Insiders

The NFL’s Biggest Variable? The Schedule

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With training camps now underway, each team in the league has begun attacking its three primary goals for the season: win the division, win the conference, win the Super Bowl. While the objectives remain the same, the road is far more daunting for some than others.

The NFL is all about parity, but the schedule does no favors in that regard.

Just look at how last season played out. Wonder how the AFC North became the only division in the league to send three teams into the postseason? Look no further than a schedule that pitted the AFC North against the AFC South and NFC South, indisputably the two weakest divisions in football.

But just as the schedule giveth, it taketh away. That’s what happened to the 2014 Chargers, who missed the playoffs desite an 8-4 start thanks in large part to a brutal five-game stretch to close the season that included road games agaisnt the Ravens, 49ers and Chiefs and home games against the Patriots and Broncos.

So, who have the Schedule Gods chosen for success this season?

The Dolphins appear to be early winners, with an opening docket that includes road games against the Redskins and Jaguars followed by home games against the Bills and Jets. That gives Miami a great chance to get out of the gates quickly before an early bye in Week 5. Even after the bye, the Dolphins play just five games against playoff teams from a season ago.

Things balance out eventually, however, as the Dolphins will play three consecutive road games in Weeks 8-10 against the Patriots, Bills and Eagles. The Dolphins are just one of four teams to play three straight road games, with the others being the Bills, Falcons and Jaguars.

In all, six of Miami’s first nine games are on the road.

“Let’s face it, it’s different,” head coach Joe Philbin told the team’s official website. “We know the importance of playing well on the road. We’re certainly going to get experience with that early in the season, but the flip side of that, the positive is, we’re going to have a great opportunity to finish the season on a positive note at home. There’s always trade-offs when you look at the schedule. There’s certainly trade-offs.”

The Dolphins have the league’s 16th easiest gauntlet based on strength of schedule (using the opponent’s record from the 2014 season).

Predictably, the eight teams with the easiest stength of schedule are the teams in the NFC South and AFC South. Those divisions are loaded with so many bad teams that everyone is lucky enough to get pitted against them twice. Outside of those divisional bottom dwellars, the next three teams with the easiest stength of schedule are the Cowboys (0.467), Eagles (0.475) and Patriots (0.477).

The league really didn’t do the Patriots any favors, though, as three of New England’s first four games will come against teams that had winning records last season (the Steelers, Bills and Cowboys). That will be a difficult opening stretch for the Jimmy Garoppolo-led Patriots. On the bright side, Brady’s first game back will be against the Colts team that ignited the whole “Deflate Gate” fiasco, a bit of karma that seems almost too good to be accidental.

The strength of schedule is lesser for the Cowboys and Eagles because the Giants and Redskins struggled so mightily a season ago. Both of those franchises enjoyed strong offseasons, however, which should turn the NFC East into a free-for-all.

So who really got hammered the hardest? The Chargers have another tough closing stretch; over the final four weeks, they will play each of their division rivals on the road. That includes two straight road games to cap off the season for a second year in a row.

Said Chargers head coach Mike McCoy to his team’s official website: “Obviously the big one is division opponents and when they fall on the schedule. That is always key because the number one goal is to always win your division. So you always earmark those, but there are so many things that go into it. The main thing is in the end, you are playing 16 games regardless.”

The Cardinals will play just two home games between Oct. 5 and Dec. 9, with both of those coming against playoff teams from last season (the Steelers and Bengals). And while that is tough sledding in the middle of the season, the ending doesn’t get much easier with a Week 16 game against the Packers and a Week 17 contest with the Seahawks.

The Ravens are another team that will have to prove its mettle down the stretch to earn another postseason invite. Baltimore’s final five games? Home games against the Seahawks, Steelers and Chiefs and road games versus the Dolphins and Bengals.

While fans in San Diego, Arizona and Baltimore wring their hands in nervous anticipation, there are plenty of teams excited about the schedule that lies ahead.

The Texans, who have designs on winning the AFC South, are happy to play each of their divisional rivals over the final three weeks. And while the Colts are always tough, there is no better way to close the season than with games against the Titans and Jaguars.

Then there’s the Giants. After a bye in Week 11, New York will play just one more game against a team that made the playoffs last season. That team would be the Panthers, who eked in with a losing record (7-8-1).

Speaking of the Panthers, four of their final five games come against their rivals in the struggling NFC South. That sets up a nice finish for a Carolina squad looking to win the division for a third consecutive season.

To be clear, the schedule is not the end all, be all. Dominant teams will make the playoffs regardless of their schedule, while downtrodden teams will be at home in January no matter who they play between September and December. But for all those fringe contenders — and there are at least a dozen of them — the schedule is the variable that makes the difference between a ticket to the dance and a stern rejection.

That proved to be the case last season and there is no reason to think it won’t happen again.

Want to talk more about who got shafted by the schedule? Join Michael Lombardo for his weekly NFL Chat on Friday at 2pm EST. But you don’t have to wait until then … you can ask your question now!


About Michael Lombardo

Michael Lombardo

Michael Lombardo has spent more than 10 years as a team expert at Scout.com, primarily covering the Chargers, Cardinals and Panthers. He has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and other venues.