2018 AFC Situational Schedule Analysis

Follow-up post to the NFC Schedule Analysis. As a reminder, the advantage spots are show in cool colors with the disadvantage spots in warm colors.  My factors generally focus on two main ideas, rest and travel. The wear and tear on the body from an NFL game is hard enough to deal with when you have a week to re-group, when you start to limit the rest/recovery time or add particularly strenuous travel to the mix you set up situations where a team is more likely not to show up and play with A+ effort.

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Going down the list in the key above most of these angles are self-explanatory. London travel is always a big deal for a team, especially a coach and an organization going through it for the first time; this year all the London teams opted for byes post-UK, the Philadelphia Eagles, Seattle Seahawks, and Tennessee Titans are scheduled to play their first ever games in London in 2018, Seattle, Oakland and the Chargers are all headed to London from the Pacific Coast which is a gruesome trip and it will be very important to track down nuggets of information on their organization logistics decisions. Other general bad schedule spots include West Coast teams traveling east to play in the 10AM Sunday time slot; teams traveling to Florida or Denver early in the season see impacts on performance related to playing in difficult conditions while still finding their game fitness; southern teams or dome teams traveling to bitter cold destinations late in the season; East Coast teams facing a West Coast opponent in primetime (especially impactful when game is contested on the East Coast because the WC teams body clock generally primed to perform while EC teams are winding down for the day). Rookie head coaches are in fade territory on Thursday Night Football because with less time to prepare an opponent-specific game plan the teams generally struggle (the more experienced head coaches plan two weeks out for their TNF game and the impacts on performance are clear). Sometime two or more situations are in play and the cells are filled with two or three colors.

There are other situations that pop up as the season wears on, like the divisional re-match, the sandwich spots, spoiler spots and look-aheads once we understand what teams are fighting for playoffs and which teams for draft position. This year, I attempted to subjectively assign games that may be potential “sandwich spots”. The process was finding a match-up with an out of conference foe, or in-conference bottom-feeder between two more meaningful games, preferably division rival or primetime games. This framework will absolutely evolve as the season progresses but has already helped me zero in on some week-to-week betting spots that look enticing.

Finally, most of these situations are NOT A SECRET, you need to account for them in modifying your projections specifically because the books are doing it too, especially the easy stuff like coming off a bye. More than anything, if you don’t account for certain advantageous and disadvantageous situations you can falsely identify what looks like value on a given team that is born out of a factor you missed. Well here we go…

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AFC Thoughts

As discussed in the NFC post, that conference overall is stacked with contenders and the optimal strategy for betting the futures market is getting as many tickets as you can at the best prices possible. On the other side, there are only a few legit AFC contenders, even fewer if you are not a believer in the Steelers and their porous defense. The lack of top level teams makes it more likely that a longer price comes in, or gets close as we saw with the Jags in 2017. Trick is figuring out which long shots to back, obviously and in some ways the schedule means a lot in terms of identifying those long shot teams.

BAL The Ravens got a wicked draw early in the season, all three division road games fall in a four week span Weeks 2 through 5, the have three straight roadies weeks 4, 5, and 6 topped off with their toughest out of conference game hosting the Saints Week 7 who are coming off their bye.  Baltimore’s schedule softens up in the back half of the season but the damage may already be done in their hopes to take the AFC North Title, looks like a team more likely to fight for a wild card spot in December.

BUF Good luck finding a win on here for the Bills before November, the relatively winnable games come in disadvantage spots like at Indy on the second of b2b games and vs Chicago between the Pats and the Jets. The Bills do draw three good home spots in the final four weeks including a dome team (Detroit) and a warm weather team (Miami) in the cold weather of Orchard Park. Unfortunately for the Bills they won’t be looking for wins by then as they will be positioning themselves for draft position with the season long gone.

CIN Another tough schedule for a hopeful AFC North contender. The Bengals open with three of four on the road, and draw two divisional matchups where their opponent is coming off bye in back to back weeks (@BAL Week 11 and vsCLE Week 12). Despite the tough spots they have a balance schedule in terms of difficulty of opponent and get to face the Saints off their bye. Easy to imagine the Week 17 tilt at PIT being an important contest in the AFC landscape and unfortunately for the Bengals it’s their second week on the road in a row. For the Bengals to have a chance they must win the North and get a home game in the playoffs to break up all the late season travel.

CLE The Browns get a 4th place schedule again (didn’t help much last year obviously) and only a handful of disadvantage spots. Opening with PIT and NO is unfortunate for a team desperate to get a win, their TNF game Week 3 hosting the Jets and then extra rest before a Week 4 trip to Oakland look like possible spots to get into the winners circle for the first time in years. Possible that the Browns get a number of matchups this year where they have a motivational edge given that teams will likely look past the Browns expecting and easy win, Hue Jax and Co. seem likely to waste those chances, however.

DEN Every year the Broncos seem to get a gift of a home slate where they can take advantage of teams still finding their legs, playing at elevation. This year Seattle, Oakland and KC all draw early trip to Mile High and if the Broncos can capitalize they surely can set themselves up for success in a winnable AFC West. The two spots on their schedule that look like trouble are heading to Balto and hosting Houston where their opponents have extra rest off of TNF.  The price on the Broncos to win the AFC will shorten significantly if they can take their division so it’s a ticket worth considering before their favorable early season stretch.

HOU Expectations are high for the Texans after their glimmer of brilliance with Watson at QB last season, unfortunately for them they get two tough road games Weeks 1 and 2, @NE and @TEN which spells trouble for a team in a very crowded division. The tough early sledding has a payoff with a three week homestand in Weeks 12 through 14 which will be key for the Texans to sweep if they expect to challenge for a playoff spot. Three tough spots to end the season however look likely to derail Houston’s hopes at a playoff slot.

IND The Colts have to play three teams coming off they bye, one of them is the same week they are off bye hosting JAX which neutralizes the advantage but still not great for a team looking for a bounce back season with Andrew Luck back. Nasty stretch of four road games in five weeks between Week 2 and 6, will likely dampen any hopes the Colts have of competing for an AFC South crown.

JAX The Jags took advantage of an easy slate in t2017 to ride into AFC title contention with a huge price. This year the strength of opponent is significantly tougher and they have been put in numerous situational disadvantages over the course of the season. The Jags have a rest disadvantage three times, finish the season with three of four on the road, including Weeks 16 and 17, and their annual trip to London draws Philly this year which will be an extreme challenge for the Jags. Given the late travel, winning the South will be paramount for the team’s playoff future, Week 14 at the Titans on TNF (vs a rookie head coach) seems like a possible division deciding tilt in their advantage.

KC Ridiculous opening four weeks for new QB Mahomes to get his feet wet, @LAC, @PIT, vs SF and @DEN. Given the defenses likely struggles, the pressure will be high on Mahomes to put up big scoring in these four match ups and the potential at an 0-4 start is very real. The Chiefs head to Mexico City for the first time and might be a nice look vs the Rams given that they will have already experienced elevation earlier in the season at Denver. Three times this season the Chiefs have a rest disadvantage, two of them in important games at New England and vs the Broncos. Very difficult schedule overall, potentially a tumultuous season for the defending AFC West champs.

LAC For a team that has virtually no home field advantage, the Chargers automatically have one of the toughest schedules in the League every year. They are at a rest disadvantage in two of their division tilts. Add to this, the Chargers have five difficult travel spots playing early in day, including a trip to London to take on the Titans immediately after playing in Cleveland; how the organization prepares for that trip may make or break that matchup for them. The talent on the Chargers in undeniably the highest of any AFC West team, the challenges with their schedule however will play equalizer. Week 17 at Denver looks like a potential Division decider.

MIA The Dolphins get to play at a rest disadvantage in b2b weeks hosting Chicago and Detroit coming off their byes in Weeks 6 and 7. The Dolphins also face a murders row of NE-Minny-Jax in the last quarter of their season which will probably bury their hopes at a playoff spot if they aren’t already dead. A couple of nice situations vs the Jets and the Raiders in the first half of the season look like spots to potentially back the Fins.

NE In the last handful of years the Pats have treated the first four weeks of the season as an extended preseason but this year’s schedule will not afford them easy wins if they play below their potential. Nasty b2b road games @JAX and @DET will test this team and could set up a beauty of a spot to back the Pats on TNF in Week 5 vs a rookie head coach from Indy.  Weeks 13 through 15 will determine seeding for NE with games vs Minny, at MIA (where they annually struggle) and at PIT making up the toughest stretch for New England. All that said, the strength of opponents overall for the Pats is the worst in the League; giving Brady and Belichick the easiest sked seems a little unfair but here we are.

NYJ Not many disadvantage situations for the Jets this season, potentially an easy schedule in terms of opponents and tough spots. Rookie Sam Darnold gets two primetime road games in the first three weeks of the season @DET Week 1 and @CLE Week 3, safe to say if he shines in those two games he’ll be hands down favorite for Rookie of the Year in the minds of the media.

OAK Rough slate for Gruden’s return to the NFL, several disadvantage spots early in the season capped by a trip to London to play the Seahawks in Week 6. Only one standout advantage spot, drawing the Chargers at home in 10 with extra rest while LA is on their second straight week of travel. Thanks to their London trip, the Raiders fly the most of any team in the NFL and will log over 31,000 miles this season (compare that to only 16,000 miles for division rival Denver)

PIT Wild that of all the AFC teams, the Steelers got the easiest schedule from a situational standpoint. Pitt plays no teams off bye, only has one b2b road spot and faces important opponents like KC, NE and CIN at home while their opponents are on the road for the second straight week.  The Steelers also get extra rest before a revenge spot at JAX Week 11 which will be a nice look at backing them. A couple of potential letdown spots playing Tampa and Atlanta in between much more important games for their division hopes and playoff seeding. Steelers should compile wins with this gift of a schedule but having a suspect defense, this team may be fool’s gold in the eyes of the market presenting value to back other AFC teams as the season unfolds (thinking of the Chiefs mid-season last year as I type this).

TEN Three weeks into this season we will know if the Titans are for real. This team was undeserved beneficiaries of luck making the playoffs last year and looked primed for regression, however new coaching and talent via the draft may keep the Titans contenders in the AFC South. Tennessee draws a hugely favorable matchup catching HOU on the road for the second straight week in Week 2. They get the Ravens on their third straight road game before catching the West Coast Chargers in London.  Playing two of their first three games in the Florida heat has tempered expectations slightly, but if this team can scrape together wins @MIA and/or @JAX then they will likely find themselves at the top of the AFC South standings for much of the season.

Some detailed discussion below in the Deep Dive podcast, AFC to follow tomorrow...