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American Football There's more to the strength of schedule than meets the eye

THE NFL schedules for the 2019 season were finally released last week. The announcements arrived with much fanfare, with each team creating quirky ways to release them and eyeballs being cast over them to predict way-too-early records.

Within it all lies a curious beast, however. The “strength of schedule.” Formulated in 2002, the strength of schedule has been a way to see who has the easiest run based off last year’s records of their opponents.

The fixture list is not to be taken at face value, however. The release comes before the draft has taken place — which can alter the landscape of a franchise — before training camp and, crucially, before a competitive down has even been played in the 2019 season.

Surprisingly good and bitterly disappointing seasons are cobbled together in the minds of many based purely on their opponents and when they’ll square off. It’s easy to get caught up in with the drama of it all. But in reality, it is almost meaningless.

The strength of schedule offers little more than a brief insight into how a team’s respective opponents fared the prior campaign. But as we’ve seen with the NFL the league can change drastically from year to year.

In the last decade, one, the Denver Broncos in 2013, have made the Super Bowl having had the easiest strength of schedule. And they were humiliated 43-8 by the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII.

In fact, only four teams of the last 10 years have even won their respective division have been given the theoretically easiest route to the play-offs.

Last season, of the six NFC teams that made the post season, five of them had a schedule of .500 and above (meaning their opponents on average had a winning season). The only team to buck that trend was the Philadelphia Eagles, whose 2018 strength was .492. 

In the AFC, not a single team who made the play-offs faced a regular season schedule of over .500. The Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints boasted the second and fifth toughest schedules respectively, yet the pair contested the NFC Championship game in January.

Yet the teams with the five easiest slates fared worse of all. Only the Houston Texans, who on paper had the easiest strength of schedule, made the play-offs. But of the four above them, only the Tennessee Titans had a winning record and two of those teams — the Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos — have top 10 picks in tonight’s draft.

The formula does not account for variables which change weekly in the National Football League. A team’s entire DNA can be altered with a major injury or acquisition and more.

The Oakland Raiders face the toughest schedule of the 2019 season with their fixtures working out at an average of .539. While the Raiders are in full rebuild mode, their acquisition of Antonio Brown for mid-round picks plus the three first round selections they still hold in tonight’s draft process could amount to them shocking the league.

While head coach Jon Gruden and defensive co-ordinator Paul Guenther will have had sleepless nights about how to stop Patrick Mahomes and Philip Rivers twice, as well as trying to slow down Andrew Luck, Aaron Rodgers and Dashaun Watson, there is no doubt that, on paper at least, this Raiders team are much improved and could rival some of those high-powered offence.

In 2019 the Washington Redskins have the easiest games on paper, with their opponents averaging out at .469. But when you take a closer look through their fixtures, there are extenuating circumstances for some of the teams.

Washington will face the San Francisco 49ers in week seven. The Niners finished 4-12 in 2018 but a big factor in that was franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo tearing his ACL in week three. 

With him at the controls, the NFC West outfit will look very different. Washington will also square off against the Green Bay Packers who endured a tumultuous season which resulted in long-time head coach Mike McCarthy being fired. 

Now Green Bay have fresh blood and, chiefly, Rodgers back to full health after it was discovered he played an entire 16-game slate with a tibial plateau fracture.

These are just two of the bigger variables which giver a greater insight into the true strength of Washington’s schedule. A better way to look at it is the QBs who they will face they take the shape of three former MVPs — Rodgers, Tom Brady and Cam Newton — as well as top-tier signal callers like Carson Wentz, Kirk Cousins and Matthew Stafford.

Washington themselves are surrounded with questions as their signal caller Alex Smith will miss the entire 2019 season as he continues to recover from a gruesome broken leg he suffered in week 11. 

The New England Patriots sit just above Washington with the strength — or weakness — of their schedule.

Most of this is down to a lacklustre AFC East which they have dominated (they have won the division every year since 2009). But Brady and Bill Belichick will face a brutal seven-week stretch in the middle of their season which sees them take on the new-look Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens. 

They then clash with the Eagles, Dallas Cowboys, Texans and Kansas City Chiefs after their week 10 bye.

You can bet that Belichick is not taking any notice of what the formula makes of their route to another post-season and neither should you.

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