When the NFL released its slate of games a year ago, the Eagles had the 10th toughest strength of schedule, seven games against returning playoff teams, three road games in the first month and a brutal three-week stretch of away games in December.
They were doomed, right?
Ten months later, they completed their journey from worst in the NFC East to first in the NFL with a victory over the Patriots in Super Bowl LII at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Keep that in mind as Thursday’s release of the 2018 schedule is picked clean and overanalyzed by those attempting to project wins and losses.
In 2015, the Falcons had the easiest strength of schedule. They went 8-8 and missed the playoffs.
A year later, the Falcons had the toughest strength of schedule. They went 11-5, won their division and went to the Super Bowl.
Since the playoffs were expanded to 12 teams in 1990, an average of 6.4 teams per year have made the postseason after falling short the year before. Last year, that number was eight, including five of six in the NFC.
Things change. Quickly. Ezekiel Elliott gets suspended and the Cowboys crash. Aaron Rodgers breaks a collarbone and the Packers become hopelessly flawed. The Giants go from trendy Super Bowl pick to picking No. 2 in the draft. Andrew Luck never heals and the Colts go 4-12 despite having the easiest strength of schedule in 2017.
The schedule release does, however, give football fans actual can’t-miss dates to look forward to. For instance:
• Nov. 4: Rodgers travels to New England to face Tom Brady for only the second time as a starter. In 2014 at Lambeau Field, they combined for 613 yards passing, four touchdowns and no interceptions in a 26-21 Packers victory. The rematch comes on Sunday Night Football.
• Sept. 10: Oakland opens the season at home against the Rams on Monday Night Football as former MNF analyst Jon Gruden coaches his first Raiders game since losing to the Patriots in the playoffs in the famous Tuck Rule Game on Jan. 19, 2002.
• Sept. 9: Tom Coughlin, who won two Super Bowls as Giants coach, returns to MetLife Stadium as the executive vice president of football operations for the resurrected Jaguars. The game also features Pat Shurmur’s debut as Giants coach.
• Sept. 23: Former longtime Patriots defensive coordinator and current rookie Lions coach Matt Patricia hosts former boss Bill Belichick in a Sunday Night Football game at Ford Field. Patricia is the eighth former Belichick assistant to become an NFL head coach. The first seven are a combined 156-227 (.407), including 8-13 against Belichick.
One of those proteges is Texans coach Bill O’Brien. He went 4-12 last season, but optimism reigns in Houston for two reasons: 1. Deshaun Watson and J.J. Watt are expected to return from injury, and 2. the Texans have the league’s easiest strength of schedule (.453).
The Texans, however, open with three road games in four weeks, including New England in Week 1. They also join the Vikings and Colts as the only teams that have to play the Patriots and Eagles (Dec. 23) on the road.
The Eagles, who rank 19th in strength of schedule, play six prime-time games, three of them at the Giants (Oct. 11), Jaguars (Oct. 28) and Rams (Dec. 16). They open the NFL season on Sept. 6 at home against Atlanta and finish with three road games in the final four weeks.
The Packers have the toughest strength of schedule (.539). After a Week 7 bye, they play four road games in five weeks at the Rams, Patriots, Seahawks and Vikings.
In three of the past four years, the team with the 10th toughest strength of schedule has won the Super Bowl. That includes the 2014 Patriots and 2015 Broncos.
Who ranks 10th this year? Well, that’s something the Cardinals, Bears, Giants and Vikings will have to fight over. They’re tied for the eighth toughest strength of schedule (.520).
Are they destined? Doomed? Unfortunately, try as we might, those answers can’t be found on the day the schedule is released.