The 2021 NFL schedule release has set off arguments both for and against the importance of various elements and whether any of it matters at all. Of course, strength of schedule metrics are already available, but the approach remains the most important question, as travel impact and rest differential become variables once the league finalizes the 17-game slate.
Since the individual matchups had been known for some time, a somewhat robust team futures market had already developed. The schedule release then made a measurable impact on these markets despite no team win totals moving off their number, as 13 of the 31 listed win total prices have moved since Tuesday.
Taking some cues from the betting market, we can attempt to assess how the order of games could impact a team's chances in 2021 and highlight the most difficult stretches on each franchise’s schedule. We do this by calculating a moving average of each opponent’s preseason Elo ranking and factoring in rest differential and net travel distance.
Below is a box plot of each team’s opposing Elo for each game of the 2021 regular season, sorted by the team’s mean Elo ranking faced. The games included in their most difficult stretch are highlighted by black dots. The box shows the teams' first-quartile opposing Elo, median opposing Elo and third-quartile opposing Elo.
For a top-level view, this gives an initial idea of the strength of schedule for each team. It highlights how difficult certain schedules will be and how it may impact outcomes in the win total market.
Our goal is to find each team’s most difficult stretch of games and highlight those that will be hindered the most by these stretches.
To first compare the difficulties between schedules, we plot each team's mean Elo faced over their most difficult stretch along with their win total number to see who should see the most or least impact from a certain stretch of games.
In the futures market, It should pay to target teams on the bottom half of this graph, especially when their overall schedule sits among the weakest in the NFL.
Let’s take a closer look at each team’s most difficult stretch, along with some points on why it will impact whether that team goes over or under their current win total.
Arizona has the eighth-easiest schedule from a mean Elo perspective because they aren’t facing a lot of top-end teams. Green Bay is currently the toughest opponent on their schedule, but that could easily disintegrate if the Aaron Rodgers rumors prove to be true.
Playing in the NFC West means the Cardinals have only two clear victories on their current slate. Their most difficult stretch starts early: After a trip to Jacksonville, they have a second road game against the Rams in Week 4 before another division matchup against the 49ers and a road game against the Cleveland Browns. If the Cardinals want to stay relevant in the NFC West, they have to win in Week 3 against Jacksonville before finding at least one more victory over their next three matchups.
The betting market seems to be buying into them slightly off their schedule order, as they have added four cents to their over win total price.
The Falcons have seen their stock rise in the eyes of bettors and continue to see an increase in their over price after the schedule release.
Atlanta has the league's seventh-easiest schedule, though they do play the defending Super Bowl champions twice. The schedule-makers were kind to them in the games surrounding the two clashes with Tampa Bay, which means the stretch that has them at the Saints and Cowboys before taking on the Patriots at home on a short week should decide whether they go over their 7.5 win total.
Baltimore is one of only three teams that has seen their win total drop since opening last month. Nothing has adjusted since their schedule release, as their most difficult games are sandwiched by games against some of their weakest opponents.
In the thick of the playoff hunt, the Ravens have a difficult stretch that starts with back-to-back road games against the Steelers and Browns. And while it’s difficult to assess the Packers — Baltimore's final opponent of this stretch — accurately, finishing this run 0-3 would be devastating to the Ravens’ playoff chances.
Buffalo has a league-average strength of schedule, as bettors continue to buy into their over win total. After opening at 10.5, it pushed to 11 after the draft, with the over continuing to move away from a plus price.
Their most difficult stretch starts with a road contest against New Orleans Saints on a short week before a long break to next week's Monday Night game against the New England Patriots. This leads into a short week against the defending Super Bowl champions, who will have a positive rest differential against the Bills in their matchup. Rest differentials get quite difficult when the team is already expected to be better than you under neutral settings, which is why this stretch will determine the Bills standing in the AFC playoff picture.
Carolina has the late bye but then gets one of the most difficult schedules to finish out the season — they play the defending Super Bowl champions twice in the span of three weeks.
If things have already gone sideways by the time they head into their Week 13 bye, then there is a real chance that Carolina finishes the 2021 season 0-5.
Chicago has the eighth-most-difficult schedule heading into 2021 after finishing second in a down NFC North division in 2020. Bettors bought into the Bears' draft, adding the hook to their seven-game win total. The excitement slightly waned after the schedule release, with their over number adjusting to a higher plus price on the over.
Their schedule difficulty hinges on Aaron Rodgers’ status in Green Bay, which also plays a role in what should be viewed as their most difficult stretch. If they lose to the Packers at home in Week 6 and also fail to live up to expectations against the Buccaneers the following week, they will easily be home dogs against a 49ers squad that has a similar makeup to their own.
The Bengals have the NFL's fourth-most-difficult schedule, with the second-highest median Elo faced in the NFL because of the quality of teams they play at the top of our rankings.
Their stretch to close out the season could all but eliminate any hope they have of making the playoffs, with two home games against the Ravens and Chiefs, before closing out on the road in Cleveland. The Bengals will need to have made a tremendous leap in Burrow’s second season to stay relevant at the end of their regular season.
The Browns may have found the perfect season to play the NFC North, as their schedule starts off daunting in Week 1 but follows with a stretch of winnable games all the way to their Week 13 bye.
They play the Ravens on both sides of that bye but draw a favorable rest matchup at home in Week 14 before two potential Saturday games in Week 15 and Week 16. Lambeau on Christmas Day could be one of the most difficult matchups of the season if the Green Bay offense is anywhere close to the levels it sustained last year. But given the questions surrounding the Pack’s current state, the Browns appear to be one of the teams benefiting the most from their schedule this season.
Dallas has the sixth-easiest strength of schedule, with only one rough patch after their kickoff game in Tampa. Thanksgiving will be crucial for the Cowboys, as they come off a short week traveling from Kansas City to home to play the Raiders. If they handle things on Thanksgiving, a neutral-rest Thursday Night matchup in New Orleans awaits.
If they finish 2-1 through the toughest part of their schedule, they should be running away with the East by Week 14. Their division odds have drifted away this offseason, which makes +125 the right time to buy.
Rumor alone has pushed Broncos' futures in one direction, so if you weren’t early to the Broncos, waiting for facts is now the most prudent decision. Denver has an easy track to reset the AFC playoff race if the rumors turn out to be true.
Denver has the fourth-easiest schedule despite playing the top team in our Elo rankings twice. Their most difficult stretch comes at the end of the season, with two road games before wrapping up the season at home against the Chiefs.
Things are tough from the get-go when you are the second-most-likely team to earn the No. 1 overall pick in next year’s NFL draft, but the schedule-makers didn’t do the Lions any favors by giving them a stretch of quality teams to start the season. Bettors don't need to go anywhere near the Lions at this part of the campaign — there are much better offerings.
At one point, Green Bay had a win total of 10.5 priced at -143 to the over. We may not see another line on them for quite some time, as the Aaron Rodgers drama dominates everything.
The Packers have a slightly above-average strength of schedule for the season and have never been more thankful for the Detroit Lions.
Traveling on a shortened week to Arizona, the Packers gain quite an edge in rest differential, playing the following Sunday in Kansas City. The Chiefs have a shortened rest period but do stay at home after playing Monday night. Green Bay then goes home to play Seattle, who should be well-rested off their bye.
Bookmakers aren’t taking a wait-and-see approach with the Texans, who continue to receive the most action on under 4.5 wins. They have one of the 10 most difficult schedules in the NFL, which starts almost immediately.
They are currently +112 on the moneyline to lose in Week 1, which should easily lead to an 0-4 start to the season. Traveling to Cleveland in Week 2 needs to be a quick trip, as they play at home on Thursday in Week 3. A loss to Carolina will have them on pace for the No. 1 pick, with things only likely to heat up late between the Texans and Lions in the tank race of 2021.
The Colts have one of the five best schedules in the NFL but don’t really reap the benefits until Week 6. They are under a field-goal favorite in Week 1 and on the other side of 0 in early lines for Week 2. This leads into three road games, which should determine how viable the Colts are as contenders in the AFC. Any wins during this stretch will be crucial to paying off their 51.5% implied probability of winning the South.
Jacksonville deserves a second look to be a team to buy into in 2021. Say what you want about Urban Meyer, but he will be navigating the second-easiest strength of schedule in the NFL.
They have no real difficult stretches in 2020, as they head out of their bye into Week 8 in Seattle. The net travel is one of the most significant cross-country trips of any team. This is followed by Buffalo at home before going to Indianapolis, making this three-game stretch the point to determine whether the Jaguars can actually win the AFC South.
Kansas City is the clear favorite in the betting market and still might be undervalued. They have added a hook to their opening 12-point win total, but the plus price still makes this an enticing offer.
The Chiefs have a middle-of-the-pack strength of schedule but no real difficult stretches, as the schedule-makers spaced out their tough matchups. The Browns and Ravens to start the season could be daunting, but Weeks 5-7 should determine if the Chiefs will reach their lofty win total. They start with the Bills in Week 5 before going back-to-back road games against Washington and Tennessee. If they start the season hot, they could be coasting to the over heading out of their Week 12 bye.
Facing the top team in our Elo rankings twice, along with barely squeaking out second place in the division, gives the Raiders the sixth-most-difficult 2021 schedule. At Kansas City then at Cleveland could be the most difficult two-game stretch in the AFC, especially if Cleveland turns into a game on short rest.
Bettors aren’t backing the Raiders after dropping half a point down to a seven-game win total post-draft. If Denver upgrades its quarterback room, then the Raiders would easily end up with the most difficult schedule in all of football.
The Chargers are in a similar position to the Raiders but have their most difficult stretch early in the season. They have moved to slight favorites in their Week 1 matchup against Washington and sit at the same number against Dallas in Week 2. Both appear to be needed wins, as a trip to Kansas City awaits in Week 3. They are then back home Monday night against the Raiders before a short week with the Browns coming to town.
A 1-4 start to the season could be catastrophic to the Chargers' wild-card hopes. Even the best-case scenarios hinge on no improvements happening in their division before the season kicks off.
The Rams saw some line movement in their direction after the draft, with their over price dropping to even. They have the second-widest spread of any Week 1 team but then head into easily their hardest stretch of the season.
Week 2 has the Rams as a slight road favorite before heading back to the West Coast to take on Tampa Bay. This will be the Buccaneers' first game away from home after they are eased into starting their potential repeat season. Another home game against Arizona before heading to Seattle makes this early-season stretch crucial to the Rams' 2021 success. If Matthew Stafford and Sean McVay find magic early, the Rams could grab hold of the NFC West by Week 6 of the season.
The Dolphins aren't favored in the first two weeks of the season and could easily start 0-5 if they don’t pull out a victory in Las Vegas.
The betting market still seems to be buying into them even though they have the 10th-hardest strength of schedule in 2021. They have added seven cents to the over 9 win total price since Tuesday, which indicates bettors liked something in the order of their schedule. For my money, I am not seeing it, as the Dolphins' success will come down to Tua Tagovailoa’s improvement in Year 2.
The Vikings hope to be just good enough to win a down NFC North division. It might take the Packers jettisoning Aaron Rodgers, but the betting market has at least moved in that direction.
No team's over price has moved more since Tuesday, as their slightly-below-average strength of schedule doesn’t harm them, given the order. Weeks 9-11 appear to be the most daunting at this time, but if things change in Green Bay, there isn't much left to stop Minnesota from challenging for the division title.
The heavy juice associated with the Patriots over 9 win total continues to dissipate, as bettors seem less than enthused about a return to form in New England. They have a league-average strength of schedule and appear to be helped out by the order-makers. The Patriots have the perfect bye built into the most difficult part of their schedule, which starts at Buffalo then at Indianapolis, followed by a rematch against Buffalo.
If they can navigate the second-easiest starting schedule through the first five games, then the latest bye could be all they need to land in the playoffs.
The Saints have a fairly easy start to the season, especially if things go sideways in Green Bay.
Heading out of their Week 6 bye will be the toughest stretch of the Saints' season. They travel across the country to Seattle on Monday night, which turns into a short week against Tampa at home. This is followed by another home matchup against Atlanta, which will be crucial to keep pace in the NFC South. This is the new-look Saints, though, so things could easily be up in flameis by Week 10.
The Giants land just outside the top 10 most difficult schedules, as the weak NFC East isn’t enough to overcome road games against Kansas City and Tampa Bay.
Thankfully, the schedule-makers helped out New York by giving them a bye during the most difficult stretch of their schedule. But with those two looming matchups so close together, it's tough to find any other spot that will determine the Giants' season. A win heading into their bye against Las Vegas would keep them on track to go over their seven-game win total.
The Jets picked up some pricing movement in their direction and are now back to their opening win total. They have a slightly below-average strength of schedule, which doesn’t prove difficult until the end of the regular season.
Ideally, the Jets have already gone over their 6.5-point win total by this stage, but they could win outright against the Jaguars in Week 16 to make it official. Their only hope for Week 17 and 18 is that the Buccaneers and Bills have nothing to play for.
The Eagles are one of only two teams that play both Super Bowl 55 participants in a three-week stretch. Thankfully, both matchups are at home, but the Eagles must travel to Carolina before a short week against the Buccaneers on Thursday night.
Outside of this small stretch, the Eagles have one of the easiest schedules in the NFL, with the majority of their matchups having a below-league average ELO ranking.
An early bye makes the hardest strength of schedule in the NFL even worse, as they wrap up with a brutal stretch of teams to close the regular season. If Big Ben’s arm and Pittsburgh's playoff chances are both hanging by a thread, Weeks 16-18 should usher in a complete rebuild. They play in Kansas City on Boxing Day before wrapping up with AFC North rivals Cleveland and Baltimore. This is just one additional reason why Pittsburgh could be the best team to fade again in 2021.
Seattle once again provides a sneaky betting opportunity, with the ninth-easiest schedule in the NFL. Their division odds have continued to drift away, as they now have just a 25% implied probability of winning the West.
Winning in San Francisco in week 4 will be crucial, as they have a short turnaround to playing the Rams on Thursday in Week 5. Rest will help, but they travel across the country to take on Pittsburgh the following Sunday before returning home to take on the Saints. Depending upon what version of the Saints you buy into, this looks like the make-or-break spot for the Seahawks' season. Too many early stumbles will be difficult to overcome in 2021.
If there is a difficult stretch on the easiest schedule in the NFL, it comes early for the 49ers. It starts with a game against the Packers — a game that will again hinge on Aaron Rodgers' situation — with a home game against Seattle and a road game against Arizona wrapping things up.
It doesn’t seem like too difficult a stretch, which is why the betting market continues to buy into a quick turnaround for the 49ers.
Repeating is always difficult at the top, which means strength of schedule rarely matters when you get everyone's best. However, Tampa Bay does have the optimal bye in the middle of the season.
There are other rivalry matchups that should be enticing from a viewer standpoint, but no stretch looks more difficult than the second part of two road games followed by Buffalo and New Orleans at home. The Saints may not be what they once were, but the schedule-makers appear to have spaced out the most difficult matchups for the Buccaneers quite well.
Any stretch that includes Kansas City and a negative rest differential is always going to stand out. That is what the Titans are dealing with after their Monday night matchup against the Bills in Week 6. The Chiefs game leads into a road matchup against the Colts, which turns this into the second-most-difficult three-game stretch for any team this season.
Tennessee’s win total over price has already dropped 29 cents since Tuesday, as heavy action appears to be coming in on their under. Some team has to win the AFC South, but there might not be a more popular regression candidate than the Titans in 2021.
Washington has the fifth-most-difficult strength of schedule and by far the hardest three-game stretch of any team in the NFL. The first two matchups are both at home against the Saints and Chiefs, followed by a trip to Lambeau. Given the quarterback questions of the Saints and Packers, this could easily turn into a less daunting stretch. But with back-to-back road games against Buffalo and Atlanta, Washington could already be feeling the effects of its schedule before hitting the hardest point.