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 Jets went 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|
|8||Green Bay Packers||-0.5||-0.2||+0.3|
|12||New England Patriots||+0.1||+0.2||+0.1|
|14||New Orleans Saints||+0.3||+0.4||+0.1|
|20||New York Giants||-0.3||-0.4||0.0|
|21||San Francisco 49ers||+0.9||+0.8||-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|
|28||San Diego Chargers||-0.5||-0.8||-0.3|
|31||New York Jets||+0.7||-0.1||-0.7|
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 strength than 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.