's not bad, but it's nothing the Lions shouldn't be able to handle. Lawrence Jackson and Rob Sims should have a good time against the team that gave up on them too soon.
The Metrodome losing streak may be over, but that doesn't mean it's a fun place to play for the Lions.
Again, the Lions match up favorably against the Vikings in every area except the Jared Allen-Jeff Backus department, but for a divisional game on the road, you can throw all of that out.
The Lions should win this, but there's no doubt it's going to be a battle. It always is.
The Lions should hope for the Vikings to have an absolutely woeful record by Week 10, since that should put a damper on that ridiculous Metrodome decibel level.
Yeah, this is the Lions' eighth-toughest game on the 2012 schedule—give or take about six slots.
The Eagles might have the most on-paper fantasy talent of any team in the NFL right now. The question is, with a full offseason, can they parlay that into some manner of football team? If they can, watch out, because this game is a lot tougher than eighth.
But then, I have serious doubts about Michael Vick as a quarterback, and I always have (even before his arrest). His arm and mind are not sharp enough to beat a team that can keep up with his legs, and the Lions could be that team.
Expect speedy Steven Tulloch to draw the spy assignment on Vick all day... assuming he's still healthy by the time this game rolls around.
So what do you make of the Falcons?
We know one thing for sure: They won't be getting a lot of help through the draft, since they basically spent the top half of it on Julio Jones.
So was that worth it? Jones has some developing left to do, but the Falcons as a team sure don't look any better. They're the same ground-and-pound, nothing-flashy team they've always been under Matt Ryan and Mike Smith.
But that said, they're pretty much above-average at everything, and that wins them a lot of games, including the one against the Lions last year. They'll be a stiff test for the Lions this year, and since this game comes in Week 16, there will likely be some heavy playoff implications for both teams.
But the Lions will have this one in prime time on a Saturday night, and it's the only prime time game of the season slated at home in Detroit. So between that and a heated playoff race, there should at be a considerably loud home field advantage for the Lions in this one.
The Lions will close the 2012 season against two teams that will likely be battling them for playoff spots.
But the Bears play three of their last four on the road, and the home game is against the Packers. Week 17 isn't going to be easy for anybody.
Now, the Bears, for all the criticism (to use a polite term) I give them, are a dangerous team. This could be a win-and-in situation in Week 17, which would favor the Lions as the home team.
The Lions are certainly capable of beating the Bears here, but if it's going to be tough to take down the Vikings, this is even worse. It's going to be high-stakes, high-intensity football, and at this point, it's a virtual coin flip to predict a winner.
If this is the year the Lions are to return to winning ways on Thanksgiving, it will be because they've earned it.
Imagine if the Detroit Lions had made the playoffs (and won a playoff game) with Drew Stanton under center and a gimpy Calvin Johnson for the second half of the season.
If they were good enough to do that last year, how good would they be when those guys get back?
This is what the Houston Texans should be like this year. Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson could challenge Matt Stafford and Calvin Johnson for most dominant QB/WR combo with a healthy season each, and the Lions are going to be hard-pressed to keep up with that.
And as if that wasn't enough, the Texans also have a stout offensive line and one of the most solid rushing attacks in the game spearheaded by Arian Foster.
They will miss dominant DE Mario Williams (now a Buffalo Bill), but the defense is put together well enough to hold up in his absence. And the secondary showed up as one of the better units in the game last season, as well.
If there's one good thing about this game, it's that the Lions are getting it out of the way early. The sooner we can stop talking about "the handshake," the better.
The league was even kind enough to schedule it on Sunday night, so everybody can see for themselves when ultimately nothing happens after the game.
At least we're at a point now where more people have made up their minds about Jim Harbaugh being a jerk (albeit a very good football coach).
That aside, this figures to be a stiff test early in the season, with both teams looking to prove their success in 2011 wasn't a fluke.
Lost in the handshake madness from last season was that this was actually a very good matchup, complete with lead changes, big plays and a last-second touchdown. Though much of the storyline leading into the game will be about the coaches, the game itself should be very tough and very close.
The Lions haven't won at Lambeau Field since 1991, and the Packers are the toughest team on the Lions' schedule. So why in the world is this only the third-toughest game on the schedule?
First off, the Lions are a good football team, and their motivation should be sky-high to erase the embarrassing game they played in Green Bay last year (not to mention snapping the losing streak).
But also, the Lions should be well-prepared for this game. They should come into this game rested after a three-week home stand, and the Colts shouldn't wear them down too much the week before.
Also, the two Packers games come only three weeks apart, so the team should be fresh in their minds as they head in.
Of course, the Lions also need to make sure they're not getting caught looking ahead against the Colts, but assuming the game is as much of a breeze as it should be, the Lions will march to Lambeau Field prepared, rested and sporting some winning momentum.
It's never going to be easy to beat Green Bay in Green Bay, but it has to happen sometime. Why not this day?
For the second straight season, the Detroit Lions will play the Chicago Bears on Monday Night.
Only this one will happen at Soldier Field, and the Lions should beware. The Lions don't have the historic losing streak at Soldier like they do at Lambeau Field, but it has been a field of nightmares for young Matthew Stafford.
His first two games there, he left with injuries. His third, he left with four interceptions and a $7,500 fine from the league office. All three games ended in extremely disappointing losses.
And we should all know at this point, as Stafford goes, so go the Lions. I would argue that the Lions — these Lions, anyway — have even greater demons to exorcise at Soldier Field than they do at Lambeau, and that's why they get the switcheroo in these rankings despite the Lambeau losing streak.
There is no "best" time to play the Packers. They're going to be tough no matter when they crop up on the schedule.
And you would think that the Lions would have an easier time against the Packers at home than at Lambeau Field.
That's what I thought at first, too. But that's not necessarily true, and the reason is the path leading up to the game.
The Lions don't have incredibly tough competition leading up to this game (Jacksonville and Minnesota), but they do have back-to-back road games before coming home for this one.
The Packers have back-to-back home games against the Jaguars and Cardinals, and then a bye week.
That's right, after what figures to be their easiest stretch of the season, the Packers get a week off (or rather, an extra week to prepare) before their first clash against the Lions.
Ford Field crowd or no, it's not like the Packers don't know how to play in a hostile environment. They will be rested, prepared and motivated to take down their NFC North rivals.
And so it's actually a home game I predict to be the Lions' toughest test of the season.