We know that it’s really impossible to read too much into strength of schedule at all, much less prior to training camp. Injuries, surprise performers and cuts as well as changes in scheme and coaching staff can impact the strength of a schedule at any time.
As Ryan Wilson of CBS Sports points out, what looks like a tough schedule often isn’t the toughest after all, and easy schedules on paper don’t always turn out that way on the field. Wilson has some handy charts on past strength of schedule rankings and compares them to Football Outsiders’ end-of-season strength of schedule data.
Still, examining the schedule and the rankings for preseason strength of schedule is a fascinating task and always a lot of fun.
So let’s take a look at the five hardest and five easiest schedules—at least on paper—for the upcoming 2013 NFL season and see if we believe if they’ll play out that way.
Easiest Strength of Schedule
5. Kansas City Chiefs (Strength of Schedule: .473, Opp. Win/Loss: 121-135)
Of course, not all the teams on the slate will be as bad as they were in 2012—in fact, the AFC West (which is represented here by all four teams) is likely to be better than it was last season.
The Chiefs schedule has some favorable matchups to look forward to, but they aren’t strung together. Rather, they are scattered among harder games. For example, Kansas City opens the year at Jacksonville—by all indications a team that will continue to struggle—and will likely win.
However, the Chiefs then have games against Dallas at home, against Philadelphia at Lincoln Financial Field and against the New York Giants.
They then have a toss-up game against the Oakland Raiders (which is at least at home) before facing the Houston Texans.
That’s how the whole season goes—never more than a game or so in respite between some harder foes.
On the plus side, the tougher games are largely at home for Kansas City. The opponents they face at home have a 69-59 record, while the Chiefs' road trips have them facing teams with a collective 52-76.
If they can sweep one of their divisional rivals and steal a game or two against some of their tougher foes, they could have a very strong season and vie for the division title and the playoffs.
4. Oakland Raiders (Strength of Schedule: .469, Opp. Win/Loss: 120-136)
The Raiders are rebuilding, but neither the franchise nor the fans are built for patience. While the team has a lot of young talent and a favorable schedule, it also has some tough games—just like Kansas City.
Opening against Indianapolis and Andrew Luck is a tough row to hoe, but facing Jacksonville at home should help the Raiders recover.
After that, though, it’s grim up until they hit the bye week as they run the gauntlet which includes stiff competition from Washington and Denver as well as an improved Kansas City team.
Coming out of the Week 7 break is even harder—they welcome the Steelers and Eagles to Oakland but travel to face the Giants and Texans before getting a break against Tennessee.
They end the season with a make-or-break three-game stretch against the entire AFC West.
It’s an uphill climb even with a favorable schedule.
3. Indianapolis Colts (Strength of Schedule: .461, Opp. Win/Loss: 117-137-2)
Everyone is questioning whether Andrew Luck can build on the success of his 2012 season. If the schedule is any indication, it looks like he will be in a position to.
Opening against the Raiders and Dolphins at home is a good start (though Miami will be better in general), but you can expect some challenging games in San Francisco, as well as at home against Seattle and Denver.
The key to the Colts' playoff hopes lies in the gauntlet of games after their Week 8 bye.
They travel to Houston to start their second half off, but the pivotal games are at home against St. Louis and at Arizona.
I say pivotal because both the Rams and Cardinals are wild cards—not that they are going to both win Wild Card playoff spots, but because it’s hard to tell right now how good (or bad) they will be.
Both made significant improvements, but neither can say for sure if that will be enough.
With two games against Houston, one at Cincinnati and one in Kansas City, the Colts might need to win either one or both of those games to secure a playoff spot.
2. San Diego Chargers (Strength of Schedule: .457, Opp. Win/Loss: 117-139)
The Chargers have a heck of an opening slate. They kick things off against the Texans, then travel to Philadelphia, get a potential break in Tennessee and get home to face Dallas.
A second surge comes post Week 8 bye when they see Washington and Denver, but after that, they have a fairly favorable schedule. Aside from the Bengals and Giants, there are plenty of winnable games.
Of course, the Chargers have plenty of internal issues and are restructuring the team, so they face obstacles regardless of who they play. The defense is a pretty large question mark, while the team is hoping new head coach Mike McCoy can find a way to get Philip Rivers back on track after several subpar seasons.
In the Chargers’ favor is a softer looking road schedule (facing teams with a combined 48-80 record), though I don’t expect the Eagles and Dolphins to play like they did last year.
1. Denver Broncos (Strength of Schedule: .430, Opp. Win/Loss: 110-146)
If there is an AFC West team that I think will fully be able to take advantage of its easy schedule, it’s the Denver Broncos. Not surprisingly, they are my early pick as AFC representative for the next Super Bowl.
It’s not that the schedule is really all that much easier—it isn’t.
They open with two tough games against Baltimore (at home) and in New York against brother Eli’s Giants. The trip back home for Peyton Manning in Week 7 against the Colts could be tough, and they end with two games on the road, at Houston and in always tricky Oakland.
The difference is that the Broncos are a team with a lot less question marks than their AFC West brethren. Yes, losing Elvis Dumervil makes the outside linebacker spot across from Von Miller a concern, but Wesley Woodyard is expected to do well in his place.
Champ Bailey might be aging, but Chris Harris is coming along very well, and adding Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie should improve the secondary.
The Baltimore game won’t be easy, but Manning and the offense should be able to beat a defense which is old and in transition. The Giants game is a toss-up and depends on whether the Broncos defense can force Eli Manning into mistakes—but it’s winnable.
The Broncos could sweep out the Raiders and Chargers while at least splitting with the Chiefs. The Eagles and Redskins are teams they should beat in Mile High, and the Cowboys, while tough, don’t have the secondary to hang with the Broncos pass game.
We don’t know what shape the Patriots will really be in with all the offseason changes and turmoil, but Brady is always tough. Beating the Texans in Houston is also a steep hill to climb but certainly within the talents of this team.
There are no sure things in the NFL, but this might be as close as it gets.
Hardest Strength of Schedule
5. Baltimore Ravens (Strength of Schedule: .535, Opp. Win/Loss: 137-119)
It’s only fitting that the Super Bowl Champions are somewhere among the top five hardest schedules. And even accounting for the fact that things will change due to injury and chaos during July training camps, the Ravens will face some tough teams.
Opening at Mile High in Denver against the Broncos is just the first of several difficult tests before their Week 8 bye.
During the first seven weeks, the Ravens face teams with a collective record of 62 wins and 50 losses. It could be worse, though. Expectations are that both the Dolphins (7-9) and Bills (6-10) could improve upon last season’s records and be tougher—same with the Steelers (8-8 in 2012).
Another factor is that four of the first seven games are away. The Steelers, Bills and Dolphins are among those games, so if they are better, it will make for a rough opening two months.
They also face the tough NFC North in 2013, with the Packers, Vikings and Bears coming off very good seasons (11-5, 10-6 and 10-6 respectively) and a Lions team which was nowhere near as bad as it was in 2012.
It won’t be easy for the Ravens to repeat. Then again, it shouldn’t be, should it?
4. St. Louis Rams (Strength of Schedule: .539, Opp. Win/Loss: 137-117-2)
There’s a lot to like about what the Rams did this offseason, and they looked poised to improve on their 7-8-1 record from 2012.
The schedule isn’t going to make that easy, though.
They open against an Arizona Cardinals team that is also looking improved and then travel to Atlanta for a tough game against the Falcons before moving on to Dallas to face the Cowboys.
The Rams have no real breaks until their bye week in Week 11—the only two games that appear to be easy are Week 5 against Jacksonville and Week 9 against Tennessee, both of which have the benefit of also being home games. Week 7 at Carolina may also be a game on the easier side, but the Panthers look like they have improved this offseason.
Of course, it doesn’t help that the NFC West looks especially tough. Aside from the improved Cardinals, the Rams face a 49ers team that was in the Super Bowl last year (though is still smarting from losing Michael Crabtree) and a very tough Seahawks team.
3. New Orleans Saints (Strength of Schedule: .539, Opp. Win/Loss: 137-117-2)
The Saints want to prove to everyone that they’re more like the team which won Super Bowl XLIV and less like the one which suffered "Bountygate."
It doesn’t help that the NFC South is going to be a very challenging division this year. The Falcons are always a tough foe, and the Panthers look improved—as do the Buccaneers.
The Saints should be able to come away from games against the Dolphins and Cardinals with wins, but the outcomes of Week 5 in Chicago against the Bears and Week 6 in New England against the Patriots aren’t sure things by any stretch.
After their Week 7 bye, they have two games they should win against the Bills and Jets but then have a tough gauntlet for the next five games.
They face the Cowboys and 49ers at home, then hit the road to take on the Falcons and Seahawks before returning in Week 14 to face the Panthers for the first of two games over three weeks.
The last two weeks—in Carolina and home against the Buccaneers—could be the determining factor as to whether they make the playoffs or spend another offseason wondering what could have been.
2. Detroit Lions (Strength of Schedule: .539, Opp. Win/Loss: 138-118)
How a team that played as badly as the Detroit Lions in 2012 ended up with the second hardest schedule in the NFL is quite a mystery.
This is what happens when you have three teams in your division which won 10 games or more last season.
There are very few teams who look like easy marks for the Lions. The Browns in Week 6 seem like a “gimme” but so did the Cardinals and Titans last season.
The Lions face just four teams all season with losing records—the Cardinals, Browns, Eagles and Buccaneers—and there is a good chance all but the Browns won’t be as bad this season.
It’s hard to say which seems like the rougher stretch—the first half of the season where they face teams like the Redskins, Cowboys and Bengals, or the second half where they see the Steelers, Buccaneers, Eagles, Ravens and Giants.
Of course, they see their NFC North division rivals during both stretches.
The Lions are expected to be better, but it won’t be easy proving it.
1. Carolina Panthers (Strength of Schedule: .543, Opp. Win/Loss: 138-116-2)
A tough division plus some hard games against conference opponents make the Panthers’ road look a bit steep and filled with potential potholes.
At least their games against the Seahawks and Giants are at home, though the Panthers’ record was 3-5 at home in 2012.
After the bye, the Panthers’ first two games are on the road, and in fact, three of their first five games are away. They face some very tough road trips overall—the Vikings, 49ers and Saints tend to be poor hosts, and the Buccaneers and Cardinals are usually tough to play at home as well.
The last five games are especially tough, as they face the Saints twice—in a home and an away—and the Buccaneers and Falcons.
The NFC South is always a tough division to gain ground in, but the schedule looks like it won’t be doing the Panthers any favors either.