NFL Situational Schedule Analysis — NFC Edition
The typical NFL schedule commentary is largely based on the strength of the opponents played using some proxy like their previous year’s record to come up with a ranking/rating that is pretty meaningless. A schedule with numerous losing teams from the previous season can still be incredibly difficult based on when the games are played and where. One of the most ridiculous refrains repeated ad nauseam this offseason has been “How come the Patriots have such and easy schedule?”; well for one, the don’t have to play the toughest team in the league (the Patriots) and secondly, it’s not really that easy because some of their “advantage” spots are neutralized while their more difficult tests are in “disadvantage” spots. It’s generally easier to identify “disadvantage” spots prior to the season and one of my favorite NFL prep activities in July is going through the schedule and identifying them in order to get a truer sense of how difficult a team’s schedule really is.
Of course some people are doing really excellent work evaluating schedules based on the projected strengths of the adjusted offensive and defensive units expected to be on the field in 2017, this post sticks more to the basic layout of the schedule construction. There are numerous angles that matter week-in-week-out in the NFL but some of my favorites are identified below; the advantage spots are show in cool colors with the disadvantage spots in warm colors. If you have other factors that’s great, hit me up @whale_capper and I’ll add em to the mix. My factors generally focus on two main ideas, rest and travel. The wear and tear on the body from an NFL game is hard enough to deal with when you have a week to re-group, when you start to limit the rest/recovery time or add particularly strenuous travel to the mix you set up situations where a team is more likely not to show up and play with A+ effort.
Going down the list in the key above most of the highlights are self explanatory. Surprisingly this year three teams, BAL, JAX and MIA are all making early season trips to London and foregoing the opportunity to rest post-travel. General bad schedule spots include West Coast teams traveling east to play in the 10AM Sunday time slot; northern teams traveling south to play in the heat and humidity early in the season; southern teams or dome teams traveling to bitter cold destinations late in the season; East Coast teams facing a West Coast opponent in primetime (especially impactful when game is contested on the East Coast because the WC teams body clock generally primed to perform while EC teams are winding down for the day). Rookie head coaches are in fade territory on Thursday Night Football because with less time to prepare an opponent-specific game plan the teams generally struggle (the more experienced head coaches plan two weeks out for their TNF game). Sometime two or more situations are in play and the cells are filled with a slash between the two colors which is a little tough to see like Minnesota Week 13 is on their second of back-to-back road games but they also get extra rest after their TNF game Week 12.
There are other situations that pop up as the season wears on, like the divisional re-match, the sandwich spots, spoiler spots and look-aheads once we understand what teams are fighting for playoffs and which teams for draft position. Finally, most of these situations are NOT A SECRET, you need to account for them in modifying your projections specifically because the books are doing it too, especially the easy stuff like coming off a bye. More than anything, if you don’t account for certain advantageous and disadvantageous situations you can falsely identify what looks like value on a given team that is born out of a factor you missed. Well here we go…
NFC teams are playing teams coming off the bye 20 times while the AFC only has 12 situations disadvantageous situations like that. Giants face teams with an extra weeks rest four times, Niners and Lions three times while 11 teams never play a team coming off the bye.
ARI Some tricky spots early and very easy late season sked. Notable that they travel directly from Arizona to London to face the Rams week 7 while the Rams will make the trip from Jacksonville and spend the week in the UK.
ATL Very tough schedule with three disadvantaged spots against NFC South rivals: three straight weeks on the road culminating with @CAR Week 9 is rough; they host the Bucs for the first time with an extra week to prepare and then; b2b weeks on the road Weeks 15, 16 with the second a trip to the Superdome in what may be Drew Brees last game in the Big Easy.
CAR Panthers get their rest advantage neutralized with the Jets also coming off bye. As with the Falcons the Panthers also have some added difficulty for their division road games with @TB and @NO on the second weeks of back to back travel to Chicago and New York, respectively.
CHI Couple of nice spots where they get extra rest before getting to host their rivals, Week 5 hosting the Vikings with extra rest post TNF game (Vikes also looking ahead to battle with GB Wk6) then coming off their bye they host the Pack Week 10 (Pack in the midst of a brutal mid-season stretch); should be value in backing the Bears in both spots.
DAL A tough schedule on paper based on strength of opponents is in fact even more difficult when incorporating the situational factors. Early in the season b2b roadies with the dangerous Cards in week 3 followed by home tilts vs the Rams and Pack both of whom will have extra rest post-TNF. Back to back roadies two more times later in the season @WAS and @OAK with a pivotal match-up hosting the Eagles coming off their bye Wk11. Six disadvantaged spots in total with two of those against key divisional rivals.
DET Nasty schedule, after getting loaded up with talented teams early in the year the middle stacks them up against NO, GB and CLE all off byes then travel late in the year gets difficult.
GB The Packers are being tested with disadvantaged spots against a number of their tougher opponents including facing CIN, CHI, BAL and PIT all with extended rest and having to go b2b on the road twice with game two @MIN and @CAR in weeks 6 and 15 respectively. On the flipside they get extra rest to prepare for the Cowboys and Lions which is nice.
LAR Rams would’ve been a money fade Week 3 on TNF given their rookie head coach but they play the Niners who also have a rookie HC… under looks like the bet of the year at this point.
MIN The Vikings were given a very friendly schedule for the first two thirds of the season and then even when things get rough (weeks 12, 13 and 14 on the road three consecutive games) they have a little extra rest to prepare for ATL week 13. Also because they aren’t crazy the Vikings are taking their bye after traveling to the UK to play CLE Week 8.
NO Overall a very approachable schedule with the only obvious traps coming early in the season when they host the Pats with extra rest Week 2 then after going to CAR turn around and head to London to play the Dolphins with no break. After they take their bye Week 5, they pretty well stay out of trouble the rest of the way especially late in the season where they avoid playing in the elements as their road games are in LA, ATL and TB.
NYG Not sure what the Giants did to deserve this schedule but it’s not good. Already a relatively thin team depth-wise, they have to slog through the middle of the season playing teams getting an extra weeks rest repeatedly including DEN and SEA in back-to-back weeks and then KC who is notoriously strong off the bye. Another handful of difficult spots are also scattered throughout against teams they are ostensibly fighting for a playoff spot with including Week 4 at Tampa and Week 14 hosting Dallas with extra rest.
PHI Other than the Week 2 spot at KC (second week of travel and KC with extra rest post opening night in NE) the early schedule for Philly is favorable. Things get rough down the stretch however as they are sent on the road for three straight weeks of bad spots, at SEA in primetime (where the Seahawks shine with the time difference) at the Rams in LA for their second straight week on the west coast and then back to the east coast for a rivalry game at the Giants. Likely that that three game stretch makes or breaks the playoff hopes for the Eagles.
SEA By default, getting to play the Niners and Rams twice gives the Seahawks and easy schedule, unfortunately for them their toughest tests out of division this season are all on the road (which will make clinching the 1-seed especially hard). No obvious trouble situations and their home-field advantage appears to set up for great shot at 8–0 at home with their toughest match-ups against Philly and Atlanta coming at an advantageous time for Seattle.
SF The Niners are a bad team with a very hard schedule. Early and often they are behind the 8-ball with respect to travel and rest which will make it even tougher for this young team to compete. Late in the season they may the likes of TEN or JAX sleeping at home but it’s not clear that there are many, if any wins on this slate.
TB The Bucs are set up well within the division to compete getting an extra week to prepare for the rival Falcs on the road and getting the Panthers on the back end of a two game road trip early in the season. The Bucs have some sneaky tough spots later in the season; heading outdoors to play at Lambeau in December will be interesting and facing as Atlanta team potentially looking for revenge with some extra rest may be difficult Week 15.
WAS The Redskins have a particularly difficult schedule in terms of teams played and match-ups but not a ton of disadvantage spots to worry about. They have to play at Arrowhead in primetime which is a rough draw and they play at the Eagles who get extra time to prepare early in the season. Otherwise it’s a fairly balanced schedule in terms of rest and travel.
Companion breakdown of the AFC coming next week… good luck!