The NFL schedule was officially released today and it's time to check out who has the easiest path to Super Bowl XLVI and who has the toughest path in getting to Indy.
This year the toughest schedules reside in the AFC West, where the teams have to play the AFC East and NFC North.
Obviously everyone would like to play the NFC West (except for the Raiders, who went 2-2 against them last season), but that is just not possible.
The lucky divisions that drew the NFL's worst division this year were the NFC East and AFC North.
It's time to look at which teams could struggle with their difficult schedules this season and who could look to improve with a somewhat easier slate.
The Cardinals have the league's easiest schedule in 2011 and they get the easiest start of any team as well: the Panthers at home.
Arizona could use an easy schedule since they don't figure to be much better than the 5-11 that they were last season, especially considering the fact that they don't know who their starting quarterback will be this season.
The Cardinals will have a rough stretch of games when they will face the Steelers, Ravens, Rams and Eagles in a four-week stretch, but the fact that they play in the NFC West and they have some other weak opponents is what got them the spot as the team with the easiest schedule.
The Browns had a very up-and-down season last year and although they played many teams tough, they finished the season with a record of just 5-11.
Luckily for the Browns, things appear to be looking up now as Peyton Hillis is in the finals for the Madden 2012 cover voting and they have what I believe to be the second-easiest schedule in the league.
The Browns get to face the entire NFC West and they get the Seahawks and Rams at home, which is even better news.
Cleveland also gets Miami and Tennessee at home, two teams who will likely have new quarterbacks.
Washington will be looking to turn things around after a rough 2010 season where they endured a lot of turmoil while finishing 6-10.
The Skins are yet another lucky team who will get to see all four members of the NFC West this year, and they will also face Buffalo and Carolina.
Washington will have a chance to win some games this season, but the biggest question now is who will their quarterback be?
I think it would be fair to say that the Cowboys didn't quite live up to expectations in 2010, but there should be no excuses this year with the relatively easy schedule they have.
That pesky NFC West is on the Cowboys' slate, as well as the Lions, Bills and Dolphins. I am aware that the Lions should be better this year, but still, it could be much worse for Dallas.
A very telling matchup should be the Cowboys' opening game at the Jets; a win there could set the tone for a much more productive season.
The Bengals look like a strong candidate to be this season's version of the Redskins, a dysfunctional team that is going to struggle to win.
They kind of remind me of another team a couple of years ago—oh that's right, the Cincinnati Bengals.
The "Bungles" may make a return to the league this year, and if they do it will be a long season for whoever is playing quarterback in Cincy.
Luckily the Bengals open the season with a couple of very winnable games in the first four weeks against the Broncos and Bills, although I'm not sure they can beat Buffalo the way things appear to be headed.
The Titans will have a new coach and likely a new quarterback this season, but Chris Johnson will still be carrying the rock and that might be enough to keep this team competitive.
Their schedule should also help as they get to face some cellar-dwellers such as the Broncos, Panthers, Bills and Browns.
Either way, Johnson figures to have a strong season with the many weak run defenses that the Titans will see this season.
I don't know if you've heard, but the Niners play in the NFC West. However, I'm sure you have heard that the NFC West is a terrible division. I'm not sure I can hammer that point home enough times in this article.
The state of Ohio doesn't appear to be all that strong either, and the Niners get to face both the Browns and Bengals this year.
The Niners have a schedule that could go either way with teams like the Cowboys, Lions and Redskins on their slate who could show improvement or continue to struggle in 2011.
The Bills were a much better team than their record showed last year, maybe not from an overall talent standpoint, but they played hard and they kept a lot of games close until the end.
Buffalo has a pretty tough start to the season as they have to go to Arrowhead to take on the Chiefs, but they took Kansas City to overtime in that very same building last year.
They certainly do not have an easy schedule but they do have at least eight winnable games as things stand now, and I think many Buffalo fans would be happy with that kind of improvement.
If there is a team that deserves an easy schedule, it's the Carolina Panthers.
The Panthers are not going to be good in 2011, I don't care who the quarterback is, and yes that includes Cam Newton.
As of now Carolina's schedule doesn't look too tough; they do have five of their first eight games at home and they will face plenty of other teams with quarterback questions like the Cards, Vikings, Skins and Titans.
The problem for the Panthers is that they also play five of their last eight games on the road and they finish with a brutal stretch of Indy, Tampa Bay twice, Atlanta, Houston and New Orleans.
Good luck with that.
Brett Favre is NOT coming back.
OK now that we've got that out of the way, let's continue.
The Vikings will have a new quarterback under center this year (I'm thinking Jake Locker) and some very winnable games with contests against the Cardinals, Panthers and Broncos on their schedule.
Since we are on the topic of quarterbacks, Chad Henne is not a good one.
The Dolphins have the unfortunate task of facing the Jets and Patriots a total of four times each season and with the Bills improving, they may have some work to do to avoid the AFC East cellar.
Games against the Browns, Redskins and Broncos could go a long way to helping them stay in the third spot, but the Dolphins' schedule will not be easy by any means.
The fate of the Lions' season could hinge on the health of quarterback Matthew Stafford and their results against division foes in 2011.
Detroit is a trendy pick to show major improvement this season and there is no doubt that they should be better than the 6-10 team that they were last season, but they are still in one of the NFL's toughest divisions, the NFC North.
Detroit will face Tampa Bay to open the season and with a win they could be on track to becoming this year's version of the improved Buccaneers that we saw last season.
NFC West Champs.
Those first two lines should never be on the same page, yet they are here as the Seahawks managed to win their division despite a losing record.
Their reward is a much lower spot in the draft and a first-place schedule. Seattle is a very tough place to play, but the Seahawks are a bad road team and they have some tough ones this season with the Steelers and Cowboys on tap.
Contrary to anything you may have seen on Twitter, Jay Cutler is still the quarterback of the Chicago Bears.
As shocking as that may be to some, the 2011 season will go on in the Windy City (provided there is a 2011 season) and when it does the Bears will be in for a rough start.
I'm not sure any team starts with a tougher stretch than the Bears—they get Atlanta, New Orleans and Green Bay to start the year.
Just be patient Bears fans, Week 4 will be here soon (the Panthers come to town).
Contrary to the things that you have may have read on this very website written by Raiders fans, the Raiders did not win the Super Bowl last season.
Oakland was better last year, much better, but don't let them fool you. Jason Campbell is still their quarterback after all, and as long as that is the case I'm confident in the Raiders' ability to be mediocre.
Road games at Denver and Buffalo are an excellent way to feel good about yourself as the season starts, especially considering the fact that the Jets and Pats come to town in Weeks 3 and 4.
Tampa Bay was a major surprise in 2010 as they finished the season with a record of 10-6, and despite what Raheem Morris may have told you, the Bucs were not the best team in the NFC.
Just like the Raiders, the Bucs are definitely moving in the right direction and they have an even more competent signal-caller than the Silver and Black in Josh Freeman.
The bad news for Freeman and the Bucs is that they have to play the Falcons and Saints twice; the good news is that they also get to see the Panthers twice!
This is going to be Houston's year.
That is a phrase from "things you won't hear leading up to the 2011 season," because we have been hearing that for the past few years and for all the promise, it still hasn't happened.
As long as Peyton is manning the ship in Indy, the Texans will be playing second fiddle.
Houston opens the season at Indy and they also have the Saints and Steelers in the first four weeks. That schedule doesn't exactly inspire a lot of confidence for a strong start to the season that the Texans could definitely use.
Sam Bradford had about as good of a rookie season as Rams fans could have hoped for, but now they have to hope that he won't fall victim to the sophomore slump.
A record of 8-8 should give the Rams a good shot of winning the NFL's worst division this season, and they have a schedule that makes that possible.
St. Louis will need to take care of business in their own division while winning games against opponents like the Redskins, Browns and Bengals.
The Ravens defense just keeps chugging along but you have to figure that Ray Lewis will slow down sometime soon.
Will this be the year?
The Ravens should be in another fight to the finish with the Steelers for the AFC North crown, and the two teams will meet in Week 1 in Baltimore.
After that the Ravens have plenty of winnable games with opponents such as the Rams, Jags and Cards. They also finish the season with the two Ohio teams who may have already mailed it in at that point in the year.
I have a feeling that we will really get a good idea what Tim Tebow is made of this year even if Kyle Orton is the stater at the beginning of the season.
The Broncos open the season at home on Monday Night Football against the Raiders in a game that the Mile High faithful will undoubtedly be fired up for. If they do pull the upset like the Chiefs did last year against the Chargers to start the season, it could go a long way to give Denver fans some hope, but it shouldn't net the same result of a division title.
Tebow should see more time as the season wears on and with games against the Bears, Patriots and Chiefs in the final four weeks, he will definitely be battle-tested.
The Steelers may have fallen short in last season's Super Bowl but they will definitely be back in the hunt again this season.
Pittsburgh opens the season in a hostile environment at the Ravens, but things will be relatively easy after that with only the Colts looming as a potentially tough matchup until their Week 8 showdown with the Pats.
The Steelers will finish the season with a fairly manageable slate that includes the Niners, Rams and Browns twice.
The Eagles had a strong 2010 campaign with Michael Vick at the helm and the 2011 season should be another good one for Philly despite a fairly tough schedule.
Philadelphia opens the season with road games at the Rams and Falcons before they host the Giants and Niners in Weeks 3 and 4.
Most of the Eagles' toughest games will take place at home, with the Pats coming to town in Week 12, but they will also have to travel across the country to face the hostile Qwest Field crowd in Seattle just four days later.
The Saints had a very disappointing end to their 2010 season as they were unable to defend their Super Bowl crown or the Seahawks receivers (and that Marshawn Lynch guy).
This season they will start with a Thursday night game at Lambeau against this season's defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers.
On a positive note for the Saints, the tundra most likely won't be frozen in early September, but still not exactly the easiest way to open the season for either team.
Their regular season will come to a close with a home game against the Panthers, which means if they can only hold off the rest of the division until January 1, I like the Saints' chances.
There are many words to describe Eli Manning's 2010 season: terrible, horrendous, awful, atrocious and dreadful. My thesaurus just tapped out but I think you get the idea—he was bad.
The Giants will open the new campaign with a winnable road game at Washington and a home game against the Rams.
Week 3 is where things will get interesting as the Giants will likely have their calendars circled for a road contest against the Eagles. They might want to have DeSean Jackson circled as well, or...
JUST KICK IT OUT OF BOUNDS!
We'll stay at New Meadowlands for the eighth-toughest schedule in the league this season, the New York Jets.
The Jets open the year with the Cowboys in a game that is sure to shut down the Twittersphere, and many other forms of media for that matter.
The Jets have plenty of winnable games on their schedule but they also have a number of tough matchups. They will face the Pats twice as well as the Chargers, Chiefs and Ravens.
Jacksonville was a Hail Mary away from a losing record last season, which makes us wonder, how good could they have been had Gus Johnson called every game they played last year?
The Jags have plenty of tough games on their schedule this season but they also have a very manageable start to the season with the Titans, Jets and Panthers to start the year, which puts them in a good position to begin 2-1.
Jacksonville finishes the season with a rough stretch of games against the Chargers, Bucs, Falcons, Titans and Colts.
Maybe this will be the year that the Colts experience a slide and miss out on the playoffs.
Yeah, I doubt it too.
It never seems to matter who is on the Colts' schedule, they always seem to finish the season with more wins than losses and in the playoffs.
This year Manning and Co. have a pretty rough schedule that features games against the tough AFC North and NFC South, as well as contests against the Pats and Chiefs.
The defending Super Bowl champs have a tough schedule that begins with a home game to kick off the NFL season against the Saints.
Green Bay has only two games that should give them little trouble on paper and those are against the Panthers and Broncos in Weeks 2 and 4.
The Packers will have an even bigger target on their back than usual this season, so they will have their work cut out for them in their quest to repeat.
The Falcons have the NFC's toughest schedule this season with games against the Eagles, Packers and Colts outside of their division.
They also have to go to Seattle, which is rarely easy, and they will face division foes Tampa Bay and New Orleans twice.
The two contests against Carolina are the only gimmes on the Falcons' schedule this season.
The Patriots are built to beat anyone and everyone, so a tough schedule will not phase them. New England is used to playing a first-place schedule and this season they have tough road games at the Raiders, Steelers, Jets and Eagles.
They also have some intriguing home games against the Colts and Chiefs as Matt Cassel will make his return to Foxborough.
The four games against the Bills and Dolphins should be wins for the Pats, as should the Redskins and Broncos games, but the rest of the New England schedule will be very difficult to navigate.
The Chargers finished the AFC West in second place last season but they have a first-place type of schedule.
San Diego opens the season against the Vikings, and later in the season they will face the Pats, Jets, Packers and Ravens.
The Chargers will have to beat plenty of 2010 playoff teams if they are to make the 2011 playoffs.
It's true that I am a Chiefs fan so you can call me a homer if you want, but this is not the kind of list that I want my team to be No. 1 on.
The Chiefs were criticized by many (you guessed it, Raiders fans) for their schedule last season and although they struggled mightily in their final two games of the year, they appear to be headed in the right direction.
No one can complain about the Chiefs' schedule this season as they will face the Colts, Pats, Steelers, Bears, Jets and Packers, with the latter five teams coming in a five-week span.
I expect the Chiefs to remain competitive this year even if they do take a small step back due to the league's toughest schedule.