2016 NFL strength of schedule: 49ers, Falcons at No. 1, Packers at No. 32
If the 2015 NFL season is any indication, the 49ers and Falcons are going to be dealing with a rough schedule in 2016.
Not only is Chip Kelly going to have to deal with an unsettled quarterback situation in San Francisco in 2016, but he's also going to have to deal with the NFL's toughest regular season schedule.
Based on 2015 records, the 49ers and the Falcons will play the toughest schedule in the NFL next season. By the way, if you're wondering why the NFL scheduling formula's not always perfect, the 49ers are a good example: Although they're playing a "last place" schedule, they still have the hardest slate in the league in 2016.
The meat of the 49ers schedule comes from their division: The Niners have to play both the Seahawks (10-6) and Cardinals (13-3) twice in 2016.
The 49ers also will be playing every team in the AFC East, which means a game against the Patriots. Overall, the Niners will play three of the four teams that played in the NFC and AFC Championship games.
Not to be outdone, the Falcons will also be playing three of those teams, which includes road games against both teams that played in Super Bowl 50 (Broncos, Panthers).
It's not just the 49ers and Falcons playing tough schedules though: Overall, the seven teams that play the seven toughest schedules all come from the NFC West or NFC South.
The NFC South teams all have a tough schedule because they all have to play the 15-1 Panthers twice in 2016.
As for the NFC West, if the NFL's hoping that football in Los Angeles gets off to a hot start, then the league better make the Rams trade for a quarterback because it's unlikely that Case Keenum or Nick Foles will be able to lead the Rams to a playoff berth against what will be the league's third-toughest schedule.
Of course, if some teams have to play a tough schedule, that means there's a few teams out there that will get to play an easy schedule, like the Packers.
Based on 2015 records, Green Bay will play the easiest schedule in the NFL next season
As a matter of fact, the entire NFC North is getting a cakewalk next season because it is matched up with the NFC East and AFC South. Meaning the four teams in the old Black and Blue Division all get to play the teams from what were the NFL's two worst divisions last season.
The Bears will play the second-easiest schedule in 2016 and the Lions will play the fourth-easiest schedule. The Vikings have to play a first-place schedule, which means games against the Panthers and Cardinals that rest of the NFC North doesn't have to play. Thanks in large part to two games, the Vikings schedule ranks 18th overall in difficulty.
Now, I know what some of you are thinking, "Does preseason strength of schedule even matter?"
In some cases it does. Take the Panthers for instance.
Before the 2015 season started, the Panthers were set to play the sixth-easiest schedule. After all the games were played, the Panthers ended up playing the easiest schedule in the NFL, which they rode to a 15-1 record and an NFC title.
On the rough end of things, the 49ers were set to play the third-toughest schedule before the 2015 season started and they ended up playing the second-toughest schedule and it kind of showed in their 5-11 record.
On the other hand, sometimes preseason strength of schedule can be misleading. For instance, before the 2015 season started, the Cowboys were set to play the ninth easiest schedule. After all the games were played, Dallas ended up playing the fifth-hardest schedule. Playing an impossible schedule without Tony Romo ended up being a disaster for Dallas.
Playing the hardest schedule almost never works out well for a team. Of the six teams that played the six most difficult schedules in 2015 (calculated after the 2015 season), only one of them (Packers) made the playoffs.
Of the five teams that played the five easiest schedules in 2015, three of them ended up making the playoffs, (Panthers, Redskins, Patriots), and one hit the 10-win mark (Jets). The only team that played an easy schedule and struggled -- the Dolphins -- ended up firing their coach.
Anyway, here's the 2016 strength of schedule for each NFL team (Combined 2015 record of all 16 opponents, combined winning percentage)
T-1. San Francisco 49ers : 142-114, .555
T-1. Atlanta Falcons : 142-114, .555
3. Los Angeles Rams : 141-115, .551
4. New Orleans Saints : 140-116, .547
T-5. Seattle Seahawks : 139-117, .543
T-5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers : 139-117, .543
T-7. Arizona Cardinals : 136-120, .531
T-7. New York Jets : 136-120, .531
9. New England Patriots : 134-122, .523
10. Buffalo Bills : 133-123, .520
11. Miami Dolphins : 132-124, .516
12. Carolina Panthers : 131-125, .512
13. San Diego Chargers : 130-126, .508
14. Denver Broncos : 129-127, .504
15. Oakland Raiders : 128-128, .500
16. Kansas City Chiefs : 127-129, .496
17. Washington Redskins : 126-130, .492
18. Minnesota Vikings : 125-131, .488
T-19. Houston Texans : 124-132, .484
T-19. Baltimore Ravens : 124-132, .484
21. Cleveland Browns : 123-133, .480
22. Indianapolis Colts : 122-134, .477
T-23. Pittsburgh Steelers : 121-135, .473
T-23. Tennessee Titans : 121-135, .473
T-23. Jacksonville Jaguars : 121-135, .473
26. Philadelphia Eagles : 120-136, .469
T-27. Cincinnati Bengals : 119-137, .465
T-27. Detroit Lions : 119-137, .465
T-27. Dallas Cowboys : 119-137, .465
T-30. Chicago Bears : 118-138, .461
T-30. New York Giants : 118-138, .461
32. Green Bay Packers : 117-139, .457
If you're curious about the scheduling formula, here's how the NFL does it: Under the formula implemented in 2002, every team plays 16 games as follows --
- Home and away against its three division opponents (six games).
- The four teams from another division within its conference on a rotating three-year cycle (four games).
- The four teams from a division in the other conference on a rotating four-year cycle (four games).
- Two intraconference games based on the prior year's standings (two games). These games match a first-place team against the first-place teams in the two same-conference divisions that the team is not scheduled to play that season. The second-place, third-place, and fourth-place teams in a conference are matched in the same way each year.
- Beginning in 2010, a change was made to how teams are paired in the schedule rotation to ensure that teams playing the AFC West and NFC West divisions would not be required to make two West Coast trips (e.g., at San Francisco and at Seattle), while other teams in their division had none (e.g., at St. Louis and at Arizona).
Don't be shocked if the NFL changes up the last part of that formula now that the Rams are in L.A.
Finally, here's a link to a list of every opponent each team will play in 2016. The time and dates of each game will be released in the spring.
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