As COVID-19 continues to push sports fans to the brink of insanity, the NFL’s schedule release garnered more attention than ever before. Networks like ESPN and the NFL Network used count-down clocks while several teams’ social media pages promoted the release.
Following the release, fans responded like they do every year. “How do the Ravens have the easiest schedule?” or “How do the Jets have a hard schedule? They were 7-9 last year!”. Those fans should learn that the process of creating a team’s schedule is based on a formula, which means NFL executives have no impact on creating it. For example, while the Ravens are 32nd in strength of schedule, the rest of the AFC North looks like this: Pittsburgh Steelers (31st), Cleveland Browns (29th), and the Cincinnati Bengals (27th).
While it’s all done based on a formula, some teams receive a bad draw and face elite teams in consecutive weeks to start the season while others have luck on their side. Here are some teams whose first four or five games will set the tone for the remainder of the season.
The Arizona Cardinals entered 2019 with low expectations after selecting quarterback Kyler Murray with the first overall pick and hiring Kliff Kingsbury to replace Steve Wilkes as Head Coach. They went on to finish 5-10-1 but showed some bright signs as they lost close games to quality teams (San Francisco twice and Baltimore) and Murray won Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Looking at 2020, the organization has improved the roster through trading running back David Johnson and a second-round pick for All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. They then selected highly touted Clemson linebacker Isiah Simmons with the eighth pick in the 2020 NFL Draft and addressed their offensive line issues with selecting tackle Josh Jones in the third round.
With these improvements, the Cardinals should expect to compete for a playoff spot in 2020, and they have a fantastic opportunity to do so. They open up their season at a strong divisional opponent in the San Francisco 49ers and they’ll likely be underdogs. However, the next four games are ones the Cardinals need to take advantage of in order to be in any sort of playoff contention. They’ll return home for two straight weeks and play the Washington Redskins and Detroit Lions. Following that, they’ll play two straight road games vs the Carolina Panthers and New York Jets.
The average win percentage of those four teams from 2019 was a little over 28%, which falls to a record between 4-12 and 5-11. If the Cardinals want to have a chance at making the playoffs, these four games could almost be seen as must-wins considering their opponents later in the schedule. Following those first five games, they’ll play four games versus 2019 playoff teams in six weeks. Considering the tough division and second half of the season, the team can succeed if they get off to a hot start and it’ll start with Kyler Murray, who could follow in the footsteps of Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson and win an MVP award in his second season.
When discussing the team on the other end of the DeAndre Hopkins trade, the Houston Texans have done the exact opposite of the Cardinals. After not even receiving a first-round pick in the Hopkins trade, they only had two picks in the top 100. In trying to replace Hopkins, they traded for Brandin Cooks, who’s been on four different teams and suffered six career concussions. This just added to the list of acquired players who struggle with injury as David Johnson has played 16 games in just two out of his five seasons. The cherry on top of this horrendous offseason comes from the NFL schedule makers.
They open up the NFL season on the road vs the defending Super Bowl Champion Chiefs, who they blew a 24-0 lead to in last year’s divisional round. They’ll then host the Baltimore Ravens for their home opener, travel to a revitalized Steelers team, and lastly, host the Minnesota Vikings. Even a quarterback as talented Deshaun Watson will struggle with this four-game stretch and it’s possible to see them starting 0-4. While this isn’t ideal for any team in any division, the Colts have improved their roster and the Titans reached the AFC Championship Game last season.
Watson will have to find a way around the dysfunction of Bill O’Brien, who’s done nothing but damage the organization. More confusion amongst NFL fans comes from the trade for offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil. Houston traded its 2020 and 2021 first-round picks to Miami for the Pro Bowl Tackle, which signifies a win-now approach. The moves made this offseason, specifically, the Hopkins deal contradicts that mindset. O’Brien still views Houston to be in a win-now mindset, so it’s vital for this franchise to avoid a slow start and find their way back to the playoffs.
Unlike the Cardinals and Texans, the Chicago Bears have done very little to improve their roster from 2019. Nick Foles was acquired from Jacksonville to compete with Mitchell Trubisky for the starting quarterback job, but both have been underwhelming as starting quarterbacks. They also signed Jimmy Graham to a lucrative contract but then drafted Notre Dame fight end, Cole Kmet, with their first pick in the draft. That said, outside of Allen Robinson II, the roster doesn’t have many dangerous offensive weapons and they’ll lean heavily on their defense once again, which was what earned them an NFC North title in 2018. The difference between 2018 and 2019 was Trubisky’s performance and the departure of Vic Fangio. The defense was still elite but couldn’t force as many turnovers and was constantly on the field due to horrendous offensive play.
Regardless of who lines up under center, the Bears have a favorable first quarter of the season. And not taking advantage of it while playing in an elite division will lead to another disappointing season. They’ll play four non-playoff teams from a season ago (Lions, Giants, Falcons, and Colts) and if they’re able to start 3-1 or 4-0, they could find the same momentum they had in 2018 and make the playoffs for the second time in three years. Head Coach Matt Nagy and General Manager Ryan Pace could be fired with another underwhelming season, which should add a sense of urgency to this team. If the two are able to survive this season, selecting or trading up to select a quarterback in the 2021 draft could add stability to their jobs and the position, which the franchise hasn’t had since Jay Cutler.
The Cardinals and Bears have both taken large risks through trades, and while Arizona’s future is far more stable than Chicago’s, both of these organizations will have to take advantage of favorable schedules to be in playoff contention.
For the Texans, finishing .500 in their first four games could pave the way to not only a playoff spot, but an AFC South title.