The release of the NFL schedule opens the floodgates for mainstream networks to opine on who was helped or hurt most by the new schedule. A key focus this year, both during the primetime schedule release shows and among NFL fans and analysts in its aftermath, is the Strength of Schedule for the 32 NFL teams. Unfortunately, while Strength of Schedule is a valuable discussion point when examining and forecasting the 2016 NFL season, virtually all entities discussing it are doing the viewers and fans a disservice by referencing irrelevant information in a completely improper manner.
At my website (Sharp Football Analysis.com) I attack the NFL from an analytical perspective, often using contrarian thinking to find edges. I created a fully interactive graphic to view customized Strength of Schedule by team and week, using the most optimal method to calculate Strength of Schedule available. And because it’s an interactive project, the visitor controls the ability to view rankings over any range of weeks they choose. I have not seen anyone else calculate Strength of Schedule in the manner which I use, but before we get into specifics of my method, let’s examine Strength of Schedule in general.
I've long held that Strength of Schedule is overvalued before the season but undervalued during the season. We will hear many discussions between now and Week 1 about who is playing the most difficult schedule this year. But once the season gets underway, seemingly all that discussion ends. One month into the season, networks will likely discuss the teams who are dominating and their stats, without once factoring in caliber of opponents. For example, the Seahawks should start well, playing the Dolphins, Rams, 49ers and Jets but those same Jets have the most brutal start, facing the Bengals, Bills, Chiefs and Seahawks. Facing that slate which features one solid defensive team after another, it’s very likely the Jets’ offense starts off slowly. But it’s highly unlikely that in Week 5, the networks are factoring that aspect into the equation, and instead will simply rail on the Jets and their impotent offense. In my sports betting experience, I’ve found it exceedingly helpful to strongly account for in-season Strength of Schedule (even though mainstream media does not).
However, if we are going to discuss Strength of Schedule, it needs to be done using the most relevant and accurate information possible. I have yet to see one media outlet calculate Strength of Schedule using a method other than prior-year win percentages for current-year opponents. As an example, they take a team like the Buccaneers and their 2016 schedule, and assign records of 15-1 for both meetings with the Panthers, and 4-12 for the meeting with the Cowboys. But sitting here today, does anyone really see the Panthers going 15-1 again this year? Does anyone see Tony Romo re-breaking his clavicle in Week 3 and the team going 4-12 again? While anything is possible, you could make a lot of money betting “yes” on both outcomes this year. The manner in which they calculate Strength of Schedule is embarrassingly bad.
Additionally, the NFL intentionally tries to create more parity by scheduling teams to play easier or harder opposition based on how they fared the prior year. Take the Cowboys as an example. After winning the NFC East in 2014 with a 12-4 record, Dallas had to face all other division winners from the NFC last year. But after going 4-12 in 2015 and finishing last in the NFC East, Dallas now faces the NFC's other last-place teams, such as the 49ers, Buccaneers and Bears. The NFL scheduling rules try to help Dallas perform better by giving them easier opponents.
This makes it even more asinine to look to prior-year records to project current-year Strength of Schedule. In 2016, Dallas is not playing a 1st place schedule (as they did in 2015) and they likely won’t play 80% of their games without Tony Romo (as they did in 2015). So why should we care what their 2015 record was when projecting for 2016?
The solution is easy: Use the forecasted 2016 wins from the current betting market. Sports books project win totals for every team, and some early numbers are out now. As more and more respectable sports books release their own numbers this spring, more and more money will be bet into the market. This creates market efficiency, as linemakers adjust their numbers based on volume as well as respect they have for certain money which is bet. Before the games kick off in September, there will be no better projection for how teams will fare than what the betting markets indicate. That is not to say they will be accurate or correct on each team. Every year there are players and teams who vastly exceed or fail to meet expectations. However, using forecasted records for a team’s opponents is a far superior method for Strength of Schedule calculations compared to prior-year records.
The below analysis, as well as the interactive graphics found at my website, are rooted in using the betting market to predict Strength of Schedule. It’s also notable that when calculating my numbers, I take into consideration vigorish (aka “juice”) taken by sports books. For example, while the Chiefs are set at 9 wins, to bet the “over” you must lay -180 odds ($180 to win $100), as opposed to the Cowboys who are likewise set at 9 wins, but at +115 odds, meaning $100 wins $115). Thus, the linemaker does not actually view both teams as identical 9-win teams. Finally, another manner to calculate Strength of Schedule is to use the betting market’s power rankings, which equate a number to the strength of an individual team. I’ve used these in the past to create Strength of Schedule, and the results were quite similar to using forecasted wins.
Examining 2016 Strength of Schedule using the most accurate calculation method, here are the most difficult (#1) and easiest (#32) schedules that the 32 NFL teams will face this year:
1. San Francisco 49ers
2. New York Jets
3. Atlanta Falcons
4. Washington Redskins
5. Los Angeles Rams
6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
7. New Orleans Saints
8. Minnesota Vikings
9. Buffalo Bills
10. Houston Texans
11. Denver Broncos
12. Philadelphia Eagles
13. Cleveland Browns
14. Jacksonville Jaguars
15. Detroit Lions
16. Miami Dolphins
17. Tennessee Titans
18. Oakland Raiders
18. San Diego Chargers
20. Indianapolis Colts
21. Seattle Seahawks
22. Arizona Cardinals
23. New England Patriots
24. Chicago Bears
25. Kansas City Chiefs
26. Baltimore Ravens
27. Cincinnati Bengals
28. Green Bay Packers
29. Carolina Panthers
30. Pittsburgh Steelers
31. New York Giants
32. Dallas Cowboys
Note: On this page, you can spatially view the rankings, as well as select certain weeks to examine the most difficult stretches (which team starts with the hardest schedule, which team ends with the easiest schedule, etc.).
Now that we have a basis to calculate Strength of Schedule in a meaningful manner, and view the results visually, let’s examine each team and share some interesting schedule notes, hardships, or stretches they must face in 2016.
The Hardest Schedules
49ers (#1) – San Francisco faces the 2nd hardest five-week stretch this season (Weeks 2-6: @ CAR, @ SEA, vs DAL, vs ARI, @ BUF). They also are one of 10 teams to play back-to-back road games on three separate occasions. As we’ve seen, Chip Kelly’s defenses in three years in the NFL average the most time on the field per game, so starting against a difficult slate of opponents may snowball, throwing a wrench into the 49ers’ early success. The biggest problem for the 49ers is simply the NFC West, as that means the Seahawks twice and the Cardinals twice, and both teams are projected to be among the best in 2016. Factor in games vs the Panthers and Patriots, and it’s the most difficult that any team will face. Even their easiest stretch in Weeks 12-16 is made more difficult by the fact that four of five are on the road (@ MIA, @ CHI, vs NYJ, @ ATL, @ STL).
Jets (#2) – New York is in store for a roller coaster 2016. They face the NFL’s most difficult first month (vs CIN, @ BUF, @ KC, vs SEA) and that stretch continues through Weeks 5-6 against the Steelers and Cardinals, both on the road in back-to-back weeks. Looking at the Jets’ first seven weeks, there is a huge gap in opponent strength between them and the rest of the league. If they can somehow survive until Week 8, they face the 2nd easiest three-game stretch heading into their bye, and then host two annual playoff contenders in primetime (consecutively): the Patriots and Colts. Their schedule is back-heavy with division opponents, making it even more difficult to prepare for the very strong non-division opponents they will face to start the season. Finally, not only do the Jets face three sets of back-to-back road games, all trips occur in the first nine weeks of the year and two involve primetime road games (Week 2 @ BUF on Thursday, Week 6 @ ARI).
Falcons (#3) – Atlanta has three sets of back-to-back road games occurring within the first 10 weeks of the season, and like the Jets, two games on the road involve primetime games (Week 3 @ NO, Week 9 @ TB on Thursday). Absolutely no team has a worse October than the Falcons, who take on the Panthers, Seahawks, Packers, and Broncos. The Falcons will have the option to stay on the West coast for back-to-backs at Denver and at Seattle, but that falls in as part of the 2nd worst three-week stretch this year.
Redskins (#4) – Similar to the Jets, Redskins fans need to be prepared for a roller coaster 2016. September sees Washington going up against the 7th most difficult start to the season, with two division foes (vs DAL, @ NYG) after hosting the Steelers on Monday night. After a four-week stretch to start October which sees them playing the Browns and three teams with decent track records but who struggled in 2015 (@ BAL, vs PHI, @ DET) the Redskins must travel to London to take on a very good Bengals team. Following their bye, the Redskins close the season with the NFL’s most difficult schedule in Weeks 10-17. They are one of two teams to play three straight road games, one of which is on a short week (Thanksgiving vs the Cowboys), and thanks to their #1 finish in the NFC East, they must play the Cardinals and Panthers. The lone bright spot for the Redskins is that of their 6th most difficult set of opponents, only one (@ ARI) is a true road game. Four are at home (PIT, MIN, GB, CAR) and one is in London (CIN).
Rams (#5) – Closing out the top five most difficult Strength of Schedule teams for 2016, Los Angeles does not face any particular rough stretches. The overall caliber of opponent is strong primarily from playing the Cardinals and Seahawks twice in-division, and they also face the Panthers and Patriots, the two teams projected to have the best records in the NFL this year. From a positive perspective, the Rams do not face any of these opponents in back-to-back weeks. The scheduling committee was also kind in allowing them to travel to Detroit for a game before flying to London to face the Giants Week 7. As the Rams are one of four teams to finish the year playing three of four games at home and lose a home game to London, in the first 13 weeks they play just four games in Los Angeles.
The Easiest Schedules
Cowboys (#32) – While Dallas does not have any particular empty spots on the schedule, they do play two of the three worst teams based on projections (@ CLE, @ SF). From a scheduling spot, a team should want to play bad opponents on the road, and save the most difficult games for their own building. Dallas is also slotted to play the maximum number of primetime games (five), and if you factor in a traditional home game for Thanksgiving, four of their six most high-profile games will be in Dallas. The only downside to their schedule appears to be that their three toughest opponents (GB, PIT, MIN) all will be played on the road. However, after playing in Pittsburgh on November 13, the Cowboys (a dome team) play just two more games outdoors (@ NYG, @ PHI).
Giants (#31) – Whereas the Redskins have a very tough schedule having to face the Cardinals and Panthers thanks to last year's first-place finish, most other NFC East teams are in great shape. The Giants' third-place finish gives them the Saints at home and the Rams on the road (but in London as opposed to L.A.). The Giants’ most difficult hurdle is back-to-back road games in Minnesota and Green Bay, but fortunately they face the Packers early on the calendar. Playing only three teams projected to be .500 or better over their last 10 games, the Giants close the year with the 2nd easiest 10-game stretch, though they must be ready to play two NFC East foes on the road to close out the year (@ PHI, @ WAS).
Steelers (#30) – For a team coming off a 2nd place finish in the AFC North, the Steelers should feel fortunate to have such a tremendous schedule. They do have back-to-back road trips after Week 11, with the second of each set played in primetime. But they are not covering much ground in these road trips (@ CLE then @ IND Weeks 11-12, and @ BUF and @ CIN Weeks 14-15). The fact that they get to face the Browns twice significantly helps their schedule. Also helping their schedule is the fact that the most difficult non-division teams they face (NE, KC, DAL) will all play in Pittsburgh. A Week 13 home game against the Giants will be Pittsburgh's lone home game in a five-week span, as it’s the only home game from November 14 through Christmas.
Panthers (#29) – Carolina's season starts off in a very difficult manner, but ends quite manageably. In fact, no team in the NFL has an easier last month of the season than the Panthers. But starting things off is a trip to Denver. Playing in Denver in the first couple weeks of the season is as tough as it gets. On the road, at altitude, teams coming off the long summer with starters who rest much of the preseason struggle: The Broncos are 27-3 (90%) the first two weeks at home since 1989, by far the best record in the NFL, and since 2000 they are 16-1 (94%). However, the Panthers get extra rest heading into their home opener, and are one of eight teams to only play one back-to-back set of road games (Weeks 12-13: @ OAK, @ SEA). However, as both are on the West coast, it gives the Panthers the ideal option of avoiding further wear and tear late in the season and staying out West between games. Additionally, the Panthers get extra rest (more than six days between games) six times this year, the most of any NFL team.
Packers (#28) – For the rest of the NFL, it seems unfair to see such strong teams as the Steelers, Panthers and Packers given such easy schedules. But thanks to a schedule that gives Green Bay opponents from the AFC South and NFC East, the hardest part of their schedule is when they have to travel for consecutive games. The Packers are one of just two teams to play three straight road games (Weeks 10-12: @ TEN, @ WAS, @ PHI), the first three-game road trip for the Packers since 2012. However, that difficulty is offset by the fact that between September 19 and October 29, the Packers don’t leave Wisconsin as they play four consecutive home games and enjoy a bye week. Additionally, late in the season, their three most difficult opponents down the stretch (HOU, SEA, MIN) are all home games.
Buccaneers (#6) - Playing the AFC West and NFC West automatically gives the Buccaneers a tough draw, and because of their fourth-place finish in the NFC South last year, they draw the Cowboys and Bears, both of which are poised to compensate for those poor 2015 seasons. The reality for Tampa Bay is their first five weeks (before their Week 6 bye) is the 3rd most difficult start any team has this year, with games against the Cardinals, Broncos and Panthers. But from Week 7 onward, their schedule is actually much easier than average.
Saints (#7) – The Saints are one of eight teams with only one back-to-back road game stretch, but it comes during Weeks 14-15, and leaves them closing the season with three of four games on the road, one of only four teams to do so. New Orleans has an easier start (Weeks 1-4) and finish (Weeks 12-17), but the six-week stretch from Weeks 6-11 is by far the most brutal for any team this year. They face the Panthers twice, the Seahawks, Broncos and Chiefs during that span. And New Orleans has an incredible home-field edge, but hosts just one primetime game in 2016 (Week 3 vs ATL).
Vikings (#8) – The Vikings are projected to see 9.5 wins in 2016, with juice making that total slightly north of 9.5. While their schedule is top 10 in difficulty, the worst of it comes Weeks 2-5, taking on the Packers, Panthers, Texans and Giants. But three of those four games are at home, and after their bye, they play four consecutive opponents who are projected to have losing records in 2016. Winning at home and beating opponents they should beat likely will put the Vikings in a great position to make the postseason in 2016, but they may need to win one of their two toughest games after Week 5: home vs the Cardinals Week 11 or at Green Bay in Week 16 (a place they have struggled immensely the last 10 seasons).
Bills (#9) – Buffalo’s schedule will always feature the Patriots twice, a team they are 3-27 (10%) against in their last 30 games. But in 2016, Buffalo also must face the Seahawks, Cardinals, Steelers and Bengals. Buffalo has both the 49ers and Browns at home, giving them a couple of games they should win. Pay close attention to their game in Seattle Week 9, which is on Monday night. Circadian biorhythms will provide a significant edge to the Seahawks in that game.
Texans (#10) – Winning the AFC South for the third time in franchise history gave the Texans the Patriots and Bengals in 2016. The fixed schedule rotation gave the Texans the NFC North and AFC West. The only reason their overall schedule is not more difficult is four games versus the Titans and Jaguars. They do get to start the year with three of four home games, one of six teams with that benefit. And instead of playing in Oakland Week 11, they play Oakland in Mexico. The Texans almost swept the AFC South the last two years, but their struggles have come in their non-division slate, where they are 10-21 (32%) the last three years, and 4-11 (27%) on the road. This year, success won’t come easily, with games at the Patriots, Vikings, Broncos, Packers and Raiders.
Broncos (#11) – Denver starts its title defense with the 4th most difficult September of any team, featuring three straight games against the Panthers, Colts and Bengals. But from Weeks 4-14, the Broncos play only two teams projected to have a winning record (HOU, KC) and both are in Denver. In fact, over this span the Broncos will actually face the easiest schedule of any team in the NFL. They close with home games against the Patriots and Raiders and a trip to the Chiefs. Should they see early success against strong opposition, their schedule’s weak middle sets up a very strong season in their Lombardi defense.
Eagles (#12) – The Eagles’ schedule is unique and more difficult than it might seem. They are the only team in the NFL with just one road game in the schedule’s first four weeks and last four weeks. But from Weeks 5-13, they play just three home games and make multiple back-to-back road trips. In addition, Philadelphia is one of the teams most affected by using my proper Strength of Schedule method; Using prior-year opponent win percentage, the Eagles face the 7th easiest schedule. But that would assume the Cowboys are a four-win team this year, the Giants are a six-win team and the Packers lose Jordy Nelson in the preseason again. The reality is the Eagles’ schedule sees a stretch between Weeks 7-13 which is the 2nd most difficult of any NFL team. The biggest edge for the Eagles is a close with three home games in four weeks vs the NFC East, but they need to do well enough early on to make those games meaningful.
Browns (#13) – The Browns start off as one of five teams to play three road games in the first four weeks. For better teams, the consolation is their opponents during this stretch are some of the easiest on their schedule. But we know better than to make that assumption for the Browns, as they will be underdogs in all four games. A Week 6 road game in Tennessee looks like the best opportunity to project success for the Browns. Cleveland fans won’t find any irony in the fact their star-crossed team has the 13th hardest schedule.
Jaguars (#14) – Jacksonville’s ranking is deceptive – it’s not more difficult simply because they play the Titans twice. But looking at the visualization on my website, this schedule is rough. They lose a home game due to playing in London, and the short week before their Thursday night game in Tennessee kicks off a stretch which sees them play four road games in five weeks. They close the year with a daunting five-game stretch featuring the Broncos, Vikings, Texans and Colts, but statistically it doesn’t rank as bad because of an “easier” game vs the Titans in Jacksonville.
Lions (#15) – The Lions have three sets of back-to-back road games, the first of which is in the first four games of the year and features trips to division foes Green Bay and Chicago. But here’s an interesting quirk: Those are two of just three games Detroit plays outdoors in 2016. After Week 4, they play one more game outdoors all year (@ NYG Week 15). Their other road opponents include the Colts, Texans, Vikings, Saints and Cowboys, all dome teams.
Dolphins (#16) – Miami has the 5th most difficult first month of the year, made tougher by a very rare back-to-back road trip to start the season. And that road trip won’t be easy – from Miami across to Seattle, representing the longest trip possible in the NFL -- followed by a trip up the East coast to New England. When four of a team’s first six games include the Steelers, Bengals and aforementioned Seahawks and Patriots, it’s a brutal start, only made easier by home games against the Browns and Titans. Miami also has the 2nd hardest last month of the year (vs ARI, @ NYJ, @ BUF, vs NE).
Titans (#17) – Ranking with the 3rd hardest ending to the year (vs DEN, @ KC, @ JAX, vs HOU), Tennessee must make a mark earlier in the season. They have a chance during a very nice five-week stretch from Weeks 5-9, which is the 2nd easiest five-week stretch of any team (@ MIA, vs CLE, vs IND, vs JAX, @ SD) and features a three-game homestand.
Chargers (#18) – Playing the Titans and Browns out of division will always lighten a team’s Strength of Schedule, and San Diego is fortunate in that respect. The Chargers, once an exciting nationally-televised team, play just one primetime game this year on Thursday (Week 6) versus the Broncos. San Diego won’t be able to get too comfortable, as they play just one set of back-to-back home games this year, and it’s not until Weeks 9-10.
Raiders (#19) – Oakland’s start is the 5th easiest in the NFL (@ NO, vs ATL, @ TEN, @ BAL) and adding their Week 5 game versus the Chargers, Oakland has the single easiest first five games in the NFL. The problem for Oakland is their early starts during those games, and losing a home game to Mexico. Oakland plays five games at 10 AM for their body clock, including three in the first four games of the season. It’s the most “early starts” for any Pacific-based team. They lose their Week 11 home game vs the Texans on Monday night to Mexico. And to close the year from Week 9 onward, the Raiders play the 2nd most difficult schedule in the NFL.
Colts (#20) – Apart from a Week 2 game in Denver, the first five games for the Colts looks manageable, and is the 6th easiest start for any team. The interesting aspect is the end of that stretch, as they are the first team to play in London (Week 4 vs JAC) and then play the very next week (home vs CHI). Such travel and lack of rest could be tough for them, and they follow that game against the Bears with back-to-back road games (@ HOU, @ TEN) and won’t get a bye until they play two more very challenging opponents (KC, GB).
Seahawks (#21) – Seattle’s end to the year features the 5th most difficult five-week stretch (Weeks 10-14) and the 4th most challenging four-week stretch (Weeks 13-16), so it’s no surprise that from Week 10 onward, Seattle must play the 5th toughest schedule in the NFL. But Seattle should be in good shape by that point, as they face the easiest first six weeks in the NFL (vs MIA, @ LA, vs SF, @ NYJ, vs ATL, bye). Their schedule sets up nicely with a tough game vs the Cardinals followed by two easier games (@ NO, vs BUF), then a tough game vs the Patriots followed by two more easier games (vs PHI, @ TB). This theoretically should allow the Seahawks to maintain focus for their hardest opponents and round into form for their late run against strong opposition, so long as they don’t overlook one of the easier teams between the tough opponents.
Cardinals (#22) – Unlike the Seahawks’ gradual start and tough finish, Arizona starts off immediately with a tough game vs the Patriots in primetime. However, they enjoy several extremely easy stretches. Weeks 2-6 they face the 3rd easiest schedule of any team during those weeks, and from Week 12 onward, they play just one team predicted to have a winning record (@ SEA). They also have just one back-to-back road trip on their schedule.
Patriots (#23) – The Patriots are another team whose Strength of Schedule is more difficult than it appears, but is offset by a couple of very easy opponents (@ CLE, @ SF). Fortunately, both of their easy opponents are on the road, which means they have more home games against difficult competition where home-field advantage stands to benefit New England more. After that difficult Week 1 in Arizona, the Patriots play three straight home games, then travel to Cleveland, before hosting the Bengals in Week 6. The Patriots will enjoy their bye week prior to hosting Seattle in primetime Week 10, and after that, the most difficult game they face is Week 15 in Denver. From Week 11 onward, the Patriots actually play the 3rd easiest schedule in the NFL.
Bears (#24) – The Bears started 2015 with three straight losses to tough teams (GB, ARI, SEA) and never could get back on track. Their 2016 schedule is not nearly as bad, and if they can weather some early difficulty, the back half of their schedule sets up nicely. The issue up front is the fact they alternate home and road games through Week 8, but their road slate is quite difficult (@ HOU, @ DAL, @ IND, @ GB) as compared to their home slate (vs PHI, vs DET, vs JAC). If they can survive that run and make it to the bye week, they play four home games in five weeks with a short trip to Detroit Week 14. The Bears actually have more home game back-to-backs than road game back-to-backs. And from Week 10 onward, they play the easiest schedule of any team in the NFL. The national audience will get a lot of the Bears early, as for some reason Chicago plays four of their first eight games in primetime.
Chiefs (#25) – Kansas City has a lot to like with their schedule. They play the easiest slate of any team in the NFL from Week 13 to the end of the season (@ ATL, vs OAK, vs TEN, vs DEN, @ SD), they have a three-game home stand to close the month of December and they host a Thursday night game (games on Thursday are far more difficult for the traveling team). The only qualms the Chiefs might have are that they have a fairly early bye (Week 5) and their most difficult games are on the road. If you look at their schedule prior to hosting Denver Week 16, their most difficult opponents are all on the road (@ HOU, @ PIT, @ IND, @ CAR, @ DEN). Their home schedule during that span (vs SD, vs NYJ, vs NO, vs JAC, vs TB) is significantly easier.
Ravens (#26) – Baltimore does have three sets of back-to-back road games, tied for most in the NFL. Their early schedule, through Week 8’s bye, is substantially easier than their late schedule. In fact, they have the NFL’s easiest schedule over the first eight games. But from Week 9 onward, their schedule is actually the 5th toughest, though that primarily is due to simply being in the AFC North, as they face the Steelers and Bengals twice apiece in that nine-game span. The Ravens also are one of four teams to close with three road games in their last four, and they are not easy spots (@ NE, @ PIT, @ CIN).
Bengals (#27) – The defending AFC North Champions have a bye at the exact midpoint of the season, but they lose a home game to London (vs WAS) immediately prior to the bye. The Bengals have to be ready to roll out of the preseason, as they are one of four teams to open with two straight road games. And their schedule from Weeks 1-6 is actually the 3rd most difficult in the NFL, facing the division rival Steelers Week 2, as well as the Broncos, Cowboys and Patriots over the following four games. However, after the game in New England Week 6, the Bengals face the NFL’s easiest schedule (by a large gap) from Weeks 7 through 14. They do not play a single team expected to fare better than 8-8 during that span, and get the Browns twice. It should put the Bengals into a perfect position (record-wise and rest-wise) to take on the Steelers, Texans and Ravens to close the season, with both divisional contests coming in Cincinnati.