There's nothing like coming off a losing season and finding yourself saddled with a tough schedule.
A few teams that struggled in 2012-13 must have done a double-take when the 2013-14 NFL schedule came out on Thursday night.
But that doesn't mean some of these teams can't surprise.
A few squads showed promise last season and appeared to be building something for the 2013-14 campaign. Here are three teams with tough slates that I see surprising in the upcoming NFL season.
*The complete 2013-14 NFL schedule can be found on NFL.com
St. Louis Rams
2012 record: 7-8-1
2013 Strength of Schedule: Tied for second
Let me put it this way: I don't think the battles with the San Francisco 49ers were flukes last season.
The Rams' success ultimately lies in quarterback Sam Bradford's hands, but adding offensive tackle Jake Long certainly helps in that regard. So does adding former Tennessee Titans tight end Jared Cook.
St. Louis obviously needs to add some options for Bradford in the receiving corps after losing Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson to free agency, but the Rams have two first-round picks to help in that area. They could also add someone like Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro to shore up the back end of the secondary.
But, most of all, I think Jeff Fisher is building a tough-minded squad. That's one of the most important steps in rebuilding a team.
2012 record: 7-9
2013 Strength of Schedule: Tied for seventh
I like how Joe Philbin and company are running things. Going all the way back to the 2012 preseason, letting Chad Johnson go sent a message to the team.
I also really like how young quarterback Ryan Tannehill progressed throughout the season, despite not being surrounded by much talent on offense. He tossed five touchdowns to one interception in December despite facing the New England Patriots (twice) and the San Francisco 49ers.
During the offseason, the Dolphins spent big. In the receiving corps, they added deep threat Mike Wallace to give Tannehill an instant upgrade, re-signed the dependable Brian Hartline and brought over Brandon Gibson from the Rams.
On defense, they added former Baltimore Ravens inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, former Atlanta Falcons cornerback Brent Grimes and inside linebacker Philip Wheeler (who quietly had a solid campaign for the Oakland Raiders in 2012-13). They also re-signed safety Chris Clemons.
2012 record: 7-9
2013 Strength of Schedule: First
The Panthers didn't do much this offseason (although former Chicago Bears cornerback D.J. Moore was a nice add), but I'm more focused on how young dual-threat Cam Newton finished the 2012 campaign.
After tossing a combined five touchdowns to eight interceptions in September and October, Newton tossed a combined 14 touchdowns to four interceptions in November and December. He also rushed for five touchdowns in those final two months. The Panthers ended up winning five of their final six games to close off the campaign, including victories over the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints.
Carolina's schedule is absolutely brutal this season, but if Newton can return to the form he displayed late last season and in his rookie campaign, he has the ability to lift the squad on his shoulders.
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