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Against the Spread

Superior Strength of Schedule

by Warren Sharp
Updated On: October 4, 2018, 4:04 pm ET

In my Strength of Schedule series for Rotoworld, I will examine a number of methods to accurately understand the 2017 landscape for all 32 teams. I’ve attempted to pioneer a more educated SOS analysis because the current method used to analyze schedule strength is literally the least efficient possible. The established method looks only at prior-year win percentage with no context and measures those rates against current-year opponents. The Parcells-ism “you are what your record says you are” is true only as it relates to making the playoffs in that particular season. Although win-loss records determine which teams make or miss the playoffs, a win-loss record is hardly the most accurate way to measure a team’s strengths and weaknesses, or compare them the rest of the NFL.

Measuring 2017 strength of schedule based on 2016 record is lazy, inaccurate and inefficient. But like most things in the NFL, it was an accepted method from the past, and there is a reluctance to shift away from established thought processes, regardless of the low-intelligence level many of those processes reflect. I’ve built my foundation on questioning tradition and employing more efficient means of making NFL decisions:

At my in-season analytical-thought website ( Sharp Football Analysis.com ) I attack the NFL from an analytical perspective, often using contrarian thinking to find edges, and share my ideas weekly. I also developed a free-to-use stats website ( Sharp Football Stats.com ) which uses advanced analytics and a visual graphical representation technique to allow users to customize, visualize, process and retain information unlike anything they’ve seen before.

When it comes to strength of schedule, the reality is using in-season data produces a more effective representation and measure of opponent than pre-season projections. But most NFL media don’t see it that way – they will chime in a lot between now and September with strength of schedule (calculated the wrong way) but during the season, you won’t hear them ever discuss strength of schedule.

This article, first in the series, will focus on 2017 Strength of Schedule using forecast win totals current as of late June from the betting market. For this article, I used one of the sharpest offshore books (Pinnacle) and two Vegas books (CG Technology & South Point). Based on the three books, I built a model to create a consensus line which factors in juice. Ignoring juice is a massive mistake. For example, ignoring juice on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers over 8.0 wins would be incorrect. You must lay $140 to $145 to win $100 when betting the over. That is very different than if you bet over 8.0 wins on the Detroit Lions, where you only need to bet $84 to win $100.

Using win totals to forecast 2017 SOS is far more useful than using 2016 season results. And we now have the added benefit of these totals being crafted by the betting market for two months. The Titans opened at 9.5 wins, meaning to win a bet on the over, they would have to win 10 games. That plummeted and sits at 8.5 wins (-140 to the over). The Patriots opened at 11 wins, and are now up to 12.5 (-135 to the under). Whereas at open, an 11-win season was a push, now a bettor needs 13 wins just to win an over bet. So, we have an even better opportunity to understand the real strength of schedule now, as opposed to in April, because we have the other side of the coin. We had the bookmaker opinion, and now we have the market’s response.

As to why strength of schedule in general is essential for fantasy as well as for the betting market, the answer is because of game script. The NFL is almost 60% pass, 40% run over the course of all teams and all four quarters of a game. Third down is a reactionary down, based on distance to go. Scrapping that momentarily and looking only at first and second down: all game long, early downs are on average 54% pass, 46% run. But across the entire game, that inverts itself for the team with the lead: they are 56% run, 44% pass. On early downs in the second half, the team with the lead (of any size) is 64% run, 36% pass. Even with a one-score lead (one to eight points), these teams are 60% run to 40% pass. Meanwhile, the team trailing is 66% pass, 34% run. Thus, understanding which team is likely to be leading or trailing is a massive factor in fantasy production. The tougher the opponents, the less likely a team is to be leading. The below analysis should help tremendously to project fantasy fortunes in 2017.

I’ll run through all 32 teams, starting with the NFL’s toughest schedule (32) and moving to the easiest (1). At Sharp Football Stats, I have a visualization where you can see all this data and customize for certain weeks to see hardest/easiest starts or finishes to the season.

32. Denver Broncos

This season, Denver plays four games against top-5 opponents (teams projected to win the most games this year). Only one team plays more top-5 games (Chiefs). The Broncos play six top-10 games (only the Dolphins play more top-10 teams). Denver’s seven games post-bye week are brutal when factoring in travel. At least if he is passing often, Trevor Siemian will face the 2nd easiest schedule of opposing pass rushes this year.

31. Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs' 2017 season will be a study in survival. They face the NFL's toughest schedule in Weeks 1-11, but should have a very good chance to win five of their last six games. Reaching that point smoothly is a tall order, as the Chiefs play five games against top-five opponents based on win totals (most in NFL) and just one bottom-five win total team (least in the NFL). Also set to face the NFL's fifth most difficult schedule of pass defenses, Alex Smith might find himself throwing more than the Chiefs want him to this year.

30. Buffalo Bills

While the Bills only play three top-5 games – the league average -- they play six top-10 games. Their schedule is made much less brutal by two games against the Jets, with the first at home in Week 1. After Week 1, they have the most difficult schedule in the NFL. While there is not a bevy of hard opponents, they don’t have any non-Jets games in which you would consider them to be a superior team to their opponent. This potentially could bode well for Tyrod Taylor's rushing and passing yardage.

29. New York Jets

The Jets are a terrible football team with a roller coaster schedule. They play six top-10 games (2nd most in the NFL) but also play seven bottom-10 games (most in the NFL). They play teams like the Browns, Jaguars and Bills twice, but also must take on the Falcons, Raiders, Chiefs and Patriots twice. While the Jets have the 2nd easiest schedule of opposing run defenses, they may not have much of an opportunity to take advantage of that due to game script.

28. Atlanta Falcons

Fresh off their great season, the Falcons and their first-place schedule must play four top-5 games and six top-10 games, both the second most in the NFL. The start of their schedule should be easy, as they play 4 of their first 5 games against bottom-10 opponents (Chicago, Detroit, Buffalo and Miami). It’s the 4th easiest schedule to start the season. But from Week 7 onward, they have the most difficult schedule in the NFL. I still expect them to be competitive and balanced, and to see a lot more ease for their passing game against the 8th easiest schedule of opposing pass defenses after destroying the 4th hardest pass-defense slate last year.

27. Washington Redskins

The Redskins’ overall schedule of top-10 games is league average, but their trouble is they only play three bottom-10 teams, the fewest in the NFL. Another problem for Washington is they face the No. 1 toughest schedule of pass defenses and the No. 2 schedule of run defenses. So, they’ll be balanced, but nothing will be particularly easy.

26. Miami Dolphins

In the first month of the season, the Dolphins should be able to run Jay Ajayi as often as they like against the NFL’s 2nd easiest schedule through Week 4. But from Week 5 through fantasy championship Week 16, the Dolphins play the toughest schedule in the NFL with seven top-10 games. The NFL average is just four top-10 games. Against a potentially tough schedule of run defenses, hopefully they will turn to targeting Ajayi more in the pass game, as they face the easiest schedule of RB-pass defenses.

25. Dallas Cowboys

It always interests me more when a bad team faces a tough schedule or a good team faces an easy schedule than when a good team like the Cowboys faces a tougher schedule. Dallas should be balanced even against their toughest opponents (Seahawks, Packers, Raiders). The biggest concerns I have for Dallas are their start and finish. Playing a tough Giants squad followed by back-to-back road games in difficult environments (at Broncos, at Cardinals) isn’t easy in Weeks 1-3. To end the season, those same Giants kick off back-to-back road games, with the second being out in Oakland followed by a home game against the Seahawks in fantasy title week.

24. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Buccaneers’ offense needs to be running at full potential leaving their bye, because they play the 4th most difficult schedule from Weeks 12 through 17. They play four top-10 opponents in a five-week span, and their entire schedule is filled with offensive firepower (Falcons twice, Packers, Saints, Lions and Panthers). This bodes well for late-season production from Jameis Winston, who faces the 7th easiest schedule of pass defenses this year.

23. Chicago Bears

Mitchell Trubisky should probably hope he doesn’t get lucky and beat out Mike Glennon for the starting job before Week 1 because the Bears’ schedule is brutal to start the season. It’s the toughest in the NFL through Week 7. They play four top-10 games (most of any team) and no team they face in that stretch is ranked below 16th in projected win rankings. They face zero bottom-10 games before Week 8. However, from Week 11 onward, Chicago has by far the NFL’s easiest schedule. They are the only team without a single top-10 game in that stretch and play four bottom-10 games in these seven weeks, setting up a perfect time to transition to the rookie if needed.

22. Detroit Lions

The Lions’ average schedule strength is only 22nd, but the reality is if they didn’t have three games against the NFL’s four worst teams, their schedule would be significantly more difficult. They play 11 of their 16 games against top-16 opponents. If Matthew Stafford gets put into positions where he needs to win games with his arm, that could be a problem, as the Lions face the most league’s difficult schedule of opposing pass rushes and lost LT Taylor Decker.

21. Oakland Raiders

For ranking 21st, the Raiders have a manageable schedule in that they play just two top-5 games, fewest of any team in the league. And neither is a true road game in a hostile stadium: the Patriots Week 11 in Mexico and the Cowboys in Oakland in Week 15. Over the first nine weeks of the season, the Raiders have the 4th easiest schedule, which should allow for a lot of balance and plenty of Marshawn Lynch.

20. Houston Texans

Houston’s schedule is wildly diverse. They will be in many difficult games, playing six top-10 games this year (second most). But they also play three bottom-5 games (second most). It helps their schedule playing the Jaguars twice and the Browns, Rams and 49ers. But they have three brutal non-division games against the Patriots, Seahawks and Steelers. The softest aspect of their schedule is facing the 4th easiest SOS of opposing pass defenses, notable for DeAndre Hopkins and whomever wins the quarterback battle.

19. Los Angeles Rams

It will be hard enough for new coach Sean McVay to get Jared Goff on track when the Rams face pass defenses which rank 9th toughest this year, up from 21st last year. And they only get three bottom-10 games, the fewest number of bad opponents in the league. The good news is they only play four top-10 games, 2nd fewest in the league. It will be imperative to stay in games to allow for balanced play calling, as opposed to fighting from behind and into the teeth of these top pass defenses, such as the Seahawks twice, Jaguars, Cardinals twice, Giants, Texans and Vikings.

18. San Francisco 49ers

Much like the Rams, the 49ers must play the NFC East and AFC South. Which means stingy defenses, strong offenses, or both. The 49ers don’t play a bevy of top-5 or top-10 opponents; they fall into the NFL averages in both categories. But they play just four bottom-10 opponents, meaning they’ll likely struggle each week to find wins. That means to keep games close, they need to be able to have rushing success early. Unfortunately, the 49ers are facing the NFL’s toughest schedule of opposing run defenses.

17. NY Giants

The Giants’ schedule is neatly broken into halves. The first half is Weeks 1-7, where they play top-5 teams in Weeks 1 and 7 (Cowboys and Seahawks) but all winnable games in between. The second tougher portion begins in Week 11 and features two more top-5 games the rest of the way. In between, they have a Week 8 bye and play the Rams and 49ers in back-to-back games, which should give them a boost mentally as they enter a difficult stretch run. While the Giants did well to add receiving pieces this offseason, they face a significantly more difficult schedule of pass defenses (7th hardest, up from 27th last year), so the more rushing they can do the better.

16. Philadelphia Eagles

Possibly like 2016, look for the Eagles to start better than they finish the season. From Week 11 onward, the Eagles play four top-5 opponents (Cowboys twice, Seahawks, Raiders). However, until that point, they are one of only four teams to face zero top-5 opponents. This should mean competitive games and allow Doug Pederson and Frank Reich to call very balanced games, which will help Carson Wentz immensely.

15. Cleveland Browns

Unlike the Jets, who are a bad team with a difficult schedule, the Browns are a bad team with a manageable schedule. Isaiah Crowell is a popular fantasy starlet, but if he gets drafted too high, look for him on the trade market in-season. Cleveland’s schedule starts in brutal fashion against the Steelers and Ravens in Weeks 1-2, but they play plenty of defenses that can be run on from Week 3 onward. And many of these teams are projected as mediocre to poor, which will keep the Browns in games longer and allow them to run the ball more often.

14. Los Angeles Chargers

The hardest aspect of the Chargers’ schedule is that when they play their toughest opponents, these games are on the road. They play only three top-5 games prior to Week 17, and each is on the road (Raiders, Patriots, Cowboys). However, the Chargers’ home schedule is extremely palatable, with just one pre-Week 17 opponent ranking above 18th (Chiefs) in forecast win total. This bodes well for the run game, but I particularly love the Bolts’ pass-game targets, which will face the easiest schedule of pass defenses in the league from Week 10 onward. It starts out very difficult, so any Chargers pass-game members left standing could be attractive buy-low targets in the second half of the year.

13. New Orleans Saints

While the Saints’ schedule overall ranks 13th, they don’t play very many middle-of-the-road opponents. They play six top-10 opponents, second most of any team, and they play six bottom-10 opponents, also second most. Therefore, on a weekly basis (depending on their 2017 defense) the Saints could be very run heavy or very pass heavy based on opponent and subsequent in-game script. But they play one of the easiest schedules of opposing defenses, particularly following their Week 5 bye. Which means any way it gets sliced, the Saints should again make frequent trips to the red zone.

12. Green Bay Packers

We’re now entering the realm where I care most about strength of schedule, and that is when a good team faces an easy schedule. The Packers are favored in 12 of their 15 lined games, however they face the league-average number of top-10 and bottom-10 opponents. They face substantially easier run defenses than pass defenses, and I think Ty Montgomery (currently drafted as fantasy’s RB19) has significant upside potential.

11. Pittsburgh Steelers

Like the Packers, if you take a great Steelers offense and give them an easy schedule, I’m highly interested. The Steelers play just four-top 10 games this year, second fewest in the league. And only two top-5 games, the fewest of any team. Through Week 10, the Steelers face the easiest opponents in the league and are the only team to play just one top-10 game (Chiefs). This could translate into a higher run rate and more Le’Veon Bell, especially with DeAngelo Williams no longer in Pittsburgh.

10. Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens’ offense is not nearly as exciting as the Steelers or Packers, so the issue won’t be whether they build up quick leads in games and sit on the ball. However, the good news is that with this schedule, they should be able to run more. That inability cost them in 2016, as they called 67% pass plays and were the most imbalanced team in the NFL.

9. Carolina Panthers

The Panthers just drafted Christian McCaffrey and they play the 4th easiest schedule of opponents in Weeks 1 through 7, including the second most (four) bottom-10 opponents. This means an investment in McCaffrey should pay immediate dividends courtesy of game script. It should also allow Cam Newton to work more on his short RB passing game so that it’s ready for when they really need it over the second half of the season. A bad 2016 allows the Panthers to get games against the 49ers, Jets, Bears, and Bills, which substantially lightens the load in a competitive NFC South.

8. Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals’ SOS ranking is somewhat misleading. They face a number of very difficult and capable teams in the middle of the league, such as the Ravens twice, Texans, Colts, Vikings and Broncos. But they play very few top-10 games (just four, second fewest) and they play six bottom-10 games, second most in the NFL. Metrics wise, the Bengals play the 8th easiest schedule of run defenses, and last year they were the third most run-heavy team when leading. All of these elements bode well for a rookie I think can make a mark this year: Joe Mixon.

7. Minnesota Vikings

Through Week 12, the Vikings play the 3rd easiest schedule of opponents based on forecast win totals. And with the NFL’s easiest schedule of pass defenses and 4th easiest schedule of run defenses on tap, the Vikings should be in many positive game-script scenarios. The other benefit for their schedule is that their only game with the potential to be impacted by winter weather is Week 16 in Green Bay. This should make up for having to play outdoors recently, and is another (hidden) value for the opportunity for passing game value late in the season.

6. Tennessee Titans

To some teams, game script matters more than others. Last year, when leading in the second half, the Titans ran the ball 64% of the time, the highest rate of any team (average was 55%). They play a very easy schedule this year, featuring an NFL low of just three top-10 games (Raiders, Seahawks, Steelers). Two of these are in the first three weeks. I expect the passing attack to be stronger early in the year, but there will be plenty of run-heavy scripts later on, as Tennessee faces the 3rd easiest schedule in the league from Week 4 onward. The Titans were the 3rd most run-heavy team in the red zone last year and should be there often in 2017.

5. New England Patriots

Given how the Super Bowl champs retooled this offseason, their schedule seems highly unfair. At least the Patriots will be tested more through Week 7, with the 16th hardest schedule until that point, featuring three top-10 games (Chiefs, Panthers, Falcons). But after that, it’s remarkable how lopsided most games should be, with exceptions of the Raiders and Steelers, both on the road. From Week 8 onward, the Patriots play six bottom-10 games, the most of any team. The only question is, which running back will get all that late-lead volume this year?

4. Arizona Cardinals

Any schedule analysis for the Cardinals must consider the boost they get by playing the Rams and 49ers twice. It works wonders for any average strength of schedule. However, the Cardinals play just four top-10 games this year (Seahawks twice, Cowboys and Titans) and three of those four are at home. Look for another year full of volume for David Johnson, for as long as he can last. Arizona ran the ball more than average in the red zone last season, which is another reason to like Johnson this year.

3. Indianapolis Colts

The Colts’ schedule is as easy as this average makes it look. They play the fewest (two) top-5 games (Seahawks and Steelers) and play the second most (six) bottom-10 games. That said, the reason their schedule is easier is because they play many easy (read: bad) offenses. They literally face the easiest schedule of opposing offenses. But the defenses the Colts face won’t be easy (they play the 9th most difficult schedule of defenses). These factors potentially could depress overall game scoring to an extent. Which could, in turn, work in their fantasy owners' favor as the Colts may feel pressure to continue scoring.

2. Seattle Seahawks

Much like the Cardinals, the Seahawks get a huge boost to their SOS average thanks to playing the Rams and 49ers twice. Seattle plays only four top-10 games, second fewest in the league. But the Seahawks do face a number of teams flying just outside the top 10, such as the Giants (11), Texans (13), Colts (14) and Cardinals (16) twice. The direction of Seattle’s offense is largely dependent on line play. Last year, they passed the ball 10% more than in 2015 when the game was within one score because they couldn’t run block or produce a healthy enough ball carrier. They ran the ball just 38% of the time in one-score games, 5th fewest in the NFL, which should revert to more rushing if Eddie Lacy is healthy and the line can open holes.

1. Jacksonville Jaguars

Unlike the other teams with top-10 easy schedules (save the Ravens), the Jaguars’ offense is not exciting. But their schedule is highly favorable with only two games against top-five opponents (fewest in NFL) and four against top-ten foes (second fewest). The most interesting dynamic is that while the Jaguars face the easiest schedule of opponents this year, their offensive rushing strength of schedule increases from 30th in 2016 to 8th hardest. Nevertheless, positive game script should work in OROY candidate Leonard Fournette's favor.

Warren Sharp

Warren Sharp is a football and betting analyst for NBC Sports. As a leading voice in football analytics, Warren writes a yearly book previewing the upcoming season from all angles at his Sharp Football Analysis website. You can follow Warren Sharp on Twitter @SharpFootball.