- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Coaches babble the cliché "play the hand you're dealt" almost as often as they give the "one game at a time" speech.
It's the mission of coaches to make sure players focus on the upcoming game. Players can't get lost in the big picture. What coaches of teams playing easy schedules don't want is for their players to become overconfident and complacent. On the flip side, they don't want players nervous and apprehensive about tough schedules.
Regardless of the cliché, one axiom is clear: Schedule means everything in the NFL. Former Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil was one of the few who realized that reality. Each year, he had statisticians compile detailed reports on schedules. His theory was simple. A team can win the Super Bowl going .500 against winning teams, the key is to not having to play a lot of winning teams.
The easy schedule trend has been around for years, but it really became clear in the mid 1990s when the NFL adopted the salary cap, preventing coaches from stockpiling an all-star team of backups. Playing too many winning teams has a negative impact on more than just a team's record. Those games are physical, and injuries will take a toll on the health of the roster. Plus, the mental drain of going against good teams week after week wears out a club.
Vermeil understood that a tough schedule can grind down a team and prevent it from making the playoffs. Teams have to play the hands they're dealt. But sometimes, they're dealt bad hands.
Go back to the San Diego Chargers last season. Drew Brees got hot in 2004 and Marty Schottenheimer and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips put together one of the league's best defenses. The result: The Chargers went from 4-12 in 2003 to 12-4 and won the AFC West. But last season, they had the league's toughest schedule -- playing teams with a .559 winning percentage -- and dropped to 9-7. They played 11 games against teams that finished with winning records, going 5-6 in those games.
They were dealt a bad hand.
The Bengals and the Giants appear to have been dealt the bad hands this season. While you obviously can't say how difficult a team's schedule will actually end up being, it's pretty easy to see that the Bengals and Giants face a tough road, going up against teams with a combined 2005 record of 139-117 (.543 winning percentage).
The Bengals went 11-5 last season against an easy schedule (opponents' combined .477 winning percentage). The Bengals went 3-4 against winning teams. By winning the AFC North, they have to face two other division winners -- the Patriots and the Colts -- along with eight games against two tough divisions: the AFC West and NFC North. Along with their two games against the Steelers and two games against the improved Ravens, the Bengals face playoff-caliber teams in 12 of 16 games.
The Giants play 11 games against teams that were .500 or better in 2005, including an opening stretch that sees them play six of their first seven games against teams that are .500 or better. New York might find itself in a hole that's too big to dig out of.
Since going to the four-team, eight-division format, the NFL has a rotating schedule that has division teams facing 12 common opponents. In figuring out seedings for the ESPN.com Power Rankings, I have the league broken into three sections. Nine teams in each conference are considered in my opinion to be playoff teams: four in the NFC East (Giants, Cowboys, Eagles, Redskins), three each in the NFC South (Panthers, Bucs, Falcons) and AFC North (Steelers, Bengals, Ravens), two in the AFC South (Colts, Jaguars), AFC East (Patriots, Dolphins) and AFC West (Broncos, Chargers) and one in the NFC West (Seahawks) and NFC North (Bears).
The next group of four teams has a chance: the Chiefs, Vikings, Cardinals and Rams.
That leaves a bottom 10 that should still be in the bottom 10 at the end of year. The Raiders and Texans might inch their way out of that group, but those 10 teams are facing another year of losing.
If those forecasts come true, the biggest beneficiaries of easy schedules are the teams that play in the NFC West and NFC North. Because those two divisions play each other, they have a significant edge. It's the reason the Bears have the easiest schedule right now, facing teams with a 114-142 record (.445 percentage) last season. The Seahawks have the third-easiest schedule at 117-139 (.457). The winners of those divisions should be the top two seeds in the NFC.
Here are a few observations from this season's schedule:
1. The Giants are the Chargers of 2006. Their schedule is impossible. In his first full season as the starting quarterback, Eli Manning was very good, managing an offense that scored 26 points a game. But this year will be tough. From the start of the season to Nov. 20, the only easy defense he faces -- if you want to call it easy -- is the Texans' on Nov. 5. Other than that, the Giants face six top-11 defenses, and two other good defenses (Atlanta and Philadelphia) that have the talent to be in the top 10.
2. Coming off his knee surgery, Carson Palmer will have to fight hard for the Bengals not to get off to a 1-3 start against the Chiefs, Browns, Steelers and Patriots. Then the Bengals take a bye and start on a five-game stretch against three tough NFC South teams (the Bucs, Panthers and Falcons) followed by the Ravens and Chargers.
3. The winner of the NFC East is probably doomed to a third or fourth seed at best. The East has four teams that are legitimate playoff teams. The Giants, Redskins and Eagles have three of the 12 toughest schedules in the league. Since 1997, no team has won more than 11 games against opponents with a winning percentage of .518 or better. The Cowboys have a slightly easier schedule than the rest of the division because of games against the Cardinals and Lions.
4. How important is an easy schedule? Only two teams -- the Patriots (.508 opposing winning percentage) and Redskins (.516) -- made the playoffs last year facing opponents with a combined winning record. Since 1997, the only team facing a winning schedule that had a better seed than fourth was the 2002 Raiders team that lost to the Bucs in the Super Bowl.
5. After being a big schedule loser last year, the Chargers could be the big winner this year. The opposition's 2005 winning percentage drops from .559 to .488. That compares well to their biggest rivals in the AFC West, the Broncos (.512) and the Chiefs (.527). The Chargers get the break of playing the Titans and Bills while the Broncos play the Colts and Patriots and the Chiefs play the Jaguars and Dolphins.
6. The key to any schedule is having a manageable division. The Eagles benefited for years from a weak NFC East. They went to four consecutive NFC title games and five trips to the playoffs from 2000 to 2004 with the benefit of easy schedules. The Bears and Seahawks will continue to have a huge edge until the other teams in their divisions catch up to them.
7. Of the four teams slightly behind the nine elite teams in each conference, the Cardinals, Rams and Vikings have the best chance to make a run because of their schedules. The Chiefs face a difficult task, playing 10 games against winning teams.
8. It's still fascinating how some division races are set via the schedule. The Colts exhaust their three AFC South home games by Oct. 8. If they could beat the Giants in the opening week and win against the Texans, Jaguars and Titans to get off to a 5-0 start, they could go into the Oct. 15 bye week with a two- or three-game lead over the Jaguars. The Jaguars open against Dallas, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and the Redskins. Even if they go 2-2, they could be two games behind the Colts after the first month.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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