(AUDACY) Success comes with a price in the NFL, where the better teams from a year prior usually face a tougher schedule and of course are awarded later picks in the draft. These mechanisms and others are meant, in theory, to maintain a degree of competitive balance.
The wrinkle in the schedule in 2021 is the adoption of a 17th regular-season game. To account for an extra game on everyone's calendar, every team will have one additional matchup against a non-conference opponent that finished in the same place in their respective division.
In 2021, the schedule burden falls heaviest on the teams of the AFC North, which was arguably the NFL's strongest division in 2020, when it was the only one to send three teams to the postseason. The Steelers, Ravens and Browns each won at least 11 games in 2020.
Those Steelers, Ravens, Browns and also the Bengals all rank in the top nine in 2021 when it comes to the most difficult schedules -- a cruel twist for Cincinnati as it looks to continue rebuilding in quarterback Joe Burrow's second season, assuming he's back healthy. Interestingly, the tough slate for the AFC North represents a stark reversal from last season, when those teams' schedules were among the easiest.
Below is a look at the strength-of-schedule outlook for all 32 teams in 2021, per CBS Sports, based on opponents' records in 2020. To buy tickets to see your favorite team in action next season, click here.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers (.574)
2. Baltimore Ravens (.563)
3. Chicago Bears (.550)
4. Green Bay Packers (.542)
5. Minnesota Vikings (.531)
6. Cincinnati Bengals (.529)
6. Detroit Lions (.529)
8. Las Vegas Raiders (.526)
9. Cleveland Browns (.518)
10. Los Angeles Rams (.515)
11. Kansas City Chiefs (.511)
11. Seattle Seahawks (.511)
13. Tennesse Titans (.507)
13. Arizona Cardinals (.507)
15. Washington Football Team (.504)
15. Houston Texans (.504)
17. Los Angeles Chargers (.493)
18. Jacksonville Jaguars (.491)
19. San Francisco 49ers (.489)
19. New York Jets (.489)
19. New England Patriots (.489)
22. New Orleans Saints (.483)
23. Buffalo Bills (.478)
23. Indianapolis Colts (.478)
25. New York Giants (.474)
26. Carolina Panthers (.472)
27. Denver Broncos (.471)
27. Miami Dolphins (.471)
29. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (.465)
30. Atlanta Falcons (.454)
31. Dallas Cowboys (.452)
32. Philadelphia Eagles (.430)
The AFC North teams play their divisional counterparts in the NFC as well as the entire AFC West, plus the usual same-place teams within the AFC. With the extra game against same-place teams in the NFC, the AFC North teams drew the NFC West. That sets up the Steelers to play the Seahawks, giving them a whopping 10 games against teams that reached the postseason in 2020 -- two apiece against the Ravens and Browns and one against the Chiefs, Bills, Packers, Bears, Titans and Seahawks.
The only other team with as many games against playoff teams is the Packers who are a crossroads with franchise quarterback Aaron Rodgers. It almost seems cruel for a team to have to run the gauntlet while facing the prospect of upheaval at the sport's most important position, but such is life in the NFL.
On the other side, the teams of the NFC East face a relative walk through a meadow after the anemic division failed to produce a team with a .500 record in 2020, let alone a winning one. The Washington Football Team, the Giants, Eagles and Cowboys all rank in the bottom-third of the league in strength of schedule this year.
Tom Brady and the Bucs look to have a relatively easy path back to the postseason, drawing non-division games against the NFC East and AFC East.