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Are Cupcake NFL Schedules Really a Good Thing?

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Are Cupcake NFL Schedules Really a Good Thing?
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"The Kansas City Chiefs haven't played anyone."

"Sure, the Denver Broncos put up a ton of points, but how many elite defenses have they played?"

"The Carolina Panthers may have won four straight, but they didn't play any good teams."

These statements—and many like them—have been trotted out this season to describe certain teams' play. Often times, they're a way for someone (a fan or an analyst) to look even-handed in describing a team that is winning (or losing) while that person thinks the team is worse (or better) than its record. 

At times, it's a legitimate way to push back against the old Bill Parcells phrase: "You are what your record says you are."

For many teams, that isn't the case. Teams ebb and flow and matchups matter. They aren't always what their records make them out to be. 

Other times, these turns of phrase are just subjective ways to push back against a team that has found itself with wins even though it hasn't played very well—a team that seems to "luck" into wins, or has the ball bounce its way every single time. 

Statistically, though, what about teams that "don't play anybody"? How do they actually fare when it's time to play with the big boys? Intuitively, we believe that teams need to be tested. Teams with easy records that get to cakewalk into the playoffs are going to get demolished, right?

Well, maybe not. 

This isn't college football. There are no "Directional State Universities" on the schedule. The Jacksonville Jaguars may be winless right now, but they're still a tougher out for an NFL team than Jacksonville State would be for a major college team. NFL teams don't have coaches and athletic directors out there scheduling true "cupcakes."

Parity reigns in the NFL, but we tend to forget that when we're talking about who's played who.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Another fact: When we talk about things like strength of schedule, it's a shifting measurement. Before the season, the Carolina Panthers were faced with a "murderers' row"-type schedule—the hardest in the league! Now, through nine weeks, their opponents' combined record is .343—the lowest in the entire league. 

The Detroit Lions, too, were said to be facing a ridiculously tough schedule based on last year's records, .539. Instead, the Lions are right in the middle of the pack in the NFC, with an opponents' combined record of .493. 

It certainly makes the 5-3 Panthers look less impressive, right? Well, no. 

The team with hardest strength of schedule in the entire league is the Jaguars, with an opponents' combined record of .687. You know what factors into that record pretty prominently—as least before a full season is played? Jacksonville's eight losses. The same could be said for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, their eight losses and their fourth-hardest schedule with an opponents' combined record of .603. 

The point here is: Until we're looking backward at a completed 2013 season, it's difficult and near-impossible to accurately judge "who played who."

So, let's look back.

In 2012, the Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl after going 10-6 in the regular season. Their opponents' combined record was .496 (tied for 10th easiest in the NFL). In the AFC playoffs, they beat Indianapolis (.441), Denver (.457) and New England (.496)—all teams that had been tested just as much, or even less, in the regular season. 

Then the Ravens defeated the San Francisco 49ers (.504), a team that was tested more in the tougher NFC, but was still the tied with the fourth-easiest schedule in the NFC. 

The team that had been challenged most in the 2012 playoffs: The Minnesota Vikings (.520). They were done in the first round. After them were the Green Bay Packers (.508). Theirs was a second-round exit. 

Here's the whole list:

2012 Playoff Teams by Strength of Schedule
Team Conference Strength of Schedule Result
Minnesota Vikings NFC 0.520 Lost Wild Card
Green Bay Packers NFC 0.508 Lost Divisional Round
San Francisco 49ers NFC 0.504 Super Bowl Runner Up
Seattle Seahawks NFC 0.504 Lost Divisional Round
New England Patriots AFC 0.496 Lost AFC Championship
Houston Texans AFC 0.496 Lost Divisional Round
Baltimore Ravens AFC 0.496 Super Bowl Champs
Washington Redskins NFC 0.494 Lost Wild Card
Denver Broncos AFC 0.457 Lost Divisional Round
Indianapolis Colts AFC 0.441 Lost Wild Card
Cincinnati Bengals AFC 0.438 Lost Wild Card
Atlanta Falcons NFC 0.422 Lost NFC Championship

ESPN's Playoff Picture

OK, well maybe the measuring stick is flawed. Instead of strength of schedule, let's go with strength of victory—the combined win-loss record of all of the teams defeated by a certain team. Here we find better correlation, but hardly rock-solid proof. 

2012 Playoff Teams by Strength of Victory
Team Conference Strength of Victory Result
Seattle Seahawks NFC 0.534 Lost Divisional Round
San Francisco 49ers NFC 0.477 Super Bowl Runner Up
New England Patriots AFC 0.466 Lost AFC Championship
Denver Broncos AFC 0..385 Lost Divisional Round
Minnesota Vikings NFC 0.456 Lost Wild Card
Washington Redskins NFC 0.450 Lost Wild Card
Indianapolis Colts AFC 0.403 Lost Wild Card
Green Bay Packers NFC 0.440 Lost Divisional Round
Baltimore Ravens AFC 0.438 Super Bowl Champs
Houston Texans AFC 0.432 Lost Divisional Round
Atlanta Falcons NFC 0.418 Lost NFC Championship
Cincinnati Bengals AFC 0.381 Lost Wild Card

ESPN's Playoff Picture

Well, perhaps 2012 was just an aberration. What about the last five Super Bowl champions?

Last Five Super Bowl Champions S.O.S. and S.O.V.
Team Year S.O.S. (Rank) S.O.V. (Rank)
Baltimore Ravens 2012 0.496 (21) 0.438 (15)
New York Giants 2011 .520 (8) .465 (5)
Green Bay Packers 2010 .520 (9) 0.479 (7)
New Orleans Saints 2009 .426 (32) .418 (14)
Pittsburgh Steelers 2008 .525 (7) .458 (6)

ESPN's Playoff Picture

We get a little more of what one would expect with the Giants, Packers and Steelers, but it's not rock-solid proof. The Saints certainly stick out like a big ol' sore thumb with their rankings. When one considers the Saints alongside the Ravens, it's clear that teams that haven't been "tested" are just as likely to win the Super Bowl as those teams with the more difficult schedules. 

As we examine, dissect and pick apart the 2013 NFL season, there are plenty of valid ways to talk about the teams that win and lose and which ones we think have the best shot at Super Bowl glory. Strength of schedule, as we see here, is too often a crutch and supported only by flimsy anecdotal evidence. 

 

Michael Schottey is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route and follow him on Twitter.

 

 

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