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Toughest 2020 NFL schedules: Brady-less Patriots will be tested

Schedules that appear difficult in May often don't look so tough once injuries strike and glossy season preview magazines get recycled. But if you are a big enough fan to be reading an offseason article on schedule difficulty in the middle of a pandemic, you probably know that and don't need a lecture.

Any attempt to forecast the most unpredictable league in sports is inherently speculative, so here's my inherently speculative attempt to predict the toughest slates following Thursday's schedule release:

New England Patriots

The Patriots' schedule luck from 2019 was due for a course correction. They play seven games against playoff teams from a year ago, tied for the most in the NFL. They head out on early trips to Seattle and Kansas City, two of the toughest road venues the league has to offer -- and two enormous tests for presumed first-time starter Jarrett Stidham. The Pats are also one of just four teams to face the dreaded three-game road trip this season, and New England's daunting trek comes in early December. It's worth wondering what sort of position the Patriots will be in for the playoffs before finishing with two home games in the division. I don't put a ton of stock into conventional "strength of schedule" rankings based on last year's record, but it's not a surprise after looking at this slate that New England's schedule is ranked the toughest. Then again, Bill Belichick's crew remains in a rather forgiving division ...

The rest of the AFC East

The entire division played worse than the records showed a year ago. Not only did the Patriots, Bills, Jets and Dolphins get to play each other, but they all wound up facing extremely forgiving out-of-division schedules. That isn't likely to be the case again this year.

The departure of Tom Brady gives hope to the rest of the division and likely installs the Bills as favorites. But that optimism should be tempered by the reality of facing the NFC West and AFC West out of division. Both western divisions look deeper and more improved than the AFC East, without any obvious soft spots. Like the Pats, the rest of the division will have to face the 49ers and Chiefs, last season's Super Bowl combatants. The Bills, Jets and Dolphins will have to be better just to match their 2019 records, and they are unlikely to be luckier.

New York Giants and Washington Redskins

The entire NFC East gets my vote for the toughest out-of-division schedule, with eight games against the NFC West and AFC North. The Fighting Ron Riveras have it particularly tough because, well, they don't get to face Washington. The Redskins drew the short straw with their semi-regular trip to Dallas for Thanksgiving, followed immediately by two more road games against the Steelers and 49ers. That may be the toughest road trip any team faces all season.

Like the Redskins, the Giants have a new head coach. Unlike the Redskins, the Giants have a first-time head coach. And Joe Judge's introduction to life in the big chair has included the added challenge of maneuvering his team through this abbreviated offseason. That's going to make it difficult to manage a tricky start to the G-Men's schedule, with the Steelers (on Monday night in Week 1) and 49ers (in Week 3) being the team's first two home games. New York also has road games against the Rams and Cowboys early. A 1-4 start would not be a surprise with this roster, which would immediately test Judge's ability to navigate choppy waters in the Big Apple.

Arizona Cardinals

The NFC West gets my vote as the league's toughest division in 2020, and the Cardinals still have work to do in order to get out of the cellar. The schedule didn't do them any favors. Four of their first six games are on the road, including an opener in San Francisco and a rare three-game road trip. That hurts Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury's chances for a fast start, with survival the goal before the team's Week 8 bye.

Houston Texans

I tend to place significant focus on September when evaluating these schedules because it's so difficult to overcome slow starts. The Texans have the toughest September in the league. Watching the defending champions raise their title flag is usually the precursor to an ugly L, which is what I'd expect when the Texans open their season in Kansas City. Bill O'Brien's crew then returns home to face the Ravens, the best regular-season team of 2019. A road game against the Steelers completes the brutal trifecta to start. And a Week 4 home game against the Vikings in the first week of October isn't exactly a soft landing. It's as if O'Brien has angered the football gods with his trade of DeAndre Hopkins.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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