In the NFL, division games are (usually) the tightest, most closely-contested battles of the season - even when a league juggernaut is playing a league doormat. Any NFL player or coach will tell you that if you want to win big in this league, you have to win in your own division.
We have already dived into the inner workings behind the Buffalo Bills' abysmal 0-6 showing in the AFC East last season. At that point, we discussed exactly what the Bills need to improve to win their first divisional matchup since the 2007 season. Even if those improvements are made, nothing is certain in a closely-contested, hard-fought division game - Buffalo's (relatively) close finishes against their biggest rivals just last season is an indication of that truth.
When you're playing in the division, you take any advantage you can get. At first glance, the Bills - who finished last in the AFC East, and thus get, in technical terms, a last-place schedule - should have a slight scheduling advantage over the Patriots, Dolphins and Jets. A deeper look, however, reveals that that isn't necessarily the case.
Pairings for AFC South, NFC South matchups
By now, y'all are likely well aware that the AFC East, outside of its own division, will be facing the entirety of two other NFL divisions this season - the AFC South and the NFC South. To map out home and road matchups in these two divisions, the NFL essentially pairs up two teams and goes at it. This year, the Bills are paired with the Dolphins, leaving the Jets to pair with the Patriots. Confused? Hopefully this will clear it up.
Miami and Buffalo will play host to the same four teams from the AFC South and NFC South: Houston, Indianapolis, New Orleans and Tampa Bay. They will also travel to the same four locations: Jacksonville, Tennessee, Atlanta and Carolina. Clearly, that makes the Pats/Jets pairing the inverse; they'll travel to play the teams the Bills and Dolphins host, and they'll host the teams that the Bills and Dolphins meet on the road.
Houston, Indianapolis, New Orleans and Tampa Bay, on average, were 9-7 last season. This first grouping boasts only one playoff team - Indianapolis. Meanwhile, the group consisting of Jacksonville, Tennessee, Atlanta and Carolina boasts three playoff teams, and those teams, on average, were 10-6.
The schedule is difficult either way when comparing the groups, but clearly, if you're a team hoping to compete, you'd like to play the tougher of the two groups in your own stadium. Buffalo and Miami won't get that luxury, playing easily the tougher of the two groups on the road. Meanwhile, the Patriots (and the Jets - but don't let that dilute your bitter feelings) get the tough group at home, and the easy group on the road.
Clearly, we can throw the six divisional games out of the window, as each team in the AFC East gets one home and one away game - it's as even-footed as you can get. Factoring in the eight games mentioned above, we're left with just two games on the schedule. These two games are unique to each team's schedules, and are based solely on the previous year's standings. Each AFC East team will play one team from the AFC North and the AFC West - and it will be the team that finished in the same standing slot as them.
Before we get into the individual team matchups, it should be noted that all four AFC East teams will host their AFC North opponent, and all four AFC East teams will travel to take on their AFC West opponent.
AFCE 1 (Miami): versus AFCN 1 (Pittsburgh), at AFCW 1 (San Diego)
AFCE 2 (New England): versus AFCN 2 (Baltimore), at AFCW 2 (Denver)
AFCE 3 (NY Jets): versus AFCN 3 (Cincinnati), at AFCW 3 (Oakland)
AFC 4 (Buffalo): versus AFCN 4 (Cleveland), at AFCW 4 (Kansas City
By design, the last-place team gets the "easiest" schedule. In this case, I'm not necessarily certain that's true. Miami has a rough go of it, clearly, and Baltimore won't be a cakewalk for the Pats, either, but beyond that, it's a pretty level playing field. Who's to say that Buffalo's road is any easier than the Jets' insofar as exclusive matchups go?
Ranking the schedules
If you're forcing us to rank the four divisional schedules from easiest to nastiest - and obviously you're not, but we'll do it anyway - this is how we see it.
1. New England: The division's best team (with all due respect to the division-champion Dolphins, of course) gets manageable road games and winnable home games against tough opponents (such as their date with Baltimore).
2. NY Jets: Weak exclusive opponents and the same home/road advantage as the Pats.
3. Buffalo: Weak exclusive opponents, but boy, you'll be hard-pressed to find a more challenging road schedule in the entire league. Unless, of course, you consider...
4. Miami: Sometimes, it doesn't pay to be division champs. This schedule is brutal. The Fish have a ridiculously steep hill to climb - made more difficult by the return of that Tom Brady guy - if they hope to defend their division crown.
We knew entering the season that Buffalo's schedule would be infinitely more tiresome than the weak slate of games the team whiffed through in 2008. Even in "catching a break" as the last-place finisher, however, the Bills still don't catch a break when it comes to the schedule itself.