The most common NFL Strength-of-Schedule (SOS) commentary is largely based on the strength of the opponents played using some proxy like their previous year’s record to come up with a ranking/rating that is pretty meaningless. A schedule with numerous losing teams from the previous season completely ignores improvements made by a team in the offseason and can still be incredibly difficult based on when the games are played and where. Identifying “advantage” spots and “disadvantage” spots over the course of the season is a useful exercise to provide context needed to evaluate a more reasonable expectation for a team’s season long performance.
There have been several folks who have undertaken some excellent work evaluating schedules based on the projected strengths of the adjusted offensive and defensive units, SOS based on opponent win total expectations, SOS based on cumulative opponent futures market price and SOS based on the lookahead lines. All of these approaches surpass the standard methodology of previous season’s wins, this post presents a more subjective evaluation of the schedule construction as another tool to put in your preseason handicapping toolbox.
There are numerous angles that matter week-in-week-out in the NFL but some of my favorites are identified below; the advantage spots are show in cool colors with the disadvantage spots in warm colors. If you have other factors that’s great, hit me up @whale_capper and I’ll add them to the mix. 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.
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…
The situations where teams face an opponent of a bye are more well distributed among all the teams this year (last year there were some lopsided teams who were disadvantaged). In the NFC only the Cowboys, Saints and Redskins must play two teams coming off the bye, meanwhile Arizona, Carolina, Green Bay, Minnesota and Philly avoid teams off a bye.
ARI Difficult opponents but a relatively easy schedule from a situational standpoint. The Cardinals find themselves in four adverse travel spots (early Sunday time slot) including an outdoor game in Green Bay in December which could feature some interesting weather.
ATL Atlanta also has to leave the comforts of the dome to play in Green Bay in December, Falcons will likely be a cross off in that spot. The two most important games on the schedule for the Falcs, vs NO Week 3 and at NO on Thanksgiving Week 12 are both situational neutral which doesn’t help us in handicapping the NFC South division winner unfortunately. They play three of their last four games on the road including Week 16 and 17 which means if they are fighting for a Wild Card instead of having the South wrapped up then they can be written off as a Super Bowl contender, in my opinion.
CAR Panthers got a sneaky difficult schedule situationally that may present several opportunities this season to bet against them on the spread. They get a team with 10 days rest (off TNF) in both Weeks 2 and 3 at the Falcs and home vs Cincy. This happens two more times in Week 7 and Week 12 when they face the Eagles and Seahawks coming off TNF, no other team has four such instances. Carolina also gets a very early Bye in Week 4 and then grinds through a mess of difficult opponents in tough spots through the middle of the season. The only bright spot is they get to face the Saints at home in Week 15 when New Orleans will be on their 3rd straight road game, could play spoiler for the Saints trying to wrap up the division in that spot.
CHI The Bears have a somewhat lopsided schedule in terms of strength of opponent and situational advantages/disadvantages with most of their winnable games falling early on the calendar and then a hellscape the last six weeks of the season with 4 road games plus home tilts against Green Bay and the Rams. If you buy into the value on the Bears in the future market, be prepared to extract some value around Thanksgiving when the road gets tougher.
DAL The Cowboys are expected to challenge the Eagles for NFC East and their two games vs Philly are a polar opposite situationally. In Week 10, Dallas plays at Philly who is coming off their bye and if they lose/fail to cover, then four weeks later they have an ideal revenge spot hosting the Eagles, getting extra rest off TNF while Philly has a short week having played the Redskins on MNF, really an ideal spot to back the Boys.
DET The Lions got an easy draw this year, they don’t have to play their first divisional road game until Week 9 at Minny, the handful of times they have a rest disadvantage they are home at least, they get a nice three game home stand around Thanksgiving before a tough final four weeks with two outdoor cold weather road games. On Thanksgiving, worth noting that the “First Year Head Coaching TNF” angle cancels out with both Chicago and Detroit coming into their short week of prep with rookie head coaches.
GB The Packers got a relatively easy schedule to start out and then a nasty stretch in the middle before a soft landing to round out the season. They open the season with back to back home games in division and get extra rest off TNF before they face the Vikings on the road. We may see a letdown vs the Pats in the battle of best QBs in the game Week 9 with the Pack coming off a road game in LA traveling East to Foxboro. After a brief respite at home vs Miami, the Pack go back on the road for two weeks at Seattle and at Minny, if you are eyeing a Packers position in the futures market, the optimal time looks to be before Week 13.
LA Rams have the type of schedule that will afford them enough wins to be presumptive favorites in the West while rarely covering spreads this season. Many games on their schedule are tougher than they seem highlighted by a three game road stint Weeks 5, 6 and 7, capped off by a big-time game at San Fran, then followed up by home vs Green Bay and then at New Orleans.
MIN The Vikings have done a great job of developing a home field advantage in the new Bank, but they drew a much tougher road slate this season than in year’s past with trips to LA and Philly back-to-back and New England, Seattle back-to-back. They will have an opportunity to close the season on a roll with three winnable games down the stretch and the Vikes should absolutely be considered contenders this season and may be worth trying to buy low around Week 7 if the Packers get off to a hot start.
NO Pretty rough stretch late in an otherwise average schedule situationally. Several opportunities to bet against the Saints in road spots this season including four games where they play b2b on the road, most notably the Week 15 game at Carolina which is their third week on the road. The Saints got pretty lucky drawing the Rams and the Eagles in the Dome which may give them the slightest of edges in a very crowded NFC.
NYG After getting an all time stinker of a schedule in 2017, the 2018 Giants get a slightly easier slate. They play three teams coming off of TNF with extra rest that may be decent fade spots when they play the Niners, Bears and Titans. Their strength of opponent is slightly concentrated on the front end of their schedule and Giants fans will be happy with a bounce back season if they can scratch together a couple wins early in the season.
PHI Two obvious spots to fade the Eagles on the schedule this season, the Eagles head to London for the first time to play the Shaguars who are super comfortable playing in the UK. Also as mentioned above, they face a significant rest disadvantage in their Week 14 tilt at the Cowboy which may shake their hold on the top of the NFC standings. Aside from the opener vs Atlanta, the first four weeks will give the Eagles some flexibility to re-integrate Wentz as needed which was pretty lucky. The later portion of the slate is much tougher which may create some value on an Eagles future as we head into the playoffs.
SEA Seattle makes their first trip to the UK to play another west coast team in the Raiders who have made this trip before, it will be super important to figure out how they handle travel logistics. The Seahawks also are one of three teams that opens with b2b road games which has been a death sentence in Week 2 in recent years. As hard as it is to find high confidence wins on the Seahawks schedule, if they get off to a rough start there will be a number of chances to back them ATS later in the season.
SF The Niners season can be made or broken early with some true tests for this new offensive unit. The Niners hit the road in three of their first four games and get the Packers and Rams b2b before the schedule eases way up on them. Interestingly they will play Seattle twice in three weeks which will be fun to handicap.
TB The Bucs coach and QB are in hot water and with Jameis suspended 3 weeks it’s a nightmare opening slate for this team facing New Orleans Philly and Pitt (potential value spot on TB in Week 3 vs the Steelers, btw). Not a lot of wins on this card but a bunch of chances to play spoiler against playoff hopefuls down the stretch.
WAS Redskins play a pretty tough schedule of opponents but don’t face an overwhelmingly hard situational setup. The tougher spots for the Skins come later this season which means they may be a decent team to back on the spread early on in the season.
Some detailed discussion below in the Deep Dive podcast, AFC to follow tomorrow...