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Evaluating NFL Schedules

   by Scott Spreitzer - 11/11/2009

We’re deep enough into the season now that handicappers have to be very careful evaluating won-lost records.

Early on, you pretty much remember who everyone played while going 4-0 or 3-2 in the early weeks of the season Now that we’ve reached the midpoint, it’s easy to lose track of all the details. You might give too much credit to a team with a great record when all they did was outscore a bunch of inferior opponents. You might write somebody off who had the misfortune of dealing with a gauntlet of tough challenges.

That’s why I always make it a point to check in on strength of schedule evaluations at this stage in the season. What you learn will help you avoid making a big mistake or two in key games and will help find “surprise” squads who seem to catch fire when all that’s happened is that the schedule softened up.

There are a variety of places that rank strengths of schedules in cyberspace. Most reports agree in general, but might disagree in tiny specifics. One place will say a team played the 4th tough schedule while another says it was 9th toughest. One place will say a team had the easiest schedule of everyone while another calculation says it was just 26th. The exact rankings don’t really matter much. You just want to know who’s played a tough schedule, and who’s played an easy schedule.

Here are the teams so far that there seems to be clear agreement regarding playing easy schedules: Indianapolis, Dallas, Philadelphia, Green Bay, the Giants, Houston, Carolina, Jacksonville, and Washington.

I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of the teams listed that are way up in the standings start to “cool off” just a little bit. You can’t keep playing almost nothing but bad teams all year long! I’m confident in saying that group as a whole will underachieve against the spread over the next month. Won-lost standings strongly influence Las Vegas pointspreads because the general public bets on records rather than true power ratings.

What’s really amazing in this particular season is that we have a couple of teams with poor results even though they had it easy! Imagine how ugly things would have gotten in Washington if they didn’t have so many games against cellar dwellers. Jacksonville might be bending over backward to get their head coach fired given how poorly they’ve performed vs. a weak schedule.

Now, I’m not saying you should blindly bet against everyone listed in that group. Look for spots where those teams are clearly “mis-priced” because the betting markets haven’t properly adjusted for the issue. Maybe lines will adjust for Indianapolis but not for Green Bay. It’s our job to learn as much as we can, then read and react as events unfold.

Here are the teams where there’s agreement they played difficult schedules: Denver, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Atlanta, Miami, the Jets, Cleveland, Oakland, and Tennessee. There are a few teams there who have very strong records even with the tough schedules! That could be a good hidden indicator come playoff time. As bad as Cleveland and Oakland have looked most weeks, they haven’t caught many breaks in the schedule.

I’m confident this group as a whole will perform better than expectations over the next month. These teams should be getting more respect than they are given what I’ve learned from years of studying strength of schedule data at the midway mark. I’ve found that the underdog record is particularly strong because you’re getting teams who are used to challenges. That doesn’t mean the underdog record of this group is currently strong. It means it will be from this point forward because they’re not getting the respect they deserve in the line as a group.

With this group, be sure to look for pointspreads that make you scratch your head. You’re probably on to something if you’re asking yourself “Doesn’t Vegas know these guys have played a tough schedule?” I should say here that oddsmakers aren’t oblivious to this factor. But, they’re basing the lines on how they expect the public to bet, and the public generally is oblivious!

Give it a shot. Save the lists in this article, and monitor the situation through the month of November. This is a fluid stat because a team’s strength of schedule adjusts every week. Tough Novembers will balance out things for the teams who’ve had it easy. Soft Novembers will balance things out for the teams who’ve had it tough. By the time December rolls around, there will be a whole new set of polluted results for us to adjust to!

If you’re trying to beat the spread, your schedule is ALWAYS tough! I hope today’s suggestions will help make things a little easier.

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