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These NFL Teams Will Probably Start Hot in 2016 Because Of An Easy Strength of Schedule

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Ravens, Cardinals, Raiders, Skins, Seahawks, Colts, Titans, Packers, Texans, Eagles, Lions, Patriots, Dolphins

Sometimes the arc of an NFL team’s season can reflect real changes in its performance, but just as often it’s simply an illusion of the schedule machine:

Does the team play its toughest games early in the season, or late? It’s something we can even see coming ahead of time, if we do the math.

For instance, the Baltimore Ravens’ schedule should help them get off to a hot start in 2016. The Ravens begin the season against the Bills, Browns, Jaguars, Raiders and Redskins, teams that went a combined 32-48 last year. But down the stretch, Baltimore travels to New England, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, three of the AFC’s four best teams by point differential last season. This back-loaded schedule could have the Ravens in playoff contention all year long, creating a narrative that the team “choked” away a postseason berth after hitting that brutal end-of-year stretch.

On the other hand, you have the New York Jets, whose schedule will be extraordinarily difficult in the early going before easing up late. The Jets went 10-6 last year, but they’ll also be underdogs in each of their first six games: road trips to Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Arizona and Buffalo — the latter coming on just three days rest — and home games against top contenders Cincinnati and Seattle. After that, though, the only favored opponent left on New York’s slate will be the Patriots (who they’ll face twice). After a potential 2-4 start, the Jets would seem to be in trouble for most of the season, only to make a “surprise” playoff push once the schedule softens up.

But both storylines would owe almost completely to scheduling, provided the teams play as expected. In fact, the Jets and the Ravens meet in Week 7, which represents a turning point for each club. Through six weeks, Baltimore has the NFL’s third-easiest schedule, but from Week 8 onward their opponents rank sixth-toughest. Conversely, the Jets own the toughest schedule in the league through six weeks — by far — but the seventh-easiest slate over the final 10 weeks of the year. That’s why they exist at opposite poles of the schedule “loadedness” (front- and back-) spectrum for the 2016 season:

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