2018 Schedule Analysis: SOS and Front- And Back-Loaded Schedules
Posted: 2018-05-21

Yesterday, I posted the implied SRS ratings from the Vegas lines released this weekend covering the first 240 games of the season. This is one of my favorite exercises of the year - the Vegas ratings are a great tool to use a starting point for all sorts of projections - so I've decided to turn this into a two-part post.

Vegas does not include week 17 point spreads, but we can generate them based on the ratings we have now generated. And we can also perform a much more substantive strength of schedule calculation than the one you typically see. This year, the Arizona Cardinals have the toughest schedule in the league. The table below shows each team's SOS for all 16 games in 2018:

Rk Team SOS
1 Arizona Cardinals 0.74
2 Kansas City Chiefs 0.44
3 Seattle Seahawks 0.43
4 Washington Redskins 0.40
5 Detroit Lions 0.40
6 New York Giants 0.29
7 Cleveland Browns 0.29
8 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 0.27
9 Los Angeles Rams 0.27
10 New Orleans Saints 0.22
11 Chicago Bears 0.21
12 Buffalo Bills 0.19
13 Philadelphia Eagles 0.11
14 Minnesota Vikings 0.10
15 Indianapolis Colts 0.00
16 Carolina Panthers -0.03
17 Miami Dolphins -0.08
18 Denver Broncos -0.08
19 San Francisco 49ers -0.08
20 Dallas Cowboys -0.09
21 New York Jets -0.12
22 Tennessee Titans -0.13
23 Pittsburgh Steelers -0.15
24 Atlanta Falcons -0.16
25 Cincinnati Bengals -0.18
26 Jacksonville Jaguars -0.27
27 Green Bay Packers -0.28
28 Baltimore Ravens -0.35
29 Los Angeles Chargers -0.40
30 Oakland Raiders -0.44
31 New England Patriots -0.71
32 Houston Texans -0.79

Arizona's road schedule is particularly brutal: the Cardinals are 6.5 point underdogs (yes, in large part because the Cardinals are expected to be bad) in every game on the road this year. In addition to tough road games against the Seahawks, Rams, and 49ers, Arizona has to visit the Chargers, Chiefs, Falcons, Packers, and Vikings!

Meanwhile, the Texans and Patriots have the two easiest schedules in the NFL. Both teams get the Jets, Dolphins, Bills, and Colts - six for New England, four for Houston of course - while the Texans also get home games against the Browns and Giants. In addition, the Patriots have just five games against top-14 teams, while the Texans have just four games against top-12 teams.

Oh, and don't pay any attention to articles that claim that the Packers have the hardest schedule in the NFL in 2018. Yes, Green Bay's opponents this year won 138 games in 2017, the most of any slate of opponents. But that includes games a bunch of games against teams who are expected to be worse than their 2017 record, like the 8-8 Cardinals, the 9-7 Bills, the 7-9 Redskins, and two games each against the 9-7 Lions (21st in the SRS) and 13-3 Vikings (3rd in the SRS). Green Bay's schedule is actually easier than average - the Packers are road dogs to the Patriots, Rams, and Vikings, but are otherwise favored in every other game (it helps, of course, that the Packers are expected to be very good). Only six of the team's 16 games are against teams with a positive SRS.

We can also look at frontloaded and backloaded schedules. The Jets have the most frontloaded schedule in the NFL. In New York's first six weeks, the Jets have home games against the Dolphins, Broncos, and Colts, along with a trip to Cleveland. New York's schedule is easier than average, but it is most notable for being frontloaded. Meanwhile, the Jets final six games include three of the toughest four games on the schedule: both Patriots games and a week 16 game against the Packers.

Meanwhile, the Bills and Giants have particularly backloaded schedules. Buffalo has the Chargers and trips to Minnesota and Green Bay in September, while the last five games include three against the Jets/Dolphins and a home game against Detroit. The Giants are underdogs in their first seven games, but the back half of the schedule is much more manageable. In other words, expect the Jets to start off strong, and the Bills and Giants to struggle out of the gate.

Here's how to read the table below. The Jets have the 21st toughest schedule in the NFL, with an average opponent that is -0.12 points above average. However, a front-loaded version of the Jets SOS (the first game is worth 16x, the second game is worth 15x, the 3rd game is worth 14x, etc.) would put it at -0.93, which would be the easiest in the NFL. The difference between those two ratings is +0.81, which is also the largest positive difference. That final number is how "backloaded" each schedule is. The Bills have the most frontloaded schedule, with a weighted SOS of +1.24 that is 1.04 points harder than the team's overall schedule.

Rk Team SOS Wtd SOS Diff
21 New York Jets -0.12 -0.93 0.81
4 Washington Redskins 0.40 -0.33 0.73
11 Chicago Bears 0.21 -0.48 0.69
1 Arizona Cardinals 0.74 0.12 0.61
10 New Orleans Saints 0.22 -0.37 0.59
23 Pittsburgh Steelers -0.15 -0.72 0.57
13 Philadelphia Eagles 0.11 -0.40 0.51
17 Miami Dolphins -0.08 -0.51 0.43
16 Carolina Panthers -0.03 -0.43 0.40
18 Denver Broncos -0.08 -0.34 0.26