The 2019 regular season is fast approaching, and while we’ve been busy giving our win totals, playoff, division and Super Bowl probabilities out week by week, we’re going to pause for a second to talk about strength of schedule.
Depending on who you ask, strength of schedule is somewhere between overrated and underrated when looking to handicap teams going into a season. While the Houston Texans certainly punched above their weight class last year as a result of playing a pretty easy slate (ugh), the New York Jets had a similarly-easy road and could not sufficiently take advantage.
The answer is inevitably in between, which is why we simulate the NFL season thousands of times in order to create our projections. This allows us to mimic the dynamic changes that can occur in team (and team component) strengths.
In this article, we use our PFFELO power rating metric to determine who has the most difficult and easiest average opponent (Week 1) ELO rating, with some commentary on notable teams.
Note: These may be different than what appears in past win totals articles since our rating depends on things that may have changed since then.
After having one of the easiest schedules in the NFL a season ago, the Texans now have the hardest with a first-place schedule and the NFC South and AFC West on their slate. Their most difficult stretch is probably the season’s first six weeks, where they need to play the top three teams from the former and the top two from the latter, before a bit of a reprieve with the Colts, Raiders and Jaguars following that early tough stretch. Two of their last three games are against Tennessee, in what will in all likelihood decide whether they repeat as division champs.
One of the reasons we were quickly on the Bears’ under early in the offseason, Chicago plays in what might be the most evenly yoked division in football. Their toughest stretch begins in October, where they play New Orleans, Philadelphia and both Los Angeles teams in the span of five games. December isn’t any kinder to the Monsters of the Midway, however, as they play the Cowboys, Chiefs, Packers and Vikings the last four weeks, the latter most the fourth-consecutive year they play in Minnesota to close the regular season.
If Matt Ryan and company are going to get back to the playoffs, they will have a difficult road. While the AFC South is nothing to be afraid of, the NFC West is likely going to be better than they were a season ago with Kyler Murray and Jimmy Garopollo being added to the quarterback stable. The majority of this rating, though, is the strength of the NFC South specifically, with the New Orleans Saints one of the best three teams in the league, Tampa Bay possibly emerging into a contender and the Panthers representing problems for defenses (should Cam stay healthy) on a weekly basis. If any of these projections don’t materialize, the outlook should be far brighter for the birds, but until then…
Honorable Mentions: Carolina, Oakland, San Francisco, Denver, Dallas, Arizona, Tampa Bay
New England Patriots
The jokes write themselves every year, but getting to play the AFC East is one of the major stabilizers in the Patriots’ dynasty. While they often take a month or so of the season to figure things out, they have a pretty easy slate to open after playing Pittsburgh in Week 1, facing their three AFC East opponents before dueling with Washington and the two New York teams. They have a difficult stretch thereafter, playing the Browns, Ravens, Eagles, Cowboys, Texans and Chiefs in succession, but might have such a lead built by then that a 0.500 record in those games could be sufficient to win the East and vie for a bye.
Perhaps the most-talented team in football, player for player, gets one of its easiest slates, due in large part to a division that includes an overrated Dallas team, and two teams that are likely to be breaking in a rookie quarterback at some point during the season. They also get to play the AFC East, which will in all likelihood contain at least two teams that will imply significant win probabilities for the birds. Also, finishing last season in second place in the NFC East means they get to play the Seahawks and Vikings, as opposed to the Rams and the Bears, the former difference in opponent likely to be striking as the season progresses.
We’ve been all over Pittsburgh this offseason, as they are a good bet to win the AFC North and make the playoffs after missing them for the first time since 2013. A pretty balanced schedule, one that does not include any really easy or really difficult stretches, the existence of Cincinnati (twice), the NFC West and the AFC East significantly lowers the average PFFELO value of their schedule. Another dynamic that makes the Steelers schedule easier than before is the fall of the Indianapolis Colts in the wake of the Andrew Luck news.
Honorable Mentions: New York Jets, New York Giants, Washington, Cleveland, Los Angeles Rams, New Orleans, Buffalo