Who the NFL schedule helps and hurts in fantasy

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Maybe Bob Dylan got it right when he said the times were changing (excuse me, "a-changing").

Just look at the NFL compared to what it was a few years ago.

Nike now makes NFL uniforms instead of Reebok. Sean Payton isn't allowed to talk to anybody in pro football anymore. Kickoffs have been moved up to the 35-yard line and may soon be gone from football altogether. The league even toyed with playing an 18-game schedule in the future, though that idea hasn't come into fruition yet.

But at least the NFL schedule-makers made sure we still had Brady versus Manning. Peyton and Tom Terrific will square off - oh, yes, Denver and New England will as well - Oct. 7 in Foxborough, Mass., in what will probably be the most anticipated matchup of the new season.

That still leaves another 255 games for fantasy owners to worry about.

Don't worry, I have you covered.

After a day and a half of finding my way through the maze that is the 2012 NFL regular season, I have found plenty of favorable and unfavorable matchups that could shift the balance of power in the fantasy football universe. Here is my list of some of the players who stand to gain the most (and the least) from 2012's slate of games.

Who the Schedule Helps

Reggie Bush, Running Back, Miami Dolphins - I don't know who should be more excited, Jonah Hill after convincing Emma Stone to be his lab partner in "SuperBad" or Bush after reading the Dolphins' 2012 schedule. Bush had a breakout season in 2011 (career-high 1,086 yards rushing) and it doesn't look like he'll be slowing down any time soon. Three of Bush's opponents (the Buffalo Bills, Indianapolis Colts and St. Louis Rams) were amongst the NFL's bottom five in rushing yards allowed a year ago. Bush also registered a pair of 100-yard rushing games against the Patriots and Oakland Raiders at the end of last season, a feat he'll have an opportunity to repeat in 2012. The Houston Texans (Week 1) and San Francisco 49ers (Week 14) are the only truly difficult defenses Bush will encounter next season.

Jamaal Charles, Running Back, Kansas City Chiefs - Charles has to be licking his lips at the Chiefs' tasty new schedule. Sure the 2010 Pro Bowler has to face the Baltimore Ravens in Week 5 and the Steelers in Pittsburgh during Week 10. But the Chiefs also will face four of the league's five worst rushing defenses from a year ago (the Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Colts). Assuming he fully recovers from the ACL injury that ended his 2011 season and that Peyton Hillis doesn't steal too many of his carries, Charles should have a mammoth fantasy year in 2012.

Aaron Rodgers, Quarterback, Green Bay Packers - This is a case of the rich getting richer. The Chicago Bears, New York Giants and New Orleans Saints gave up yards like they were donating them to charity last season and all three are on Green Bay's 2012 schedule. The Texans and 49ers pass rushes could cause Rodgers some problems, but those difficult matchups should be offset by the Packers meetings with the defensively challenged Colts and Rams. If Rodgers stays healthy, he could have a shot at Brady's record of 50 TD passes in a season.

Alex Smith, Quarterback, San Francisco 49ers - With Frank Gore in tow, the Niners will always be a run-first team. But with this collection of games, 2012 could be the year that Alex Smith finally ascends into fantasy stardom. Chicago, Green Bay, New England, New Orleans and the New York Giants rounded out the NFL's bottom five in passing yards allowed last season. All five are listed on San Francisco's schedule. The only top-five defense Smith will go up against next fall is the New York Jets (fifth). Expect Smith to improve upon last season's career highs in yards (3,144), QB rating (90.7) and completion percentage (61.3 percent).

Who It Hurts

Tom Brady, Quarterback, New England Patriots - Ever since the schedule was released on Tuesday, all anyone has talked about is what a cupcake set of games the Patriots have. Sure, Brady will throw for 350 yards against the Colts' and Rams' swiss cheese defenses. But the schedule gets a lot tougher after that. Brady had one of the worst games of his career against Baltimore in the playoffs last January, an opponent he'll face again next fall. Plus he'll be going up against the Jets (twice), Texans and the 49ers, all of whom were in the top five in fewest yards allowed last season. And remember Brady chucked up four picks against the Bills last September, a team he also has to face twice. Brady is still Brady so he'll get his 30 touchdowns but I think he's a long shot to crack 5,000 yards again in 2012.

Chris Johnson, Running Back, Tennessee Titans - Last year, Johnson overcame a sluggish start to finish over the 1,000-yard barrier for the fourth year in a row. Johnson piled up the yards against a slew of weaker opponents (Bills, Buccaneers, Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Panthers) in the second half of the season. This year, Johnson won't have that luxury. Tennessee's schedule will challenge Johnson from start to finish with games against the bruising Steelers and Bears early on followed by a pair of December showdowns with the blitz-heavy Jets and Texans. If Johnson doesn't start off strong in 2012, his fantasy season may never recover.

Maurice Jones-Drew, Running Back, Jacksonville Jaguars - The Colts and Bills will have a tough time quieting Jacksonville's bowling ball of a tailback, but MJD should have his hands full trying to find room to run against Chicago (fifth-best rush defense in 2011), Houston (fourth) and Miami (third). The Jaguars also collide with the Jets (fifth-fewest total yards allowed) in Week 14, another daunting task for the 5-foot-7 Jones-Drew.

Peyton Manning, Quarterback, Denver Broncos - Boy, that felt strange to write "Denver Broncos" beside Peyton's name just a second ago. Nothing says welcome back to the NFL like going up against the Steelers, Texans, Ravens and Browns, the league's four stingiest pass defenses from a season ago. Peyton will have a chance to pad his stats against Oakland and Tampa Bay, but who knows how many interceptions he'll have thrown already after Baltimore and Pittsburgh have had their way with him.

Only five months until the start of the new fantasy football season. I can't wait.

I guess some things never change.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Jesse Pantuosco at jpantuosco@sportsnetwork.com.

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