AFC East, NFC South face gauntlets

The Miami Dolphins and Atlanta Falcons are two teams that emerged from the depths to become 2008 playoff contenders. Will Miami's Chad Pennington (left) and Atlanta's Matt Ryan have what it takes to keep their teams contenders against trying schedules? Icon SMI/Getty Images

A year ago, the NFL schedule favored teams in the AFC East and NFC South. Easy out-of-division schedules give teams the opportunity to go 7-3 or better, and five of those eight teams accepted that gift. The only team from that group with a losing record was the Buffalo Bills, who went 7-9 but 7-3 in non-division games.

This season, the AFC East and NFC South have to pay the price.

The eight hardest schedules for the 2009 season are for AFC East and NFC South teams, and three or four-victory dropoffs for any of those teams might result. For 2008 playoff teams such as the Miami Dolphins, Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers, the road to the 2009 postseason is treacherous.

The team most affected is Miami. The Dolphins are being hit by the perfect storm of scheduling difficulties. First of all, the AFC East is playing the AFC South and the NFC South. Seven of those eight teams had .500 records or better in 2008, and the combined record of those teams is 78-50.

Compare that to a year ago when the Dolphins and the AFC teams beat up on the NFC West and AFC West, teams with combined records of 45-83.

The other problem facing the Dolphins is that they won the AFC East, going from worst to first. Worst-to-first teams usually suffer at least a three-game dropoff as defending division champs, as the benefits of the playing the easier schedule as they ascend disappear the next season. For instance, the Dolphins' first-place finish forces them to play the Pittsburgh Steelers and San Diego Chargers this season, two other AFC first-place teams. After an 11-5 finish last season, the Dolphins might be looking at dropping to around the .500 mark in 2009.

All told, the Dolphins play an almost impossible .594 schedule, third-toughest since 2003. No division understands the "worst-to-first" albatross better than the NFC South. In five of the past seven seasons, the NFC South's first-place team finished last the previous season. In that span, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the only team not to have a big dropoff after winning the division title, going from being a 9-7 division winner in 2007 on the league's seventh-easiest schedule to a 9-7 non-playoff team in 2008 on the league's 10th-easiest schedule.

Before that, though, the rest of the NFC South "worst-to-firsts" suffered similar fates. The 2006 Saints went from 10-6 division champs to a 7-9 record the next season. The 2005 Bucs went from 11-5 to 4-12. The 2004 Atlanta Falcons dropped from 11-5 to 8-8 the next season. The 2003 Panthers went from 11-5 to 7-9.

The Falcons went from last place in the NFC South in 2007 to second place and a wild-card finish last season. The Falcons have to hope they have the antidote to the complications of tough schedules. They have the AP 2008 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in quarterback Matt Ryan. Great quarterbacks are shields from dramatic drops.

The Indianapolis Colts have seven straight playoff appearances because
Peyton Manning is their quarterback; the team hasn't won fewer than 12 games in a season since 2003. The New England Patriots had five straight trips to the playoffs with a healthy Tom Brady.

Eli Manning has been part of four consecutive playoff trips for the New York Giants. Donovan McNabb has helped the Philadelphia Eagles be a playoff team for seven of the past nine years and he has five trips to the NFC title game. The Chargers have been to the playoffs for three straight seasons with Philip Rivers. Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger has been a playoff quarterback in four of his five seasons.

Ryan shows all the poise and presence to win those tough games. Many expect him to be the quarterback to end the "worst-to-first" syndrome in the NFC South, making the Falcons the perennial favorite to be a playoff team from that division.

Whichever team wins the NFC South will have proven itself. The NFC South not only has to play the AFC East, which had three teams finish at least 9-7 last season, but also has to handle games against the NFC East. Each team in the NFC East finished 8-8 or better.

The Panthers, the defending NFC South champions, have to play the NFL's second-toughest schedule this season (.592). Besides the AFC East and NFC East challengers, the Panthers have to play the reigning NFC North champion Minnesota Vikings and NFC West winner -- and the conference's Super Bowl representative -- Arizona Cardinals.

The strength of schedule can make or break a team and strongly affect division races, and the AFC East and the NFC South are the most troubled divisions this season.

Can Chad Pennington help the Dolphins avoid the typical dropoff? We'll see. What is clear to see, though, is how a schedule can make or break a team and how it influences the impact of division races, and the AFC East and the NFC South are the most troubled divisions this season.

Critics of schedule-difficulty discussion might ask what happened to the Steelers and the Colts last season. The Steelers had a 2008 schedule -- based on 2007 records -- of .598, considered one of the toughest in three decades. The Colts had a .594 strength of schedule. Having Roethlisberger and Peyton Manning helped the Steelers and Colts, respectively, trump the tough schedules, and both teams won 12 games.

The return of a healthy Tom Brady should help the Patriots counter their .590 strength of schedule, the third-toughest in the league. Can his expected starting-quarterback counterparts in the AFC East and NFC South -- Pennington (Miami), Trent Edwards (Buffalo), Kellen Clemens (New York Jets), Jake Delhomme (Carolina), Ryan (Atlanta), Drew Brees (New Orleans) and Byron Leftwich or Luke McCown (Tampa Bay) -- help their teams overcome tough schedules?

Probably not. Ryan probably has the best chance to keep the Falcons reasonably close to the nine- to 10-win level for the Falcons, who play a .588 schedule.

The biggest impact should be felt in the AFC East. The Jets won nine games with Brett Favre navigating them through a .469 schedule, the 10th-easiest schedule in 2008. If Clemens can't match Favre's production or the Jets can't come up with a better quarterback alternative, their season could buckle like the Cleveland Browns' campaign did in 2008. The Browns won 10 games in 2007 against an easy .430 schedule. In 2008, they dropped to 4-12 against a more challenging .543 schedule. The Jets face a .568 schedule this year, which could lead to a huge dropoff.

In the NFL, schedule can sometimes mean everything.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.