We last examined Strength of Schedule in the middle of April. The NFL schedule had just been released, and no team had participated in OTAs or minicamp. Now just a few weeks before training camp, we know more about these teams and will continue to learn through training camp and the preseason. We continually get smarter with more data, realizing teams' strengths and weaknesses as news emerges and sample sizes grow.
It is important to constantly update Strength of Schedule (SOS) projections throughout the offseason and during the season. Unfortunately, most SOS rankings use prior-year records to project current-year SOS. This is truly asinine and does not allow for any new data-driven modification. It assumes every team is exactly the quality of its 2015 won-loss record, and completely ignores coaching changes, free agency, the draft, and OTAs.
My personal SOS numbers are constantly evolving and “telling us” new information. I use forecasted 2016 wins from the current betting market. Sports books project win totals for every team, and at this point in the summer, several independent and seasoned linemakers have posted their numbers. The longer their lines are up, the more efficient they become, as the linemakers adjust their win totals based on volume as well as respect they have for certain money that is bet.
In this column, we will rank and examine two elements of their projections. First, we will look at a ranking of how SOS has changed from initial lines posted in February. Second, we will look at where current SOS projections rank based on current Vegas lines.
If curious as to visualizations of each team’s 2016 SOS, I just finished my crowning offseason work: a season preview magazine which you can read on Amazon. Each team chapter breaks down weekly SOS through the use of the win totals technique. It should be a valuable resource.
Before we dive in, here is an updated ranking of current 2016 SOS using the most accurate method of calculation from the most difficult (#1) to the easiest (#32) schedules. Rankings from the first article in April are in parentheses. You can easily spot teams whose schedules have become easier or harder based on market perception of their opponents.
1. (1) San Francisco 49ers
2. (4) Washington Redskins
3. (2) New York Jets
4. (10) Houston Texans
5. (12) Philadelphia Eagles
6. (3) Atlanta Falcons
7. (13) Cleveland Browns
8. (9) Buffalo Bills
9. (6) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
10. (11) Denver Broncos
11. (8) Minnesota Vikings
12. (5) Los Angeles Rams
13. (15) Detroit Lions
14. (16) Miami Dolphins
15. (7) New Orleans Saints
16. (14) Jacksonville Jaguars
17. (17) Tennessee Titans
18. (20) Indianapolis Colts
19. (26) Baltimore Ravens
20. (24) Chicago Bears
21. (18) Oakland Raiders
22. (25) Kansas City Chiefs
23. (22) Arizona Cardinals
T24. (28) Green Bay Packers
T24. (23) New England Patriots
26. (18) San Diego Chargers
27. (27) Cincinnati Bengals
28. (30) Pittsburgh Steelers
29. (21) Seattle Seahawks
30. (31) New York Giants
31. (29) Carolina Panthers
32. (32) Dallas Cowboys
The betting market adjusts to the amount of money bet into it, and since most bettors are strangely optimistic, numbers are usually bet toward positive outcomes. For season win totals, this means that the public gravitates heavily toward over bets. When comparing the lines from February 2016 to July 2016, we find that 24 teams saw their win totals bet higher, while just 7 saw their win totals bet lower. On average, each team’s cumulative opponent win totals (16 opponents) increased by 0.3125 projected wins. In sum, this was a combined 5 total wins over the course of the season. No team’s schedule is technically “easier” based on the current lines than it was based on the February lines. But relative to other teams, some teams saw their SOS get easier while others saw it get significantly worse.
Let’s discuss the teams, ordering them based on average increase of opponent strength.
Titans (#1 opponent increase, #17 SOS)
Tennessee saw its opponent win totals increase by a combined 8.9 wins, which is 78% more than average. Much of this came from the betting bullishness on the Jaguars, the team most bet over by a large margin. Jacksonville's win total has been effectively bet up from 6.3 to 7.8 over the course of the offseason. Of the Titans' 16 opponents, 14 are projected stronger now than they were in February.
The Titans still have the 17th rated SOS. In Weeks 5-9, they have the easiest stretch of any NFL team (@ MIA, vs CLE, vs IND, vs JAX, @ SD), also featuring a 3-game homestand. The last 4 games for Tennessee have increased to the 3rd most difficult late-season stretch of any team (vs DEN, @ KC, @ JAX, vs HOU).
Broncos (#2 opponent increase, #10 SOS)
Denver’s opponent win totals have increased by 8.1 combined wins, 62% above average. All 16 opponents the Broncos face are projected stronger now than they were when lines opened. The largest jump is the Jaguars, but the Texans and Raiders both have much more optimistic outlooks now.
Denver starts its title defense with the most difficult first 3 weeks of any team, featuring games against the Panthers, Colts and Bengals. But from Weeks 4 through 14, the Broncos will actually face the 2nd easiest schedule in the NFL. They close with home games against the Patriots and Raiders and a trip to the Chiefs, marking the most difficult ending for any team. Should the Broncos see early success against strong opposition, their schedule’s weak middle sets up for a strong defense of the Lombardi Trophy.
Texans (#3 opponent increase, #4 SOS)
When compared to opening numbers, the Texans face 14 opponents which are more difficult and just one who is projected to be easier. Their opponent win totals increased 60% above average. Their opponents who were bet up the most are the Jaguars, Bears, Vikings and Raiders.
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 vs the Titans and Jaguars, but both have been bet up. The Texans do get to start the year with three of four home games, one of only 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 as easily with non-home games against the Patriots, Vikings, Broncos, Packers and Raiders.
Colts (#4 opponent increase, #18 SOS)
The Colts face 12 opponents projected stronger and 2 opponents (Jets and Broncos) projected weaker when compared to opening numbers.
Aside from Week 2 in Denver, the Colts' first five games look manageable. They have the 6th easiest start of 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, and the Colts follow with back-to-back road games (@ HOU, @ TEN) and won’t get a bye until they play two more very challenging opponents (KC, GB).
Chargers (#5 opponent increase, #26 SOS)
The Chargers are an interesting case study because they opened with the 30th SOS in February. By April, that had been bet to 18th. Now, after incorporating odds from multiple sportsbooks and seeing the offseason play out further, it has shifted to 26th. As compared to the open, all but one opponent (Denver) is viewed as more difficult. And compared to the open, the Chargers' average opponent strength has increased 40% above average.
Playing the Titans and Browns out of division always will lighten a team’s Strength of Schedule. Once an exciting, nationally televised team, the Chargers play just one primetime game this year, a Thursday nighter in Week 6 vs the Broncos. San Diego won’t be able to get too comfortable, however, as they play just one set of back-to-back home games and it’s not until Weeks 9-10.
Lions (#6 opponent increase, #13 SOS)
The Lions will face 3 teams who have been faded by offseason betting in the Redskins, Eagles and Rams. But they do go up against the Jaguars, Bears, Texans and Vikings, all of which have been bet toward the over by more than 0.5 games apiece.
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 road trips to division foes Green Bay and Chicago. But here’s an interesting quirk: Those 2 games are two of just 3 games Detroit plays outdoors all year. After Week 4, they play just one more game outdoors (@ NYG in Week 15). The Lions' other road opponents include the Colts, Texans, Vikings, Saints and Cowboys -- all dome teams.
Jaguars (#7 opponent increase, #16 SOS)
The Jaguars obviously can’t play themselves, and they are the team whose projected SOS has increased the most. So it holds that they must face a number of teams bet toward the over by significant amounts. The Ravens, Bears, Vikings, Texans and Raiders are their 5 opponents who have been most bet toward the over. They get the Bills and Broncos who have been bet toward the under, but overall, their opponent strength has increased 38% over average.
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 it in London, and their short week before their Thursday night game in Tennessee kicks off a stretch which sees the Jags play four road games in five weeks. They close with a daunting 5-game stretch featuring the Broncos, Vikings, Texans and Colts, although statistically it doesn’t rank as difficult because of an “easier” game vs the Titans in Jacksonville.
Packers (#8 opponent increase, #24 SOS)
The Packers were at #28 in the April article after opening at #29. While their schedule is aided by the two NFC East teams (Philadelphia and Washington) that were bet down, Green Bay's own division foes Chicago and Minnesota were both bet up by good margins.
For the rest of the NFL, it seems unfair to see such strong teams like the Steelers, Panthers and Packers with easy schedules. But thanks to a schedule that gives Green Bay the AFC South and NFC East, the hardest part of their schedule is the consecutive travel: The Packers are one of just two teams to play three straight road games (Weeks 10-12 @ TEN, @ WAS, @ PHI) -- the first 3 game road trip for Green Bay 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 4 consecutive home games and enjoy a bye week. They get their 3 most difficult opponents down the stretch (HOU, SEA, MIN) all at home.
Bears (#9 opponent increase, #20 SOS)
The Bears play a very similar schedule to the Packers, so it is not odd for them to be nestled close to each other in terms of new opponent strength. Unlike the Packers, the Bears do get the Bucs and 49ers, but both opponents have been bet toward the over by more than 0.5 wins. Overall, the Bears' difficulty increased 28% over average.
The Bears started 2015 with 3 straight losses to tough teams (GB, ARI, SEA) and never could get back on track. Their 2016 schedule is not nearly as tough, 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 difficult (@ HOU, @ DAL, @ IND, @ GB) as compared to their home slate (vs PHI, vs DET, vs JAC). If the Bears can survive that run and make it to the bye week, they play 4 home games in 5 weeks with a short trip to Detroit in Week 14. The Bears actually have more home game back-to-backs than road game back-to-backs. And from Week 10 on, they play the easiest schedule 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.
Raiders (#10 opponent increase, #21 SOS)
Oakland faces a handful of middling 2015 teams who are projected stronger in 2016, such as the Ravens, Buccaneers and the previously mentioned Jaguars.
Oakland’s start features the 3rd easiest schedule (@ NO, vs ATL, @ TEN, @ BAL). Including their Week 5 game vs the Chargers, the Raiders have the single easiest first five games in the NFL. The problems for Oakland are their early-day starts and losing a home game to Mexico. Oakland plays five games at 10 AM for their body clock, including three in the season's first month. 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 from Week 9 on, the Raiders play the 2nd most difficult schedule in the NFL.
Vikings (#11 opponent increase, #11 SOS)
The Vikings face 3 teams projected to win 10+ games (Packers, Cardinals, Panthers) and a handful of others projected to finish near or above 8 wins (Dallas, Indianapolis, Houston, NY Giants and Jacksonville). Overall their schedule grew more difficult by 20% above the NFL average when comparing current odds to opening odds.
While their schedule is nearly top 10 in difficulty, the worst of it comes in Weeks 2-5, taking on the Packers, Panthers, Texans and Giants. But three of those four games are at home, and after their bye, the Vikings play 4 consecutive opponents who are projected to have losing records. Winning at home and beating opponents they should beat could put Minnesota in a great position to make the postseason, but they may need to win one of their two toughest games after Week 5: home vs the Cardinals (Week 11) or on the road in Green Bay (Week 16), a place they have struggled immensely over the last decade.
Buccaneers (#12 opponent increase, #9 SOS)
Tampa Bay’s current rank of #9 is primarily increased due to the teams in the Western divisions having rosier outlooks than at open. The Raiders, Chiefs, 49ers, Cardinals, Seahawks and Chargers are all viewed as slightly better than they were when the offseason started.
Playing the AFC West and NFC West automatically gives the Bucs a tough draw, and because of last year's 4th place finish in the NFC South, they draw the Cowboys and Bears, both of which are poised to improve on their poor 2015 seasons. The reality for Tampa Bay is their first 5 weeks (before their Week 6 bye) represent 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 well easier than average.
Saints (#13 opponent increase, #15 SOS)
Like the Buccaneers above, the Saints are primarily impacted by having to play the AFC and NFC West. Both divisions have been taking money toward the over on win totals with the exceptions of the Broncos and Rams. That said, their overall schedule strength increased just 8% above average.
The Saints are one of eight teams with only one back-to-back road game stretch, but it comes in Weeks 14 and 15, and leaves them closing the season with 3 of 4 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 stretch from Weeks 6 through 11 is by far the most brutal of any team this year. They face the Panthers twice, the Seahawks, Broncos and Chiefs during that span. And New Orleans has an incredible homefield edge, but hosts just one primetime game (Week 3 vs ATL).
Chiefs (#14 opponent increase, #22 SOS)
Thanks to playing the Broncos twice and the Jets, even the fact that preseason darlings Jacksonville and Oakland are on the Chiefs' schedule does not put them much above average in opponent difficulty since lines first opened.
Kansas City's schedule has a lot to like. Even with updated numbers, they still play the NFL's softest slate from Week 13 to the end of the season (@ ATL, vs OAK, vs TEN, vs DEN, @ SD). They have a 3-game homestand to close the month of December, and they host a Thursday night game (games on Thursday are far more difficult for traveling teams). 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 in Week 16, the Chiefs' 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.
Bills (#15 opponent increase, #8 SOS)
The Bills' schedule difficulty is top 10, and that is without significant increases to top opponents such as the Steelers, Patriots, Seahawks, Bengals and Cardinals. Their average opponent difficulty increase was the league average.
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 be able to win. Pay close attention to their Week 9 game in Seattle, which is on Monday night. Circadian biorhythms will provide a significant edge to the Seahawks in that game.
Panthers (#16 opponent increase, #31 SOS)
The Panthers did not see their opponent win totals increase any more than the NFL average. As such, they are back to where they opened in February with the 31st rated schedule, something very refreshing for a defending Super Bowl runner-up.
The season begins in difficult fashion, but ends quite easily. In fact, no team in the NFL has a softer last month of the season than the Panthers. But starting things off is a trip to the Broncos. Playing in Denver in the first couple weeks of a 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. Denver is 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, Carolina gets extra rest heading into their home opener and is 1 of 8 teams to play one back-to-back set of road games (Weeks 12-13 @ OAK and @ SEA). However, given 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 6 days between games) six times this year, the most of any team.
Redskins (#17 opponent increase, #2 SOS)
In February, the Redskins opened with the 2nd most difficult schedule based on forecasted wins. While the Jets and Falcons jumped them by April, current projections are that the Redskins will still have the 2nd most difficult road in 2016. The only opponent projected weaker now is the Eagles. Several 2nd and 3rd place finishers in the AFC and NFC North that the Redskins face this year are projected much stronger than they were at open, such as the Ravens, Bears and Vikings. And that doesn’t take into account strong opponents like the Packers, Bengals and Steelers who saw minimal, if any, movement toward the over on their win totals.
While the schedule does not begin as badly, from Weeks 8-17 the Redskins' schedule is projected to be the most difficult in the NFL by a large margin. 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, the Redskins must play the Cardinals and Panthers. The lone bright spot for Washington is that of their six most difficult opponents, only one (@ ARI) is a true road game. Four are at home (PIT, MIN, GB and CAR) and one is in London (CIN).
Rams (#18 opponent increase, #12 SOS)
The Rams' schedule looks easier now than it did in April. The Bills and Jets don’t look as difficult at present, and while the teams that saw the most positive movement were the Buccaneers and the 49ers, neither is projected to win over 7 games. As such, while the Rams are not projected to do well this year -- and that projection has trended downward since the offseason opened -- their schedule is at least slightly more manageable.
Los Angeles does not face any particularly rough stretches. The overall caliber of opponent is strong primarily from playing the Cardinals and Seahawks twice, and they also face the Panthers and Patriots, the two teams projected to have the best records in the NFL. The Rams do not face any of these opponents in back-to-back weeks, though. The scheduling committee was also kind in allowing them to travel to Detroit for a game before flying to London to face the Giants in Week 7. But with the Rams being one of 4 teams to finish the year playing 3 of 4 games at home, and losing a home game to London, in the first 13 weeks the Rams play just 4 games in Los Angeles.
Falcons (#19 opponent increase, #6 SOS)
Atlanta was once viewed as having the 3rd most difficult schedule, but after seeing their opponent strength shift 8% under NFL average, they don’t have it quite as rough. The Rams, Broncos and Eagles are all projected worse than where they opened.
Atlanta has three sets of back-to-back road games in the first 10 weeks of the season and two games on the road that will be played in primetime (Week 3 @ NO, Week 9 @ TB on Thursday). Absolutely no team has a worse October than the Falcons, who take on the Panthers, Seahawks and Packers from the NFC as well as the Broncos during that month. The Falcons will have the option to stay on the West Coast for their back-to-backs at Denver and at Seattle, but that falls in as part of the 2nd worst three week stretch this year.
Eagles (#20 opponent increase, #5 SOS)
The Eagles are have moved ahead of the Falcons in current projections. It’s a much higher leap than their 12th rated position back in April, but that was when the market was down on several of Philly's opponents. The only team with a worse outlook at the start of the season is the division-rival Redskins. However, many opponents are projected to be better by only a slight margin (typically adjustments in juice only). I hinted at the potential difficulties in my April article, when I said that 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, the Eagles play just three home games and make multiple back-to-back road trips. 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 4-win team, the Giants are a 6-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 to make those games meaningful.
Jets (#21 opponent increase, #3 SOS)
While this current tier of teams did not see its Strength of Schedule increase substantially based on the NFL average, they still face extremely daunting tasks. The Jets were forecasted at #2 in the April installment, and have shifted back to #3. With the exception of the Ravens, most of the Jets' opponents did not shift substantially in terms of movement toward the over on their win totals. But it still is not easy.
The Jets face the NFL’s toughest 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 7 games, there is a huge gap in opponent strength between them and any other team in the league. If the Jets can somehow survive until Week 8, they face the 2nd easiest 3 game stretch heading into their bye, and then host two annual playoff contenders in primetime (consecutively): the Patriots and Colts. The Jets' 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. Lastly, not only do the Jets face three sets of back-to-back road games, all trips occur in the first 9 weeks of the year, and two involve primetime road games (Week 2 @ BUF on Thursday, Week 6 @ ARI).
49ers (#22 opponent increase, #1 SOS)
While the 49ers get the Jets, Bills and Rams (twice) -- and each team is projected worse now than at open -- the fact that they face the rising Bears, Buccaneers and Cowboys offsets all of that ease, keeping the 49ers at #1 overall in schedule difficulty.
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 ten teams to play back-to-back road games on three separate occasions. As we’ve seen, Chip Kelly’s defenses in his 3 years in the NFL average the most time on the field per game, so starting against a difficult slate of opponents may snowball. The biggest problem for the 49ers is simply the NFC West, meaning the Seahawks twice and the Cardinals twice. Factor in games vs the Panthers and Patriots, and this slate is the most difficult that any team will face. Even their "easy" stretch between Weeks 12-16 is made more difficult by the fact that four of five are on the road (@ MIA, @ CHI, vs NYJ, @ ATL, @ STL).
Cardinals (#23 opponent increase, #23 SOS)
Arizona plays 5 games against teams projected to be softer in 2016: the Redskins, Jets, Bills and Rams (twice). While most teams saw an increase of +5 wins from their combined 2016 opponents as compared to the open, the Cardinals were 28% lower than average, with opponents clocking in at +3.6 more wins.
Arizona starts off with a tough game vs the Patriots in primetime, but it may come without Tom Brady. Additionally, the Cardinals enjoy several easy stretches. In Weeks 2-6, Arizona faces the NFL's 3rd easiest stretch, 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.
Steelers (#24 opponent increase, #28 SOS)
Like the Cardinals, the Steelers' SOS benefits from bet-down teams such as the Redskins, Jets, Bills and Eagles. The opponent which was bet “up” the most was division rival Baltimore. Even so, the Steelers' schedule is projected to be one of the NFL's softest.
The Steelers have back-to-back road trips after Week 11, with the 2nd of each coming in primetime. But they literally are not covering much ground in these road trips (@ CLE then @ IND in Weeks 11-12, and @ BUF then @ CIN in Weeks 14-15). The fact that the Steelers get to face the Browns twice significantly helps their SOS. Also helping is the fact that the most difficult non-division teams they face (NE, KC, and DAL) will all play in Pittsburgh.
Seahawks (#25 opponent increase, #29 SOS)
Seattle is one team that really dropped in schedule difficulty. They opened at #23 and shifted to #21 in April, but currently sit at #29. They play the Eagles, Jets, Bills and Rams (twice), and those opponents are projected slightly worse than they were back in February. The Seahawks' opponents with the best improvements are the Buccaneers and 49ers.
Seattle’s Weeks 10-14 are the 2nd most difficult in the NFL, and from Week 10 onward, it is the 6th most difficult overall. But the Seahawks should be in good shape by that point, as they face the easiest first 6 weeks in the NFL (vs MIA, @ LA, vs SF, @ NYJ, vs ATL and a 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.
Cowboys (#26 opponent increase, #32 SOS)
The Cowboys had an easy schedule. The easiest in the NFL. And it got even easier based on the current betting market as compared to the open. Playing 4 games against the Redskins and the Eagles -- the two most faded teams on the market -- was extremely helpful for Dallas' SOS. They also play two teams (Detroit, Pittsburgh) where the market has been neutral, and so overall the Cowboys are still looking at the NFL’s friendliest slate.
While the Cowboys do not have any particularly empty spots on the schedule, they do play two of the three worst teams based on projections (@ CLE, @ SF). From a schedule standpoint, 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 the maximum primetime games (5), and if you factor in a traditional home game for Thanksgiving, 4 of their 6 highest-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 2 more games outdoors (@ NYG, @ PHI).
Ravens (#27 opponent increase, #19 SOS)
The Ravens have been an up and down team. They opened with the 11th rated schedule, which then shifted all the way back to 26th, before moving back up to 19th. Part of the reason for the move back to 19th is facing the Jaguars and Raiders, two teams whose odds dramatically increased following the hype of the NFL draft. But because the Ravens play 4 games against teams whose odds have faded (Redskins, Eagles, Jets and Bills), their overall opponent win total has increased 42% below average.
Baltimore does have three sets of back-to-back road games, tied for most in the NFL. Their early schedule through a Week 8 bye is substantially easier than their late schedule. In fact, they have the NFL’s easiest slate over the first 8 games. But from Week 9 on, Baltimore's schedule is 5th toughest primarily 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).
Browns (#28 opponent increase, #7 SOS)
The Browns play 4 games against teams projected to be weaker than at open, with just one opponent projected over 0.5 wins better (BAL). So Cleveland's schedule has moved in their favor, but it still is 7th most difficult overall.
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 4 games. A Week 6 road game in Tennessee looks like the best opportunity to project success for the Browns.
Dolphins (#29 opponent increase, #14 SOS)
Thanks to playing in the AFC East, the Dolphins get the Jets and Bills, 2 teams out of 7 that are projected worse now than they were when lines opened. That helps the Dolphins substantially, as they opened with the 6th toughest schedule, but now find themselves at 14th.
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 all the way 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. The Dolphins' slate is only made easier by home games against the Browns and Titans. Miami also has the 2nd hardest final month of the year (vs ARI, @ NYJ, @ BUF, vs NE).
Bengals (#30 opponent increase, #27 SOS)
The Bengals sit at #27 in schedule difficulty, the same as they were in April. But it is easier than at February open, which was 16th. The reason for that is the Bengals play 5 games against non-division opponents projected to be worse now than they were at the start of the offseason (Redskins, Eagles, Broncos, Jets, Bills). Cincinnati almost hit all 7 teams with falling win totals.
The defending AFC North champs have a bye at the exact midpoint of the season, but they lose a home game to London (vs WAS) immediately before the bye. The Bengals have to be ready to roll out of the preseason, as they are one of four teams to play two straight road games in Weeks 1-2. And their schedule from Weeks 1-6 is 3rd most difficult in the NFL, facing the division rival Steelers in Week 2, as well as the Broncos, Cowboys and Patriots over the following four games. However, after the Week 6 game in New England, the Bengals face the NFL’s easiest schedule (by a large gap) from Weeks 7-14. 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 in perfect position (record-wise and rest-wise) to take on the Steelers, Texans and Ravens to close the season, with both divisional contests occurring in Cincinnati.
Patriots (#31 opponent increase, #24 SOS)
The Patriots opened with the 14th most difficult schedule but now find themselves at #24, thanks to a combination of both division and non-division opponents that have been bet down. The Broncos and Jets make up 3 games, while the Bills and Rams make up 3 more. The total is 6 games against teams who have been bet lower. On average, the Patriots' projected opponent wins increased by just 2.3 in total, compared to the NFL average of 5 more wins, which equates to an increase in opponent win rate 54% below average.
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 teams are on the road, which means they have more home games against difficult competition where the homefield advantage stands to benefit New England more. After that tough Week 1 game 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 immediately prior to hosting Seattle in Week 10 primetime, and after that, the most difficult game they face is Week 15 in Denver. From Week 11 on, the Patriots play the 3rd easiest schedule in the NFL.
Giants (#32 opponent increase, #30 SOS)
The Giants are about where they were in April in terms of overall rank, but things are looking much easier compared to February, when they had the 17th rated SOS. That happened because the Giants play the Eagles and Redskins twice, both of which are bet-down teams.
Their third place finish gives the Giants the Saints at home and Rams on the road (but in London as opposed to L.A.). The Giants' toughest hurdle is consecutive road games in Minnesota and Green Bay, but fortunately for them, the G-Men face the Packers early in the calendar. Playing only 3 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). As mentioned above, however, the Eagles and Redskins are not considered to be as difficult opponents as initially projected.