These NFL Teams Will Probably Start Hot Because Of An Easy Schedule

By: Chase Stuart

Elvis Dumervil’s Ravens will face a schedule that only gets harder as the season goes on. GAIL BURTON / AP

Sometimes the arc of an NFL team’s season can reflect real changes in its performance, but just as often it’s simply an illusion of the schedule machine: Does the team play its toughest games early in the season, or late? It’s something we can even see coming ahead of time, if we do the math.

For instance, the Baltimore Ravens’ schedule should help them get off to a hot start in 2016. The Ravens begin the season against the Bills, Browns, Jaguars, Raiders and Redskins, teams that went a combined 32-48 last year. But down the stretch, Baltimore travels to New England, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, three of the AFC’s four best teams by point differential last season. This back-loaded schedule could have the Ravens in playoff contention all year long, creating a narrative that the team “choked” away a postseason berth after hitting that brutal end-of-year stretch.

On the other hand, you have the New York Jets, whose schedule will be extraordinarily difficult in the early going before easing up late. The Jetswent 10-6 last year, but they’ll also be underdogs in each of their first six games: road trips to Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Arizona and Buffalo — the latter coming on just three days rest — and home games against top contenders Cincinnati and Seattle. After that, though, the only favored opponent left on New York’s slate will be the Patriots (who they’ll face twice). After a potential 2-4 start, the Jets would seem to be in trouble for most of the season, only to make a “surprise” playoff push once the schedule softens up.

But both storylines would owe almost completely to scheduling, provided the teams play as expected. In fact, the Jets and the Ravens meet in Week 7, which represents a turning point for each club. Through six weeks, Baltimore has the NFL’s third-easiest schedule, but from Week 8 onward their opponents rank sixth-toughest. Conversely, the Jets own the toughest schedule in the league through six weeks — by far — but the seventh-easiest slate over the final 10 weeks of the year. That’s why they exist at opposite poles of the schedule “loadedness” (front- and back-) spectrum for the 2016 season:

DIFFICULTY OF SCHEDULE*
TEAM UNWEIGHTED WEIGHTED BY ORDER PLAYED** BACKLOADED FACTOR
1 Baltimore Ravens -0.1 +1.0 +1.1
2 Arizona Cardinals -0.1 +0.7 +0.8
3 Oakland Raiders -0.2 +0.5 +0.7
4 Washington Redskins +0.3 +0.8 +0.5
5 Seattle Seahawks +0.1 +0.5 +0.4
6 Indianapolis Colts -0.6 -0.3 +0.4
7 Tennessee Titans -0.5 -0.2 +0.3
8 Green Bay Packers -0.5 -0.2 +0.3
9 Houston Texans -0.5 -0.3 +0.2
10 Philadelphia Eagles +0.3 +0.4 +0.2
11 Detroit Lions -0.2 0.0 +0.2
12 New England Patriots +0.1 +0.2 +0.1
13 Miami Dolphins 0.0 +0.1 +0.1
14 New Orleans Saints +0.3 +0.4 +0.1
15 Dallas Cowboys -0.6 -0.5 +0.1
16 Carolina Panthers -0.3 -0.3 +0.1
17 Jacksonville Jaguars -0.2 -0.1 0.0
18 Denver Broncos -0.2 -0.2 0.0
19 Cleveland Browns +0.3 +0.3 0.0
20 New York Giants -0.3 -0.4 0.0
21 San Francisco 49ers +0.9 +0.8 -0.1
22 Chicago Bears -0.3 -0.4 -0.1
23 Minnesota Vikings 0.0 -0.1 -0.1
24 Los Angeles Rams +0.6 +0.4 -0.2
25 Tampa Bay Buccaneers +0.4 +0.2 -0.2
26 Kansas City Chiefs -0.3 -0.5 -0.2
27 Atlanta Falcons +0.5 +0.2 -0.3
28 San Diego Chargers -0.5 -0.8 -0.3
29 Buffalo Bills +0.1 -0.3 -0.4
30 Pittsburgh Steelers -0.3 -0.9 -0.6
31 New York Jets +0.7 -0.1 -0.7
32 Cincinnati Bengals 0.0 -0.8 -0.7
NFL teams with the most back- (and front-) loaded schedules

*Schedule strength is based on projected power ratings, where a higher number means tougher opponents.
**Quality of opponents at the end of the season receive more weight

SOURCE: CG TECHNOLOGY, FOOTBALLPERSPECTIVE.COM

I determined this using early point spreads released by the Las Vegas bookmaker CG Technology. The spreads can be turned into power ratings for each team, which can themselves be used to reflect back on every team’s strength of schedule.1 (This is a better way of forecasting schedule strengththan the traditional NFL method, which simply uses opponent records from the previous year.) To judge the “back-loadedness” of a team’s schedule, then, I simply weighted each opponent’s strength by its proximity to the end of the season,2 and looked at which teams saw the biggest difference in schedule difficulty when compared with their basic, unweighted strengths of schedule.

Along with Baltimore, Arizona and Oakland figure to have the league’s most back-loaded schedules next year, with their toughest games coming relatively later in the year. Meanwhile, the Jets, Bengals, and Steelers all have the opposite problem, as their toughest challenges come before the midpoint of the season.

All else being equal — and in the Jets’ case, it might not be (they also have one of the most difficult schedules in the league overall) — it probably doesn’t matter whether a team’s schedule is front- or back-loaded; one way or another, you eventually have to face all the teams on your schedule. But the sequence of a team’s opponents is important in how it shapes the story of the season, as a few quirks of the schedule can have a real effect on the way a team is perceived by fans and the media.

Footnotes

  1. These implied team ratings were also used to create projected point spreads for Week 17, as actual lines for the final week of the regular season have not been released. Finally, the point spreads for the Patriots’ first four games have been adjusted because of Tom Brady’s suspension. ^
  2. Where the 16th game of the season gets a weight of 16, the 15th game gets a weight of 15, and so on, all the way down to a weight of 1 for opening week. ^

Chase Stuart writes about football statistics and history at FootballPerspective.com

This post originally appeared on FiveThirtyEight.com. Copyright 2016.

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