Easiest, hardest paths to playoffs

The 2012 NFL schedule bodes well for a Bills playoff berth. Rob Tringali/Getty Images

With the release of the 2012 NFL schedule, fans are hurrying to their computers to find out when they face their toughest rivals, but the biggest question is a simple one: Will my team make the playoffs?

Having a tough schedule can be devastating in terms of playoff hopes, so we at numberFire look to quell those worries by digging into how the 2012 schedule will affect a team's playoff odds.

To do this, we project out the 2012 season with the newly released schedule and compare that to thousands of randomly generated schedules. By looking at the difference between each team's playoff odds for 2012 and the average playoff odds over the randomly generated schedules, we can see which teams have the easiest and toughest roads ahead.

Keep in mind schedules are determined as follows: Each team plays the three other teams in their division twice (both home and away, six total games). Each division faces one full division in the AFC and one in the NFC (eight games). The remaining two games are played against those teams in-conference who finished in the same spot within their division. For example, the Giants finished atop the NFC East, so they will face the other division winners in the NFC -- the Packers and 49ers (they face the Saints as part of the NFC South, which matches up with the NFC East this year). As a result, the worse teams should have easier schedules and vice versa.

But one surprise playoff team from last season seems to have a particularly tough road in front of it, one that will absolutely test the abilities of newly acquired QB Peyton Manning. Based on our projections, the hardest schedule belongs to the Denver Broncos.

Top 5 Hardest Schedules

1. Denver Broncos

2012 Odds: 51.3%
Random Schedule Odds: 58.5%
Difference: -7.2%

Manning is recovering from a season-long injury and has big, er, highly regarded shoes to fill in Denver. Add the Broncos' 2012 schedule to his list of obstacles. The Broncos, after finishing first in the West last season, will face the other No. 1 teams in the AFC -- New England, Houston and Baltimore. In addition to their division games, the AFC West faces the AFC North -- a division that sent three teams to the playoffs last season -- and the NFC South. Between the Saints, Falcons, up-and-coming Panthers and the renovated Bucs, the NFC South grades out to be one of the top divisions in the NFL next season.