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Handicapping the NFL Schedule

   by Al McMordie - 10/16/2006

During the course of the pro football season, it’s always important to check schedules. Some teams might be looking ahead to next week’s opponent, while others might be in the middle of a grueling schedule against strong teams or even several road games. We’ve played six weeks of the NFL season and here’s a look at some potential sleeper teams that catch a scheduling break over the next month and those with some challenging schedules.

Jaguars: Jacksonville had a bye this weekend. After a 12-4 2005 season, the Jaguars are sitting at 3-2 looking up (as usual) at the Colts in the AFC South. Disappointment? Not really. The schedule has been tough, taking on 3 playoff teams from last year and another (Dallas) that is expected to be fighting for the NFC crown this year. Despite injuries, they have been impressive, shutting out the defending champs, topping Dallas and giving the Colts a fight on the road before losing 21-14.

The schedule the rest of the way is easier. Over the next four weeks the Jaguars play the Titans once and the Texans twice. Down the road, they also get a rematch with the Colts at home in December and also play the Titans again, the Bills, Dolphins, Jets and Chiefs. Remember that this is a talented and physical Jaguars defense and the offense is more aggressive this season. Don’t put the Colts down as division champs just yet.

Patriots: New England is also off its bye and sports a 4-1 record, so they are not a sleeper team. However, despite playing only 5 games, the toughest part of the schedule is actually BEHIND them. They won at Cincinnati and they only have one tough road game remaining (at Jacksonville). The only other tough games are the Colts and Bears, both at home. With the AFC East pretty much a joke, they will have little trouble winning the division, so their focus will be on improving the pass defense and clinching as high a spot as possible for the postseason. When they won Super Bowls in 2003 and 2004, the Pats were the No. 1 seed in the AFC each time and had home field through the AFC playoffs. That’s something they didn’t have last year (losing at Denver).

Colts: Will the Colts go undefeated THIS season? No. They have road games remaining at Denver, New England, Dallas and Jacksonville, as well as home games with the Redskins, Eagles and Bengals. They might not even get the No. 1 seed.

Steelers: Some folks were counting the defending champs out after that 1-3 start. Ben Roethlisberger had morphed into turnover prone Kerry Collins and the ship appeared to be springing leaks. Sunday’s 45-7 thrashing of Kansas City should stop folks from burying the champs. This is still a talented team that lost almost nothing from last year’s team. However, one thing not in its favor is the schedule. Pittsburgh plays six of its final 10 games on the road and has to play at Atlanta, at Baltimore, at Carolinaand at Cincy, and then they have a home date against a revenge-minded Broncos squad. They are good enough to repeat, but might be looking at more road playoff games, provided they can survive the tough slate of games.

Chargers: The schedule-maker has been kind to San Diego. The Chargers just flattened the 49ers Sunday and stand at 4-1. The rest of the season they have some easy games with the Chiefs (twice), Browns, Raiders, Bills and Cardinals. If they don’t make the playoffs this season it’s their own fault (again).

Bears: Everyone’s raving about the Bears, and rightfully so. They’ve been terrific, with a punishing defense and a new-found explosive offense. However, take a look at Chicago’s schedule beginning November 12. They play four of five games on the road, including three in a row at the NY Giants, the Jets and the Patriots. Throw in a Dec. 12 game at the Rams and that’s a tough 5-game stretch. Another thing to consider is that they will be playing several teams during that run that play a physical style on defense (Giants, Pats, Jets Vikings, and Rams). Three of those teams have new coaches (Jets, Vikings, Rams) who have been preaching aggressive, physical play on defense. The Bears need to not only stay competitive in November but also avoid injuries against those teams.

Seahawks: I know it’s still early, but the Seahawks appear to be a shoo-in to get the No. 1 seed in the NFC again. They just had a huge win at St. Louis Sunday, coming from way back to win 30-28 on a 54-yard field goal. Their schedule the rest of the season looks easy, with the only tough road game at Denver. Good luck, as always...Al McMordie.

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