NFL teams often talk about how their focus is on themselves and not their opponent, that if they play to their ability and take care of business, it doesn't matter who they play against. They'll say things like "we focus on ourselves" and talk about preparing for a "faceless and nameless" opponent. While that may be true for the elite one or two teams in the league, the schedule plays a significant role for everyone else. The margin of error between missing and making the playoffs is often a handful of points. Something as simple as drawing the NFC East instead of the NFC West absolutely matters.
The week-by-week schedule for 2014 hasn't been released, but with the nature of NFL scheduling, we already know every team's opponents next season. By translating the 2013 records to the 2014 schedule we can take a preliminary look at strength of schedule for 2014. Using those numbers -- which ESPN.com has available in full -- we can guess of which teams may rise and which may fall next season.
AFC West falling off?
While getting to the top of the NFL, or at least a division, is a challenge, staying there may be even harder. Division-winning teams have a target on their backs heading into the next season, and also must face a tougher schedule. For some, the added difficulty is enough to knock them from the perch. The entire AFC West will be challenged with tough schedules in 2014, including the two teams at the top.
This isn't to suggest the Broncos will go from the AFC Champion to out of the playoffs. Denver will likely be a contender in the AFC next year, but it will face a considerably tougher schedule. According to Football Outsiders, the Broncos played the 31st-easiest schedule last season. With games against the AFC East and NFC West next season, Denver currently has the second-hardest 2014 schedule. That includes tough away games at New England, Seattle and Cincinnati.
The Chiefs are in the same boat as the Broncos. Kansas City played the easiest schedule last season and finished with an 11-5 record. The Chiefs will play the seventh-hardest schedule in 2014, including the hardest home schedule. Kansas City finished 6-2 on the road last season, and may need a similar performance away from home next season. Protecting the ball and forcing turnovers was a recipe for success for Kansas City after finishing with the best turnover differential in the NFL last season. The Chiefs should have opportunities for similar success next season. The Chiefs' 2014 opponents combined for a minus-3 turnover differential last year, despite Seattle, San Francisco and New England having some of the best marks in the NFL.
No rest for the NFC West
There is little question that the NFC West is the best division in football heading into 2014. It is the domain of the Super Bowl champs, arguably the second-best team in the league and a pair of rising contenders. The division combined for 47 wins last season, including the playoffs. That was eight more than any other division.
If the division is going to repeat as the best in the league, it will have to earn it. All four NFC West teams have one of the top eight toughest schedules next season. The Arizona Cardinals, with an opponent winning percentage of .547, has the easiest slate. The St. Louis Rams, which have the most ground to make up and are chasing three teams coming off double-digit wins, will face the third-hardest schedule next season. Seattle will face the toughest road schedule om the division. If any of the three catch a break, it is the Cardinals. Arizona's road schedule is only the ninth-hardest in the NFL.
Teams on the rise
The easiest way to improve from one season to the next is to have a more talented roster. Playing an easier schedule can also help. An easier slate combined with better luck can send a team from the top of the draft to the top of the division standings.
Tampa Bay didn't win its first game until Week 10, and finished the year 4-12 overall. They did so against the hardest schedule in the league, which makes their record somewhat misleading. Tampa Bay lost five games by eight points or less, including four games by three points or less. Those games weren't against slouches, either. The Bucs lost 16-14 to New Orleans, 13-10 to Arizona and 27-24 in overtime at Seattle.
A year after facing the toughest schedule in the NFL, the Bucs will face the fourth-easiest in 2014. The combination of easier competition, a new coaching staff and a little better fortune in close games could lead to a quick turnaround in Tampa Bay.
The Giants make this list simply because it would be difficult for anything more go wrong for them than in 2013. New York finished with a minus-15 turnover differential, the second-worst in the NFL. That included 44 giveaways, which was 10 more than any other team. The Giants also faced the seventh-hardest schedule in 2013, but still managed a 7-9 record.
New York's 2014 schedule is tied for the sixth-easiest in the league, despite the fact it will have to face the NFC West. Assuming Eli Manning and the offense improve ball security and New York doesn't get off to another 0-6 start, the Giants should be back to competing for a playoff spot.
The Colts finished 11-5 and won the AFC South last season. They outperformed their Pythagorean win total by 1.6 games, according to Football Outsiders, while playing a relatively easy schedule. Indianapolis found success in tight games, finishing 6-1 in games decided by eight points or less.
Those factors seemingly make the Colts likely to regress to the mean, except that Indianapolis will play an even easier schedule next season. With an opponent winning percentage of just .430, the Colts have the easiest upcoming schedule in the NFL. That includes the easiest road schedule. The Colts will face four playoff teams next season, but only one of those games will be on the road. Indianapolis may regress as a team, but the schedule may keep them in a playoff spot.
The Oakland Raiders were the only AFC West team to not make the playoffs last season. They'll now be rewarded with the toughest schedule in the NFL. Oakland's 2014 opponents combined for a .578 winning percentage. Nine of their 16 games will be played against 2013 playoff participants, including two games against Denver and a road game against Seattle. Eleven teams on Oakland's 2014 schedule won at least eight games last season.
The road schedule projects to be especially tough, with Oakland's eight road foes combining for a .602 winning percentage last season. The Colts, by contrast, have the easiest road schedule with a combined opponent winning percentage of .414.