Every year, once NFL opponents are determined, there’s a lot made of the strength of schedule. But this year, some of these figures are pretty deceiving. So I thought we’d examine these numbers to see which of these stats are true and which should be seen with a wink.
A few notes first: An NFL team’s schedule has 14 of 16 games determined by rotation and the other 2 determined by the previous year’s finish. Each year, a team plays:
*6 division games (home and away against the other 3 division teams)
*4 games against another division from its own conference – pairing are AFC East and South; AFC North and West; NFC East and South; NFC North and West
*2 games against the similar-finishing team from the other two divisions in its own conference – so, for example, Carolina finished first in the NFC South and is playing the NFC East; it will also play the first-place teams from the NFC West (Arizona) and North (Minnesota)
*4 games against a division from the other conference – pairings are AFC East/NFC South; AFC North/NFC North; AFC South/NFC West; and AFC West/NFC East
We’re going look at the strength of schedule based on opponents’ 2008 winning percentage and see which numbers are lying and which numbers are worth noting. First, some overarching thoughts…
*The strong results of the NFC South and AFC East cause teams in those divisions to move to the top of the list (they make up the top 8 teams on the list.) The 6 intra-division games and the fact that these division are playing each other inflates their numbers. But that’s not a fluke, because those divisions look to be strong again. Of these teams, the Jets and Buccaneers have QB questions that could cause them to take steps back, and those steps back could end up looking huge in the standings because of the level of competition.
*Conversely, the fact that Detroit went 0-16 unnaturally deflates the other three NFC North teams (ranked the bottom three in strength of schedule against) as well as the rankings of the AFC North (22, 25, 28 and 29). I think Detroit will be at least competitive this year (I could see them with a minimum of four wins and as many as six or seven), and that would put those teams’ schedules in the middle of the pack more than at the bottom. Four games would cause huge movement in this standings.
*Other teams that skew these rankings, at least in my opinion: Seattle is better than a normal 4-win team, Green Bay is better than a normal 6-win team, Kansas City is better than a normal 2-win team, San Diego is better than a normal 8-win team, and Jacksonville is better than a normal 5-win team. On the other hand, as mentioned before, Tampa Bay and the Jets are not as good as normal 9-win teams because of their QB situations, and Tennessee is not as good as a normal 13-win team (I’d put them more at 9 or 10 wins). I’d also put Miami and Carolina down as teams that are ranked about 2 wins better than they really are. So while Tennessee and Jacksonville balance each other out a bit for teams playing the AFC South, teams playing the AFC West have a little tougher draw than it appears.
(These strength of schedule numbers courtesy of ESPN.com)
1. Miami Dolphins (opponents 152-104, .594) – While having the Jets and Bucs at home would seem to help their cause, road trips to Jacksonville and San Diego would mitigate this. Getting the division-winner draw of Pittsburgh at home and San Diego on the road really hurts as well. This schedule is one reason that Miami’s fortunes should fade a bit.
2. Carolina Panthers (opponents 151-104-1, .592) – No gimmes at home, with Philadelphia and Minnesota the toughest, but neither those nor Washington, Buffalo, or Miami is a completly daunting matchup. The road schedule, though is Brutal – at New England, Dallas, the Giants, and Arizona, with only a trip to the Jets as a “respite.”
3. New England Patriots (opponents 151-105, .590) – The only scheduling break the Pats got was having their schedule-determined road game at Denver and getting Tennessee at home instead of on the road. This is a gauntlet.
4. Atlanta Falcons (opponents 150-105-1, .588) – The Falcons have a little better run at home than division foe Carolina, thanks to home games vs. Chicago, Buffalo, Miami, and Washington. The road schedule is similarly tough, though, with only a trip to San Francisco as a potential break.
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (opponents 148-107-1, .580) – Like their division brethren, the Bucs have an awful schedule. Even a road game at Seattle is tough because of the Seahawks’ home-field edge. This schedule plus an uncertain QB situation portends bad things for the pirates by the bay.
6. Buffalo Bills (opponents 146-110, .570) – Sure, having Terrell Owens should help, but that road schedule is brutal. In addition to their division games, they go to Atlanta and Carolina, Jacksonville and Tennessee, and what should be an improved Kansas City team. Can you see them with more than 2 road wins? Me neither.
7. New York Jets (opponents 145-110-1, .568) – While they drew the strong AFC South and NFC South, they also got Cincinnati at home and a trip to Oakland. They never win at Oakland, but that’s still a better fate than the rest of their division faced. Still, with a young quarterback (either Kellen Clemens or Mark Sanchez), this schedule sets them up for a decrease in the win column.
8. New Orleans Saints (opponents 142-113-1, .557) – New Orleans got the biggest break in its division, getting the Lions and Jets at home and a road trip to St. Louis. By finishing last in their division at 8-8 in ’08, the Saints are set up to take a step forward in ’09.
9. Philadelphia Eagles (opponents 137-119, .535) – The home schedule sets the Eagles up for a run toward the division title, because games against New Orleans, Tampa Bay, San Francisco, Denver, and Kansas City all look to be winnable. The road slate is tougher, although trips to Chicago and Oakland could be fruitful.
10. New York Giants (opponents 134-120-2, .527) – The home schedule looks brutal with non-division games with Arizona, San Diego, Atlanta, and Carolina, all of whom should be playoff contenders. But road games at Kansas City, New Orleans, Tampa Bay, and Denver all provide opportunities for wins.
11. Dallas Cowboys (opponents 131-123-2, .516) – Seattle and Oakland at home? Good. Atlanta, Carolina, and San Diego at home? Tough. The road schedule, aside from a trip to Green Bay, is at least palatable.
11. (tie) Jacksonville Jaguars (opponents 132-124, .516) – While this schedule is ranked toughest in the division, it’s not too bad. Road trips to the Jets, Cleveland, Seattle, and San Francisco are manageable, while getting the Rams, Bills, Dolphins, and Chiefs at home is pretty favorable. Like the rest of its division, Jacksonville has a schedule that sets up for a playoff run.
13. Indianapolis Colts (opponents 131-125, .512) – New England is the only out-of-division home game that looks to be a stern test, while the road schedule isn’t daunting aside from the trip to Baltimore and maybe Arizona. It appears Indy got a little more favorable schedule than division rival Tennessee.
14. Tennessee Titans (opponents 130-126, .508) – The Titans’ home slate isn’t that rough, although Arizona, San Diego, Miami, and Buffalo aren’t pushovers. Road games at New England and Pittsburgh are no picnic, though.
15. Houston Texans (opponents 129-126-1, .506) – The Texans have the kind of home schedule out of division that could push them above .500 for the first time. Only the game against the Patriots is daunting. Meanwhile, the road schedule has some low-hanging fruit with trips to St. Louis and Cincinnati. This schedule makes a wild-card run more than a passing thought.
16. Washington Redskins (opponents 125-129-2, .492) – Washington has by far the easiest home schedule in the NFC East, with games against New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Kansas City, Denver, and St. Louis. Road trips to Detroit and Oakland are also doable. All this means the Redskins could be a team that gets a schedule bump in the standings.
17. Kansas City Chiefs (opponents 123-131-2, .484) – Three really tough home games against Pittsburgh, San Diego, and Philly hurt the Chiefs’ chances, but the problems in division should help them at least double last year’s 2-win total.
17. (tie) San Diego Chargers (opponents 123-131-2, .484) – Playing the NFC East is tough with trips to Dallas and the Giants, as well as trips to Pittsburgh and Tennessee. Still, 10 wins seems realistic given the advantage the Chargers should have in division.
19. Denver Broncos (opponents 122-132-2, .480) – Denver will need to hold its own at home against New England, the Giants, and Dallas in order to keep up with the Chargers. Only Cincinnati on the road seems like a winnable road game.
19 (tie). Oakland Raiders (opponents 122-132-2, .480) – Getting the Bengals and the Jets at home should help the Raiders’ cause, but aside from a road game at Cleveland, there’s not much to suggest the Raiders can be much better than last year’s 5-11 mark.
21. Detroit Lions (opponents 119-136-1, .467) – The Lions rank significantly higher on this list than their NFC North competitors, but that’s because they don’t have the 0-16 Lions on the books twice. But their home schedule is fairly tough, because Pittsburgh, Arizona, and even Washington present challenges. If you’re trying to find the streak-breaker, it’s Cleveland or St. Louis at home or maybe a road game at San Francisco or Cincinnati.
22. Cincinnati Bengals (opponents 119-137, .465) – There’s room on this home schedule for some wins over Denver, K.C., Houston, Chicago, and Detroit. Cincinnati actually caught a better slate than Baltimore even though the Ravens’ ranking is lower.
22 (tie). St. Louis Rams (opponents 119-137, .465) – It looks to be a tough one for the Rams, who host the Colts, Texans, Packers, Saints, and Vikings. Can you see them winning any of those games? The road games, aside from a trip to Detroit, are no picnic either. This could easily be the team on the clock for the 2010 NFL draft based on this schedule.
24. Seattle Seahawks (opponents 117-139, .457) – The Seahawks will have a chance to reestablish their home-field advantage against Tampa Bay, Chicago, Detroit, and perhaps Jacksonville. This schedule gives them a chance to bounce back and maybe make a run back to the NFC West title.
25. Cleveland Browns (opponents 114-140-2, .449) – Cleveland caught one of the worst slates in its division because it will have to fight off San Diego, Green Bay, Minnesota, and Jacksonville at home. They’ll probably need a few road wins to keep up with Cincinnati and stay out of the AFC North basement.
26. San Francisco 49ers (opponents 113-142-1, .443) – The Niners host Atlanta, Jacksonville, and Tennessee, but they also get visits from the Bears and Lions. The road schedule out of division is tough all the way across.
27. Arizona Cardinals (opponents 113-143, .441) – Arizona’s home-field advantage will be tested by games against Minnesota, Carolina, Indianapolis and even Houston. The road schedule includes humdingers at the Giants, Tennessee, and Jacksonville, but trips to Chicago and Detroit are milder.
28. Baltimore Ravens (opponents 111-143-2, .438) – While Pittsburgh caught a favorable home schedule, the Ravens are staring at trips to San Diego, New England, Green Bay, and Minnesota out of division. That’s tough sledding. Thankfully, only Indy is a real out-of-division challenge on the home slate.
29. Pittsburgh Steelers (opponents 110-144-2, .434) – After facing the league’s toughest schedule last year and fighting through it, the Steelers get a much better draw this year. Their toughest non-division games – San Diego, Tennessee, Green Bay, and Minnesota – are all at home. This is the kind of schedule that makes home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs a real possibility.
30. Green Bay Packers (opponents 109-146-1, .428) – This is a soft home schedule thanks to games vs. Cincinnati, San Francisco, and Seattle. The road schedule is a little tougher than the rest of the division faces with a games at Super Bowl teams Pittsburgh and Arizona.
31. Minnesota Vikings (opponents 107-148-1, .420) – For a first-place schedule, the Vikings are set up for success, with home games against San Francisco, Seattle, and Cincinnati and road games at Cleveland and St. Louis. The Vikings do face toughhome matchups against the Giants and Ravens.
32. Chicago Bears (opponents 105-149-2, .414) – For a team at the bottom of the rankings, this slate presents difficulties, most notably home games against Pittsburgh, Philly, and Arizona. But of the non-division road games, only Baltimore and Atlanta should be stern tests.