How We Got Here
Scoring the brutality was simple. I assigned a point total to all 32 NFL teams based on their previous season’s success, and their projected success in 2022. Winning seasons, playoff appearances, Vegas win totals, and overall wins all factored into the scores. It was the best way to measure what the teams have been and what they could be in 2022.
I also awarded bonus points for added difficulties like international games, primetime games, short weeks, and byes. If the bye was before week eight or after week eleven, that earned you a point. Nothing is more brutal than playing in a Sunday Night road game just to turn around and play the following Thursday. I believe those scenarios – along with early or late bye weeks – play a key role.
San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers have a tough ride, but not nearly as brutal as the run the top five have. The thing the 49ers have in common with some of those teams is that they belong to the NFC West. A tough division in their own right, but they are playing the AFC West as well this year. With games against the Rams and Cardinals twice a year, in addition to the Chiefs, Chargers, Raiders, and Broncos, San Francisco will have a tough road back to the playoffs this year.
Weeks seven through eleven, they play KC, travel to play the Rams, quick bye, then host the Chargers before they go on the road to play Arizona. A tough five-week stretch that could dictate their entire season.
The Bills have earned themselves quite the schedule. The back end, weeks nine through 18, kept them out of the top five as the Bengals should be the only team to give them any real challenge in that time frame. However, the first eight weeks are a doozy.
They open the season in LA to play the Rams and follow that up by hosting Tennessee for an MNF showdown. Over the next six weeks, they will meet up in KC for an AFC Divisional rematch, travel to Baltimore for a battle of 2018 QB supremacy, and then host Green Bay on Sunday Night Football. The Bills are favored to win the AFC and will need to conquer this part of their schedule if they are to secure the one seed.
The defending AFC champions will have a much tougher road than they did in 2021. The price you pay for winning is playing all of the other teams that won as well. This year, Cincinnati will play Kansas City and Buffalo at home, while also traveling on the road to take on the Buccaneers, Cowboys, and Titans. Add in the stacked AFC North – including a fully healthy Baltimore team – and you have a pretty tough schedule.
The Bengals caught lightning in a bottle when they made their improbable run to the Super Bowl last year. This schedule will be a great challenge for them, but with games against teams in the NFC South and the AFC East, they will definitely get some breathing room. My money says they miss the playoffs by a hair, but Burrow has proved me wrong before!
Los Angeles Chargers & Denver Broncos
Lastly, I had to include both of these AFC West teams because of how similar their schedules are. Essentially, they play in the toughest division (AFC West) and are stacked against the next most difficult, the NFC West. Those games alone could qualify as brutal, but the rest of their schedule has too many bottom-tier teams to truly qualify.
These teams will have a tough schedule, do not get me wrong, but all of the games in between are just not the same pedigree as these next five teams’ schedules. If they had made the playoffs last year, it would likely be a different story.
Five: Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals started off the season as hot as any team last year going 8-1 over their first nine games. including wins over the eventual Super Bowl Champion Rams, the 49ers, and the AFC one-seed Titans. However, they would end the season 3-5, losing to teams like Carolina and Detroit over that span, and leading to their eventual blowout loss in the NFC Wild Card Round against the Rams.
Although the Cardinals crashed at the end of the season, their overall performance earned them a top-five most brutal schedule. As previously mentioned, the NFC West squares off against the AFC West this year. That is two games each against the 49ers and Rams, respectively. Not to mention they will be facing off against the Chiefs, Chargers, Raiders, and Broncos. That doesn’t even include the Buccaneers, Eagles, Patriots, and Vikings who all sit on their schedule as potential playoff contenders.
The roughest part of the Cardinals’ schedule is the final eight weeks. They do not get a bye until the 13th week of the season, but sandwiching that bye week are games against the Rams (in LA), 49ers (in Mexico), Chargers, Patriots (MNF), Broncos (in Denver), and Buccaneers (SNF). That run of games, coupled with their total schedule and late-season bye, earned their spot in the top five.
Four: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tom Brady has returned! Thank goodness for Buccaneers fans he did because their schedule requires the greatest QB of all time. After a strong showing against the Rams in the NFC divisional round, the Bucs were in a bit of a limbo figuring out whether or not they would have Mr. Brady leading their offense.
Now that Brady is back, they should be more than equipped to handle their divisional games against Carolina, New Orleans, and Atlanta. However, it’s the rest of the schedule that will challenge the 2020 Super Bowl Champions. The Buccaneers open the season against Dallas, travel to New Orleans, then host the Packers and Chiefs in back-to-back weeks. There may not be a schedule that opens with a more difficult slate.
Add in the Ravens, Rams, 49ers, Bengals, and Cardinals and you have a very difficult road. Not to mention a trip to Germany to play Seattle. right after consecutive weeks playing the Ravens and Rams. The endurance of the Buccaneers was tested last year as injuries started to take their toll. Hopefully, they can maintain some health this season to handle the challenges their schedule brings.
Three: Las Vegas Raiders
Now, these next two schedules are pretty close. The Raiders have a few less heavy hitters than this next team, but still a loaded slate of contenders for these guys. After winning one of the best NFL games of all time against the Chargers in week 18, the Raiders lost to the eventual AFC Champion Bengals during the Wild Card Round in Cincinnati.
Not only does Vegas have to play the Chiefs, Chargers, and Broncos two times each, but they also draw the Titans, Patriots, and the entire NFC West. To make matters worse, their bye week is the earliest it could possibly be, week six. Leading up to the bye, they take on the five teams projected to win at least 9.5 games in 2022. Including the Chiefs, Chargers, and Titans on the road.
The Raiders have a bit of a lull midseason, only to end the year with games against the Chargers, Rams, Chiefs, Patriots, Steelers, and 49ers to wrap the final six weeks of the season. The Raiders may have added talents like Davante Adams and Chandler Jones, but their season will be one of the harder ones in the NFL this year.
Two: Kansas City Chiefs
After a gut-wrenching loss to the Bengals in which they blew an 18-point lead, the Chiefs made some major changes to the roster for 2022. Including moves to trade Tyreek Hill to the Miami Dolphins, allowing Tyrann Mathieu to walk in free agency, and rebuilding the entire WR depth chart.
When I first saw the Chiefs’ schedule, I did not think there could be another schedule in the NFL more brutal than theirs. That was until I was able to do this exercise, anyway. The three biggest criteria for grading an opponent were the previous season’s win total, the projected Vegas win total, and whether or not the team made the playoffs in 2021. The Chiefs play a total of seven teams who had a winning record, made the playoffs in 2021, and have a Vegas projection of 9.5 wins or higher. Only one team has more such teams on this list.
The Chiefs’ final weeks feature Denver twice, Vegas, Seattle, and Houston. But those first 13 weeks are the true test. No team in the NFL has a tougher start to the season than Kansas City. Starting on the road in Arizona, a quick turnaround at home against the Chargers, followed by back-to-back road trips to the Colts and Buccaneers. It doesn’t end there either. That four-game stretch is followed up by consecutive home games against the Raiders and Bills and ends with a road trip to the 49ers before the bye.
That brings the total to five playoff teams and seven teams with winning records in 2021 over the first seven weeks. The Chiefs may have the best QB-Head Coach tandem in the NFL, but they have a tough road to start. I am sure they will be looking forward to the challenge.
One: Los Angeles Rams
Finally, we land on the defending Super Bowl Champion Los Angeles Rams. They ended the 2021 season in the king’s seat and it is only right that they should have to battle to maintain the throne. The Champs will have to run a true gauntlet, one of the most difficult schedules I have seen in some time. Not just because they reside in the NFC West and play the AFC West, but also because of the other teams they earned the right to play against in 2022.
The Rams start the season playing four teams who not only made the playoffs last year, but are also projected for 9.5 or more wins this season in just the first five weeks. They will end the five week stint with a game against Carolina before they take their week seven bye, nearly the earliest bye possible. It certainly does not stop there. They will come off of the bye playing the 49ers, Buccaneers, Cardinals, Saints, and Chiefs. Another stretch of five weeks featuring four teams who made the playoffs and have a 9.5 or better win projection.
The Rams final stretch of games features the rest of the AFC West, Seattle twice, and the Green Bay Packers. To put things into further perspective, they will face quarterbacks Josh Allen, Kyler Murray, Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Derek Carr, and Dak Prescott all in the same season. No team plays a tougher schedule in the NFL.
Check out some of Dan’s other Stadium Rant content here. You can follow him on Twitter @dan_tf40 and check in with his podcast The Fastest 40 on Spotify, Anchor, Apple Podcasts, & anywhere you listen to podcasts!