When NFL schedules were announced this spring, Redskins fans looked at the 2016 slate with much consternation. A quarter of the way into the season and things don't look quite so daunting.
Sitting at 2-2 through four games, the 'Skins are in the exact same spot as they were at this point last season. Washington used a second half surge in 2015 to go on and win the NFC East, and while it's much too early to guess how the second half of 2016 will shake out, some teams do not appear to be the same as they were last season.
Due to NFL constructs, the Redskins face the NFC North and the AFC North this season. Arguably the deepest divisions in both conferences, last season the NFC North sent two teams to the playoffs in Green Bay and Minnesota, with the Packers knocking out the Redskins in the first round. The AFC North also sent two teams to the playoffs in the Steelers and the Bengals.
Four games in, it looks like those four teams will again compete for the playoffs. The Vikings might be the best of the bunch, undefeated through four games with a stifling defense. The Steelers already beat the 'Skins, handily, and the Ravens look to again be a threat.
But where the Redskins schedule looks softer than expected this year is in their "first place" matchups.
Because Jay Gruden's squad won their division last season, they get matched up against other 2015 division winners to determine the final two games on their schedule (6 NFC East games, 4 NFC North, 4 AFC North are the others). That means the Skins will face the Carolina Panthers at home and travel to play the Arizona Cardinals.
Those two teams met last year in the NFC title game, and many experts predicted a return this year. But football often doesn't deliver what people expect.
Both the Cardinals and Panthers sit at 1-3, and the losses haven't been by narrow margins. Just as the Redskins have 12 games left to improve and figure things out, so too do the Cards and Carolina, though it would be dishonest to say either squad looks in the same form they showed in 2015.
Consider that the Redskins won the division last year at 9-7, and it's not entirely impossible to see that unfolding again. The Redskins have 75 percent of their season left, and while the Packers and Vikings present a significant challenge, Washington will likely be favored by oddsmakers against the Bears and Lions. Division games are almost always tight, as the 'Skins have shown in two competitive games against the Cowboys and Giants this season while the Eagles look much improved with a new coach and QB.
After beating the Browns and losing to the Steelers, the remaining AFC North games will be tough, but not insurmountable. Remember the Redskins face the Bengals not in Cincinnati but rather in London, so the home field advantage should be muted. A split in the four games against the AFC North would be a good result for Washington.
That leaves games against Carolina and Arizona. This summer, those looked like sure losses, but through four games, things look quite different.