Anyone that has ever spent any football watching time with me has probably heard one of my lengthy, angry rants about the Patriots and all their evils. Near the top of this list of irritations is the "help" they seem to get every year from the league in various forms, from legal rulings to rulings on the field (tuck rule anyone?). Yes, I know this is a bit illogical, paranoid, and wholly cliche but it makes me feel better so I run with it.
One bit of perceived help the league seemingly offers up every year is a weak schedule. Not necessarily the weakest in the league, but enough to add up to a few more wins than the other guys. This year that help bit them in the ass and left them out of the playoffs even though they had 11 wins.
That got me to thinking about how much strength-of-schedule matters to the outcome of a team's season, so a little number crunching and we have a chart.
I've plotted the outcome of all 32 teams for this season comparing their winning percentage to the average winning percentage of their opponents, and a trend line was added. Those teams that come in above this line can be thought of as "stronger" and vice-verse for below the line.
The most difficult schedule in the league was the Cleveland Browns (4-12) followed by the Detroit Lions who laid a giant egg in their win column this year (the lonely dot off to the left). On the opposite side of the spectrum the easiest schedule went to the San Francisco 49ers (7-9) who did a good bit better than they have in the past few seasons.
So what does this tell us going forward? Using this trend I've compared the AFC playoff teams to see who falls where, adding lines above and below our trend line to better compare each team.
This method puts the Steelers at the top of the pack and the Dolphins at the bottom. The Ravens look good, they may have only secured a wildcard berth this year but they had the second hardest AFC schedule of those teams in the playoffs. On the other hand, the Dolphin's recovery from their 1-15 season last year to the playoffs this year now seems less dramatic with an opponent record that was the 6th weakest in the league.
I wouldn't head to Vegas with this chart just yet, the relationship is there but it's tenuous at best. Too many other variables are at stake that aren't accounted for, for instance more wins means your opponents will have less (since you are beating them) and some games are given away at the end of the season to protect players on teams that have already secured a playoff berth.
For that matter the Titans and Steelers are at opposite ends of this spectrum with the Steelers on top, but don't forget the former beat the latter rather soundly just two weeks ago.