How Remaining Strength of Schedule Affects AFC, NFC Playoff Pictures

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Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

The NFC and AFC playoff pictures capture every team in the NFL except the Atlanta Falcons, which still feels like an absurd statement. However, teams from realistic contenders to long shots are beginning to separate themselves among the pack.

Here’s a breakdown of where my strength of remaining schedule rankings factor largest in the postseason race. The game-by-game and team-by-team schedule strength grid is also below on this page.

AFC Top Seed: The 8-3 New England Patriots (29th SORS/4th easiest path), 9-2 Denver Broncos (25th SORS), and Kansas City Chiefs (23rd) will be tough for anyone in the AFC to make ground on, each ranking among the top 10 easiest schedules from here on out. Also, thanks to the Pats getting Houston and the Denver-KC matchup today, the Cincinnati Bengals (7-4) will almost surely remain two games out of a bye with four left.

NFC Wild Card: The 5-6 St. Louis Rams (1st SORS/hardest remaining schedule) have impressed by obliterating fellow playoff contenders over the past couple weeks but now must battle through a brutal slate on the road to make up two games. Meanwhile, it’s entirely feasible that the 6-5 Philadelphia Eagles (20th SORS) could lose their hyped finale against the Dallas Cowboys and still survive as a wild-card with an easier path than others in the mix.

Division Leaders With Easiest Path: The 7-4 Bengals (26th SORS/7th easiest) and 7-5 Detroit Lions (28th SORS/5th easiest) each sit in first and have by far the easiest remaining schedule in their respective divisions. Bad news for trailing teams that land middling-to-upper half in schedule difficulty like the Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers and Chicago Bears.

The simple explanation for my strength of schedule analysis team-by-team is here. The brief overview is also below:

It’s very (un)scientific and basically adds up total opponent wins on the remaining 2013 regular season schedule, but with a bit of chili pepper added in. Teams that are playing far above or below the level of quality implied by their current win total has their “strength of difficulty” either reduced or increased. I docked the Indianapolis Colts, Cleveland Browns, New York Jets, Kansas City Chiefs and even the already-lowly Washington Redskins and Houston Texans when determining the difficulty of playing against them.

Meanwhile, other teams received greater strength of difficulty given a combination of improved play, returning players and other strong indicators. The San Francisco 49ers, New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens seem poised to turn it up a notch due to pedigree and guys with names like Aldon, Gronk, Le’Veon, Pitta and Crabtree back in the fold. It would also be foolish to project the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or St. Louis Rams from here on out as their current records indicate, or assume Peyton Manning is the same destroyer of worlds in freezing 20 mph wind gusts that he is under a roof on two healthy ankles.

The final caveat is the home-away strength evaluation. I attributed a negative- or positive-1 to every opponent depending simply on whether they were home or away. However, if “away” meant somewhere like New Orleans, Seattle, Arizona, New England, Green Bay or Baltimore then the homefield strength received a bonus point. The latter three host teams with the best home records since 2008, while the first three have proved particularly brutal at home against quality opposition in recent history.

Teams that played on Thanksgiving have slight adjustments in the ordered list at the bottom.

Complete Order*:

1. St. Louis Rams – 41
2. New Orleans Saints – 40
3. Arizona Cardinals – 37
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – 37
5. Atlanta Falcons – 34
6. Seattle Seahawks – 33
7. Pittsburgh Steelers – 32
8. Oakland Raiders – 32
9. Houston Texans – 32
10. Minnesota Vikings -31
11. San Francisco 49ers – 29
12. Baltimore Ravens – 29
13. Cleveland Browns – 29
14. Carolina Panthers – 28
15. Miami Dolphins – 28
16. Green Bay Packers – 27
17. Chicago Bears – 27
18. San Diego Chargers – 27
19. Dallas Cowboys – 26
20. Philadelphia Eagles – 26
21. New York Jets – 26
22. New York Giants – 26
23. Kansas City Chiefs – 25
24. Tennessee Titans – 25
25. Denver Broncos – 24
26. Cincinnati Bengals – 24
27. Buffalo Bills – 24
28. Detroit Lions – 23
29. New England Patriots – 22
30. Washington Redskins – 22
31. Indianapolis Colts – 21
32. Jacksonville Jaguars – 18

Post-Thanksgiving adjustments would move strength of schedule scores as follows: Steelers from 32 to 30 (11th), Ravens from 29 to 30 (11th), Packers from 27 to 25 (23rd), Cowboys from 26 to 28.75 (14th) and Lions from 23 to 22.5 (same/28th).


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