NFL Schedule Release Thoughts
One of the counter-intuitive things that I learned over many, many years of studying schedules is that in the NFL, hot starts matter. They matter more than what teams do at the end of a season. You want, if you are an NFL team, to be playing your weakest competition earliest. For example, I don’t think the New York Jets even make the playoffs without the benefit of a hot 5-1 start last year, with narrow wins over weak competition.
This probably makes no sense whatsoever to you, so I’ve put together an exercise to prove this point. I went through this year’s NFL schedule, and picked every game between the start of the season, and Halloween Weekend. I have posted the teams that would qualify for the playoffs in an eight game schedule below. I wish to make the following cases: 1) the teams that will sustain their success from 2010 will do so in the first seven games; 2) a number of the “playoff” teams below who did not have notable seasons in 2010 will sustain and be in the NFL postseason; 3) there will be teams that fall of the map after a hot start (and we can figure out who those teams will be through advanced statistical projection.
AFC East Leader (on Halloween): Buffalo Bills
The Bills have a fourth place schedule, and one that they can run through fairly easily through the first two months. They play four potential last place teams early on, including the Chiefs, Raiders, Bengals, and Redskins. They also play three potential super bowl contenders, but pose (I believe a difficult road match-up for the Philadelphia Eagles). It’s not clear whether a hot start can help the Bills hold off the Pats, Jets, and Dolphins come December, but 5-2 would be a good spot for them on Hallowen.
AFC South Leader: Indianapolis Colts
I have most of this division hovering around .500 in the early going, with the Colts jumping out to one of their typical hot starts…perhaps the last under an aging Peyton Manning. 6-2 at Halloween is the mark to shoot for.
AFC North Leader: Baltimore Ravens
The story here is not really with the Ravens, but if they take care of business, it’s about just how brutal the Steelers schedule is at the top. They play the Ravens, Colts, Texans, Titans, and Patriots in the early going. I think they make it out of there at 5-3 and set themselves up nicely for a playoff run, but if the Ravens are similarly unscathed, the Browns will be in the mix as well as this turns into a three team race down the stretch.
AFC West Leader: San Diego Chargers
San Diego has one bad match-up, as they are the Patriots’ home opener in Week 2, but this is otherwise a pretty easy schedule. A loss to the Jets in Week 7 could bring up questions of how well prepared they will be for the playoffs, but this team should make it back to the postseason after a hot start without too much of an issue.
AFC Wild Card Leaders (on Halloween): Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers
It’s hardly shocking that the one AFC Division that plays the NFC West could have three playoff teams, but whats shocking is that of all the teams in the AFC that figure to hit five wins the quickest, the Patriots and the Jets are not amongst them.
AFC Teams with two or fewer projected wins (on Halloween): Jacksonville, Denver, Cincinnati, Kansas City
Based only on last season’s results, KC and Jacksonville are surprises here, but neither is a top playoff contender this season. The Chiefs play a couple of winnable home games at the top of the schedule, but their road slate includes Detroit, San Diego, Indianapolis, and a rolling Oakland team coming off a bye. The Jaguars are a below average football team playing a number of quality opponents without a pushover, a tough schedule for such a team.
NFC East Leader (on Halloween): New York Giants
While I don’t see the Giants contending for 16-0, they are the only team I am predicting to move into the month of November while undefeated. Their next game, however, is a road game at the Patriots, the toughest matchup on their entire schedule.
NFC South Leader: Atlanta Falcons
It’s a brutal early schedule for the entire NFC South. A couple of factors at play here: the Lions and Packers look to be very good. The only team that draws an easy NFC East matchup is the Panthers, who figure to be non-competitive. They play the AFC South this year, a division with no pushover teams. The Falcons are just a half game above .500 in my projections, but lead the field amongst NFC South teams at Halloween. But with the Bucs and Saints within a game, this is anyones division.
NFC North Leader: Detroit Lions
The Lions and the Green Bay Packers should be neck and neck all year in a division that should be decided by head to head games. The Lions play a couple of tough games early, both winnable (Tampa Bay/Dallas). The Packers should come out of the gate with four wins right away, but then the schedule stiffens and the world champs figure to take a loss or two before the bye. I like the Packers over the long haul because I think they will handle the Lions in head to head action, but before they play, the Lions will lead the division.
NFC West Leader: St. Louis Rams
The Rams should cruise in the NFC West this year. They’ll get pushed, maybe, by the 49ers and Seahawks in the second half, but the schedule isn’t too tough, and Sam Bradford looks like the best player in his division.
NFC Wild Card Leaders (on Halloween): Green Bay Packers and (tied) Dallas Cowboys/Philadelphia Eagles
There is no clear cut wild cards in the NFC this season, but it makes intuitive sense that they would come from the NFC East, since that’s the strongest division and it plays the weakest division, the NFC West. Speaking about full season results, the Lions may need to fight off the Packers for the division, because the Cowboys especially, and then likely the Eagles or Redskins (both of whom I project to be weaker than Dallas) figure to have inflated win totals due to weaker competition. On tiebreaker the Eagles would hold the “sixth seed” in a seven game season, by virtue of running Andy Reid’s record after the bye to 12-0 and beating Dallas, but Philadelphia (and Michael Vick) wouldn’t seem to have the staying power that Dallas has in the long run. I know Tony Romo missed 10 games last season, but I would bet on his health over Vick’s.
NFC Teams with Two or Fewer projected wins on Halloween: Arizona, Minnesota, Carolina, San Francisco, Seattle
It’s not surprising, to me, that most of the NFC West is on this list. St. Louis will look like an actual real live playoff team this year, but the rest of the division will be dreadful unless Seattle can sustain gains from last year, or San Francisco makes a big improvement, neither of which is likely to happen.
So, can the Rams, Bills, Lions, or Browns actually sustain in order to make the playoffs? I think, in the NFC, anything is possible. The AFC may end up muddled at the mid-way point, but the Bills probably cannot stave off the Patriots all year, and would probably settle for second place if they can win head to head games against the Dolphins and Jets. The Browns figure slotted for third place in their own division. Maybe that will be good enough for the sixth seed this year, but the Raiders will be charging, as will the Jets, and they likely will have to catch the Bills.
With the lockout unsettled and the draft a week away, this is all incredibly premature. But if hot starts can sustain an otherwise undertalented team throught the year, then this schedule release should have given hope to fans of the Browns, Bills, Lions, and Rams, while benefitting fans of the Raiders, Redskins, Titans, and Dolphins.