Every NFL player will tell you that there are tougher stretches of a season than others. These tough stretches ultimately decide which teams are in the playoffs and which ones are not, and I am here to look at the toughest three-game stretch for every team this upcoming season.
When the schedule was released, the Super Bowl champion New York Giants found out that they owned the league's toughest schedule (based on opponents' 2011 record) for the 2012 season, while the New England Patriots came in with the easiest.
However, no NFL schedule should ever be deemed easy because on any given Sunday, any team can win. Here is every team's toughest stretch of the 2012 season.
Toughest three-game stretch: vs. San Francisco, at Green Bay, at Atlanta.
The Cardinals have tough stretches to start and end the season, but their toughest stretch comes smack dab in the middle of their schedule.
The team will face the 49ers at home, and they will then travel to Green Bay and Atlanta. The 49ers and Packers were two of the NFC's best teams last season, and the Falcons were a playoff team.
The game against the Falcons is separated by a bye week, but it will still be difficult for Arizona to come out on top against a team that is 26-4 under Matt Ryan in the Georgia Dome.
Toughest three-game stretch: at Philadelphia, vs. Dallas, at New Orleans.
The Falcons have one of the league's easiest schedules in terms of last season's winning percentage as the team will only play four teams that had a record of 9-7 or better in 2011.
Those numbers, however, should be thrown out the window because the franchise will be facing teams that have improved tremendously this offseason.
The Eagles are one of those teams, and they appear to be a much better team on paper then they were last year. The Cowboys fall into that same category, and the Falcons will have the honor of playing both teams in consecutive weeks.
Atlanta will travel to Philly, come home for Dallas and then fly to New Orleans to take on the Saints in the Superdome. Not an easy slate of games if you ask me.
Toughest three-game stretch: at Pittsburgh, at San Diego, vs. Pittsburgh.
The Ravens and Steelers' rivalry has been one of the NFL's best over the past few seasons, and we get to see it twice in three weeks this season.
In this installment of the rivalry, the Ravens will have to travel to Pittsburgh and then fly out to San Diego the following week while Pittsburgh travels to Cleveland. The Ravens will then fly back home on a cross-country flight to take on the Steelers at home.
Good luck with that stretch, boys.
Toughest three-game stretch: at Houston, at New England, vs. Miami.
The Bills have two brutal three-game stretches. The one mentioned above comes after the bye week, while the other comes right before it.
During their toughest stretch, Buffalo will take on Houston and New England on the road and then the Dolphins at home on a Thursday night game. Houston and New England should win their respective divisions, and playing the Dolphins on a short week will be no easy task.
The stretch before the bye week is almost as tough, due to back-to-back West Coast trips to San Francisco and Arizona. One of those games is tough enough, not to mention another one the following week.
Toughest three-game stretch: at Philadelphia, at Kansas City, vs. Atlanta
This is a rough stretch of games for the young Carolina Panthers. Philadelphia and Kansas City are two of the toughest environments in the NFL, while the Falcons are expected to be competing for the NFC South title.
This will not be the only tough stretch that the Panthers will have to endure, due to the fact that the team owns the 10th toughest schedule based on opponents' 2011 record.
Toughest three-game stretch: at Tennessee, vs. Houston, at San Francisco
The Chicago Bears play in the toughest division in football, but their toughest stretch does not include any of their rival teams. The Titans, Texans and 49ers are the three teams that make up their toughest stretch, as all have the potential to be playoff bound.
Houston and San Francisco are my picks to have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, which makes this stretch that much more challenging.
Toughest three-game stretch: at Philadelphia, at Pittsburgh, vs. Baltimore.
The Bengals went from rags to riches last season after the team improved their record by five games to reach the playoffs. The team is certainly looking to build on their 2011 season, and they will have a great chance to do so.
Cincinnati only plays two playoff teams from a year ago in their first seven games, and those teams happen to be division rivals Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
The schedule heats up for the Bengals after the bye week, however, as we find their toughest stretch of the season in the team's final three games. Cincinnati travels to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh before finishing out the season against the Ravens, and it is hard to imagine a tougher stretch heading into the playoffs.
Nine wins might not get this team in the playoffs this year.
Toughest three-game stretch: at Baltimore, at New York Giants, vs. Cincinnati.
The Cleveland Browns were once again the bottom dwellers of the AFC North in 2011, but the future is certainly getting brighter for this struggling franchise. The Browns added a number of weapons on offense, while also retaining a number of starters from last season's 10th ranked defense.
The schedule gods were not kind to the Browns, however, as the teams holds the league's third toughest schedule of 2012. Their toughest stretch of that brutal schedule includes trips to Baltimore and New York (Giants) and then ends with a home game against the rival Bengals.
Toughest three-game stretch: vs. New York Giants, at Atlanta, at Philadelphia.
The Dallas Cowboys are looking to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2009, but it will not be an easy task in 2012 as the team faces seven playoff teams from the 2011 season.
The team's toughest stretch of the season includes two division rivals as well as a trip to the Georgia Dome, where the Falcons rarely lose.
Toughest three-game stretch: vs Pittsburgh, at Atlanta, vs. Houston.
Things are not going to be easy for the new-look Denver Broncos in 2012. The team owns the league's second-toughest schedule, and their most difficult stretch of the season happens to be at the very beginning.
During that stretch, the Broncos will take on the Steelers at home, travel to Atlanta to take on the Falcons on Monday Night Football and then fly back home on a short week to take on the Texans.
Toughest three-game stretch: at Philadelphia, at Chicago, vs. Seattle.
It is not going to be easy for the Detroit Lions to get back to the playoffs in 2012.
The team plays in one of the league's toughest divisions, and a number of arrests in the offseason have really hindered the overall potential of some of the team's top young players.
The Lions' toughest stretch of the season comes directly after their bye week. The team travels to Philadelphia and Chicago before coming home to play a much improved Seattle Seahawks team.
Toughest three-game stretch: vs. San Francisco, vs. Chicago, at Seattle.
The Green Bay Packers dominated the 2011 regular season, but that dominating play did not translate into playoff success. The Packers have a fairly easy road to get back to the playoffs this season, as the the team holds the second easiest schedule in the NFL.
Some may argue that traveling to Detroit and New York maybe tougher than the point of the schedule that I have chosen, but because the team has to play the Bears on a short week after the 49ers game and then travel to Seattle the week after, gives this point of the schedule the overall edge.
Toughest three-game stretch: at Detroit, at Tennessee, at New England.
The Texans own one of the league's toughest three-game stretches, as the team will have to go on the road against three teams that certainly have the ability to reach and go far in the playoffs.
Detroit, Tennessee and New England make up this difficult stretch, and it will be a great accomplishment if the Texans can take two out of three of these games.
Toughest three-game stretch: at Houston, at Kansas City, vs. Houston.
It is going to be another long year for Indianapolis Colts fans. There is certainly a bright future brewing for the franchise, but they will have to endure a tough schedule with a ton of young players in 2012.
The team's toughest stretch includes two game against the Houston Texans, as well as a road trip to Arrowhead Stadium to take on the Chiefs.
Toughest three-game stretch: at Oakland, at Green Bay, vs. Detroit.
The Jacksonville Jaguars are going to surprise a lot of people this year. Their defense is one of the league's best, and the team has made a number of key accusations on the offensive side of the ball.
If Blaine Gabbert can take his game to that next level, this team will compete for a Wild Card spot in 2012.
As we look at the schedule, the team has a few tough stretches during the season. Their toughest point includes trips to Oakland and Green Bay, followed by a home game against Detroit.
Toughest three-game stretch: vs. Oakland, at San Diego, at Pittsburgh.
The Kansas City Chiefs will contend in the AFC West this season. The team made a number of solid moves during the offseason, and with solid quarterback play, they will make some noise.
The team's toughest stretch of the season comes right after the bye when they take on the Raiders at home, travel to San Diego for a Thursday night game and then travel to Pittsburgh the week after.
Toughest three-game stretch: vs. Seattle, vs. New England, at San Francisco.
The Miami Dolphins have a favorable schedule in 2012, which means that the team has a great chance to get off to a fast start despite not looking as good on paper.
Their toughest stretch includes home games against Seattle and the always tough Patriots, followed by an extremely difficult road contest against the 49ers.
Toughest three-game stretch: at Chicago, at Green Bay, vs. Chicago.
This is an obvious rebuilding year for the Vikings. Minnesota will be the underdog in almost every game that they play this season, but the future does look bright in the Twin Cities.
Minnesota has six tough divisional games that includes their toughest stretch of three of those games in a row. After their bye week, the team will travel to Chicago and Green Bay before coming back home to play the Bears once again.
Toughest three-game stretch: at Seattle, vs. New York Jets, at St. Louis (London).
The Patriots have an awfully tough schedule in 2012, even though the team has the easiest in terms of last season's winning percentage. The team has three road games in the first four weeks of the season, and they then get a home game Week 5 against Peyton Manning and the Broncos.
The teams on the schedule for Weeks 6 through 8 seem to teams that the Patriots should beat, except when you take a look at the team's itinerary. New England is at Seattle, home vs. New York Jets and at the Rams—but the game vs. St. Louis will be played in London at Wembley Stadium, which means that the Patriots will have to go from the West Coast back to the East and then all the way overseas in a three-week span.
Toughest three-game stretch: vs. San Francisco, at Atlanta, at New York Giants
This is one tough stretch for the Saints.
A thrilling rematch of last year's Divisional Round playoff game at home against the 49ers, and then two tough road games against the rival Falcons and Super Bowl champion Giants.
Toughest three-game stretch: at Atlanta, at Baltimore, vs. Philadelphia.
It is not going to be easy for the New York Giants to repeat in 2012.
The team have rough stretches all over the place, but the back end will once again be the toughest. Road contests against Atlanta and Baltimore are tough enough, let alone back to back, and then the regular season finale with the Eagles may be for the division title.
Toughest three-game stretch: at Miami, vs. San Francisco, vs. Houston.
The Jets, their fans and the major television networks are hoping for a resurgence from this team in 2012 after the NFL scheduled four games on national TV, with three of those games being in the back half of the schedule.
New York plays a majority of their tough games at home, and their toughest part of the schedule indicates that. The team will take on the Dolphins before coming home to take on the 49ers and Texans in consecutive weeks.
Toughest three-game stretch: at Baltimore, vs. New Orleans, at Cincinnati.
The Oakland Raiders have two extremely tough stretches in 2012. The tougher out of the two comes late in the season when the team travels to Baltimore, comes home for a game against the Saints and then heads east once again to take on a re-surging Bengals squad.
Toughest three-game stretch: vs. New York Giants, at Pittsburgh, vs. Detroit.
The Philadelphia Eagles are looking to build off one of the most disappointing seasons in franchise history.
The schedule, however, has not been good to the team once again, as it will surely be tough to reach the playoffs once again. The Eagles only play back-to-back road games once this season, which may be the only good news coming out of this schedule.
During their toughest stretch, the team will face the Giants at home, the Steelers in Pittsburgh and the Lions at home.
Toughest three-game stretch: vs. Philadelphia, at Tennessee, at Cincinnati.
The Steelers' toughest stretch includes three games in a 14-day period, which is tough on any team, let alone a veteran one.
The team also plays the Ravens twice in three weeks late in the season, and they make two West Coast trips in the first three weeks of the season.
Toughest three-game stretch: at Tampa Bay, at Denver, vs. Baltimore.
It is once again playoffs or bust for the San Diego Chargers in 2012.
The Chargers have struggled on the East Coast over the past few seasons, which makes their trip to Tampa Bay in early November that much more challenging. The Chargers will then travel to Denver and then welcome the Ravens to San Diego the week after.
Toughest three-game stretch: at Green Bay, vs. Detroit, at Minnesota.
The 49ers are looking to take the next step after being within plays of reaching their first Super Bowl in more than 17 years.
The schedule is relatively balanced, with their toughest stretch coming at the very beginning of the season. Three straight games against the NFC North is what is on hand for the 49ers as they will travel to Green Bay and Minnesota with a home game against the Lions in between.
Toughest three-game stretch: vs. New England, at San Francisco, at Detroit.
The Seattle Seahawks will be playing with one of the league's best young defenses and a new quarterback in 2012.
The schedule won't be easy for that new quarterback, however, as Seattle has an incredibly tough stretch during the middle of the season. The Seahawks will welcome New England into the 12th man's den, and then travel to San Francisco and Detroit in back-to-back weeks.
Toughest three game stretch: vs. Green Bay, vs. New England, at San Francisco.
This stretch of games maybe the toughest yet in terms of last season's winning percentages. All three teams were at the top of their respective conferences, and the Rams get to play them in a span of four weeks.
The future looks bright in St. Louis, but don't expect a playoff run just yet.
Toughest three-game stretch: vs. Carolina, at New York Giants, at Dallas.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are ready to make some noise in the NFC South, but so are their Week 1 opponents, the Carolina Panthers.
The Bucs will host the Panthers during that Week 1 contest before traveling to New York and Dallas in consecutive weeks. This stretch to start the season will be a great indication of what we can expect from Tampa Bay for the remainder of the season.
Toughest three-game stretch: at San Diego, vs. Detroit, at Houston.
The Tennessee Titans may be 0-4 to start the 2012 season. The franchise will face the Patriots, Chargers, Lions and Texans in consecutive weeks, which is easily the toughest four-game stretch in the NFL.
Jake Locker may see some action by Week 5 if that 0-4 scenario does play out.
Toughest three-game stretch: vs. Philadelphia, at New York Giants, vs. Dallas
The Washington Redskins will be under new leadership this season with their first-round pick Robert Griffin III already being named the starter.
The Redskins play in one of the most consistent divisions in football, and RG3 and company will be taking on that trio of teams in three consecutive weeks. Washington will be much improved this season, but their schedule will still be too difficult to make a playoff run in 2012.
Follow Jeff on Twitter: @JeffSchmidt9