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FNQB: Scheduling Effects

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After the first week of December, the 2009 Jacksonville Jaguars sat at 7-5 on the year and heading into their intra-state showdown with the Miami Dolphins, the Jags were on the verge of separating from other playoff teams in the AFC, including the Dolphins who were 6-6, and the teams would — as is standard — play for the wild card tiebreaker with each other.  A two game lead with three games to go would have been insurmountable, and it would have put the Jags just one game away from clinching a spot in the AFC playoffs with three to go.

The magnitude of this game reached a lot further than just the Jags and Dolphins.  The New York Jets would have needed to get to 10 wins to make the playoffs had the Jags got to nine, by virtue of losing a head to head game to Jacksonville.  They didn’t hold the tiebreaker against Miami either.  They were in trouble.

Then they played the game in Jacksonville, and Miami won — convincingly.

Neither Miami or Jacksonville would win again in 2009, and while their 7-6 records would have suggested otherwise, both teams knew they were in trouble because of effects of the schedule.  As comfortable as Jacksonville was as a 7-5 team, their next two games were against the undefeated Colts and on the road in frigid cold New England.  If they had lost both, the Week 17 game at Cleveland would be largely meaningless — the Jags weren’t making the postseason at 8-8.  Neither was Miami — they had a really good shot if they could stave off the NY Jets, but to do so would have meant wins against Houston and Pittsburgh in the seasons last two weeks.  As inconsistent as those teams had been all year, it’s hard to imagine any fringe team beating both of those teams in consecutive weeks.

Scheduling effects dictated this Week 14 Miami-Jacksonville game to be the pivotal match-up in the AFC playoff picture for the season, however, it was about the ninth most publicized game of that week.  The most critical non-divisional game in the regular season wasn’t even seen in it’s home market.

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The NFL spends a lot of it’s time trying to craft a schedule that offers built in storylines every single week of the season — so there’s never a dull moment in this league.  They do a remarkable job.  But who are “they?”

*They* are a combination of league officials, competition committee members, and television representatives/executives.  They have more control over whether your team makes the postseason than your backup quarterback.  Every April, these representatives sit in a room and solve the NFL’s toughest logic puzzle.  They need to insure that they don’t make a mistake that sends a team on the road or at home four consecutive weeks in a row.  They are responsible for ensuring that one team doesn’t get a really early or really late bye week year after year after year.  They need to prepare the schedule from Week 10 and on so that if NBC chooses to “flex” a game to Sunday Night, as is their contractual right, the other networks that hold rights to Sunday coverage (CBS/FOX) can still find a matchup worthy of national coverage.  Because the worst thing that can happen to the NFL is for the nation to be caught watching Cleveland at Tampa Bay at a critical juncture of the playoff picture.

NFL Football provides such unique challenges to this group of schedule-ites that it’s beyond impressive that the schedule comes out largely balanced every year.  The NFL would easily sacrifice competitive balance in order to have a backup plan of showing Brett Favre to a national audience three times in the seasons final five weeks, and to also have a backup plan to the backup plan should Favre not play or be hurt at that point.  And somehow, with all of this playoff and Favrarian drama hanging in the balance, the league’s schedule is fair enough to allow the Detroit Lions to host the Minnesota Vikings and the Green Bay Packers in the final four weeks of the year, allowing for a small measure of parity as well.

This year, Roger Goodell passed a measure designed at getting teams like the Colts to quit resting starters at the end of the regular season, where they mandated that every team must play a team in their own division in Week 17.  To an extent, the NFL schedule was always built backwards (actually, it’s built from the byes out, but I digress), but this makes a successful schedule exponentially harder.

Still, the final product was just as flawless as it ever was.  I can pick a team at random, go to December, and find any number of interesting storylines to sell to a television audience as the sport gears up for it’s playoff season.  Take a team at random: the Rams.  On December 5th and December 12th, they go on the road in consecutive weeks to play the last two AFC Champs, Arizona and New Orleans.  Then they play their cross-state rival for the only time in the next four years: the K.C. Chiefs at home.  Then they finish up as a potential playoff spoiler in their own division (or, potentially, as a suitor for the division crown) against the 49ers and Seahawks.

Want to try another random team? *flips schedule pages*  The Colts, who normally play meaningless games in December, have a post-Thanksgiving home game with Dallas, and then four days later, a division showdown with Tennessee.  Even if the division is wrapped up at that point, they get the Jaguars and Raiders, who both will be in must wins at that point, and could struggle against whatever team the Colts have out there.  Then they finish with Tennessee again, of which the relevance will depend closely on the outcome of the Week 14 Thursday nighter.  Four of the Colts final six games are at home, and that’s not an accident: if they want to sell out those games, they’ll likely have to be willing to play Mr. Manning.

San Diego has used the end of their schedule to bail themselves out at the end of the last two seasons, and this year, they will have four divisional games in their final seven, including both games against primary competitor Denver.  The other three are no less compelling: Indianapolis, San Francisco, Cincinnati.

Three schedules picked at random, and clearly, there are compelling games at the end of the schedule, ensuring once again that this December will be just as competitive as all other Decembers, despite a mandate that forced schedule makers to work around using a divisional game in the final week of the season.

Seemingly, the solution was to take a move right out of the playbook of college football athletic directors.  You have more defined late-season conference plays to work around, and there’s going to be a weak team in every division, more or less, so you need to save the most compelling non-divisional rivalries for those late-November and December weeks when they are most needed.  The NFL will only benefit from elements of a college atmosphere around the time of bowl season.

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With that said, can we find any teams that might have a disadvantage in schedule this year?  I’m looking for a disadvantage that might decide a division race.  Sure, we can look at the AFC South, who has to play the NFC East, and say that they are at a disadvantage (they are), but that’s not going to decide the race.  Something more substantial that could decide a race might be a team that plays a high percentage of it’s critical games in October before a bye week, when every team it plays comes off of a bye.

There are just a few examples.  Green Bay’s schedule is pretty unfriendly.  They have a Week 10 bye.  Leading up to that bye week, they have a must win game against Minnesota, then a road trip to New York to face the Jets, and a home game against the Cowboys.  Then after just one week off, Green Bay has to travel four out of the next five weeks, starting at Minnesota, and including Atlanta, Detroit, and New England.  That Detroit game is their one reprieve in the second half, but it’s tucked away in a part of the grind that greatly favors the home team, as the Lions play just one cold weather game all year, at Buffalo, when they could be favored.

The Lions, of course, have a very favorable schedule that could help Matthew Stafford break out.  Their final three division games are all at Ford Field, and all in December/January.  Their two road games in that month are to Florida.  Six of eight home games come after the bye, with one exception being a very beatable St. Louis team at the beginning of October.  If the Lions are going to win six to eight games, this schedule will be a big reason.

Also consider that though the AFC and NFC West divisions have been down for some time, they play each other this year.  The Easts do not play each other this year, and will travel further to play inter-conference games.  This would be a good season to bet on two NFC West teams making the postseason, because it means just three cross-country trips instead of the standard five.  Some of this effect is lost for Denver and San Francisco, who have to go to London to play each other, but the bye afterward should limit the cumulative effect of travel.

Oakland and Arizona sit in the pilot seat of favorable scheduling this year.  Oakland, amazingly, gets to play Denver the week before they go to London, Houston the week before Brian Cushing returns, and manage two of their three cross country trips the first week of the season (Tennessee), and right after the bye (Pittsburgh).  They might lose both of those games anyway, but have more than a week to prepare and travel, and just one win of the two could position the team well to stay relevant in the wild card race even if San Diego starts to pull away with the division.  Their schedule gets legitimately hard after the bye, but the Raiders haven’t had a winning record at the break since 2001.  They could be favored four or five times before the bye.  Arizona’s schedule starts road heavy with quality teams, but after an early bye, they don’t go past the Mississippi until December 19th at Carolina.  Their first eight weeks after the bye are about as soft as eight weeks can be, and should allow Matt Leinart to do damage should he hold the job through the bye: at Seattle, vs. Tampa Bay, at Minnesota, vs. Seattle, at Kansas City, vs. San Francisco, vs. St. Louis, vs. Denver.  That should put them in the playoffs.

In a few cases each year, quirks schedule make or break a team’s playoff hopes, but considering all that could be wrong about a 16 game schedule that features multiple international games each year, the job done to foster competition while satisfying the television producers and keeping the interest of the fans through four months is remarkable.  Schedule makers are the true geniuses of pro football.

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