Around The NFL Writer
For many football fans, Thursday’s 2022 NFL schedule release means it’s time to pull out the highlighters.
Mark your expected wins, identify your team’s difficult matchups and be sure to save ample optimism for the toss-ups. Just don’t forget to account for the year-to-year turnover of contenders and the unpredictability of it all. Did your team make the playoffs last season? Great. But can the squad do it again?
We’re still about four months away from kicking off the 2022 campaign, but there’s no time like the present to start breaking down how the schedule appears to shake out for each team. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the most difficult roads to Glendale, Arizona, the site of Super Bowl LVII.
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Nearly every single game in the first half of the season looks like it could be a significant hurdle for Pittsburgh, a franchise taking its first steps into the post-Ben Roethlisberger era, and five of the first eight contests come away from Heinz Field. Things don’t get much easier after the Week 9 bye, either, as the Steelers go on the road for four of their final seven games. We don’t yet know who Roethlisberger’s successor will be, with Mitchell Trubisky and rookie Kenny Pickett set to battle for the job, but the Steelers will have to hope whomever they tab as their starting signal-caller handles the daunting early slate well enough to position them for a strong run to the finish, which includes meetings with Las Vegas, Baltimore and Cleveland to close out the season.
There won’t be much time for the Cardinals to work out any lingering kinks early in the season, not with the slate of opponents who await them. Arizona gets a healthy dose of the rugged AFC West right out of the gate, hosting the Chiefs in the opener before heading to Las Vegas to face the Raiders. The return home isn’t going to get any easier, as the Cardinals open their division slate by hosting the defending Super Bowl champion Rams in Week 3.
The bright side: Arizona alternates home and away games all the way until Week 11, when the team will face the rival 49ers in Mexico City. However, three of the final four games — the late-season stretch in which Arizona has blown a tire in each of the last two seasons — come on the road, including visits to Denver and San Francisco, with a Christmas Day matchup at home against the Buccaneers. That’s just not a favorable draw for head coach Kliff Kingsbury in a pivotal year.
Playing in the AFC East won’t be kind on the Jets in 2022, no matter how spectacular their moves were this offseason, especially if the Dolphins live up to the hype they have generated. Wood-chipper treatment awaits Robert Saleh’s team in the first nine weeks. New York faces nine straight teams that expect to contend in 2022, starting with a four-game set against the entire AFC North: versus Baltimore, at Cleveland, versus Cincinnati and at Pittsburgh, all before the second week of October. Miami, Green Bay, Denver, New England and Buffalo are lined up to meet the Jets from there before the mercy of the bye finally arrives. The back half of the schedule is a little lighter, with home games against Chicago, Jacksonville and Detroit, but the journey from the cellar to contention remains a steep climb.
The Super Bowl LVI champions will celebrate their triumph on the same field in which they secured the Lombardi Trophy. Then they get to face one of the greatest threats to their title defense in the Buffalo Bills. That’s just Week 1 for Los Angeles, which meets three formidable NFC opponents in a row from Weeks 3 through 5: at Arizona, at San Francisco and home against Dallas. That’s all before the midway point of October.
A Week 7 bye might feel as if it arrived a tad too early. The final 11 games offer very few breaks, with a date at the home of Tom Brady’s Buccaneers sandwiched between rematches with San Francisco and Arizona. There’s a trip to Kansas City on Nov. 27 and dates with the Raiders, Packers, Broncos and Chargers all coming between Weeks 14 and 17. Add in the fact Los Angeles has to hit the road three times in its final four weeks, and you have quite a challenging task ahead for the run-it-back Rams.
I put together a very rudimentary scoring system to evaluate schedules by relying on home/road advantages and disadvantages, as well as difficulty of opponent (which is admittedly subjective). I knew before I even began that the schedules for AFC West teams would rank among the most difficult. This division is going to be a meat grinder in 2022. There could be a brawl for division supremacy down the stretch, with the Chiefs — the AFC West champs in each of the last six years — set to play four of their final six games on the road. The Chargers don’t have it much better, as they’ll be visitors in four of their last seven games, including prime-time meetings with a Colts team looking to get back to the postseason after a massive letdown in 2021 (Week 16) and a battle for Los Angeles with the defending Super Bowl champion Rams (Week 17). To close out the regular season, they fly to Denver for a rematch with Russell Wilson’s Broncos.
Speaking of Denver, the Broncos open the season with a return to Seattle for Wilson in front of a Monday night audience. From Weeks 3 through 6, they have meetings with San Francisco, Las Vegas, Indianapolis and the Chargers before getting a slight break with the Jets and Jaguars (though the Jacksonville game will be played in London’s Wembley Stadium). There are few reprieves on the schedule from there, so Denver better be ready to run a marathon to the finish line.
As for the Raiders, they get to enjoy the comfort of Allegiant Stadium for four of their final six games. However, they will have to avoid a slow start in their first five games, a road-home alternating collection of contests against quality opponents: the Chargers, Arizona, Tennessee, Denver and Kansas City. And while they will be able to spend a good amount of time at home in the final six weeks, the opponents won’t be punching bags. The Rams, New England, Pittsburgh and San Francisco await them from Weeks 14 through 17, before a Week 18 home game against the rival Chiefs.
Buckle up, AFC West teams.
The Browns have a friendly on-ramp to the 2022 season. They start off against teams looking to make a leap after finishing in last place in their respective divisions, with a road trip to Carolina before a home date with the Jets. They stay in Cleveland for a Thursday night game against the rival Steelers before visiting the Falcons, which makes for a manageable first month regardless of Deshaun Watson’s availability.
However, the remainder of the schedule (and especially the back nine) is an absolute buzz saw. The Browns play the Chargers, New England, Baltimore and Cincinnati before the end of October, then come out of the Week 9 bye and fly to Miami before heading to Western New York to meet the explosive Bills. Tom Brady’s Buccaneers await the Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium in Week 12. Six of Cleveland’s final nine games are on the road, and three of those business trips are coming against 2021 playoff teams. Oh, and the regular-season finale takes place in the hostile confines of Heinz Field. Getting back to the postseason will be no easy task.
The defending AFC champions open the season by welcoming the division-rival Steelers — a team the Bengals outscored 65-20 in their two meetings last season — to Paul Brown Stadium before heading to Dallas to face the reigning NFC East champs. The first half of the season is a mixed bag in terms of difficulty, but things get much tougher in the second half. Cincinnati visits Pittsburgh after a Week 10 bye, then runs through a collection of contenders: at Tennessee, Kansas City, Cleveland, at Tampa Bay, at New England (on Christmas Eve), Buffalo (on Monday night) and Baltimore. If the Bengals are going to make consecutive playoff runs, they’ll hope to dominate the Ravens much like they did in 2021. But plenty has to go right before then to make that dream a reality, and it won’t be an easy road to travel.
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