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.
That's something that the Buffalo Bills have struggled to accomplish in recent seasons. After sweeping both the Miami Dolphins and the New York Jets to finish with a 4-2 in-division record in 2007, the Bills have won just two of their last 12 games against their biggest rivals. The team's struggles with the New England Patriots are also well documented, as the Bills have beaten New England just once in their last 17 tries, with that victory coming in 2003.
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, and . A deeper look, however, reveals that that isn't the case. Not even close.
Pairings for AFC North, NFC North 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 North and the NFC North. To map out home and road matchups in these two divisions, the NFL essentially pairs up two teams and goes at it. For the second straight 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 North and NFC North: Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Detroit. They will also travel to the same four locations: Baltimore, Cincinnati, Green Bay and Minnesota. 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.
Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Detroit, on average, were 6-10 last season. This first grouping boasts exactly zero 2009 playoff teams. Meanwhile, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Green Bay and Minnesota were all playoff contestants a year ago, and those teams, on average, were 10.5-5.5 (between 10 and 11 wins).
If you're a team hoping to compete for the playoffs, 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 get the tough group at home, and the easy group on the road - meaning that last year's first-place team and runner-up get to play their toughest games in the confines of their own cozy stadiums.
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 South 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 South opponent, and all four AFC East teams will travel to take on their AFC West opponent.
AFCE 1 (New England): versus AFCS 1 (Indianapolis), at AFCW 1 (San Diego)
AFCE 2 (NY Jets): versus AFCS 2 (Houston), at AFCW 2 (Denver)
AFCE 3 (Miami): versus AFCS 3 (Tennessee), at AFCW 3 (Oakland)
AFC 4 (Buffalo): versus AFCS 4 (Jacksonville), at AFCW 4 (Kansas City)
By design, the last-place team is supposed to get the "easiest" schedule. That appears to be the case this year. New England gets two tough matchups; Houston and Tennessee are legitimate playoff contenders, and will be tough home matchups for New England and Miami, respectively. Denver and Oakland should be improved. I think it's pretty clear that in terms of exclusive opponents, things broke well for the Bills this year. But, alas, we're only talking about one-eighth of the schedule here.
Ranking the schedules
We ran this same exercise a year ago, and ranked the AFC East's schedules, in order from easiest to most difficult, as follows: New England, New York, Buffalo, Miami. Given the fact that Buffalo and Miami finished within a game of each other (but in reverse order from that ranking), that turned out to be a pretty good predictor of what was to come during the 2009 season. It wasn't perfect, but it did provide a bit of perspective heading into the regular season.
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 York: Fresh off of their surprising run to the AFC Championship Game, the improved-on-paper Jets get the division's easiest schedule, with fairly easy road games and weaker exclusive matchups.
2. New England: They get the same monumental home/road advantage as their New York counterparts, but much tougher exclusive matchups. Their schedule is relatively easy as well.
3. Buffalo: We get a very slight edge on Miami thanks to their two weaker exclusive opponents, but Buffalo and Miami both have highly difficult schedules. Then again, if it turns out Miami is significantly better than us, which is highly possible, Buffalo could drop down a peg.
4. Miami: Those expecting a break-out season from Chad Henne should check their expectations now, because Miami's got a ridiculously rough road ahead. Expect another near-.500 season from this team, because those road matchups are absolutely brutal.
For a second consecutive year, Buffalo and Miami drew the short straws when it came to NFL scheduling. For those of you of the belief that the AFC East crown would come down to New England and New York once again in 2010, this lends credence to that idea. Miami could contend, as well, but they've got a far more difficult road to contention.