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Who will succeed in the 2021 NFL season based on strength of schedule?

The Falcons are one of a few teams to really like this year.

Atlanta Falcons v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Plato once said “There are two things a person should never be angry at: What they can help, and what they cannot.”

When I look at the upcoming NFL season, I would be remised not to take a page out of Plato’s teachings and acknowledge that there are many things that a teams coach and GM can control including the rostered players, plays and actions on the field. One thing they can NOT control is the schedule that awaits them. For some teams, this schedule can dictate how successful (or unsuccessful) their season is.

While there is no perfect way to dictate who will be swayed by their schedule, I made an attempt at seeing who has historical aligned with their strength of schedule over the last three years. I looked into each teams strength of schedule (based on the win/loss % from the previous season) of all teams on the schedule. I ran that against how they finished a season to see if there was a correlation.

Take the Pittsburgh Steelers 2019 season for example. They went into the season with the 14th easiest schedule and they finished 14th at the end of the regular season. Thus, their variance was zero. One could argue, their season was largely dictated by the strength of their schedule. Meanwhile, the Washington Football Team went into 2019 with the easiest schedule and finished 31st at year end and thus, their variance was -30 (1st easiest schedule – 31st finish at year end).

Here’s the data for all 32 NFL teams:

NFL Strength of Schedule Analysis

Team 2018 Variance 2019 Variance 2020 Variance 3 Yr Schedule Strength (1 Easy; 32 Tough) 3 Yr Avg Finish (1 Best; 32 Worst) Avg Variance 2021 SOS (1 Easy; 32 Toughest)
Team 2018 Variance 2019 Variance 2020 Variance 3 Yr Schedule Strength (1 Easy; 32 Tough) 3 Yr Avg Finish (1 Best; 32 Worst) Avg Variance 2021 SOS (1 Easy; 32 Toughest)
Arizona Cardinals -7 -4 11 24 71 0 20
Atlanta Falcons 3 9 -3 24 63 9 3
Baltimore Ravens 4 11 -6 8 16 9 31
Buffalo Bills -7 1 26 17 32 20 10
Carolina Panthers 4 -10 -10 17 67 -16 7
Chicago Bears 21 14 6 24 31 41 30
Cincinnati Bengals -19 -26 -21 5 81 -66 26
Cleveland Browns 12 -13 -3 14 46 -4 24
Dallas Cowboys 9 5 -18 13 43 -4 2
Denver Broncos -17 14 -3 19 63 -6 6
Detroit Lions 9 -17 3 24 76 -5 27
Green Bay Packers 11 16 16 23 25 43 29
Houston Texans -5 21 -5 18 43 11 18
Indianapolis Colts 2 8 9 17 32 19 9
Jacksonville Jaguars -20 7 -21 16 81 -34 15
Kansas City Chiefs 10 22 14 18 9 46 21
Las Vegas Raiders -25 15 -2 16 60 -12 25
Los Angeles Chargers 6 -9 -7 12 46 -10 16
Los Angeles Rams 26 -8 10 17 24 28 23
Miami Dolphins -1 -11 18 20 55 6 5
Minnesota Vikings 8 15 6 23 40 29 28
New England Patriots 5 -3 15 15 28 17 12
New Orleans Saints 29 9 5 17 7 43 11
New York Giants -4 -24 -14 11 76 -42 8
New York Jets -21 -13 0 14 77 -34 13
Philadelphia Eagles 1 -4 -19 10 51 -22 1
Pittsburgh Steelers -5 0 -2 8 30 -7 32
San Francisco 49ers -11 20 8 23 52 17 14
Seattle Seahawks 18 1 15 18 19 34 22
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 3 3 10 22 50 16 4
Tennessee Titans -11 13 6 13 31 8 19
Washington Football Team 2 -30 -12 8 65 -40 17
Grand Total 30 32 32 1584 1490 94

Looking at the attached analysis, the team’s most likely align to strength of schedule (had a variance under 10 for a few years) are:

Each of the last three seasons, they have finished within 10 spots of their strength of schedule.

To a lesser degree, these teams had a fairly close correlation as well:

On the opposite side of the spectrum (teams that had a variance OVER 10 +/– for a few years), these teams have little to no correlation between strength of schedule and their year end results:

Why is this important? Well dismissing the teams that have no correlation, let’s hone in on the teams that seem to have a connection.

Teams that could be in for a favorable season (based on 2021 strength of schedule):

  • Atlanta Falcons (3rd easiest schedule)
  • Indianapolis Colts (9th easiest schedule)
  • Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4th easiest schedule).

You could argue the NFC South has the easiest schedule next year along with the NFC East.

Teams that could be in trouble this season (based on 2021 strength of schedule):

  • Pittsburgh Steelers (hardest schedule)
  • Baltimore Ravens (31st easiest schedule)
  • To some degree the Arizona Cardinals (20th easiest schedule)

You could argue the AFC North has the hardest schedule this upcoming season along with the NFC North.