Whenever we talk about whose schedules are the "easiest" or the "toughest," it tends to be inaccurate at best.
Last year, I was trying to determine whether the Falcons or Eagles would be a tougher matchup for the Lions. The Falcons made the NFC Championship game, while the Eagles are the only NFC team drafting higher than the Lions this year.
These projections are based primarily on how good teams were last year, plus new players and minus departed players. Of course, if that's all it took to project team success, everybody would have expected the Seattle Seahawks to make a deep playoff run, right?
Still, the schedule is out now, and while there are always surprises, there is usually a pretty good indication of which games will be harder than others. Last season, it looked like the Jacksonville Jaguars would be an easy win, and they were. This year, the easiest win on the Lions' schedule should be...
Not that the Lions are ones to point fingers—though they have recent playoff experience and a legitimate quarterback—but the Cleveland Browns have issues.
The management is going through turnover, the organization fails at drafting a franchise passer seemingly every season, and they've shown basically no upward mobility over the last several seasons.
To be fair, of course, this is in reference to a team who won one more game than the Lions did in 2012, but it's fair to say that the Lions' ceiling is higher this year than the Browns' ceiling is.
Also, for your viewing pleasure, please recall the last time these teams played in the regular season. And fear not, C. J. Mosley is on the Lions' side this time.
I was tempted to put this team last, since it has decided Carson Palmer is the answer to its problems.
But ultimately, the reason I couldn't put the Cardinals last is not because I expect them to be any good. The Cards started the 2012 season 4-0 and then finished 1-11, because regression to the mean is a thing.
Problem is, the Lions were that kind of team while they were in the middle of putting their own eight-game losing streak together. Credit is due, but only in that they're better than the Browns.
Seems odd that the Lions' three (seemingly) easiest games would all be on the road, but hey, these are the teams with the fourth, sixth and seventh draft picks this year. It just so happens that the worst teams are the ones the Lions travel to play.
Also, this is a game the Lions will have an extra half week to prepare for, as it comes right after the week of Thanksgiving.
The Eagles should be improved over last year (they can't get much worse), but they're in transition right now.
Andy Reid has been the Eagles' coach forever, and his scheme is deeply entrenched into the personnel on the team. The "Dream Team" decisions the Eagles made in 2011 free agency are starting to haunt them, as seemingly every player from that class is being cut loose, leaving massive salary cap craters in the wake.
The Eagles will likely get better soon. They have talent on the team, but they also have Michael Vick running the show (speaking of salary cap craters). They have a ways to go, and the Lions should be able to take advantage of their down year.
This is what Tony Romo does in February.
The Cowboys thought that the proper response to doubts about his ability to lead the Cowboys into (and through) the playoffs was to give him $108 million and hope they were right.
This is the same guy who pick-sixed his way out of a 24-point lead in less than a half. This headline in the Dallas Morning News should say all that needs to be said about the Lions' chances in this game. Of course, everything isn't the same as it was then. This is a different Lions team.
But it's the same Tony Romo.
It's hard to say whether the Tampa Bay Bucs underachieved in 2012 and 2011 (combined record of 11-25) or overachieved in 2010 (10-6).
Is Josh Freeman actually any good? Will their expensive free-agent signings from the 2012 offseason (Carl Nicks, Vincent Jackson, Eric Wright) be a good thing or a big money hole like the Eagles' signings from 2011? Will Doug Martin continue to be awesome in his sophomore season?
These are good questions, but ultimately, the Bucs have entirely too many question marks, particularly age-related ones on defense, to contain the Lions in this one. If the Bucs are to pull this one out, it will probably be the offense who comes through. But does the offense have enough firepower?
The once mighty Pittsburgh Steelers still have the makings of a decent football team, but the days of them being a Super Bowl-gobbling machine have been gone from the league about as long as Kurt Warner has.
The Steelers were average at best last year, often looking old and slow, and consistently hobbled by injury. The offensive line is still rife with problems, which will force Ben Roethlisberger to use his otherworldly pocket elusiveness to attempt to even get the ball out.
In addition, the Steelers lost Mike Williams to free agency, taking away one of the team's most dangerous deep threats. And there still isn't a respectable rushing threat in the backfield. The defense is solid, but roughly half the projected starters are well over the age of 30, and former Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison has been cut loose.
The Steelers are not a team to be taken lightly, and they tend to draft well, which will fix some of their existing problems. But this is no longer a team to be feared.
The biggest problem with this game has nothing to do with matchups. The problem is the Lions have to play the Giants in mid-December.
If recent history is any indication, that will be the time that the NFC's version of the San Diego Chargers decides it's time to wake up and put together a playoff run. That said, the strategy didn't exactly work for them in 2012. It seems the Giants have two settings in December:
1. Win all the games to sneak into the playoffs and beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl, or
2. Ruin a strong start and miss the playoffs entirely.
Despite great playoff runs, the Giants are rarely overwhelming in the regular season, and while the team certainly has some stability, it certainly doesn't seem like an unbeatable opponent.
Which Bears team will we get this year?
The decent one who makes it into the wild-card round of the playoffs?
The one who misses the playoffs at 8-8 and blames injuries?
Or the total implosion version, which finishes just a game or two below .500 but looks far, far worse?
The Bears have quietly become one of the most entertaining teams in the league to watch, much in the same way the Jets are. But instead of Rex Ryan guaranteeing a Super Bowl every season, it's somebody giving Jay Cutler's leadership, toughness and decision-making a vote of confidence.
To be fair, the Bears found a good tandem in Cutler and Brandon Marshall. But much of whether this season is a success or not will fall on whether the moves they've made to solidify a leaky offensive line are actually effective. If not, Cutler is looking at another season of pretending the pocket is lava.
My heart wants to put this game higher for Adrian Peterson alone. Peterson was a killer against Detroit—and everyone else—last season, and if ever there was a running back who carried his entire team to the playoffs, it's 2012's Peterson.
Well, either him or Barry Sanders throughout the 1990s.
Regardless, though the Vikings could regress with the loss of Percy Harvin, the addition of Greg Jennings should fill in nicely—though it's a relief to not face Harvin in the return game any more.
This will be the first game of the year, and because of the moderate degree of difficulty, it should be a good measuring stick as to how the Lions' season will go. The Vikings were a surprise playoff team who may have overachieved last year, but they have enough young talent to live up to that same level in 2013.
Soldier Field is always a tough place for the Lions to play, but at least Matthew Stafford finished the game there last year.
For all my ribbing on them a couple of slides ago, the Bears have the look of a solid team. They shouldn't be pushovers, especially at home, but they also have the elements of a total implosion.
Ultimately though, this game should be easier than most for the Lions, because they get to go into it out of their bye week. This away game will be the second time the Lions play them, so the team will get an extra week to watch film, analyze what went right and wrong in the first game, get healthy and take a comprehensive game plan into Soldier Field.
That won't be enough, but it will help, especially with the Bears coming into this one out of a tough prime-time away matchup against the rival Packers.
While they haven't been heavy hitters upon getting there, the Bengals are a playoff team who stands a good chance of getting back in 2013.
Quietly, they've built a very good team in a very similar mold to what the Lions have. They both sport a dominant QB-WR battery (Matthew Stafford - Calvin Johnson, Andy Dalton - A.J. Green), dominant defensive tackle (Geno Atkins, Ndamukong Suh) and good overall play in the front seven.
Where the Bengals might have an edge is in elite pass-rusher Michael Johnson, who is effectively where Cliff Avril was last season: top pass-rusher playing on the franchise tag, waiting on a payday.
However, the Lions are arguably more settled at running back, with Reggie Bush and Mikel Leshoure providing a balanced combination that should outshine Benjarvus Green-Ellis and Bernard Scott.
This appears to be one of the more well-balanced games on the schedule. That, of course, means someone will win by 30.
Take everything I said about the Vikings being a potentially tough opponent a couple slides ago.
Now add the Metrodome.
While the dome hasn't exactly been at a Lambeau Field level of "impossible to win at" for the Lions, it hasn't been easy. It's loud, and the Vikings play extremely well at home.
To make matters worse, this is the last game of the season, and it's likely that this game determines some kind of playoff position. If that's the case—for either team—it's going to be difficult to keep the crowd out of the game.
I was highly tempted to slide the Ravens further down this list, what with them dismantling the team after the Super Bowl win.
But the team's most notable subtractions (Ed Reed, Ray Lewis) were dynasty players who were simply surviving well past their primes. Fans of the team won't want to hear it, but moving on from over-the-hill Lewis and Reed is addition by subtraction in terms of overall skill.
This team may suffer with locker room leadership in the absence of emotional leader Lewis, but there are enough steady influences to keep the team from imploding, despite all the turnover. Super Bowl Champions tend to be able to keep it together...usually.
Also, Jacoby Jones still plays for the Ravens, and the Lions have a new special teams coordinator. That alone is a little bit terrifying—just ask the 49ers.
There is one question that determines the placement of this game: Will Robert Griffin III be healthy and ready to play by Week 3?
If so, the Lions will get their first experience with the phenom. If not, they'll get to go up against local product Kirk Cousins of Michigan State. According to acclaimed surgeon Dr. James Andrews, Griffin's recovery is going especially well, and also, Griffin is superhuman (via USATODAY.com).
So operating under the assumption that Griffin is good to go, this is a good team. This will be the first year the Redskins can truly spend an entire offseason building around their future (current?) face of the franchise, and it only figures to make them—and Griffin himself—better.
The good thing about this matchup is that it comes early in the season. After a successful rookie season, Griffin has a lot of game tape on file, and coaches have an entire offseason to identify and exploit his weaknesses—other than Mike Shanahan's injury related discretion.
Week 3 might be just enough time to identify something that works without giving Griffin and the Redskins enough time to implement a counter strategy.
That or maybe Griffin will just fly around everywhere like he does. We'll see.
Ah, the Packers. The veritable bane of the Lions' existence. As usual, the Packers are likely to pose one of the stiffest tests all year for the Lions.
So of course, it's going to happen on Thanksgiving.
Now, you may remember the last time the Lions and Packers played on Thanksgiving, it wasn't all that long ago and mistakes were made. You may also remember that before that moment, it was 7-0 Packers, and the Lions had just succeeded on the third play of a goal-line stand. After that, things got out of hand.
That and likely divisional supremacy—or perhaps at least relevance—will be on the Lions' minds in this game. The NFL has given the Lions an opportunity to correct one of the franchise's biggest embarrassments on national television in recent years.
Someone just needs to tell Ndamukong Suh to watch his "footwork" in this one whether he's watching or not. If he can do that, maybe just maybe, the Lions can avoid their 10th-straight Thanksgiving loss.
It's a given from now on. It has been 22 years and 22 losses for the Lions in Wisconsin.
The Lions' road losing streak against Green Bay is the longest of its kind against a single team in NFL history.
Until the Lions snap the streak, this game is by default the most difficult on the schedule every year. It's the only major losing streak they haven't been able to snap since they became relevant again. It also helps that the Packers are a particularly good football team.
The only good thing about this game is that it's in early October, so it's unlikely the weather will be as much of a factor as it was in this image. But still, this game is the most difficult by default until the Lions prove otherwise.
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