Toughest Schedules

Toughest NFL schedules of 2021: Chiefs among teams with most daunting slates

You've clicked into a world of comprehensive speculation.

The NFL schedule appears to be one thing in early May, but something else entirely in the rough-and-tumble hours of deep autumn, when we finally know who these teams really are.

You understand that. So do I. We still desire to bathe in it right now. I remember a 13-year-old me ripping through the sports section of USA TODAY to find out who my treasured Browns opened with, closed with -- and whether they were given a raw deal.

From where we stand today, more than a few fan bases are coming to grips with a slate of games looming as the opposite of a cakewalk. Here's my take on some of the toughest schedules following Wednesday's schedule release.

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Strength of schedule doesn't paint a complete picture, but Pittsburgh (.574) and Baltimore (.563) technically drew the thorniest slates in the NFL. The Steelers can't be asked to repeat their 11-0 start, but they can't afford to tumble, either, before closing the campaign against the Titans, Chiefs, Browns and Ravens. Baltimore hosts that Week 17 encounter, but also plays four heart-of-the-schedule road games in five weeks -- against the Dolphins, Bears, Steelers and Browns -- sandwiched around a Week 12 hosting of Cleveland. The Ravens were also hit with three road bouts against the Raiders, Lions and Broncos in their first four matchups. A year ago, Baltimore waltzed into September with the NFL's easiest strength of schedule.

Let's say the Packers make pretty with Aaron Rodgers and push this drama-filled circus into the background. Green Bay still faces the NFL's fourth-most grueling strength of schedule while absorbing 10 showdowns against teams who made the playoffs a year ago. It would have been nine, but Green Bay's newly added 17th opponent is none other than Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs. A disastrous scenario if Jordan Love is pushed into duty, but the schedule-makers still seem to believe in Aa-Rod's return: They handed the Packers a robust five prime-time appearances.

The rest of the NFC North

The NFC North becomes a hyper-manageable division if Aaron Rodgers vanishes. Assuming he stays, the Vikings were handed a brutal stretch of opponents coming out of their Week 7 bye: Cowboys, Ravens, Chargers, Packers and 49ers. New Lions coach Dan Campbell opens at home against the Niners before visiting Green Bay and hosting Lamar Jackson's Ravens. Detroit plays Pittsburgh and Cleveland in back-to-back November road games before closing with the Seahawks and Packers. The Bears are dealt a rough patch of their own: After hosting the Packers in Week 6, they take on Tampa Bay, San Francisco and Pittsburgh before their bye. Then comes Baltimore. Assuming he beats out the mundane Andy Dalton for the starting job, first-rounder Justin Fields will be tested early.

AFC South teams

I chart the AFC South as the NFL's weakest division. It gets no help from the Football Gods lining up against a gnarly four-pack of teams from the NFC West. A fast start for newfangled Colts passer Carson Wentz is a thorny proposition: They open with the Seahawks and Rams at home before a three-game road trip against the Titans, Dolphins and Ravens. Indy's bye doesn't land until Week 14. Their "gifted" 17th game comes against Tom Brady and the Buccaneers. The Titans have back-to-back October tilts against the Bills and Chiefs before a December-into-January run against Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Miami. Trevor Lawrence's Jaguars hit the road for four of their last six matchups, while the Texans feel ripe for implosion no matter the dance card. Light a candle for first-year coach David Culley.

After opening in Washington, first-year coach Brandon Staley guides the Bolts into a hornet's nest against the Cowboys, Chiefs, Raiders, Browns and Ravens before the bye. They come out of the break against a juiced-up Patriots team that beat them 45-0 last season.

It's not the ugliest of the bunch, but here's another team tugged down by that 17th opponent, with Washington drawing the Bills on the road in Week 3 after dealing with Justin Herbert's Chargers in Week 1. Three of its final four matchups come on the road against division opponents.

The Chiefs remain the AFC's premier beast, but get no breaks out of the gate with Cleveland at home in the opener before traveling to Baltimore. Two of their next three games come against the frisky Chargers and revenge-seeking Bills. They close the season with consecutive road fights against the Bengals and Broncos after hosting Pittsburgh in Week 16. Maybe the Chiefs still roll to 14-2 (correction: 14-3), but Andy Reid's bunch is no longer the loveable new face in the AFC: Everyone is angling to separate them into a thousand fragments en route to the throne.

Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter.

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