The hot rumor is that the NFL schedules could be released Tuesday, or if not then at some point this week. When this happens, I promise we will make a large deal about it.
Of course, this announcement will only be about dates of games. We already know each team's 2012 opponents, as those are determined by a formula based on where each team finished in the 2011 standings. We've known since Jan. 2 which teams each team in the NFC East will play in the coming season.
It is on this that John Clayton has based his strength of schedule analysis, which suggests that the NFC East teams -- and especially the Super Bowl champion New York Giants -- could face a tougher road to the playoffs than some of the other teams in the league:
Winning the NFC East won't be easy. It wasn't easy last year when the New York Giants got hot at the end of the season and won an underachieving division with a 9-7 record. The Giants, Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles face schedules that range from .26 to .31 tougher than last year. The Giants, for example, face the toughest non-division schedule in football, going against teams with a 98-62 combined record, a burden that means they could play better and still have a tough time getting nine wins.
The NFC East plays the NFC South and the AFC North. The Eagles face a .516 schedule, .26 tougher than last year. The Dallas Cowboys play a .504 schedule, .31 tougher than last season.
This is noteworthy and fun to discuss, and if you'd like the full list of strength of schedule based on last year's records, you can find it here. You'll see that the Giants rank at the top, as the aggregate 2011 winning percentage of their 2012 opponents is .547. The Eagles and Cowboys also face a slate of opponents that combined for a better-than-.500 record in 2011. The Redskins have it a bit easier.
But while noteworthy and fun to discuss, this stuff doesn't move me too much. A team's 2011 winning percentage doesn't automatically correlate to its difficulty as a 2012 opponent. Just because the teams on the Giants' 2012 schedule won a bunch of games in 2011 doesn't mean they're going to be good teams in 2012. The plain fact is, from this far out, we can't possibly know who has the toughest schedule, because we can't know for sure which teams are going to be good and which are not.
This is why the schedule announcement, be it Tuesday or some other day this week, offers a little more clarity about toughness of schedule. Once the full schedules are announced, we can see who has the short weeks, who has the cross-country trip on the week following a "Monday Night Football" game, things like that. I think travel schedules have as much to do with the toughness of a team's schedule than do April projections about the quality of its opponents. There aren't too many easy games in this league, and sometimes those that look the easiest are the ones that jump up and bite you. Yes, the schedule matters, but I'd caution against reading too much into those 2011 opponents' winning percentages just yet.