A year ago this time, we broke down the 2010 schedule and highlighted the Chiefs as a team with a great schedule and the Dolphins as a team with a bad schedule. So while other factors certainly played into why those players had good or bad seasons, we can say that looking at their respective schedules should have helped Fantasy owners before the season.
We've done this every season, breaking down every team's schedule, finding the positives and negatives and good stretches and bad stretches of games. It's not a perfect science -- we were nervous about players on the Bears, Buccaneers and Patriots last year based on their slates while we didn't mind what was in store for the Chargers, Panthers or Cardinals.
The point of this isn't to figure out breakouts and busts, but rather to give Fantasy owners an idea of who will do well this season and who will struggle based on perceived matchups. Consider this information when you're debating between two players on Draft Day and take the guy who has the better matchups over the course of the season. Remember, using the strength-of-schedule rankings is a waste because it only takes into consideration the season-ending stats from last year and does not take into consideration any rookies that were drafted to these defenses or any free-agent moves that have happened. Note: We will update this as the NFL preseason rolls on.
Also included after the team-by-team breakdown is a cheat sheet that gives you instant bye-week information along with our picks for the teams with good and bad early- and late-season schedules, along with a cumulative listing of the teams with good and bad overall schedules. Print it out and put it in your pocket for Draft Day.
Common opponents: NFC West, AFC East
After a battle with the Jets in Week 1, the Cowboys' schedule is pretty solid for the first three quarters of the season. They only have two NFC East fights in the first 10 weeks and only see three formidable secondaries through the first 11 games. Tony Romo might struggle in Week 1 with Darrelle Revis controlling half of the field, but after that we could see him light up secondaries like the 49ers, Redskins, Lions (those three in a row!), Rams and Seahawks. Moreover, Romo won't see the Giants pass rush that KO'd him last year until -- get this -- Week 14, with a rematch in Week 17. The Eagles matchups in Week 8 and Week 16 (potentially your league's championship week) are ugly, but not enough to make the Cowboys' players a bad choice in Fantasy.
|New York Giants|
The Giants are the only team with nine home games this season thanks to their "road game" at the Jets in Week 16. That helps a little bit, as does their avoidance of the Cowboys until Week 14. But the neatest part of their schedule favors Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs, as they won't face a truly dangerous run defense until the Patriots in Week 9. It gets tougher for them starting that week, but at the very least the rushers should get off to a very hot start.
Philadelphia's offense should spread its wings for the first two weeks (at the Rams, at the Falcons) but will get tested against the Giants in their home opener. Defenses with fast pass rushers tend to challenge Michael Vick the most, and the Giants qualify. Philly will also get tested starting after their Week 7 bye: Though they have a three-game homestand, the first two games are against the Cowboys and Bears. A gimme vs. Arizona (coming across the country for a 1 p.m. ET start time; the Niners also do it in Week 4) helps the cause, but then they play at the Giants, vs. the Pats and then at the Seahawks the following Thursday. They end the year against four 3-4 defenses with strong pass rushers.
The Redskins have a last-place schedule, but they've been playing last-place schedules for three straight years. End result? Last place every time. Moreover, this last-place schedule really doesn't do them any favors. It's non-descript with only one interesting series of games (at Carolina, vs. Buffalo in Toronto, vs. San Francisco at 1 p.m. ET) in the middle of the year. Actually, the Redskins host two West Coast teams at the early Sunday time slot, so that should help a little bit. Otherwise, I think it's safe to call their sked pretty bland with no advantages. It's probably a good thing that the Redskins don't have any high-profile Fantasy options.
Common opponents: NFC South, AFC West
The Bears could start the season 0-3 as they face a triple threat of pass defenses that should be able to hang with them. They might have to lean on Matt Forte, though he's not guaranteed to amass a ton of yards from scrimmage against the Falcons-Saints-Packers trio like he did out of the gate last year against the Lions. The slate improves for three weeks thereafter but that's the only soft spot in Chicago's schedule. Playing against Tampa Bay in London in Week 7, at the Eagles following their bye and then joining the AFC West for four straight weeks in Week 11 won't make things easy.
The Lions are the sleeper darlings for many this season, but their schedule won't help them. Concern No. 1 is keeping Matthew Stafford upright, and they should have a shot at doing that until a four-game stretch begins in Week 4 at Dallas. That's followed up by games against the Bears, 49ers and Falcons -- the silver lining being that they're all at home. Also helping their cause, at least offensively, is that they have 11 dome games with no chances at playing in terrible weather until Week 17 at Green Bay (nice that they have that unbearable matchup in Week 17). We'll also find out just how good the Lions' 'Silver Crush' run defense is very early when they battle LeGarrette Blount, Jamaal Charles and Adrian Peterson in their first three games.
|Green Bay Packers|
Green Bay will have a good shot at defending its crown in the postseason given their schedule. There are some rough patches, including the Saints at home in Week 1, the Bears in Chicago in Week 3, and the Falcons in Atlanta in Week 5, but ultimately the Packers should put up some good stats. They have home games vs. the Rams, Bucs, Raiders and Broncos and a road game at the Panthers -- no one should sweat those matchups. Their season should end well too. We'll get a decent idea of how well-oiled their run game and run defense are after the first 3-5 weeks of the season.
Not that anyone would pass on drafting Adrian Peterson even if he had a tough schedule, but the power rusher should start the season strong, namely Weeks 2 through 5. Weeks 11 through 14 should also result in some good totals. The tougher challenge will fall on the passing game as the Vikes will see good pass defenses nearly every week. There have been questions about the ability of the Minnesota offensive line, and if the unit underperforms with an inexperienced quarterback under center, there could be some tough games ahead for Percy Harvin.
Common opponents: NFC North, AFC South
The Falcons play a league-high 12 games indoors this season, which only will help the play of Matt Ryan (19 of 28 TDs in 10 dome games last year), Michael Turner (8 of 12), Roddy White (eight of 10) and Julio Jones (he's fast, you know). Playing against high-powered offenses like Green Bay, Houston, Indy and Philadelphia will also mean a lot of passing (all of those games are indoors). The Falcons also pick up a three-game homestand (Saints, Titans, Vikings) and get a gimme against the Jaguars at home on a Thursday night the week after playing at Carolina (and they'll play at New Orleans 11 days later). The Falcons have some tough opponents, especially right out of the gate, but are probably delighted to play in dome conditions with some added perks.
Hands down, the Panthers have the most unique schedule in the league. They play six of their eight road games indoors, and they have a three-game homestand wrapped around their bye week only to follow it with three straight road contests. A bonus for the Panthers' run game is matchups against the Cardinals and Jaguars in Weeks 1 and 3 -- if they run well, owners might opt to sell high on the likes of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart early. Not sure if there's much else to like here -- the defense could get run over again as they face some serious offenses this season.
|New Orleans Saints|
The Saints know how challenging it is to play the defending Super Bowl champs at home in Week 1 (they were those champs last year), so they'll have to bring their A-game to Lambeau to kick off the season. But from there, it's not bad at all. The Saints do play three straight road games, but with the Jaguars and Panthers making up two of them, that's not a huge issue. Arguably, only three road games pose challenges (Green Bay, Tampa Bay to end the three-game road trip, at Atlanta) but nearly every home game will be tricky. We'll get a good indicator of the Saints' improved run defense very early on.
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers|
Tampa Bay is this season's unfortunate team with seven home games and nine road trips thanks to its "hosting" of the NFL's game in London in Week 7 vs. Chicago. They'll see prolific offenses in nearly every game before then, meaning that they'll have to put up some points or risk having a losing record after a promising 2010. In fact, that's going to be a theme for the Bucs until late in the year when they have the Titans, two games with the Panthers, and the Jaguars in four of their last five games before finishing up at Atlanta in Week 17. That should make the likes of LeGarrette Blount and Mike Williams pretty easy starts for the stretch run.
Common opponents: NFC East, AFC North
Simply put, the Cardinals got the short end of the scheduling stick. This team has to travel to the East Coast and play at 1 p.m. ET three times, including at Philly for the Kevin Kolb bowl. They get a three-game homestand, but it comes after a three-week road trip. The Cardinals also play the Steelers and Ravens in back-to-back weeks (Weeks 7 and 8), more than likely quelling any hopes of big stats from rookie rusher Ryan Williams. If there's any good news, it's that their schedule begins fairly light and ends even nicer, which should result in at least a prime beginning and end for Larry Fitzgerald.
|San Francisco 49ers|
There are no breaks for Jim Harbaugh in his first season. If you thought the Cardinals had it bad traveling east and playing at 1 p.m. ET three times in 2011, the Niners not only have the same fate but also have to do it in back-to-back weeks (Weeks 3 and 4, at Cincinnati, at Philadelphia). They'll also come back East again on Thanksgiving night for a tilt at Baltimore on a short week. Luckily, Harbaugh plays in a pretty easy division, and he won't play any divisional road games until very late in the year, but that's a double-edged sword. The Niners' last four games are division road tilts with a homer vs. the vaunted Steelers mixed in on Week 15. The schedule will make it tricky to trust the Niners, but most will start Frank Gore and Vernon Davis weekly regardless of the matchup.
|St. Louis Rams|
Trying to find a soft spot in the Rams' first seven games is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. There's a home game against the Redskins in Week 4, but that might be it. Moreover, St. Louis has four road games in five weeks with a home game against the Saints wedged in-between. Not fun. The second half of the Rams' schedule is much nicer, save for a Week 16 game at Pittsburgh that will probably make Steven Jackson owners cringe during prime Fantasy postseason time. The Rams' division is nothing to fear but they play one divisional opponent in their first nine games. We might have to wait to see the best from Sam Bradford and the Rams' new offense.
Because the Seahawks won their division, they got a first-place schedule, which means a home game vs. Atlanta (the Falcons torched them last year) and a road game at Chicago (they got spanked in the playoffs there in '10). And like their divisional brethren, the Seahawks have three 1 p.m. ET starts on the road, including Week 2 in Pittsburgh and Week 5 at the Giants. Brutal. They did land a three-game homestand starting in Week 12 (it includes the Eagles), but the rest of the slate has tough matchups mixed in with games they can potentially take down. Luckily, no Seahawks players are considered premier Fantasy options, so owners should feel comfortable mixing and matching them.
Common opponents: AFC West, NFC East
Buffalo got stuck with a horrid seven-game stretch this year, starting in Week 5 vs. the Eagles and ending at the Jets in Week 12. In that span they play two games in Buffalo and face the Cowboys, Dolphins, Redskins (in Toronto) and Jets twice. Sure, the Bills have two stretches where they have three home games in four weeks, but the meat of the season will be spent away from the Ralph. Keep that in mind when you check out Fred Jackson on Draft Day. The news isn't much better for Steve Johnson, who will see his fair share of quality cornerbacks this season (the list is too long to name but it obviously includes two games against Darrelle Revis). Bottom line: The Bills didn't get any breaks in the schedule.
Owners of Brandon Marshall and Daniel Thomas are likely going to have to play the matchups all season (probably moreso with Thomas than Marshall). The good news is that the Dolphins have teams like the Texans and Browns early on, and they get away with stuffing a home game against the Jets in Week 17. The bad news is that they still have another game at the Jets after their bye and actually play consecutive road games in New York. They also are the poor team heading to Dallas on Thanksgiving, but at least that game is between a homer vs. Buffalo and hosting the cross-country Raiders at 1 p.m. ET. It's not a terrible schedule, but it is ugly late in the year.
|New England Patriots|
If the Patriots are going to return to the playoffs this season, they'll have earned it. Their early-season and late-season schedules are sweet, but in-between they'll face five playoff teams from last season as part of a difficult eight-game stretch. The Pats will play road games at Pittsburgh, at the Jets and at Philadelphia. Granted, they dismantled the Steelers last year, but the Jets dismantled the Pats last January and gave defensive coordinators a lot to think about. Tom Brady will have his hands full matching up against the Eagles' deep secondary in Week 12. The juicy silver lining: Their final four games are very appealing and should net some big stat totals -- assuming that the Pats are not resting any stars.
|New York Jets|
Thanks to an opening-week throwdown with the Cowboys and a honeybadger-nasty three-game road test, the Jets' early season schedule stinks compared to their late-season slate. That hurts the potential of Shonn Greene early on, though two of his first five games come vs. the Jaguars and at the Raiders. At least they'll have plenty of time to get ready for both matchups against the Bills. They play in Buffalo after a bye week (and in the middle of a tough part of the Bills' schedule) and then host them a week after playing at Denver on a Thursday.
Common opponents: AFC South, NFC West
Opening the season against the Steelers is never easy, but save for two other matchups the rest of the way (including a rematch with the Steelers), the Ravens have one of the best schedules in football. Ray Rice will love that after taking on Pittsburgh twice and the Jets once, the toughest run defense he'll have left to face will conceivably be the Chargers in Week 15 or the 49ers at home on Thanksgiving night. The schedule is nearly as favorable for Joe Flacco and the Baltimore passing game, including a three-week span where they play the Texans, Jaguars and Cardinals (in Baltimore at 1 p.m. ET). Bump up your Ravens players on your rank lists.
If Andy Dalton is the Bengals' starting quarterback, he'll luck out with a nice slate. Ditto for Cedric Benson. Save for the divisional brouhahas against the Steelers and Ravens, there's not too much to fear. They do play the Steelers twice and the Ravens once over a four week span (Weeks 10-13), but the rest of the schedule is really not bad. They start off the year with a favorable run and end the season with Baltimore at home, saving a bad matchup for owners that don't play into Week 17.
Like their divisional brethren, the Browns have a good schedule. In fact, it's a borderline breeze until Week 13 when they play the Steelers and Ravens twice each within a five-week span. In fact, the poor Browns have to play both teams back to back twice! That's the price you pay for having it easy for the first 12 weeks of the year, though. This news is especially good for prospective Peyton Hillis' owners, as he'll take on fair-to-middlin' run defenses like the Colts, Raiders, Seahawks, Texans and Jaguars over the first 11 games.
The only reason why the Steelers' schedule isn't as quite of a gem as the Ravens, Browns and Bengals is because they'll play two first-place teams from last season: The Patriots and Chiefs. The Pats typically give the Steelers trouble, but the Chiefs shouldn't be a hassle even if the game is in Kansas City. Otherwise there's very little to dislike about the dance card of the Black & Gold. Playing two NFC West teams and Cleveland twice in the last four weeks (including once in Week 17) is a gift from Roger Goodell.
Common opponents: AFC North, NFC South
The second half of Houston's schedule is better than the first half, but it shouldn't be too tough for the offense to have their typical numbers in 2011. The stretch for Andre Johnson starting in Week 7 through the rest of the way should be huge, particularly the end. Arian Foster will find himself in a tough stretch from Weeks 3 through 6, excluding Week 5 vs. Oakland. The Texans defense will have its hands full as usual, and since expectations are that they'll struggle again, it will force Matt Schaub to throw a bunch. Again, pretty much what we've come to expect from the Texans over the last couple of years, and that's a good thing.
Peyton Manning & Co. have a much lighter load this year compared to 2010, so hopefully their stats will reflect that. There isn't a secondary on the schedule that should give Manning trouble other than potentially the Patriots and Ravens in consecutive road games in Weeks 13 and 14. And the pass rushes they'll go up against (the aforementioned teams plus the Steelers in Week 3) aren't troubling, either. Only injuries should slow down Indy's passing game, and even its run game should have the chance at being productive. One note: The meat of their schedule begins with a three-game road trip followed by spending the entire month of November in Indianapolis (three games), then the gauntlet of New England and Baltimore. With division games the final three weeks of the season, the Colts should finish strong while chasing a playoff berth.
The Jaguars have the Jets in New York in Week 2, the Saints in Week 4, back-to-back games against the Steelers and Ravens in Weeks 6 and 7 and a short-week game at Atlanta in Week 15. Other than that, it's not all that bad for Jacksonville as they have some opponents they can hang with (including their divisional rivals) and a three-game homestand. If you don't end up with Maurice Jones-Drew on your Fantasy team and he struggles early on this season, try to buy low on him before his first matchup at Houston in Week 8, because he should tear it up thereafter based on his schedule.
Tons to like about the Titans' schedule, especially if you're rooting for Chris Johnson. The matchups against the Steelers and Ravens within the first five weeks will deliver some lumps (he's never done very well against either defense) but he's home free after that, a big reason why I like him as the No. 1 overall pick in drafts this summer. If Kenny Britt is suspended for the first four games of the season he'll probably benefit since he won't have to see the Ravens or Broncos secondaries, and he'll still have all of his matchups against Houston and Indianapolis and one more against the Jaguars. As a team, the Titans also luck out with a three-game homestand against the Texans, Colts and Bengals in the middle of the season.
Common opponents: AFC East, NFC North
What do we know about John Fox's teams? They're conservative offensively and they'll smack you defensively. Offensively, the schedule is fine until the end of the year when they host the Bears, Patriots, play at Buffalo and end the season with the Chiefs at home. On the other side of the ball, the Broncos' run defense must be stout or else they'll get ripped up by some of the best backs in football. If that's the case then Kyle Orton might have to throw from behind a little more than Fox would normally like. Aside from matchups at Green Bay and against the Jets, it's not a horrible slate for Brandon Lloyd, who not only broke out last season but scored in each game against the Chargers' solid secondary.
|Kansas City Chiefs|
It's really hard not to love Jamaal Charles' first nine games. After that it gets a little rough when he takes on the Patriots in New England, the Steelers at home and then is at Chicago and at the Jets before a home date for the Packers. That's pretty rough, but Charles should still be a decent Fantasy starter then and a no-brainer before and after that. In general the Chiefs' schedule is pretty slick -- they even landed a three-game set at Arrowhead against the Chargers, Dolphins and Broncos. If they win enough games early then they should survive that terrible stretch starting in Week 11.
Save for a two-game homestand against the Jets and Patriots, the Raiders' schedule is pretty good. Sure, they still have dates vs. the Bears and at the Packers, but thanks to a combination of their shaky division and remaining schedule, there's actually some room for optimism. They also own a trio of consecutive home games with a bye in between that keeps them in Cali for most of October and a little bit of November. Let's just put it this way: There's nothing on here to make Fantasy owners nervous about drafting Darren McFadden or Zach Miller ... other than the issues they have already.
|San Diego Chargers|
The Chargers are the only team in the AFC West with a three-game road trek, and it includes a 1 p.m. doozy at the Jets (the LaDainian Tomlinson Bowl). That hurts, as does a Week 2 game at the Patriots. In fact, the Chargers are the only non-AFC East team to play at the Patriots and at the Jets in 2011 (the Giants do technically but don't count since they share a stadium with the Jets). San Diego also has the honor of hosting the Ravens in Week 15 -- a tough time to count on Ryan Mathews. For the divisional matchups and nice home games they have, along with the sweet finish excluding that Ravens game, the Chargers' skill-position players should meet expectations.
Quick-glance bye-week guide
Here's a quick Fantasy tip: Drafting players with late bye weeks (highlighted in bold) saves you from turning over parts of your roster until later on in the year. This is especially helpful for kickers and DSTs -- value those positions a little more than others because you won't have to replace them for a while. Also, drafting too many players with the same bye week, regardless of when it is, usually forces a lot of roster turnover and makes for tough decisions. Be sure to keep track of the bye weeks when scouting players for Draft Day.
|Week 5 byes:||Week 6 byes:||Week 7 byes:||Week 8 byes:||Week 9 byes:||Week 10 byes:||Week 11 byes:|
This is our ranking of teams with the best and worst first four-week and last four-week schedules, including Week 17. Please note that it is very difficult to properly gauge the strength/weakness of a team's final four-week schedule because of changes and injuries that impact teams annually; early-season schedules are typically easier to forecast. We do not recommend drafting anyone solely based on how their late-season schedule looks in the summer.
|Best first four||Worst first four||Best last four||Worst last four|
|Best overall schedules||Worst overall schedules|
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