All last year, Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis motivated his players by telling them to brace for the difficult waves that existed in their 2013 schedule.
He might have a harder time convincing them to believe him this year.
That's because, according to percentages compiled by ESPN, the Bengals will have one of the NFL's easiest schedules in 2014. Thanks in large part to playing the mostly weak AFC South in their intraconference crossover games this year, the Bengals will end up with the league's No. 26 overall schedule. Their home and road strength of schedule rankings are similarly low, coming in at 24th each.
Oakland will have the hardest schedule next season, according to the findings. Indianapolis, the 2013 AFC South champion, will have the easiest. In fact, the four teams with the weakest upcoming schedules all play in the AFC South. Excluding the Colts' 11-5 regular-season record, the rest of the division went a combined 13-35 this past season.
The NFL won't announce dates for next season's games until later this spring, but we already know which opponents each team will play during the season, and where. Cincinnati will host the Jaguars and Titans from the AFC South, and will see the Falcons and Panthers from the NFC South. Since the Bengals won the AFC North, they also have a home game with AFC West winner Denver. Those games, combined with the three division games the Bengals play against the Ravens, Steelers and Browns, comprise Cincinnati's home schedule.
The Bengals went undefeated at home in 2013, winning all eight regular-season games. On the road, they were 3-5. Among the waves Lewis charged his team to weather were an 11-game stretch without a bye, four road games in a five-game midseason gauntlet, and a West Coast trip that began the final month of the season.
In the fall of 2014, the Bengals will travel to Houston, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Tampa Bay and New England, in addition to the other three AFC North cities. Three of those eight teams competed in this year's playoffs. Indianapolis and New England, which both visited Cincinnati in 2013, will be coming off losses to the Bengals.
The Bengals have the talent to earn a franchise-record fourth consecutive playoff berth next winter. This comparatively less-challenging schedule is even more reason to believe that can happen.