As soon as the NFL regular season ends, we know ever team’s opponents for the following season. It’s very formulaic. Six divisional games, one AFC division, one NFC division, and then two games based on the standings. But there’s the old adage “It’s not just who you play, but when you play them”.
This is especially true in the NFL as there are a number of scheduling quirks which can give one team an advantage over another. By using the archived data in Bet Labs, I can quickly see how the home team has performed in divisional games, neutral games, Thursday games, teams coming off of a bye, and so on.
For example, all home teams since 2003 have won 57.3% of the time. But when we look specifically at divisional games we can quickly see that home teams have won only 55% of the time.
This makes sense as we know these divisional rivals are more familiar with each other and tend to play closer games. Because of this we can adjust the home field advantage for divisional games differently than we do for non-divisional games. We can repeat the same process for all scheduling differences throughout the season.
So before we even look at a team’s opponents, the schedule has an affect on the teams projected number of wins. For example, this year’s schedule hurts the Dolphins more than any other team. Miami gave up a home game to play in London (against the Saints) and they play a road Thursday game (against the Ravens). Conversely, the schedule helps the Saints the most. The London game against the Dolphins is easier than a road game in Miami, a home game after a bye, and their Thursday game being a divisional game all break in New Orleans’ favor.
But while it is important to account for this, it’s not nearly as important as the teams you actually play as you’ll see in the table below. Below is a list of every team and how many wins they gain (or lose) because of the schedule. The schedule column is what I mentioned in the previous paragraph regarding bye weeks, neutral games, etc. The opponents column then takes it to the next step by taking into account who you play. The Colts gain a league best .41 wins because of their schedule, while the Dolphins lose .43 games due to their schedule difficulty.
This may be common sense to some of you, but some teams gain or lose wins because they don’t have to play themselves. The Browns strength of schedule is going to be harder than other teams in the AFC North because they don’t get to play themselves twice. The opposite is also true for the Patriots in the AFC East.
You can also see how big the two “other” games on the schedule can be within a division. In the AFC West, the Broncos (-0.3), Chiefs (-0.28), and Raiders (-0.19) all have a much tougher schedule than the Chargers (-0.03) despite having 14 of the same 16 opponents. Those other two games for San Diego happen to be Jacksonville and Cleveland as opposed to say Houston and Pittsburgh for the Chiefs.
Most sites just use the previous season’s winning percentages to come up with a strength of schedule. Using that method puts all four teams in the AFC West with the hardest schedule in the league and the Dolphins with the 6th toughest. That method does agree with the Colts having the easiest schedule in 2017 followed by fellow AFC South rivals Jacksonville and Tennessee.
Some big differences include the Cardinals who have the 2nd-easiest schedule based on our projections, but just the 10th-easiest schedule using last year’s win-loss records. Another big difference is the Browns who we project to have the 2nd-toughest schedule in the league but last year’s records would have them around the 12th-easiest. Considering it’s the Browns, it may not make much of a difference either way.
It’s never too early to start researching the NFL
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