The Redskins were rewarded for their fourth consecutive fourth place finish in the NFC East with the customary fourth place schedule. But in the past three years, that fourth place schedule has preceded a fourth place finish. In fact, with the six "last place" opponents the Redskins have drawn by virtue of finishing last in the NFC East in 2008, 2009, and 2010, the Redskins went 1-5 in those fourth place games the following year. Mike Shanahan has not beaten any team that was put on the Redskins schedule because of a 4th place finish. He is 0-4.
The lesson here is that unless the Redskins are ready to help themselves and beat teams like Minnesota and St. Louis on the field -- and not just on paper -- there is only so much help they can get from the schedule-makers. The division slate will not be easy. The Cowboys-Redskins Thanksgiving Day game jumps right off the paper when you look at the 2012 Redskins schedule, though the fact that the Redskins travel there on Thanksgiving is probably of small assistance to the Cowboys, who have been flat at home against Washington each of the last four games (though they did win the last three).
And the divisional games are bunched in the second half of the year: three in a row sandwiching that Thanksgiving game, and then two back to back divisional games to end the year. This ensures that the Redskins will be live late into the season (unlike last year) and that the division will have to come through Washington whoever is to win it. Those are advantages that the Redskins did not enjoy in prior years.
The schedule makers could not have given the Redskins a much tougher draw than they did, as their week one game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome was the toughest game on their entire schedule. But that marquee draw is followed by a Week 2 trip to St. Louis, the home opener against a tough (but young) Bengals team, and then the pilgramage to equally young, but perhaps less talented Tampa in Week 4. That smells like a 2-2 start, with the danger of being a 1-3 start if the Redskins leave their opponents in the game too long.
But after that, the schedule both softens and becomes incredibly home-laden. The Redskins have not been a very good home team since Dan Snyder bought the team, but purely based on the idea that the Redskins can peak in the middle of the season, this year would seem to have a chance to truly be different. The Atlanta Falcons are a very good team, but drawing them at home in Week 5 gives the Redskins a pretty good chance to be healthy, and able to take out the Falcons. Then you have the Vikings at home next week. Again, a very favorable way to start the month of October.
Then the Redskins will get a Giants team in Week 7 that is likely to have an inflated record; inflated at least to the start the Redskins will have to endure (the Giants, ultimately, will play the league's toughest schedule). Then the Redskins have to play on the road at Pittsburgh against a quickly declining Steelers team. It would not be a good sign for the season if the Redskins dropped both these games, but a split on this road trip would position the team well for the future.
Then comes the dreaded month of November and the critical playoff push. The Redskins have long been a poor performing team in November, but that's more of a funcition of the statistical noise of being a poor performing team in general. The Redskins currently lack great depth, and even a 5-3 start against a tough schedule would easily be wasted if the Redskins defense gets torched at home by Cam and the fightin' Newtons and then struggles through a 1-2 division record in this month of dread. That would turn a 5-3 start into a 6-6 mark, and would put the Redskins on the outside looking in with a pair of their road trips still upcoming.
Conversely, if the Redskins were to run the table in the month, they would almost certainly enter the month of December in the drivers seat in the NFC East no matter how mediocre they started against other young teams.
The benefit the schedule-makers gave the Redskins is that they basically got six weeks free at the start of the season to figure out what kind of team they are and what adjustments they need to make, because a 3-3 start(or even a 2-4 start) is not going to kill their chances of competing this season. Plus, two wins in their first six is practically guaranteed by the schedule: losing at home to the Vikings in Week 16 is one thing, it would be quite another to lose to them in October at home. They begin the first six weeks of the season playing what very much looks and smells like a fourth place schedule, at a time when they know those teams will be playing like fourth place teams. The Redskins could win those games purely on their boldness from the offseason.
It's really difficult to predict with any certainty what the late season home slate will be like. You have the Giants in Week 13, the Ravens in Week 14, and the Cowboys in Week 17. It would not surprise me if the Redskins were the best team out of that group come December, nor would it surprise me if they were the worst team out of that group, and an obvious pick as last place finisher. We know the Browns game will be winnable (though if you think that a trip to Cleveland in Week 15 means an automatic win, you may not be familiar with the recent history of the Redskins), and that a Week 16 trip to Philadelphia will be unreasonably tough, especially if the two teams are playing for the division title.
On the whole, this looks to be roughly an 8-8 season, but with the potential to be so much more. 8-8 is a three win increase over last season. That can be accomplished even if the Redskins have to carefully handle Robert Griffin's development over the course of the season, unable to afford to cut the training wheels at any point. If Griffin can take on more responsibility than expected, 8-8 might be a low projection.
But the defense can't count on consecutive 16 game seasons from Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan, and without those two in a every-week role, it may be more of a liability down the stretch than the Redskins are currently expecting it to be. It may simply come down to a point where they are playing well at home with the hometown crowd to back them and they're taking the burden off the offense, but the Redskins find themselves getting into shootouts on the road late in the year. That makes November an even more critical month for the Redskins, because by sweeping the division in that month, they have the opportunity to open up perhaps a two game lead, and enjoy the collapses of the Giants and Cowboys while preparing to play an Eagles team for the division title in Week 16. An Eagles team that might not be able to match what the Redskins can put out there on offense.
In last year's schedule analysis last year, when we predicted the Redskins would waste an easy schedule en route to a 5-11 finish (a prediction that we moved to 7-9 before the season), we pointed out that the key would be for the Redskins to beat their rivals at home, and to protect their homefield advantage against lesser opponents. The Redskins went 2-6 at FedEx Field last year, dropping their final six home contests. The need to perform at home is no less critical this year, but because the Redskins will play 6 of their 8 home games in a 9 game stretch, it is less of a "key for success" to play well at home, and more of a deal where the Redskins don't really have a choice.
If they struggle at home for a fourth straight year, the Redskins will be out of playoff contention by December 8th.