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NFL Handicapping: Consider Teams' Strength of Schedule

   by Scott Spreitzer - 11/11/2008

This year it's very important to monitor strengths of schedules when evaluating NFL teams. We have more extreme differences in 2008 than at any time in the recent past.
Let me illustrate this by quickly running through three divisions.

AFC EAST
New England: Not nearly as strong as last year as they've had to tone things down with an inexperienced quarterback.

NY Jets: Sluggish so far with an over-the-hill Brett Favre who throws too many interceptions and makes fewer big plays than he used to...well, besides the game against the hapless Rams. But there's a good lesson in not making too much out of one game.

Buffalo: Quiet conservative team that registers as "nothing special" most of the time.

Miami: Up-and-comer under a new coaching regime. But bad losses to Baltimore and Arizona are reminders that there's still a way to go.

I think that's a fair assessment of that group.

AFC WEST
Denver: A horrible defense, and a quarterback who's extremely turnover prone. It's a miracle they're in first place with a winning record nine games into the season.

San Diego: Hurt by defensive injuries early on, this team has had trouble living up to expectations. A tough travel schedule hasn't helped either.

Kansas City and Oakland: Both are horrible. There's really no need to talk about them separately!

Who could argue with those assessments? Humor me for one more quick one.

NFC WEST
Arizona: Improving team, but not somebody you'd consider a serious Super Bowl threat unless more top quarterbacks get injured.

St. Louis, Seattle, and San Francisco: All three have been horrible!

Okay, I picked those three divisions for a reason. This year the AFC East (the first division we talked about with New England and company) drew an incredibly lucky schedule break. They get to play all four teams in the AFC West, and all four teams in the NFC West. To fill out 16-game schedules each year, the NFL has the divisions rotate within each conference (the East plays the North one year, the South the next, the West after that) and against one division from the other conference (the whole AFC West plays the NFC South this year for example). It's meant to keep things fair over a period of years, but can create some very easy or very hard seasons!

In 2008, the Patriots, Jets, Bills, and Dolphins:

*Play six games against each other in divisional home-and-home's. None of the four teams are great, so that's six games right there that don't represent brutal challenges.

*Four games against the AFC West, where injured and tired San Diego is the most dangerous team. Buffalo and Miami have already defeated the jet-lagged Chargers in home games. New England and New York lost badly to the Chargers out West.

*Four games against the NFC West, where only Arizona isn't a laughingstock.

Add them up and that's 14 games right there! Each team only plays 16 for the full season. What a joke!

That's why everyone looks so great in the AFC East standings. At the midway point in the season, nobody was under .500. It's not that hard to post a good record when you're playing teams like Kansas City, Oakland, San Francisco, or Seattle every week. As long as you're splitting out within the division, you're going to have a shot at a winning record and at least a Wildcard berth in the playoffs.

The big discrepancies in schedule strengths across the board this year can wreak havoc with handicapping if you're not paying attention. If you're evaluating teams based on their won-lost records, you could be completely off base with how you imagine the teams rank in the big picture. I've got several teams with at least five wins right now who would grade out as 7-9 type teams or worse for a full season vs. fair schedules. As a handicapper, I've got to think of them as 7-9 teams regardless of what illusions the standings are painting.

If you're a stat guy, some teams are accumulating good stats vs. lousy schedules, while some other teams have relatively unimpressive stats that were attained against tough schedules. Who's better? Often it's the team with the worse stats! Formulas and stat ratings are meaningless if you're not adjusting properly for the true challenges each team has faced (or not faced).

Think about this: If you're evaluating strength of schedule based on opponent's won-lost records, even THAT could get messed up because so many teams with good records played bad schedules! You have to be careful when measuring strength of schedule itself to make sure you're then properly evaluating everyone's strength of schedules! (Hint: I use power ratings for this rather than won-lost records and I make sure my personal power ratings are as absent of schedule biases as possible).

I hope you'll give this some serious thought as you evaluate the NFL schedule this week and the rest of the season. It will be very easy to get tricked by newspaper standings or team statistical reports if you're not adjusting for context.

You've probably heard the phrase "garbage in, garbage out." That truly applies to NFL stats this season. Take out the trash so you can pick some pointspread winners!

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