- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Parity, that boring word used in NFL circles to give each team hope, hit home in 2006.
Eight teams finished 8-8. Nine teams lost 10 or more games, and only eight won 10 or more games. For those, like me, who closely follow the schedule for trends, parity eliminates the extreme in studying the 2007 schedule. With so many teams between seven and nine wins, you don't have schedules that are ridiculously hard or ridiculously easy.
Nevertheless, the schedule is everything in previewing a season. Today's mission is identifying five teams that could be pegged as surprises. Those would be teams vaulting from double-digit losses and having the chance to improve by three or four games.
For any team to make a significant jump, it needs the luck of the easy schedule. Since 1997, 62 teams made four-game improvements from the previous season. It's no coincidence that 51 of those teams played sub-.500 schedules.
On the flip side, only 10 teams had four-game improvements playing schedules tougher than .500. Dick Vermeil always said teams can win Super Bowls going .500 against the winning teams, but the key is not playing too many of them. Injuries, mental and emotional fatigue, and tension plague teams playing the tough schedules.
Often, the easy schedules dictate playoff seeding. Last season, the Bears had a .430 schedule and had the top seed in the NFC. The Chargers played a .457 schedule and had a No. 1 seed in the AFC.
The Chargers had a tough schedule in 2005, playing opponents with an impossible .559 winning percentage. Last season, their .457 schedule set up a five-game improvement.
So which are the five teams to watch this year?
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: No one is jumping on the Bucs' bandwagon after their disappointing 4-12 season. The pressure is on Jon Gruden to win, but the schedule suggests there should be a three-game improvement. The Bucs played a .535 schedule with a rookie quarterback, Bruce Gradkowski, who will be forgotten as fast as Kyle Orton was after the 2005 season. They play a .473 schedule this season, based on last year's records, and Gruden didn't want to take any chances. He signed Jeff Garcia to be the quarterback.
Another sign of hope for the Bucs to be a sleeper team is what Garcia should do to help the running game. He usually has worked well with balanced offenses. In Garcia's fourplus seasons as a starter in San Francisco, his lead back averaged more than 1,000 yards and 49.6 receptions. With Cadillac Williams struggling last year, the Bucs finished 28th. Coaches know the easiest way to get to eight or nine wins is to run the ball. A big jump in the running game along with strong play from Garcia could make the Bucs one of the main sleeper teams in 2007.
2. Arizona Cardinals: This one is pretty easy. Coming off a 5-11 season, the Cardinals play the league's easiest schedule at .461. Matt Leinart enters his first full season as a starting quarterback, and he gained a lot of experience as a rookie running Dennis Green's offense. Ken Whisenhunt brought in Russ Grimm to handle the Cardinals' running game. Even with the talent of Edgerrin James, the Cardinals were the third-worst running team in 2006.
The Cardinals' 2006 schedule wasn't exactly impossible. Their opponents totaled a .500 record. The switch to a 3-4 defense should help the Cardinals' run defense. Leinart will be working with one of the league's most talented three-receiver sets. It sets up one of the most anticipated Cardinals seasons in years.
3. San Francisco 49ers: This might have more to do with the 49ers' offseason than the schedule, but the 49ers have to be one of the sleeper teams to watch. They made one of the key free-agent signings, adding Nate Clements at cornerback. They finally started working on new starters to improve the quality of their 3-4 defense. The offense should be significantly better with Darrell Jackson and Ashley Lelie added to the receiving corps. And the schedule is quite favorable. Based on last year's records, the 49ers face a .469 schedule, the third-easiest in the conference, behind only those of the Cardinals and Bears.
However, the schedule probably will end up tougher than expected. The NFC West is the tightest, most competitive division in football. The 49ers have a tough schedule against the AFC North. The Minnesota Vikings, a third-place team drawn from the 49ers' finish of last season, might be tougher than their 6-10 record. Even if San Francisco's schedule gets seven games tougher, though, the 49ers still will be playing a sub-.500 schedule, making them a candidate for a two- or three-game jump.
4. Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins have all the makings of a team that should make a dramatic jump. Their .512 schedule should play out a little easier than expected. Technically, the Dolphins play the easiest schedule in the AFC East, and the tougher schedules played by the Patriots, Jets and Bills should drag down the overall record of their opponents. Miami's non-common opponents are the Raiders and Texans, both winnable games. Most of the Dolphins' tough games are at home. Just going off schedule adjustments, Miami could end up with a .477 schedule, which could make it one of the easiest in the AFC.
The move to get Trent Green should push the Dolphins over 20 points a game, which puts them in range for a dramatic improvement. RB Ronnie Brown should have his best year working with Cam Cameron. Despite advancing age, the Dolphins ranked No. 8 in overall defense last season. What the Dolphins can't do is get lured into thinking they've totally turned everything around. Next year, they play the AFC West and NFC West, which should make for a tough 2008 season.
5. Detroit Lions: I don't have a strong conviction about this one, but the Lions are coming off a three-win season. The thinking in Detroit is that the addition of Calvin Johnson could be like the addition of Reggie Bush to the New Orleans Saints a year ago. Johnson catches everything and should make Mike Martz's offense roll. Jon Kitna threw for more than 4,000 yards last season even though he had only one true playmaker at receiver (Roy Williams).
The schedule isn't bad. The Lions play a .504 schedule compared with last year's .523. The NFC North is the ripest division for gain because the Bears are the only team in it with a winning record. The schedule alone should add two wins to the Lions' total. That might not meet Kitna's expectations of a 10-win season, but it's a start.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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