- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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For the past three seasons, the NFC West has done as much to help crown NFC playoff teams as the offseason acquisitions of those playoff teams.
NFC West teams have a 35-85 record outside the division over the past three seasons. NFC divisions matched against the NFC West in the scheduling rotation have improved by 2-4 victories per team as a result. Those divisions have emerged with two No. 1 seeds (the Atlanta Falcons and the New York Giants). Two divisions paired against the NFC West have had more than one playoff team in each of the three seasons in question.
Armed with three established quarterbacks (Michael Vick of the Philadelphia Eagles, Eli Manning of the Giants and Tony Romo of the Dallas Cowboys) and pitted against the NFC West, the NFC East is the biggest benefactor of the 2011 schedule.
In addition to the NFC West's poor track record, labor uncertainty could provide NFC East teams even bigger rewards. The Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks are without starting quarterbacks. The San Francisco 49ers are desperate enough to consider bringing back Alex Smith. Plus, NFC West defenses gave up between 20.5 and 27.1 points a game in 2010. NFC West teams were 13-27 against non-division opponents, and none of the division's teams had a winning record last season.
In 2008, the NFC East went 13-3 against the NFC West. The Giants, a No. 1 seed in 2008, and Eagles, a No. 6 seed that year, went 4-0 against the NFC West. The Eagles will be looking for a slight measure of revenge after losing to the Cardinals in the 2008 NFC title game.
The toughest overall schedules in the NFC East belong to the Eagles and Cowboys at a modest .504 (based on opponents' win-loss records from last season). The Giants play a .492 schedule. The Washington Redskins play only six teams with .500 records or better and have the league's fourth-easiest schedule at .473.
• Thanks to the schedule, the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers have great chances of returning to the playoffs as high seeds. Like the NFC East teams, the Ravens and Steelers have the opportunity to go 3-1 or 4-0 against NFC West teams. Over the past three years, there have been four 4-0s and two 3-1s by the top two finishers in divisions playing the NFC West.
The Ravens have a particular advantage this year. Their .457 schedule (117-139) is the second-easiest in football. With the Cincinnati Bengals possibly down with Carson Palmer not expected back after a 4-12 season and the Cleveland Browns in transition, the Ravens have a great chance to go 4-2 or 5-1 in the AFC North. Baltimore's AFC South schedule isn't that tough, either, with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans in transition and the Houston Texans trying to adjust to a 3-4 defense.
The Steelers went 12-4 against a .500 schedule last year and face a .473 campaign this season, tied for the fourth-easiest schedule this season.
• Expect a possible two-game drop-off for the top records in the NFC South. Thanks to the NFC West and a combined 11-1 record against it, the Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers had at least 10-win seasons in '10.
It's not that the 2011 schedule without the NFC West is overly tough, but it may be harder to repeat what the NFC South did a few years back. The Falcons, Saints and Bucs draw the AFC South and NFC North this year. In 2008, when the NFC South last played the NFC North, the South went 13-3, but since then, the Green Bay Packers have become a Super Bowl team, the Chicago Bears have been to a conference title game and the Detroit Lions are improving.
• For the second consecutive season, AFC South teams will be challenged with the schedule, making it tougher for the Indianapolis Colts to get one of the top two seeds. The Colts had a seven-year string of seasons with 12 or more wins snapped in 2010, when they went 10-6. Things won't be easy this season because the Colts -- and all the teams in the AFC South -- face the NFC South and AFC North. Overall, the Colts face a .520 schedule that includes nine teams that had .500 or better records in 2010.
• Don't expect a lot of rising in the AFC West. The San Diego Chargers dominated the AFC West until the Kansas City Chiefs took the division crown last year, but repeating won't be easy for the Chiefs. Last year, they rose to a 10-6 record, thanks in part to playing the league's easiest schedule, a .414 slate that benefited from four games against the NFC West and four games against the AFC South. The Chiefs, the Chargers and the Denver Broncos each have .520 schedules this season, tied for third-toughest in football. The Chiefs face 10 teams that had at least a .500 record in 2010. Last year, they faced four.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
16hEthan Sherwood Strauss