Schedule is everything in the NFL. An easy schedule can lead an average team to the playoffs, and a hard schedule can make it tough for a good team to reach the postseason.
Every year, one of the first things to figure out is which division is going to be the worst and what impact it will have on other divisions. Most thought the AFC South would be the weak link this season, and so far that has turned out to be true.
The Tennessee Titans are 1-4, and Jake Locker can't stop his bad luck with injuries. The Jacksonville Jaguars play hard but don't have much talent. The Houston Texans have done well against an easy starting schedule, but how far can they go with Ryan Fitzpatrick as their starting quarterback? Only the Indianapolis Colts have the look of a playoff team from that division.
Already, the AFC South is playing a big role in the start of the season. The division has lost six of its first seven games against the NFC East. Two wins each against the AFC South have helped the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles to 4-1 starts. The 3-2 New York Giants are 1-0 against the AFC South.
The AFC North, meanwhile, is off to a 3-1 start against the AFC South.
Last year, we saw the NFC East prop up three AFC West teams for trips to the playoffs. The Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers went a combined 11-1 against the NFC East. The key to any schedule is getting a 3-1 or 4-0 record against a competing division. Each NFL team plays 10 nondivisional games, and going 7-3 in those games can go a long way to at least a wild-card berth.
The classic example of that was in 2008 when the AFC West and NFC West were at their worst. Tom Brady suffered a season-ending injury in Week 1, but the New England Patriots, with Matt Cassel at quarterback, went 7-3 in nondivision games and ended up 11-5. The Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins also each went 7-3 in nondivision games. The Dolphins finished 11-5 and won the tiebreaker over the Patriots for the AFC East title. An 0-6 division record left the Bills at 7-9. The New York Jets lost to Oakland and Seattle and finished 5-5 in nondivisional games and finished 9-7.
After five weeks, 24 teams are no more than one game out of first place, the most this late in the season since the realignment of divisions in 2002. With that type of parity, the AFC South schedule could help the NFC East and AFC North earn one or even both wild cards from their conferences.
From the inbox
Q: With the emphasis on illegal contact, etc., offensive pass interference should result in a loss of down, since all similar defensive penalties are an automatic first down. Do you think the league will ever look into changing this?
Andrew in Tempe, Arizona
A: I think that would be too harsh a penalty. It's hard enough for offenses to recover from a first-and-20 or second-and-20 play after a 10-yard penalty. To lose a down on top of getting a 10-yard penalty would take away too much offense. The good news is that officials are calling more offensive pass interference penalties. In five weeks, offensive pass interference has been called 39 times. Last year, including playoffs and the Super Bowl, it was called 75 times. If you are wondering, defensive pass interference has been called 75 times. I think a 10-yard penalty is a good enough deterrent against a pass-catcher being too aggressive with his hands.
Q: I noticed that there have been ample no-shows at Heinz Field for the home games this year. I would imagine similar problems are occurring throughout stadiums across the league. The TV broadcasts are just so much better and cheaper, it's hard to argue in favor of attending a game in person unless your fan base has the ability to truly affect the outcome (Seattle/Kansas City). What can the NFL do to incentivize no-shows to attend games?
Adam in Washington, D.C.
A: This is a big concern for the NFL. Teams are investing a lot of dollars into making the game experience better. Lots of money is being plugged into upgrading the wireless system in stadiums so internal programming can be provided to smartphones. In time, a fan in the stands could get camera shots that can't be found on television. Unfortunately, teams aren't lowering the ticket prices or the cost of parking. The key is winning. The more a team wins, the more fans want to be at the games.
Q: With New Orleans' D iffy, plus the injury to Jairus Byrd and the supposed starting CB2 demoted, do you see any chance the Saints might want to re-sign Champ Bailey? After all, he knows the playbook already.
Coba in Jakarta, Indonesia
A: I would say it is doubtful. Bailey missed so much time in training camp that the team probably got the feeling his career was at the end. I don't know if he got enough time on the field to feel comfortable with the game plan. The problem is there isn't a great market for cornerbacks on the street. I guess it's possible the Saints could sign him, but I think they would go with a younger player if they want to reach out for more corners.
Q: After another blowout between Green Bay and Minnesota, Thursday night games have a point differential of over 25 points on average. You can argue about a small sample size, but let's be realistic: Thursday and football don't mesh well. However, I imagine those games crush the TV ratings and will not go anywhere because that's insane from a business aspect, right?
Scott in Tampa, Florida
A: The NFL has to do some studies to see why these games aren't close. The league felt going with divisional games would help because it cuts down on the mental prep time. What it might come down to is having the lesser team getting the home game and forcing the better team on play on the road. The NFL is hoping to make Thursday night football a billion-dollar property, so you know it's not going away. But ratings will drop if these games aren't going to be competitive.
Q: With Knile Davis showing he can shoulder a large load in Andy Reid's offense, would he ever entertain the idea of using both Davis and Jamaal Charles in the same sets? Charles is more than capable as a receiver and could be the threat Kansas City lacks in the passing game outside of Travis Kelce.
Brett in Charleston, Illinois
A: That would go against Reid's philosophy. He's a West Coast offense coach. He prefers more passes than runs. But he's also a good coach who knows Charles is one of the best running backs in the league. Because of that, he's going to run more than normal. To use two backs like that would take away from using three-receiver or two-tight end sets. Maybe he could use a package or two with both backs on the field, but any strategy like that would be for only a couple of plays a game.
Q: I have noticed something, though it took me quite a while to notice it. Remember Week 1 when Pittsburgh Steelers WR/KR Antonio Brown intentionally landed a kick right in the face guard of punter Spencer Lanning? He received a fine of $8,750. Don't you think this was just a blatant lack of continuity of discipline, considering Lions DT Ndamukong Suh was fined for stomping on then Packers guard Evan Dietrich-Smith right in the arm during the 2011 Thanksgiving Classic? Suh was fined, ejected and suspended for two games without pay. Brown got a slap in the wrist. Is there ever going to be some form of continuity with fines and penalties in the NFL?
Ray in Monroe, Michigan
A: I don't think Brown was trying to hurt the punter. He was trying to make an incredible leap and crashed into Lanning. I don't know how this would compare to a Suh stomp. I don't think there was any intent coming from Brown. Suh has had a history of trying to hurt opponents, although fortunately he's been on good behavior this year.