(Yahoo!) The NFL regular season officially kicks off on Thursday when Green Bay travels to Seattle to take on the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks. Shutdown Corner will be previewing everything to come all week, capped off by our awards and Super Bowl predictions on Thursday.
You can’t earn or lose a playoff spot in the first month, but you don’t want to dig a deep hole you’ll spend the last three months of the season trying to get out of.
Ask the Steelers and Giants. Both teams were popular playoff picks last year, but Pittsburgh started 0-4 and the Giants started 0-6. It didn’t matter that Pittsburgh won six of its last eight or New York won seven of its last 10. Neither one made the playoffs because of the slow starts.
Remember, all 16 games count the same, so the ones starting this week have the same weight in the standings as the ones in the final weeks. These teams have the toughest (and easiest) first four game stretches to start the season:
First four: Indianapolis, Kansas City, at Seattle, Arizona
The Broncos were a good team last year, but they were a good team with a very favorable schedule. Not so this year. Denver starts the season against four opponents that all had 10 or more wins last season. The good news is three of the four games are at home. The bad news is the road game is at Seattle, and we all know how that last meeting turned out. The Indianapolis game is huge for a Week 1 contest, considering that each team is favored to win its division and the Colts have a far easier schedule. It might end up mattered in the AFC playoff seeding.
First four: Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, at Cleveland, Carolina
Hope the Ravens are storing up on aspirin. They’ll face four of the toughest defenses in the NFL before the first month is over. The Browns might not be the best team, but it’s on the road and they’ll play strong D. If we could include the first six, Baltimore has road games at Indianapolis and at Tampa Bay to start October. Yikes.
First four: at Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Baltimore, at Tennessee
Want a reason the Browns were reluctant to start rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel right away? The schedule might have been a small factor. An opening game at Pittsburgh is just tough, and New Orleans and Baltimore are pretty good too. All those defenses are pretty creative and will send a lot of heat at the opposing quarterback. A road game at Tennessee, following a Week 4 bye, is no joke, but we’ll see who starts that one at quarterback.
First four: at Kansas City, Dallas, at Cincinnati, at Indianapolis
New coach Ken Whisenhunt didn’t catch any breaks. He has three games against 2013 playoff teams in the first month. Oh, and all are on the road, including back-to-back matchups against reigning division winners. Getting Dallas at home might be a break, but even the Cowboys are coming off an 8-8 season.
First four: San Francisco, at Tennessee, at St. Louis, New Orleans
Tennessee and St. Louis are coming off losing seasons, but aren’t that bad and won’t be easy outs on the road. Then for the home slate in September, Dallas hosts two of the best teams in the NFL.
First four: at Seattle, N.Y. Jets, at Detroit, at Chicago
Nothing like starting the season at Seattle, where the defending champs are just about unbeatable. A home game against the Jets looks winnable, but then it’s back on the road for divisional games against the Lions and Bears, a tough stretch of three road games in September.
And now two teams that had to feel good about their schedule over the first four games …
First four: Washington, at Oakland, at N.Y. Giants, Buffalo
The worst team in the league has the type of schedule that could result in a confidence-building start. Houston gets three teams who are predicted to be near the bottom of the NFL in Washington, Oakland and Buffalo, and a game against the Giants, who have struggled this preseason. They won two games all last season, but have a good chance to at least match that before September is done.
First four: at Atlanta, at Cleveland, Minnesota, at Dallas
The Saints should get off to a heck of a start. A road game against Atlanta isn’t really easy, but the Falcons are coming off a bad season. Then it looks like you can count on wins against Cleveland, Minnesota and Dallas. How many yards and points are the Saints going to hang on that Cowboys defense?