Here is a brief spring look at the 2018 NFL schedule in the four AFC divisions:
AFC EAST: As great as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have been, having three consistently dysfunctional franchises in the AFC East every year has been a key piece of the sustained success. As usual, New England’s schedule rates favorably in 2018 starting with playing only two games vs. the league’s top 10 QBR quarterbacks from 2017. The Patriots will play six 2017 playoff teams, but half of those games are against Bills and Chiefs teams breaking in new quarterbacks. New England has light travel this season with zero games in the West and only one road game even in the Central Time Zone. Juggling the night games with five national TV slots is a challenge but not a new issue for the team and New England even gets to play the Packers and Vikings from the NFC North draw at home.
Among the other three teams all with limited projections of success in 2018, the schedule favors the Bills with only two road games vs. 2017 playoff teams while playing a marginal crop of opposing quarterbacks plus four games vs. teams with new head coaches. Buffalo has a relatively tough September ahead with three reasonably difficult road games for the suspect quarterback situation, but the Bills could find some life late in the season.
Miami and New York both have winnable games early on the schedule as both could start out with more success than expected through October with a handful of toss-up type of contests. All four teams have a Week 11 bye and the Jets in particular have a gauntlet down the stretch as any lingering hopes of a surprise run could be squashed in December.
AFC SOUTH: The South produced two playoff teams last season with both the Jaguars and Titans actually winning playoff games including Jacksonville making the AFC Championship. Tennessee wound up making a coaching change, but things look promising for a successful debut of Mike Vrabel. While the other South teams have seven games vs. 2017 playoff teams, the Titans have just five and one of two road games is at Buffalo in early October for a less daunting draw. The Titans also get the Patriots, Texans, and Eagles at home and will give up a road game vs. the Chargers to play in London. By 2017 win percentage, the Titans have the second-weakest schedule in the league as another winning season looks possible in Nashville.
The Jaguars could have tougher time replicating last season’s success with just seven home games plus four games away from home vs. 2017 playoff teams. Home dates with the Patriots and Steelers will be challenging draws and the Jaguars close the season with four of the final six on the road.
Houston will rightly get a lot of support as a candidate for major improvement after a misleading 4-12 season. The Texans looked the part early in the season, but the 2018 prospects will be tested early in the season with a difficult path in the first seven weeks including road games at New England, Tennessee, and Jacksonville. Houston should improve in wins but expectations should be grounded with a tougher division than it used to be and an early season draw that will take a toll.
The Colts are a wild card of a team with a new coaching staff and remaining questions about Andrew Luck. Ultimately, the schedule ahead is one of the more preferable paths in the division if not the AFC as while there are difficult road games the home slate provides one of the most manageable paths in the league.
AFC NORTH: The Pittsburgh Steelers are clear favorites in the AFC North, but Baltimore was a competitive team last season and Cincinnati isn’t far removed from being a playoff threat. The Browns also look like a team with much more potential than the past few seasons but that has certainly been said before.
Pittsburgh has the seventh-weakest schedule in the NFL in terms of 2017 win percentage and the Steelers have four of five games vs. 2017 playoff teams at home. The Steelers look likely to be favored in at least the first nine games of the season before a very difficult six-game stretch late in the season with four difficult road games and home games with the Chargers and Patriots.
Baltimore was on a playoff path most of last season before slipping to 9-7 and the window may have been missed with the Ravens drawing a difficult second place path in 2018. The Ravens play eight 2017 playoff teams with five of those games on the road. The NFC South draw will take a toll on the teams in this division with four competitive teams in that group and the Ravens also will play three straight road games early in the season while playing four of the season’s first six games away from home.
Cincinnati retained Marvin Lewis by surprise for the 2018 season and the Bengals have one of the AFC’s best schedules with a lot of games vs. losing teams from last season and very little travel with only one west coast game. Cincinnati’s first half looks more difficult than the back end but the Bengals are a threat to improve on the decline of the past two seasons.
Cleveland gets four of the six games vs. 2017 playoff teams at home but will only play one game vs. one of the seven teams that changed coaches. Getting that first win will be critical emotionally for the Browns and Cleveland has tough games the first two weeks before a Thursday night national TV game at home with the Jets in Week 3 that will go a long ways towards shaping the season.
AFC WEST: There is a lot to like about the Chargers after a competitive 9-7 season in 2017, but the schedule ahead has hurdles with long travel and four games away from home vs. last season’s playoff field. The Chargers give up a home game for a London date and the final five road games look challenging. In addition to London, the Chargers play in the Eastern Time Zone three times while also drawing three sets of back-to-back road games. A winning season and a playoff push looks possible for the Chargers, but moving to the upper tier of the AFC might be tough with this path.
Oakland and Denver have the preferable schedules in this group of teams with the tougher games at home, as both play three of four games vs. 2017 playoff teams at home. After disappointing losing seasons in 2017 after winning records in 2016, the Raiders and Broncos are both threats to improve with the 2018 schedule and the Week 2 meeting could be decisive in which team has the best prospects for a playoff push. The early season slate looks more favorable for Oakland as Jon Gruden could have a decent first half in his return to the Raiders ahead of a challenging late season run.
The Chiefs will be in the spotlight with a quarterback change following last season’s playoff failure. Kansas City does play only seven true road games this season but they also have some of the toughest road games in the league playing in Pittsburgh, New England, and in Seattle in addition to the division road games. The Chiefs also won’t play a single road game in the Central Time Zone where they reside aside from the Mexico City game. The Chiefs will play all four of the likely preseason AFC division favorites in the first six weeks of the season as matching last season’s hot start looks very unlikely.
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