The Philadelphia Eagles weren't able to take advantage of a relatively easy schedule in 2011, going 8-8 and disappointing pretty much the entire world.
Not only did they face the lowly NFC West which they went a paltry 1-3 against, but they also faced a struggling AFC East division which they could only manage two wins against. In fact, the Eagles went 5-1 against their own division while going 3-7 against the rest of the league.
Fast forward here to 2012, and the going gets tougher.
As their NFC divisional opponent they are facing the NFC South, which has two annual Super Bowl contenders in Atlanta and New Orleans as well as an up-and-coming Carolina team which will give them trouble.
In the form of an AFC division, they'll be playing the AFC North, which had three playoff teams in 2011—Cincinnati, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh. The combined record of those three teams was 33-15 last season.
While it may seem that every game on the 2012 schedule will be an extremely tough one for this much improved Eagles squad, here are eight that stand out among the rest.
Week 2 (9/16): vs Baltimore Ravens
It's hard to imagine a bigger jump in competition than going from the lowly Cleveland Browns to the scrappy Ravens.
While this Baltimore team lost a bit of its defensive presence due to Terrell Suggs' season-ending injury, they still have Ray Lewis, Haloti Ngata, Ed Reed and Lardarius Webb wreaking havoc.
If the Eagles want to score points against this team, they're going to need to exploit Jimmy Smith on the outside and use outside runs to stretch out the 3-4 defense.
On defense, they're going to face a tough test in the running game even if the Ravens did lose left guard Ben Grubbs. Ray Rice is one of the top three backs in the NFL, and stopping him will require great games from DeMeco Ryans and the entire defensive line.
This game is definitely winnable at home, but it will require some great performances against a good coach and physical defense.
Week 4 (9/30): vs New York Giants
The following trend is pretty hard to ignore: In their last seven regular season home games against the Giants, the Eagles are 2-5.
Last year, the Giants came into Philly and beat up on the Eagles. Even when you take the Super Bowl out of the equation, this Giants team will be much better and much healthier than the 9-7 team from a year ago.
The offense may still not have a very potent running game, but Nnamdi Asomugha and the secondary struggled to contain Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks last season. The defense will face a tough test against one of the league's premier quarterbacks in Eli Manning and that wideout duo of Cruz and Nicks.
One of the biggest X-Factors in this game will be the pass rush, especially because the Giants are only getting older across the offensive line. If Babin and Cole don't produce, things could get ugly.
On offense, the Eagles will be seeing a much healthier Giants unit.
Now, Michael Vick will be facing three of the league's best pass-rushers at defensive end in addition to a strong-side linebacker in Mathias Kiwanuka, who also likes to get after the QB. Oh, and did I mention that the secondary could be one of the best in the NFC as well?
No matter how you spin it, this game will be a challenge. The Eagles will need to limit turnovers, protect the passer, and plaster onto New York's wide receivers. In short, they'll need an all-around effort to win this one.
Week 5 (10/7): @ Pittsburgh Steelers
It's tough to imagine a way in which the Eagles could dominate "Big Ben" and the Steelers. Not only do they have playmakers in Mike Wallace, James Harrison, Troy Polamalu and so on, but they are, by far, the most complete team in the NFL.
They have top-of-the-line starters at almost every position (for more details check out their two-deep depth chart.) Just last year, they had seven Pro Bowlers and four or five more players who probably deserved nods as well.
On defense, the Eagles will face a balanced offense led by one of the league's most clutch quarterbacks. If the Eagles want to have any chance at stopping Pittsburgh's wideouts, they'll have to shut down the run game and allow the safeties to help in the passing game.
The fact that Pittsburgh has a very good offensive line doesn't really help either.
On the other side of the ball, Michael Vick and the offense will see one of the league's best defenses. The front seven will harass Vick all day long. If Vick does manage to put the ball in the air, his wide receivers will be facing a secondary including cornerback Ike Taylor and safety Troy Polamalu.
Now, it's far from impossible to win this game. It's just going to be one of the toughest games on the schedule.
Week 6 (10/14): vs Detroit Lions
For the third straight Sunday, the Eagles will be facing a 2011 playoff team.
The Lions have one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL led by 5,000-yard passer Matthew Stafford and one of the league's best wide receivers—Calvin "MegaTron" Johnson.
With the addition of Titus Young on the outside and Nate Burleson in the slot, the Eagles cornerbacks will have a long day dealing with all the talent. Because the Lions have a below-average running game, Philadelphia defensive coordinator Juan Castillo will need Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Nnamdi to play up to their potential and plaster their men.
On offense, the Eagles will be facing the wide-nine technique that defensive line coach Jim Washburn brought to the team last season.
The Lions have the perfect personnel to run the defense effectively, featuring a lot of talent at linebacker. Justin Durant, Stephen Tulloch, and DeAndre Levy are all high-caliber starters.
The defensive line is even more impressive with defensive ends Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril; and DTs Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley.
Rushing the ball and avoiding the pass rush could be a problem for the Eagles, which is why they'll have to take advantage of a suspect Lions secondary.
The Eagles should be favorites to win this game, but it'll still take smart play from Michael Vick to get it done.
Week 8 (10/28): vs Atlanta Falcons
If it weren't for the bye week, the Eagles would have five straight weeks of tough games (if you include the Week 9 matchup against New Orleans).
Since Andy Reid hasn't lost coming off of a bye week, it's tough to pick against the Eagles here. But, all circumstances aside, the Falcons could be a tough team to beat.
Matt Ryan has found a connection with his three favorite targets—those being Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez—and the addition of a strong running game makes this a well-balanced offense. Last year, the Eagles gave up 38 points to this offense, but an improved run defense should help open things up for the secondary.
On offense, the Eagles will be facing a talented, but sometimes inconsistent Falcons defense.
The loss of middle linebacker Curtis Lofton to the Saints will definitely hurt their front seven play, but they still have some of the best at their positions in under tackle Jonathan Babineaux and defensive end John Abraham.
Again, the Eagles should definitely be favored, but in no way is Atlanta going to lay down and give way. This is going to be a dogfight from start to finish.
Week 9 (11/5): @ New Orleans Saints
This game caps off a string of five straight contests where this team will be playing 2011 Super Bowl contenders, and seeing as how it will be in the Louisiana Superdome on Monday Night Football, it could be the toughest.
Since Drew Brees took over as New Orleans' starting quarterback, Andy Reid's Eagles are 1-3 against the Saints and 1-2 on the road against them.
Even with the BountyGate scandal surrounding the team, there is no denying that the Saints return with the NFL's best offense once again in 2012. They have a Pro Bowl quarterback, tight end, right guard, left guard and left tackle.
In addition to those four positions, they have all-purpose yard machine Darren Sproles, promising young back Mark Ingram and five-time 1,000-plus yard receiver Marques Colston.
In short, the Eagles have a tall task ahead of them when it comes to stopping this juggernaut.
On offense the Eagles shouldn't have a tough time moving the ball down the field, seeing as how the Saints defensive line is subpar and the cornerbacks are susceptible to the big play. Even with Curtis Lofton coming in to replace Jonathan Vilma, I think this defense just can't keep up with good offenses.
This game will be a shootout and, by all means, the toughest game for the defense on the schedule.
Week 13 (12/2): @ Dallas Cowboys
Even though the Eagles went 2-0 against the "Boys" in 2012, it's impossible to leave Philadelphia's biggest rival off of the list.
Playing Dallas is tough at any venue, but going to Texas Stadium in December and knocking them off will be a tough task. Over the last several years in fact, Tony Romo has been at his best in December.
The Cowboys are much improved from 2011 when they couldn't defend the pass and the inside rush defense was suspect. In both games, the Eagles tore up the secondary and LeSean McCoy ran wild, but this year could be different.
Not only did they add Brandon Carr via free agency, but they also drafted LSU standout Morris Claiborne as well. The Eagles will have a tough time finding open receivers against that duo.
In the run game, LeSean McCoy will still have some measure of success, but a healthy Sean Lee and Jay Ratliff will serve to limit his production. The Eagles will need a big game from Jason Kelce and Evan Mathis to run the ball down Dallas' throat.
On defense, the Eagles are still facing one of the league's top offenses. Romo has found his men in Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and of course Miles Austin, while DeMarco Murray seems to have recovered from his injury. The Eagles will have to work hard to exploit the Cowboys' weakness—which is protecting against inside rushers—with strong games from Cullen Jenkins and Fletcher Cox.
This game will be important as well as tough, which means that the Cowboys will come out firing. Expect the Eagles to have to work very, very hard to scrape out a win in Dallas.
Week 15 (12/13): vs Cincinnati Bengals
This game is going to be especially tough considering that it is on Thursday Night Football. All Eagles fans know how bad Andy Reid has been when given less time to prepare (see 2011 blowout against Seattle for a good example.)
The Bengals are probably the least talented team on this list, but that doesn't really say much considering the Eagles have an extremely tough schedule.
Andy Dalton and the Bengals passing game now features a young wide receiver duo in breakout star A.J. Green and rookie Mohamed Sanu. Both have their strengths and both will provide challenges for Nnamdi and "DRC" respectively.
Ben-Jarvus Green-Ellis will definitely improve the Bengals running game slightly. Even so, a good performance from DeMeco Ryans will quickly silence that.
On offense the Eagles are facing a vastly underrated unit that ranked seventh in total defense last year. The front seven features a bunch of above-average starters and will provide a tough test for the highly-ranked offensive line. In the secondary, the Eagles are facing a decent group of young corners and safeties, and it will take good route-running and smart throws to outplay them.
This game probably wouldn't be too much of a concern if it weren't for the short preparation time. Let's just hope the Eagles have enough, talent-wise, to hold off Cincinnati and possibly cruise to the NFC East title.