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2022 NFL season: Five playoff contenders facing the toughest schedules down the stretch

It would be easy to look up every contender's remaining strength of schedule and go right down the list, highest to lowest, to determine which teams have the toughest road to the playoffs in the final five weeks of the 2022 NFL season.

But that number doesn't always tell the entire story.

For instance, how tough an opponent are the 8-4 San Francisco 49ers right now, following the season-ending injury to Jimmy Garoppolo? What about the 8-4 Baltimore Ravens, who might be without Lamar Jackson for multiple games?

Records also can be deceiving for healthier squads, too. Are the 5-7 Raiders, winners of three straight, suddenly a team you don't want to face? On the flip side, are the 7-5 Titans -- losers of two straight and three of their past five -- suddenly a team you want to face?

There also is the home-road dynamic. The Seahawks and Commanders each only have one away game remaining. Then again, Washington's three home games all could be doozies. The 49ers have two more road games remaining, but they're both West Coast trips: at Seattle and Las Vegas. We must weigh those factors, too.

Most teams have five games left, but a few have four. Does a late bye week help a team for the playoff run? Or do the Falcons, Commanders, Packers, Saints and Colts have too much work left to do with too little time to get it all done, given their records?

When you take a step back, it's a lot to take in. So we'll try to contextualize all these factors -- injuries, opponents, locations and everything in between -- to determine which teams truly have the toughest closing roads. Sometimes, you have to look a bit past the numbers.

Here are our top five toughest schedules among the remaining contenders -- and as you'll see, they don't strictly follow the strength-of-schedule metric:

New York Giants

If we're going strictly by the numbers, the Giants' remaining schedule stands as the toughest among NFL teams that have not been eliminated from playoff contention, with a combined opponent win percentage of .710. Four of their five remaining games are against likely playoff teams or teams scratching and clawing to get in, such as the Commanders (the team they just tied on Sunday) in Washington in two weeks.

However, there's a caveat: While the two remaining games against the 11-1 Eagles tilt that percentage heavily, there's a chance Philly could have the top seed in the NFC wrapped up heading into the final weekend of the regular season, meaning many Eagles starters could be resting when the Giants visit them in Week 18. There's also a possible cupcake against the Colts in Week 17. Give credit for Indianapolis playing tough for 47 or so minutes against Dallas, but the late meltdown suggests that's a team that could collapse shortly if it hasn't already.

But otherwise, this schedule is a rough one, with the next three games likely determining the Giants' fates. Brian Daboll has unquestionably done a fantastic job in his first season as head coach. The Giants were not expected to contend this season, but outside of the Lions game, they've had chances to win almost every game so far.

If they can somehow scratch out two wins against the Eagles, Commanders and Vikings, they might see this surprising season through to the postseason. If not, however, the fairytale might not quite reach completion.

Nominally contenders, the Patriots have put themselves in a rough spot with five games to go. This is a .500 team with few factors providing a playoff edge, outside of a season sweep of the 7-5 Jets. New England's best hope is to finish with the same record as New York and squeeze in on a tiebreaker.

But that's asking a lot, considering the Patriots' slate down the home stretch. Two West Coast games kick it off, as the Pats travel to Arizona and Las Vegas the next two weeks. On paper, those are winnable games, but the Cardinals are coming off a bye, and the Raiders, winners of three straight, have looked like a completely different team the past few weeks. (There's also the Josh McDaniels factor in Las Vegas, whatever that's worth, as the former longtime New England assistant and Bill Belichick face off as head coaches for the first time since the 2009 season.)

Even if the Patriots can win those two, they must return home -- where they're only 3-3, with wins over the Jets, Colts and Lions -- to face the Bengals and Dolphins. Those teams possess two of the top offenses in the AFC, and though Belichick's defense has been fairly good this season, it has struggled, by and large, against better quarterbacks.

Plus, can anyone trust the Patriots' offense at this point? After a stronger outing at Minnesota in Week 12, New England struggled to move the football again last week. Oh, and the team they struggled against, the Bills, are the Week 18 opponents -- in Buffalo. 

If there's a silver lining, it's that the Bills might be in a position to sit people in that final game, depending on how things shake out over the next month. But after years of having its face kicked in by New England, Buffalo now is the big brother in the relationship, winning five of the past six meetings. Don't you think the Bills would relish burying the Patriots in that game with a chance to knock them from the playoffs?

Cincinnati Bengals

Nothing was handed to the Bengals a year ago when they made the playoffs by winning five of their final eight regular-season games against an imposing slate of opponents that finished the season with a combined record of 73-62-1. 

If they're going to do it again, it might be an even tougher road. 

Cincinnati is in good shape at 8-4. Ja'Marr Chase is back in the lineup after a four-game absence, and the Bengals have won four straight and eight of their past 10. Super Bowl runners-up have often faced difficult seasons the next year, but the Bengals -- unlike the reigning champion Rams -- are proving they're built to last.

Still, the remaining schedule does them few favors. They have three more games at home, where they're 4-1 this season (and 4-0 since Week 1), but there are no layups here.

They draw a Browns team that beat them handily in Week 8, which was also the last time Cincinnati lost -- and this time, Cleveland will have Deshaun Watson at QB. The two other home games come against the Bills in Week 17 (possibly with the AFC's top seed still up for grabs) and Ravens in Week 18 (with Lamar Jackson possibly back in the lineup). The two road games come against potentially desperate, all-hands-on-deck teams in the Bucs and Patriots in Weeks 15 and 16. Merry Christmas?

The Bengals don't read as a group that will spend energy whining about the path they must take. But they also can't really deny the degree of difficulty of what lies ahead. 

Washington Commanders

On the one hand, the Commanders have it easier than most. They're on bye in Week 14, giving them a nice late-season rest before they try to make a big push for the playoffs with their four remaining games, three of which are at home.  

But that also puts more emphasis on the importance of each contest, and there are no true gimmes on tap. The 49ers losing Jimmy Garoppolo might make Washington's Week 16 road game against them a bit less daunting, but San Francisco isn't suddenly a poor team. The Browns, Washington's Week 17 opponent, just returned Deshaun Watson to the lineup and figure to play out the string; they have no reason to rest players, as the Texans own their 2023 first-round pick, and they surely want to give Watson as many quality looks as possible.

The Commanders' remaining opponents have won 61.5 percent of their games this season, and Sunday's tie with the Giants makes the road to the playoffs tougher. Washington is currently the first team out of the playoff picture -- and the team directly above the Commanders, the Seahawks, finish the season with four of five games in Seattle.

This home stretch could determine whether the call to turn to Taylor Heinicke at quarterback was the right one. So far, it looks like it was. Carson Wentz might be in line to back up Heinicke when Wentz is activated, but there's no guarantee Heinicke can keep his strong run going, especially with two top-five defenses left to face in the Cowboys and 49ers.

New York Jets

We strongly considered the Ravens here, given that they'll be playing without Lamar Jackson for a stretch and are facing five games that might be tougher than the combined opponents' win percentage (.459) suggests. For the same reasoning, the 49ers would make excellent candidates, too, as they try to rally around Brock Purdy vs. a sneaky-tough slate.

But in the end, we couldn't look at the Jets' remaining five-game gauntlet without wondering if they can hang on to a playoff spot. They're currently sitting in the final wild-card slot but might need to win four of five down the stretch to assure they stay in the postseason picture.

The Bills will be ready for the rematch in Buffalo this week after losing to the Jets a month ago in New York. The final two regular-season Jets home games come against teams that might or might not be better than their records: the Lions and Jaguars in a four-day span between Weeks 15 and 16. Both Detroit and Jacksonville -- young squads looking to keep building, with 2023 in mind -- have incentive to play hard down the stretch, despite being on the fringe of the playoff picture.

Then it's back on the road to face the playoff-starved Seahawks (and old friend Geno Smith) and Dolphins. The Jets dominated the first matchup with Miami in New York; the sequel figures to be a big Week 18 game.

There's also the QB situation. Can Mike White regain his magic touch? Interestingly, Robert Saleh indicated this week that the plan is to play Zach Wilson at some point down the stretch. How will Saleh handle White if he struggles this week or next? The Jets could be riding the razor's edge for the final month of the season. They'll either be toughened up before their first playoff appearance in 12 years or keep that frustrating drought going.

Follow Eric Edholm on Twitter.

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