As NFL fans, we can’t help but feel the need to analyze and interpret every minute detail of the yearly schedule. We have to be made aware of the season’s must-see games. We need to see when crucial divisional contests will take place. We need to know which teams will be playing during nationally televised games. But one of the most important things we need to figure out has to do with each team’s strength of schedule.
This is serious business. There are a lot of factors that go into the success of a football team, but one element that cannot be overlooked is a favorable schedule. For the teams that play in ultra-competitive divisions, it’s crucial that their out-of-division paths are lined with less-talented foes. This should ultimately help assure a better chance at success.
Makes sense, right? The only question is: How does one go about determining an easier schedule? There are a lot of different ways to break down a team’s schedule. The easiest thing to do is focus on an organization’s upcoming opponents and see how they did the season before. This can be an exhausting process. Fortunately for us, the heavy lifting has already been done.
The folks at SB Nation went through each NFL team’s upcoming 2015 regular-season schedule and broke down their opponents’ records from the 2014 season. After that was done, the wins were all added up, as were the losses, and a total cumulative record was created. Through this record, SB Nation was able to determine the 2014 winning percentage of a team’s entire schedule for the upcoming season. The teams that faced a schedule with the higher winning percentages, technically, should be the ones with the most difficult roads ahead.
It’s not a perfect system, by any means. But it is a way to use information from last year to make an educated guess with regard to the season ahead. With that in mind, here’s a look at the five NFL teams with the hardest schedules in 2015.
5. Arizona Cardinals
- Opponents’ 2014 record: 142-113-1
- Opponents’ 2014 winning percentage: 0.557
Playing in the competitive NFC West is a double-edged sword: The games may help you toughen up, but there’s also a good chance of being defeated. Fortunately for the Arizona Cardinals, they showed enough grit in 2014 that they’ll be ready for whatever comes their way in 2015. Still, outside of the division, the Cardinals will have some difficult tests to pass.
They have back-to-back games (Weeks 5 and 6) on the road against the Detroit Lions and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Both of these teams were 11-5 last season, and Pittsburgh happened to win the AFC North. It doesn’t get much easier in Week 8, when Arizona hosts the Baltimore Ravens on Monday Night Football. The Cardinals end the season with a brutal three-game stretch: at Philadelphia (10-6), followed by home games against the Green Bay Packers (12-4) and Seattle Seahawks (12-4).
This is not an easy schedule. It’s a good thing the Cardinals have the 2014 Coach of the Year roaming the sidelines. Bruce Arians is capable of weathering any storm.
4. Seattle Seahawks
- Opponents’ 2014 record: 142-112-2
- Opponents’ 2014 winning percentage: 0.559
The trend of teams in the NFC West having a difficult schedule in 2015 continues with the Seattle Seahawks. But even if they weren’t in this division, you’d expect the back-to-back NFC Champions wouldn’t be dealt an easy hand. To say this team is built to win would be a gross understatement. But rest assured, the Seahawks still have their work cut for them.
Week 2 will see the Seahawks in a rematch of last season’s NFC Championship Game. Only this time around, they will have to face Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers (12-4) at Lambeau Field. That’s not easy for anyone. Two weeks later, Seattle takes on another tough opponent from the NFC North in the Detroit Lions. The following week, they’re on the road against the Cincinnati Bengals, a team that finished 10-5-1 in 2014. Seattle will find Week 8 challenging, when it takes on the defending NFC East champion Dallas Cowboys in Dallas. Of course, the season doesn’t get any easier down the stretch.
The Seahawks will have to go through two formidable teams from the AFC North in Weeks 12 and 14. The first contest will be against the Pittsburgh Steelers, followed two weeks later on the road against Baltimore. It will not be an easy road back to the top for the Seahawks. But with Pete Carroll at the helm, the Legion of Boom manning the secondary, Russell Wilson under center, and Beast Mode running over people, we think this team will be just fine.
3. San Francisco 49ers
- Opponents’ 2014 record: 143-112-1
- Opponents’ 2014 winning percentage: 0.561
The San Francisco 49ers better pray their showing in 2014 was a fluke and not the new normal, because the team that went 8-8 last season won’t stand a chance against this 2015 schedule. The Niners will face difficult opponents in the early part of the season, and things won’t get much easier as the rest of the year unfolds. Let’s just hope that new coach Jim Tomsula has his armor ready. This season, he’s going to battle.
The Niners will get an early season test in Week 2, when they travel to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers, who finished the 2014 regular season with an 11-5 record and won the AFC North. Two weeks later, San Francisco will play host to the NFC North champion Green Bay Packers. Then, in Week 6, the Niners will be forced to deal with a visiting Baltimore Ravens team that went 10-6 last season. As the regular season winds down, the challenges for the 49ers won’t get any easier. They will play the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 14 at Levi’s Stadium; the following week. San Francisco will go on the road to play the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. If Colin Kaepernick was ever going to prove his elite status, navigating this tough schedule will be a great start.
2. Cincinnati Bengals
- Opponents’ 2014 record: 144-112
- Opponents’ 2014 winning percentage: 0.563
In 2014, the Cincinnati Bengals finished the regular season with a 10-5-1 record, a wild-card berth, and their fourth straight trip to the postseason. If Marvin Lewis and company hope to make it five seasons in a row, then they’ll have to make it through the second most difficult schedule in 2015.
The Bengals find themselves fortunate to open the season against an Oakland Raiders team that went 3-13 the year before. However, the road will get a whole lot more difficult over the next four weeks. In Week 2, Cincinnati will host the San Diego Chargers, a team that went 9-7 in 2014 but has a lot of potential. The following week, the Bengals will be on the road against a strong Baltimore Ravens squad. The next two weeks will see the Bengals playing on their home turf. Unfortunately, those match-ups will be against the Kansas City Chiefs and the Seattle Seahawks. While both teams are more than capable of going into Paul Brown Stadium and coming away with a W, we think the Seahawks pose the greater threat. If you then discount a backend schedule that pits the Bengals against many division foes, the season still doesn’t work in Cincy’s favor.
Week 11 will be a challenging, as the Bengals go on the road to take on the Arizona Cardinals. Of course, things may be even more difficult come Week 16, when Cincinnati is tasked with taking on the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field in Mile High Stadium. Despite making it to the postseason for the fourth straight year, the Bengals have to be disappointed that they fell short of a division title. We don’t expect things to be much easier come 2015.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
- Opponents’ 2014 record: 147-107-2
- Opponents’ 2014 winning percentage: 0.579
The Pittsburgh Steelers won the AFC North in 2014 with a final record of 11-5. The prize for such success: 2015’s most difficult schedule. But you know what they say: “If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best.” This now seems to be the position the Steelers will find themselves in come next season.
Right off the bat, Pittsburgh will be tasked with traveling to Foxborough to take on the New England Patriots in Week 1. That’s not an easy matchup for any team, but at least it will let the Steelers see how they stack up against the NFL’s best team. Week 5 won’t be easy for the gold and black, as they go on the road to battle the San Diego Chargers. Then, in Week 6, the Arizona Cardinals come to town. This game is sure to be a physical affair. The following Sunday, the Steelers are on the road to take on the Kansas City Chiefs. That’s three weeks in a row taking on non-division opponents that won at least nine games in 2014. This is a tall order for any franchise. The Steelers will get a bye in Week 11, but then it’s right back to the grind.
Week 12 will be played against the Seattle Seahawks and their “12th Man.” The next weekend, Pittsburgh will play host to the Indianapolis Colts. This team finished 2014 with an 11-5 record and is looking to be even better in 2015. Isn’t that to be expected from a team with Andrew Luck at quarterback? Pittsburgh will end its season on the road against two division opponents. But before then, in Week 15, the Steelers get to play in front a faithful crowd. Unfortunately, their opponent will be the Denver Broncos and their high-powered offense. It’s clear to see that the team from Pittsburgh will have its work cut out for them in 2015.
To view SB Nation’s complete breakdown of the 2015 NFL schedule, click here.