While next week’s NFL Draft will get far more attention, this week’s release of the NFL schedules will be more important to the success or failure of any NFL team. The schedules are not created equally and with just 16 games there can be great disparities between the various paths to the playoffs. Here is a look at the AFC East and the upcoming schedule for each team.
Buffalo Bills: Buffalo started the 2011 season 3-0, and eventually was still in good position to make the playoffs sitting at 5-2 through Week 8. Buffalo then lost seven in a row before splitting the final two games of the season to finish 6-10. Buffalo was 4-12 in 2010 so it was technically an improved year and the Bills lost the tiebreaker with the Dolphins, also at 6-10, and thus will benefit with a fourth place schedule in 2012. That is a big advantage and despite being in a tough division Buffalo is a team that can take another step forward.
The AFC East plays the NFC West teams and the AFC South teams, a group of teams that featured a combined 56-72 record last season. With the fourth place schedule the Bills also face Cleveland and Kansas City, certainly more desirable options than some of the other teams in those divisions, particularly in the case of the AFC North draw. San Francisco was the best team by far from the NFC West and Houston was by far the best team in the AFC South last year and the Bills will have to play both of those teams on the road in 2012. The home slate for the Bills is pretty favorable however with only one non-division game against a team that had a winning 2011 record, and that is a hardly fearsome 9-7 Tennessee squad.
Buffalo does only play seven home games due to playing Seattle in Toronto in December but that will be a favorable environment for the Bills and they will still get to face the West Coast Seahawks off long travel and on Eastern Time. Buffalo may not have the hot start of last season but there is an opportunity for a favorable finish. They face only two road games in the final seven games and none of those seven games is against a team that had a winning record last year. The Bills made some upgrades in the off-season, notably the big signing of Mario Williams and Buffalo drafts 10th in the draft. The schedule is another reason for optimism as Buffalo has a favorable draw in 2012.
Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins have made some big changes this offseason starting with new head coach Joe Philbin. Much is unsettled however especially at QB and the No. 8 pick in next week’s draft will certainly get a lot of attention. Miami opened the 2011 season 0-7 but most of those losses came in very close games against quality teams. Six of the first seven opponents for the Dolphins finished 8-8 or better and as the schedule softened the Dolphins looked like a much better team, closing the year with wins in seven of the last ten games. Miami’s 2012 schedule won’t be quite as tough out of the gate but it will still be a challenging early season slate for a team in transition.
Like Buffalo, Miami will play at Houston and at San Francisco so they have a less favorable draw among the NFC West and AFC South cards. The Dolphins open the season at Houston in what will be a challenging game and they will face the AFC third place match-ups with Oakland and Cincinnati in the first five weeks. For a team in transition the second half schedule will feature more home games with four of the final six games at home but this is also a franchise that has been a terrible performer in Miami the last decade. Both meetings with New England are in the last five weeks of the season and the Dolphins also have a late season date in San Francisco and the travel required on this schedule is significant.
Given that the bulk of the teams in the AFC South and NFC West were not very good last season and have some serious question marks this season, Miami’s schedule leaves opportunities for an improved record. There are not many favorable road games however so the Dolphins will need to be able to take care of business at home to have a more respectable season. Given the transition year and a tough early season slate it could be another slow start for Miami but this team could start to make a run in November, much like last season.
New England Patriots: After the 16-0 2007 season and the tough loss to the Giants in the Super Bowl, New England responded by going 11-5 in 2008. It was a forgettable season however as Tom Brady was lost due to injury in Week 1 and even at 11-5 the Patriots missed the playoffs. Given the hype of last year’s Super Bowl with the many storylines there could be another letdown season for New England although the schedule will not be overly difficult. New England is the only team in the East that has to play division champions Baltimore and Denver this season and those will certainly be big games on the schedule, both taking place early in the year.
The Patriots will only play seven road games which is certainly a big advantage over the rest of the league. The Patriots will play the Rams in London in late October and the Patriots have historically been outstanding at home in the Bill Belichick era. New England will only play one home game all season against a team that had a winning record last season, facing San Francisco in Week 15 in a Sunday Night game, so another 7-1 home record is very possible. The early season road schedule is challenging however. New England opens the season at Tennessee and then plays at Baltimore in Week 3. New England lost at Buffalo early last season and they will play at Buffalo in Week 4 in what could be a challenging spot with three of the first four games on the road and a possible letdown spot given the magnitude of the Sunday Night game with the Ravens.
There will also be long travel in October with a game in Seattle and then the London game. The Patriots will play on Thanksgiving night at the Jets and then also have prime time games in two of the following three weeks so they will be in the spotlight late in the year. Overall the schedule for New England is pretty favorable and it would be a surprise if New England did not post another strong double-digit win season barring major injuries or incidents.
New York Jets: As if the Jets were not in the spotlight enough the past few years, the addition of Tim Tebow, even if he doesn’t play much, will add to the attention placed on the Big Apple’s ‘other’ team. New York fell to 8-8 last season, losing the final three games of the season to miss the playoffs. Despite the down year the Jets still face a second-place schedule and this year that will mean a very difficult draw. The Jets already will play the entire AFC South but unlike the rest of the East teams the Jets have to play San Diego and Pittsburgh, two talented teams that may have underachieved last season. The Jets get San Diego at home so they at least avoid long travel but playing at Pittsburgh early in the year will be a big challenge.
The Jets play Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Houston in the first five weeks of the season so they will be going against elite defensive teams early in the year which could be problematic for an offense that has often had identity problems and is also just a few bad games away from a major QB controversy circus. If the Jets survive the first few weeks of the season without too many losses or without creating too much chaos the second half schedule is pretty manageable.
After a Week 9 bye week the Jets have road games at Seattle and at St. Louis in back-to-back weeks and while the travel will be significant, neither game is overly threatening. The big Thanksgiving game with the Patriots will follow and getting that short week game at home is a plus. The schedule lines up to allow the Jets a favorable finish to the season with the final five games of the season and eight of the final nine games against teams that failed to make the playoffs last year. The Jets figure to have a tougher schedule than their division counterparts and given that New York was 2-6 on the road last season it could be another difficult year given the high expectations.