NFC East, AFC South face tough roads
Of the 12 playoff teams in 2009, nine played one of the 12 easiest schedules in the NFL. The New Orleans Saints, Indianapolis Colts and Minnesota Vikings played in the conference championship games, and their schedules ranked among the six easiest in the league.
While it's too early to forecast the changes in teams that ultimately will turn an already tough schedule harder or easier, here are some base conclusions about the difficulty of the 2010 schedule -- which will be announced Tuesday -- and its impact on playoff teams and those in contention:
• Teams in the AFC South and the NFC East face the toughest roads to the playoffs, mainly because the two divisions are playing each other. Going into the 2009 season, the debate was whether the NFC East or AFC South was the best division in football. Each season since 2006, the AFC South and NFC East have sported division races in which at least three of four teams had .500 records or better and have featured some of the best teams in the league. Because they play each other, all eight teams in the NFC East and AFC South have schedules that rank among the 10 toughest this season.
• The Cincinnati Bengals' AFC North championship could come back to haunt them because their schedule gets at least two games tougher. The Bengals, who in 2009 faced teams with a combined .492 winning percentage, go up against a .539 schedule in 2010. Based on my statistics over the past several seasons, each .02 increase in schedule difficulty often ends up with an extra loss, meaning the Bengals could drop from 10-6 to 8-8 unless they play better in 2010. The Bengals -- who play the AFC East and NFC South, along with San Diego and Indianapolis -- face the league's fourth-hardest schedule.
• The New England Patriots figured to get back to the playoffs last year with the return of Tom Brady, but their road to the playoffs this year will be tougher. The AFC East championship creates tough regular-season matchups against the Indianapolis Colts and the San Diego Chargers. Overall, the Patriots play the sixth-toughest schedule at .531, which is .015 tougher than 2009. That could cause a possible one-game drop from their 11-5 finish. Making things tougher, though, is what has happened in their division. The New York Jets added wide receiver Santonio Holmes, cornerback Antonio Cromartie and running back LaDainian Tomlinson to a team that played in the conference championship game last season. The Miami Dolphins added wide receiver Brandon Marshall and linebacker Karlos Dansby.
2010 Strength of Schedule
A look at the most difficult schedules in 2010 (based on opponents' 2009 record)
|*Indicates team made the 2009 playoffs|
Going beyond the numbers, the team that might have the toughest road to make it back to the playoffs is the Philadelphia Eagles. Part of the problem might be of their own choosing. In an effort to give Kevin Kolb the starting job at quarterback, the Eagles traded Donovan McNabb to the Washington Redskins.
Suddenly, an already tough season becomes perhaps their toughest in more than a decade. Based on last year's records, the Eagles face the league's ninth-toughest schedule, playing teams that were 133-123. That's a .520 schedule that is .036 tougher than last year. Normally, that would make for a two-game drop, taking them from 11-5 to 9-7.
Trading McNabb to Washington makes life even tougher for the Eagles because they have to face him twice. The Redskins were 0-6 in the NFC East last season while the Eagles were 4-2. The Eagles needed those two wins against the Redskins to stay with the Cowboys in the division race.
In a sport in which success is ultimately determined by the success of the starting quarterback, the Eagles made life that much harder or themselves. The NFC East features three elite quarterbacks -- McNabb, Tony Romo and Eli Manning. The Eagles also must face Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Matt Schaub, Matt Ryan, and most likely, Brett Favre. That's 11 games against elite quarterbacks. It will be hard for Kolb to win most of those games in his first season as a starter.
Another team that will be seriously challenged to make the playoffs will be the Houston Texans. Under plenty of pressure last season, the Texans finally made it over the top. The former expansion team had its first winning season and Schaub threw for 4,770 yards and moved into the elite class of quarterbacks.
The Texans and the Titans are tied with the toughest schedules in the league in 2010, a .547 schedule that for Houston is .043 harder than last year. Potentially, that could take the Texans from 9-7 to 7-9, but the key is division play. The Texans went 1-5 in the AFC South and 8-2 against the rest of the league. With games against the tough NFC East and tough nondivision games against the Baltimore Ravens and Jets, it may be hard to go 8-2 in the nondivision games to reach .500.
Normally, there is a 40 to 50 percent turnover of playoff teams. Schedule often dictates that. The Bengals, Eagles and Arizona Cardinals (because of Kurt Warner's retirement) head the list of candidates that could be in jeopardy of not returning to the postseason.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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