So much does NFL strength of schedule really matter when deciding to place those futures bets down on a certain team? Before I answer that, let me first give you statistical analysis, and maybe the correct response will present itself.
Last year, the Pittsburgh Steelers entered the season with the toughest strength of schedule in the league, with opponents having combined for a .598 winning percentage in 2007. Pittsburgh had 12 games last season against teams that were .500 or better the year before and eight games against ’07 playoff teams. It was truly considered one of the toughest schedules in NFL history.
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We all know how Pittsburgh fared last season.
And it wasn’t just the Steelers who seemed to buck the trend that NFL strength of schedule can doom a team. Of the top five teams (including Pittsburgh) with the hardest NFL strength of schedule last year, four made the playoffs, with the Colts, Ravens and Vikings joining the Steelers.
By comparison, of the six teams (two were tied) with the easiest strength of schedule heading into last season, only the San Diego Chargers reached the playoffs – and the Bolts were just a .500 team in the regular season and only got there because of Denver’s late choke.
The New England Patriots had by far the easiest schedule heading into last season, with a combined opponents’ winning percentage of (.387). But those numbers were very tainted, because fellow AFC East teams the Jets and Dolphins had combined for five wins the year before, whereas they won 20 last season.
Also for what it’s worth, the Patriots had the NFL’s second-toughest strength of schedule heading into the 2007 season, and all they did was go 16-0. So it appears good teams can certainly overcome this.
Another problem with strength of schedule is that it obviously doesn’t take into account the NFL’s bounce-back effect. Like the Dolphins last year and even the Jets. So now Miami has the NFL’s toughest schedule this season because the AFC East appears loaded, but most expect the Jets to go backwards with a rookie starting quarterback and new coach/system.
Because the Detroit Lions were so historically bad last year, naturally their NFC North co-tenants, the Bears, Vikings and Packers, have the three easiest schedules in the league for 2009 thanks to facing Detroit twice each. But does anyone really think the Lions won’t be better, even if by accident?
The eight hardest schedules for the 2009 season are for AFC East and NFC South teams. Why is that? Those divisions looked pretty deep last year, with only one below-.500 team among the eight, and that was the 7-9 Buffalo Bills. But the AFC East was able to beat up on the very weak AFC West and NFC West last year. Those two divisions totaled one team with a record above .500 (Arizona) and a combined record of 45-83. The NFC South quartet also got to feast on the AFC West in 2008 as well as the NFC North. Those South teams of course were all handed one win apiece by the sad-sack Lions, and the Packers were a bit disappointing last year.
This year, the AFC East is playing the AFC South, which has 2008 playoff teams in Indy and Tennessee as well as rising Houston, and the NFC South, which sent Carolina and Atlanta to the playoffs in 2008. The combined records of the teams in those two divisions was 78-50 last year.
But NFL strength of schedule simply doesn’t take into account player movement or injuries. The Jets, with no Brett Favre, are one good example. The Bucs got an overhaul and almost assuredly won’t approach nine wins again. Denver tied for first in the AFC West but lost Jay Cutler.
While it was a nice story for the Dolphins to go from worst-to-first last year, now they have to play a first-place schedule as well, which means games their two remaining games outside of the AFC East and the other two-division rotation are against San Diego and Pittsburgh. In fact, Miami’s opponents’ winning percentage of .594 is the third-toughest in the NFL since 2003.
Look for a team like Washington to benefit from finishing last in 2008. The Skins were a solid 8-8 club, but for finishing fourth in the NFC East, they get to play Detroit and St. Louis outside of their games in the division and against the NFC South and AFC West.
So, did an answer present itself? I would argue that strength of schedule is overrated because it’s a fact of life that some teams in the NFL will rise unexpectedly and some will drop.
For example, last season the seven teams to make the playoffs who had not qualified for the postseason in 2007 compiled a 73-38-1 record (.651 winning percentage). That same group was 41-71 (.366) the previous season is fairly important.
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I would, however, say that where a team finished in the division is pretty important. It’s why we are seeing more worst-to-first finishes. Looking again at Washington, those two wins against the fellow 2008 last-place Lions and Rams might be the difference from another postseason watching or the Redskins returning to the playoffs in 2009.