The regular season schedule for the upcoming NFL 2010 year has been out for over a month now, and I’ve already taken the opportunity to preview some of the bigger storyline games that fans can look forward to once the summer comes to a close. However, one thing that I have not yet addressed is the concept of “gauntlet” game scheduling and the effect that can have on a football team.
To further explore that idea, I’m defining a “gauntlet” schedule as a series of at least three or more games in a row that are taxing to a team either because they have to face strong teams or because there is significant travel involved. A team can have a difficult schedule but avoid this “gauntlet” idea if the games against the tougher teams are further spread out across the season; by the same token, a team with an easier schedule who has to face good teams multiple weeks in a row can still face a “gauntlet.”
If a team does face such a “gauntlet” during their schedule, it is also important to note when it happens in the scope of a season. If a team has a series of tough games at the beginning of the season, then it’s problematic because they might stumble out of the gate and never recover. If the “gauntlet” comes at season’s end, there will be added pressure on building up a good record before those games so that the team can “absorb” losses if they have to. And “gauntlets” in the middle of the season are perhaps most problematic, because they can jostle teams into and out of playoff position with little time left to recover.
In this story I have addressed the schedules of the 16 AFC teams for the upcoming season, picking out each team’s “gauntlet”—or set of “gauntlets”—that will factor into their hopes for success. Check back in the near-future for reports on the 16 NFC teams.
- Week 1: vs. Miami Dolphins
- Week 2: @ Green Bay Packers
- Week 3: @ New England Patriots
- Week 4: vs. New York Jets
Unfortunately for the Bills, they get all three of their improved AFC East rivals in the first four weeks of the season, with a road game against the Packers on top of that. Unless the Bills can make some moves before the season starts to improve the team, they might be looking at an 0-4 record to begin the season.
- Week 11: @ Cincinnati Bengals
- Week 12: vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
- Week 13: @ Minnesota Vikings
While the Bengals are a bit of a wild card for the upcoming season, they were a division champion last year so they could be troublesome for the Bills in Week 11; after that road date, the Bills come home to take on a Steelers team who will have Ben Roethlisberger back by Week 12 and then Buffalo heads back out to Minnesota to take on the Vikings, who will be a challenge whether or not Favre returns for another season.
- Week 15: @Miami Dolphins
- Week 16: vs. New England Patriots
- Week 17: @ New York Jets
The final three games of the season for the Bills are all AFC East match-ups, and unlike the beginning of the season there are more games on the road than home at Ralph Wilson Stadium. If the Bills are still in the playoff chase at this point in the season, these games will be a real test; however, if Buffalo has long since been eliminated, they’ll be playing the role of potential spoiler for their division rivals and their playoff hopes.
- Week 2: @ Minnesota Vikings
- Week 3: vs. New York Jets
- Week 4: vs. New England Patriots
The Dolphins start the season off easy enough on the road against Buffalo, but then they have to travel to Minnesota to face the Vikings and then travel back home for back-to-back division games against the Jets and Patriots. Unfortunately for “Dolfans,” these home games mean that Miami will have to travel to New York and New England for late-season cold weather games instead of staying home when the winter hits. Miami would be happy with a 2-2 record out of their first four games.
- Week 6: @ Green Bay Packers
- Week 7: vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
- Week 8: @ Cincinnati Bengals
- Week 9: @Baltimore Ravens
After a Bye week in Week 5, it gets no easier for the Dolphins, who have to play three 2009 playoff teams—and the Super Bowl XLIII Champions—in their next four games. To make it worse, the road games are all in colder climates, while the home game comes against a Steelers team who may just be returning Ben Roethlisberger (depending on the length of his suspension) and who defeated the Dolphins at Miami in Week 17 of 2009. Really tough stretch of play here.
- Week 6: vs. Baltimore Ravens
- Week 7: @ San Diego Chargers
- Week 8: vs. Minnesota Vikings
The Patriots have the 6th-toughest schedule in the NFL for 2010, but they are fortunate to have their tougher match-ups spread out; that is, until Week 6. Starting with that home game against the Ravens, the Patriots face three 2009 playoff teams in as many weeks, with a trip to the west coast for the Chargers game sandwiched in the middle. These games will be a true test of the makeup of the 2010 Patriots.
- Week 10: @ Pittsburgh Steelers
- Week 11: vs. Indianapolis Colts
- Week 12: @ Detroit Lions
The road game at Heinz Field will be a tough match, and Roethlisberger will be back by that time, and then the Patriots will return home to host the Colts at Gillette Stadium in another AFC slugfest. While the Lions don’t look menacing at the end of this “gauntlet,” the team has improved this offseason and the Patriots will be traveling out to Detroit on short rest for that Thanksgiving game. That Lions game might take on a “must-win” flavor should New England fall in the two games before it.
- Week 1: vs. Baltimore Ravens
- Week 2: vs. New England Patriots
- Week 3: @ Miami Dolphins
The Jets will benefit from starting the 2010 season at home against two tough 2009 playoff teams in the Ravens and Patriots, but this assumes that the Jets are able to win the games; if Baltimore and New England come in and spoil the opening of the new Meadowlands Stadium, then their road game in Miami for Week 3 will be especially important. Given the Jets’ difficulties with the Dolphins last year, a potential 0-3 record is possible if New York doesn’t come out swinging.
- Week 11: vs. Houston Texans
- Week 12: vs. Cincinnati Bengals
- Week 13: @ New England Patriots
- Week 14: vs. Miami Dolphins
- Week 15: @ Pittsburgh Steelers
After two very winnable road games against the Lions and Browns in Weeks 9 and 10, the Jets return home for two games against the tough Texans and potentially tough Bengals, followed by a road jaunt to New England before coming home to face the Dolphins. Those last two games in particular will have great importance to the AFC East division race. As if that slate wasn’t tough enough, the Jets then get a Heinz Field visit against the Steelers to end the “gauntlet.”
- Week 13: vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
- Week 14: @ Houston Texans
- Week 15: vs. New Orleans Saints
Despite having the leagues 12th-toughest schedule, Baltimore benefits from having their tougher games scheduled apart from one another. The only clear gauntlet appears to be the stretch beginning in Week 13 where the Ravens host playoff near-miss Pittsburgh followed by a trip to Houston for another 2009 playoff outsider in the Texans. Baltimore then returns home for a match-up with the defending Super Bowl Champion Saints in Week 15.
- Week 7: @ Atlanta Falcons
- Week 8: vs. Miami Dolphins
- Week 9: vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
- Week 10: @ Indianapolis Colts
The Bengals’ 2009 AFC North-winning season remains somewhat inexplicable to most football observers, especially since Cincinnati was able to rack up a surprising 6-0 division record. Their early exit from the playoffs represented better what was expected of the team, and beginning in Week 7 of the 2010 schedule the Bengals will have to deal with three teams on the cusp of the 2009 playoffs along with the AFC’s Super Bowl representative on short rest after the Monday Night Football game against the Steelers.
- Week 12: @ New York Jets
- Week 13: vs. New Orleans Saints
- Week 14: @ Pittsburgh Steelers
At Thanksgiving, the Bengals get a road opportunity to avenge two ugly losses to the Jets in 2009 and a bit of extra time to prepare for a visit from the defending champion New Orleans Saints. After that game, it’s back on the road for a key visit to the Steelers in Week 14.
- Week 3: @ Baltimore Ravens
- Week 4: vs. Cincinnati Bengals
- Week 5: vs. Atlanta Falcons
- Week 6: @ Pittsburgh Steelers
- Week 7: @ New Orleans Saints
While the Browns’ 2010 schedule starts off with two winnable games against Tampa Bay and Kansas City, it soon ramps up with divisional games against Baltimore and Cincinnati followed by a visit from the Falcons and a trip to Pittsburgh to wrap up the first half of the divisional schedule. The Browns then get to travel to New Orleans to take on the Saints before their Week 8 Bye; there’s a chance that their record could be 2-5 at best by the break.
- Week 15: @ Cincinnati Bengals
- Week 16: vs. Baltimore Ravens
- Week 17: vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
To end the season, the Browns get to face their three divisional foes consecutively; on the bright side, the final two games of the season are home games. If Cleveland is still in the playoff conversation at this point, the games will be make-or-break. Chances are, it’ll be spoiler time for their hated rivals.
- Week 8: @ New Orleans Saints
- Week 9: @ Cincinnati Bengals
- Week 10: vs. New England Patriots
Despite losing Ben Roethlisberger for 4-6 games to begin the 2010 season, the Steelers’ schedule is forgiving until these three games in the middle of the season. For Halloween, Pittsburgh faces defending champion New Orleans at the Superdome to begin a string of prime-time dates visiting the Bengals and then hosting the Patriots. Chances are that Roethlisberger will just be returning for the start of these games; if he shows any rust from his suspension, Pittsburgh might have difficulty winning under anyone else.
- Week 13: @ Baltimore Ravens
- Week 14: vs. Cincinnati Bengals
- Week 15: vs. New York Jets
As the season draws to a close, the Steelers will also have a three-game set against 2009 playoff teams—including two divisional games with the Ravens and Bengals—and the result of these games will have strong playoff implications if Pittsburgh can keep themselves in the hunt.
- Week 1: vs. Indianapolis Colts
- Week 2: @ Washington Redskins
- Week 3: vs. Dallas Cowboys
The Texans have the single toughest schedule for 2010, and the start of the season is quite brutal for them. They get the Colts at home to begin the season, then travel to D.C. to face Donovan McNabb before returning back to Texas to host the Cowboys; two playoff teams and one team with a playoff quarterback from 2009 in the first three games of the year. Coming out without a win in these games will seriously damage the Texans’ chances of making their first postseason.
- Week 12: vs. Tennessee Titans
- Week 13: @Philadelphia Eagles
- Week 14: vs. Baltimore Ravens
- Week 15: @ Tennessee Titans
Towards the end of the season, the Texans get two teams that made the 2009 playoffs sandwiched between a home game and a road game against division rival Tennessee. While the Titans only managed an 8-8 record for 2009, they went 1-1 against the Texans and each game was decided by only three points; worse for Houston, their win was in Week 2 of the season, when Kerry Collins still started for Tennessee. Even without McNabb, the Eagles will prove a tough test for Houston—particularly on the road—and the Ravens are new and improved for 2010.
- Week 9: @ Philadelphia Eagles
- Week 10: vs. Cincinnati Bengals
- Week 11: @ New England Patriots
- Week 12: vs. San Diego Chargers
- Week 13: vs. Dallas Cowboys
The defending AFC champions have only the 11th-toughest schedule for 2010, but the middle of the season features five games in a row against division winners from 2009. Though the Eagles and Bengals may prove soft appetizers depending how they adjust to playoff disappointment from last year, the Colts will have to face the Patriots, Chargers, and Cowboys in consecutive weeks. Needless to say, with a schedule like this the league might not be watching the 2010 Colts push for an undefeated season anywhere near as long as they did in 2009.
- Week 2: @ San Diego Chargers
- Week 3: vs. Philadelphia Eagles
- Week 4: vs. Indianapolis Colts
With the 5th-toughest schedule in the NFL and a team that finished in the basement of the AFC South last year, there isn’t a lot of wiggle-room for the Jaguars. Unfortunately, three of their first four games are against division winners from 2009. The road trek to San Diego will be particularly difficult, but home follow-ups to the Eagles and Colts won’t be any easier. The Jaguars could be looking at a 1-3 record if they can beat the Broncos in Week 1.
- Week 15: @ Indianapolis Colts
- Week 16: vs. Washington Redskins
- Week 17: @ Houston Texans
If the Jaguars are still at all in the playoff hunt come the end of the 2010 season, they will have to fight for their playoff lives against a tough ending slate. This time their game with the Colts takes place at Lucas Oil Stadium, and then they host Donovan McNabb and the Redskins before hitting the road again to take on divisional rival Houston. Chances are that these games will be spoiler roles for Jacksonville.
- Week 11: vs. Washington Redskins
- Week 12: @ Houston Texans
- Week 13: vs. Jacksonville Jaguars
- Week 14: vs. Indianapolis Colts
- Week 15: vs. Houston Texans
With winnable games to begin the 2010 campaign, the Titans will hope to avoid a repeat of 2009’s 0-6 start despite the 2nd-toughest schedule in the NFL for the upcoming season. In an interesting twist of the schedule, however, the Titans will only play one divisional game before Week 12: a Week 6 game in Jacksonville. This sets up a tough set of games where they’ll begin with the McNabb-led Redskins at home, then travel to Houston before three home games in a row against the Jaguars, Colts, and Texans. If they can weather that storm, they still have to travel to Indianapolis to play the Colts in Week 17. This concentration of tough divisional match-ups could make or break the season.
- Week 3: vs. Indianapolis Colts
- Week 4 @ Tennessee Titans
- Week 5: @ Baltimore Ravens
- Week 6: vs. New York Jets
The Broncos don’t have a particularly difficult schedule for 2010, but it will certainly test them early on. Beginning with Week 3—and except for the Week 4 game with the Titans—the Broncos will take on three playoff teams from 2009 in a four week period. The chances of an extended undefeated start look particularly poor. Luckily for the Broncos, they’ll have plenty of winnable games to try and make up ground.
- Week 5: @ Indianapolis Colts
- Week 6: @ Houston Texans
When you finish last in your division in the NFL, you typically don’t face a very difficult test in the next season. The Chiefs face a lot of low-level teams, so it wasn’t possible to find at least three games in a row to pick out as a “gauntlet” for Kansas City. Some would say that their level of talent might make the entire season a “gauntlet,” though I think there has been improvement for 2010. In the end, the back-to-back road games against the Colts and Texans in Weeks 5 and 6 stood out as the toughest stretch of play for K.C. this year. If they can put together a decent effort, the schedule is definitely in their favor to improve on last season’s result.
- Week 3: @ Arizona Cardinals
- Week 4: vs. Houston Texans
- Week 5: vs. San Diego Chargers
The Jason Campbell era starts off manageably enough with a road game against Tennessee and a home game against the Rams, but then the Raiders take on essentially three playoff teams in a row from last year; including the Cardinals and Chargers who won their divisions. This will be a tough early test for the new-look Raiders, who are hoping to build upon the release of failed draft pick JaMarcus Russell.
- Week 11: @ Pittsburgh Steelers
- Week 12: vs. Miami Dolphins
- Week 13: @ San Diego Chargers
After a Week 10 Bye, the Raiders once again face a set of tough teams. The Steelers and Dolphins just barely missed the 2009 playoffs, and this game against the Chargers will be on the road. Much like the Chiefs, the Raiders have winnable games; they’ll need to win whenever they can manage in order to stay afloat with these two tough “gauntlets.”
- Week 7: vs. New England Patriots
- Week 8: vs. Tennessee Titans
- Week 9: @ Houston Texans
Despite earning the #2 seed in the AFC last season, the Chargers benefit from having the 29th-toughest schedule in 2010; that’s almost criminal. The toughest stretch of the season begins with home games against the Patriots and Titans before hitting the road to play the Texans. Compared to other “gauntlets” in the AFC—and considering the talent of the Chargers—even this might not prove very difficult. The Chargers will face another test in Week 12 with a road game at Indianapolis, but that game is sandwiched between home contests with the Broncos (Week 11) and Raiders (Week 13), so there is a safe cushion.
There you have it for the AFC teams and the “gauntlets” looming for the 2010 season; let us know who you think faces the toughest stretch of games in the comments below!