The San Francisco 49ers have a daunting 2013 schedule.
When ranking the toughest games on the schedule, I considered location, the opponent's 2012 record and point differential and its offseason improvement.
The following teams will be awfully tough to beat.
Week 1 vs. Green Bay
San Francisco beat Green Bay twice last year, including a 45-31 shellacking in the playoffs. Colin Kaepernick passed for 263 yards, ran for 181 more and had four total touchdowns in the win.
Packers fans would tell you Green Bay improved their defensive line and running game by drafting defensive lineman Datone Jones and running backs Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin. The question is, will these rookies be ready to make a big impact in Week 1?
Even if they are, the Packers will need to find a way to slow down Kaepernick. Sure, Rodgers could have success throwing in rookie safety Eric Reid's zones, but I'll give the edge to the more balanced team at home.
Week 4 @ St. Louis
The Rams just miss making the list even though they went 1-0-1 against the 49ers in 2012. The loss of Steven Jackson, who had 244 yards from scrimmage in the two games combined, should make St. Louis easier to defend.
However, if Tavon Austin has a monster rookie season, the Rams could give the 49ers problems. Still, I'll give the Niners defense the edge until Sam Bradford shows drastic improvement.
Kaepernick struggled in his start at the Edward Jones Dome last year. That being said, the Niners were in complete control until his fluky botched pitch was returned for a touchdown.
Expect the Niners to play with an edge in this Thursday Night Football showdown.
2012 Record: 12-4
Point differential: Plus-85
Last Meeting vs. SF: 24-21 W (2009 Week 7)
Unlike the two teams in the honorable mention section, the Texans have ideal offensive balance. Arian Foster rushed for 1,424 yards and 15 touchdowns last year, and Matt Schaub threw for 4,008 yards and 22 touchdowns.
The Niners had issues against teams that committed to running the ball last year, so expect Foster to get at least 20 carries in this one.
But the biggest concern when facing Houston is blocking J.J. Watt. He was the best defensive player in the NFL in 2012, amassing 81 tackles and 20.5 sacks from Houston's defensive line.
Though the Niners have one of the best offensive lines in the league, they've struggles at times in the past to shut down elite pass-rushers.
Fortunately for the 49ers, this game will be played at Candlestick Park. San Francisco is 4-0 against the AFC at home in the Jim Harbaugh era, and each was a double-digit victory. The extra three days to prepare should help the 49ers as well.
2012 Record: 7-9
Point Differential: Plus-7
Last Meeting vs. SF: 31-21 L (2012 Week 12)
In 2011, the Saints went 8-0 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Prior to the 2012 season, all hell broke loose from the Bountygate scandal. With Sean Payton suspended for the season, the Saints went to 4-4 at the Superdome, including a loss the 49ers.
Now with Payton and Brees reunited, you can expect the Saints to rediscover their home dominance.
Kaepernick—not unlike most quarterbacks—looked uncomfortable at times playing in domes last year. He led just two touchdown drives against the woeful Saints defense, but the Niners defense picked him up by scoring two interception-return touchdowns.
Brees should be better this year with Payton, and the Saints defense has nowhere to go but up under new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.
Although Houston has a better defense, New Orleans should be tougher because of its superior passing game and rowdy home crowd.
2012 Record: 13-3
Point Differential: Plus-120
Last Meeting vs. SF: 28-24 L (2012-13 NFC Championship Game)
Whereas the Saints were dreadful on defense in 2012, the Falcons were solid.
Atlanta allowed the fifth-fewest points per game in the regular season, and the defense should be even better by Week 16 with talented rookie cornerback Desmond Trufant settled in.
On offense, the Falcons showed they can air it out against the 49ers in the playoffs. Ryan threw for 396 yards and three first-half touchdowns, routinely finding star receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones open.
Add running back Steven Jackson to that attack, and you have yourself a recipe to give the Niners defense fits.
This will be the last regular-season game in Candlestick Park history, on Monday Night Football no less. The crowd should give the Niners a boost, and Michael Crabtree will likely be back for this game.
Atlanta edges the Saints in difficulty because its elite receivers and better defense make up for New Orleans' home-field advantage.
2012 Record: 10-6
Point Differential: Plus-48
Last Meeting vs. SF: 19-11 L (2011 Week 9)
If the Redskins stay healthy in 2013, they are going to be scary good.
Everybody knows how good Robert Griffin III is. He was third in the league in passer rating in 2012, and he rushed for 815 yards and seven touchdowns on top of that.
However, it's the Washington defense, which could also be solid in 2013, that's flying under the radar.
Sack artist Brian Orakpo missed all but two games in 2012. He'll pair with Ryan Kerrigan to form one of the best pass-rushing duos in the league.
Rookies David Amerson, Phillip Thomas and Bacarri Rambo have the talent to make a difference in Washington's secondary.
The 49ers will be coming off of a road game against the Saints. I'm sure they'll appreciate the extra day of rest, as this is a Monday Night Football game, but in turn, you can be sure the Washington crowd will be electric.
As long as RGIII is at full strength for this game, the Redskins represent the toughest matchup for San Francisco's defense in the NFC outside of the team on the next slide.
2012 Record: 11-5
Point Differential: Plus-167
Last Meeting vs. SF: 42-13 W (2012 Week 16)
Justin Smith was hurt, the Seahawks were a win away from a clinching a playoff berth, and it was a Sunday Night Football showdown in Seattle.
Even with those factors giving the 'Hawks an edge in Week 16, no one expected a 42-13 beatdown.
Russell Wilson was nearly flawless, Marshawn Lynch eclipsed 100 yards rushing, and Seattle's defense held the 49ers offense without a touchdown for the first 58 minutes of the game.
In the offseason, the Seahawks added wide receiver Percy Harvin and defensive end Cliff Avril, among others. They should make Seattle even better.
The Week 2 matchup in the Emerald City will be as tough as it gets for San Francisco.
Without Michael Crabtree, Colin Kaepernick will have to find a way to complete passes against stud corners Richard Sherman, Brandon Browner and Antoine Winfield. He'll also have to deal with deafening crowd noise that helped the Seahawks go undefeated at home last year.
The Week 14 matchup should be easier for San Francisco, but don't assume it will be a walk in the park. Although the Seahawks were just 3-5 on the road in the regular season last year, they won at Washington in the playoffs and followed that with a gut-wrenching 30-28 loss in Atlanta.
The Seahawks are arguably the best offensive and defensive team on San Francisco's schedule. There's no question they will be the toughest team to beat in 2013.