Whether you are a fan of the National Football League’s divisional setup and rotating schedule system or not, it must be acknowledged that the league at least makes a legitimate effort to allow all 32 of its teams to legitimately compete for a playoff spot any given season. Just this season we’ve seen significant moves in the standings where teams that finished a woeful 2009 campaign in their division’s basement are now division royalty; look no further than the Kansas City Chiefs—worst to first in the AFC West—and St. Louis Rams—worst to one win away from the NFC West title—for evidence of a system that is working to help keep fans of all teams looking forward to a potential playoff push.
This is not to say, however, that the scheduling system is perfect by any means. Teams play six games a year against the three other teams in their division, which is great when you play in a week division like the NFC West but is considerably tougher when you play in the AFC North, as an example. Even the NFC South—traditionally looked at as a weaker division only able to send one team to the postseason—managed to have three teams score double-digit wins this season.
If you do “luck out” and manage to compete in a weaker division, you still have to play four teams from another division in your conference and then four teams from a division in the opposing conference; no guarantees of any easy match-ups there. This is part of the aberration of the NFC South’s 2010 success; they were matched up with the NFC West as their in-conference non-divisional schedule, allowing them to prey upon the likes of the Rams, Cardinals, 49ers, and Seahawks. However, since these schedules change every year and only repeat every four years, the general level of competition is maintained in the league; this makes it all the more impressive when elite teams continue to put up high win totals year after year.
Now that the 2010 NFL regular season has drawn to a close and the twelve postseason berths are wrapped up, it seems appropriate to look at the “strength of schedule” for each NFL team and analyze what effect it may have had on shaping the teams that are still in the running for a trip to Cowboys Stadium for Super Bowl XLV. Before each season, the NFL home page ranks each team’s strength of schedule when the schedule is announced; however, calculating these numbers is based on the previous season’s win-loss total, which cannot be a completely accurate measure; we need only consult the Chiefs (who went from 4-12 last season to 10-6 this year) and Rams (1-15 to 7-9) to see the difficulty in projecting schedule strength based on performance from a prior season. Instead, for the sake of this analysis a spreadsheet was organized with the benefit of having win totals of each team’s opponents on the season, and the final win total of all opponents played was divided by 256; this yielded the overall strength of schedule win percentage for each team.
When each team’s strength of schedule win percentage was averaged together, the average opponent win percentage in the NFL was exactly .500; a very convenient number in the grand scheme of things. A total of fourteen (14) teams ended up with a strength of schedule over .500, one team’s number was .500 exactly, and seventeen (17) teams played against teams whose aggregate win-loss number was below .500. In terms of playoff teams, two teams (the Packers and Patriots) played opponents combining for a winning percentage over .500, while the Steelers compiled the .500 opponent winning percentage for strength of schedule. All of the other playoff teams—ranked from toughest to weakest: Jets, Eagles, Ravens, Falcons, Seahawks, Colts, Bears, Saints, Chiefs—played a schedule where teams combined to lose more games than they won.
The following graphic provides the full ranking:
Of course, when considering these numbers, it makes sense that teams with lower records will end up having compiled a strength of schedule which is tougher; when these teams lose to the opposing teams on their schedule, it increases their opponent’s winning percentage overall. The majority of the playoff teams, however, fall about 0.020 in each direction from the league average; certainly acceptable in terms of overall fairness for the league. At the extreme ends of the league—both teams that had tough schedules and teams that had easier schedules—there are equal stories of teams that should have made the playoffs but were not able to overcome the teams put in front of them.
To conclude this analysis, I’ll make a few comments about each team’s season in reference to their performance, overall strength of schedule and opponent winning percentage; the teams will be discussed in order from toughest schedule to weakest.
After a relatively surprising AFC North Championship in 2009, the Bengals were “rewarded” with a 1st-place schedule in terms of difficulty. With the toughest schedule in the league—and two teams with over 10 wins in their division alone—the odds were stacked against a Cincinnati repeat.
Despite also finishing the 2009 season in the AFC East cellar, a season where the Patriots and Jets both finished with over 11 wins helped to ramp up the strength of opposition for the Bills in 2010. They also faced other 4th-place teams from 2009—the Jaguars and the Chiefs—who either competed for or actually won their division in 2010.
The Panthers have plenty of issues within their own locker room; never mind the fact that in 2010, all three of their division rivals in the NFC South finished with at least 10 wins for the season. Carolina was leagues behind their division brethren and had little chance against the league’s third-toughest schedule.
With a slightly easier schedule, Cleveland managed one more win than their rivals in Cincinnati. The AFC North had a particularly difficult slate, playing against the AFC East and NFC South—both divisions with multiple 10+ game winners—as well as the Ravens and Steelers who ended up with 12 wins each.
Between the NFC North, AFC East, and NFC East, the Lions had three divisions of teams where multiple squads had 10+ win seasons on their schedule. For a team which saw Matthew Stafford go down to injury again, it was too much to overcome; the record is still good progress considering recent history.
The Dolphins and Vikings ended the season with the same opponent win percentage, and neither team finished at .500 themselves for the year. The Dolphins had to contend with the Patriots and Jets in their own division along with the AFC North and NFC North; the Vikings, meanwhile, were tasked with playing the Bears and Packers along with AFC East and NFC East squads. Issues at quarterback—though different for each team—also factored into their difficulties through the season, as Miami faced problems with Chad Henne’s development while Minnesota tackled Brett Favre’s bruised body and battered ego.
In a down year for the AFC South in general, the Texans had the toughest schedule; this included two games against the Colts and Jaguars as well as games against the NFC East. However, the Texans also had to contend with an improved AFC West, which conspired against their hopes of a first playoff appearance.
With the ninth toughest schedule for the 2010 NFL season comes our first playoff team: the Packers. Green Bay was a success story here with the most difficult schedule of any playoff participant, including overcoming an injury issue at QB when Aaron Rodgers had to sit out against the Patriots after sustaining a concussion.
While the Broncos struggled mightily with coaching issues and general ineffectiveness, the Redskins managed two more wins than Denver despite dealing with drama over the health and conditioning of Donovan McNabb as starting QB in Washington.
The Cowboys had a slightly easier schedule than their division rival Redskins but only managed to match Washington’s win total for the season; given the team’s poor overall start and loss of starting QB Tony Romo to injury, Dallas actually ended the season as well as could have been expected given their circumstances..
Despite a middle-of-the-road schedule, the Titans had to deal with controversy at quarterback in choosing a starter between Vince Young and Kerry Collins; this drama spilled over and kept Tennessee from remaining relevant as the year wore on. The best news for the Titans is that they will play a 4th-place schedule in 2011.
The second-toughest schedule of any playoff participant is also the schedule that was faced by the team with the best record in the entire league: the Patriots. Despite fighting a 1st-place schedule and multiple 10+ win teams between the AFC East, AFC North, and NFC North, New England only lost twice in the span of the year.
Even without Ben Roethlisberger to begin their season, the Steelers overcame a .500 schedule which included bouts with the AFC East and NFC North on their way back to the top of the AFC North. Their opponent win percentage also represents the league average for strength of schedule in 2010.
The first two teams to face a schedule under-.500 in 2010 are both playoff participants. The Jets are in the postseason despite only defeating two teams with a winning record, while the Eagles had to overcome injuries—though aided by the return of Michael Vick to stardom—on their way to clinching the NFC East.
San Francisco was a sexy preseason pick to take a weak NFC West, but a losing streak to begin the year—combined with games against the tough NFC South and improved AFC West—took its toll and kept the 49ers from achieving success in 2010.
Tied for the 19th-toughest schedule in the NFL for 2010 are three playoff-bound teams; one could certainly argue that two of them are more qualified than the third, however. The Ravens put together a solid 12-4 season while the Falcons ended up with the best record in the NFC and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Seahawks were badly outplayed much of the year before eventually outlasting their divisional rivals to claim the final playoff spot.
The Buccaneers will look back on 2010 with mixed emotions; on the one hand, they achieved double-digit wins just one season after finishing last in their division. On the other hand, they ended up outside the playoff race despite their 10 wins, and they lost a few close games against non-playoff teams over the year which ended up hurting them in the end.
The 23rd-toughest schedule was shared by two division champions: the Colts and the Bears. Indianapolis had an up-and-down season which saw them fighting until the end of the season to earn a playoff spot, despite the relative weakness of their opponents. Meanwhile, Chicago completed a turn-around from 3rd place in the NFC North last year to clear champions of the division in 2010.
Despite having the same opponent win percentage, expectations for the Raiders and Saints were at opposite ends of the spectrum for 2010. An 8-8 finish—including a 6-0 divisional record against the AFC West—was unexpected progress for Oakland, though the weak schedule may have helped. Meanwhile, the defending champion Saints had to fight late in the season to secure a playoff berth amidst a tough AFC South in 2010.
Despite having the 5th-easiest schedule in the league, lack of a true starting quarterback through much of the season kept Arizona from capitalizing on their schedule. The 2011 schedule could be even easier as they prepare for a 4th-place setup.
The Chargers, from a statistical standpoint, had the best offense and defense in the NFL for 2010; failures on special teams early in the season, however, came back to derail their hopes of playoff participation. That San Diego managed only 9 wins given the 4th-easiest schedule for this season is even more of a testament to the concentration needed to succeed in the league.
Both the Jaguars and Giants benefit from the league’s 3rd-easiest schedule in staying alive for a playoff chance until Week 17, but neither team was able to punch their ticket for the postseason. Each team had a legitimate shot at winning their respective divisions until the Jaguars lost a key game to the Colts and the Giants had their “Meltdown at the Meadowlands” which put the Eagles in control of the NFC East. With their finishes this year, next year will likely not be as easy in terms of their schedule strength.
Coming into Week 17, the Rams had a chance to improve to 8-8 and win the NFC West if they could defeat the Seahawks; since they failed to do so, they wasted an impressive rookie season from quarterback Sam Bradford and the NFL’s 2nd-easiest schedule. However, the improvement from 1-15 to 7-9 is certainly a starting point for one of the weakest teams in the league over the past few seasons.
Finally, the Chiefs ended up with the easiest schedule in the NFL for the 2010 season; this was due in large part to Kansas City’s disappointing last place finish in the AFC West last season. This year, the Chiefs were able to pull out victories when they had to and take advantage of the quality of their competition on their way to a playoff berth.
While fans in Buffalo may not think the NFL’s schedule system is fair since their team had the 2nd-toughest schedule for 2010 and the Chiefs had the league’s easiest schedule despite both teams finishing 4th in their divisions last year, the truth is that every season is different in the National Football League and every last-place finisher has a legitimate opportunity when the season begins to become the next comeback story if they put the right pieces in place. The lesson of a strength of schedule analysis remind everyone that teams can only play the schedule that they are given at the beginning of the season, and if they wish to be relevant into January then they must find ways to win those games despite the toughness or weakness of their schedule. No result is guaranteed; a statement which could very well be the headline of the 2010 NFL season.