2017 NFL strength of schedule: Colts have it easiest, Broncos face a slate of doom

If the Indianapolis Colts are going to end their two-year playoff drought, next season seems like the perfect time. That’s because Indianapolis will play the NFL’s easiest regular-season schedule in 2017.

Basically, if Chuck Pagano can’t get his team turned around in 2017, Jim Irsay might be forced to fire him.

Based on 2016 records, Indy will play the league’s most lenient schedule because more than 31 percent of its 2017 opponents won four or fewer games last season.

The Colts will play the Cleveland Browns (1-15), 49ers (2-14) and Los Angeles Rams (4-12) and two against the Jacksonville Jaguars (3-13). The Colts play only two teams that won 10 or more games. The last time the Colts had the easiest strength of schedule heading into a season was 2014, when they finished 11-5 and reached the AFC title game.

Denver Broncos rookie coach Vance Joseph probably would kill to have the Colts’ schedule, because his team is on the other end of the spectrum: Denver has the most difficult schedule for 2017.

Not only do the Broncos have zero games against any of the bad teams just mentioned, they play eight teams that won 10 or more games in 2016.

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Vance Joseph and the Broncos have the most difficult strength of schedule heading into 2017. USATSI

The San Diego Chargers are the only other team playing that many 10-win teams, and not coincidentally, the Chargers have the third-hardest schedule.

If the NFL is hoping one of the Los Angeles teams might actually be good at some point, things aren’t looking up for the Chargers based on their strength of schedule.

One reason the Chargers and Broncos have it so rough is because they play AFC West rivals Kansas City (12-4) and Oakland (12-4) twice. The AFC West also plays the NFC East in 2017, which means the Broncos and Chargers play the Dallas Cowboys (13-3) and New York Giants (11-5).

We’ll definitely find out if the AFC West is the league’s best division, because the four teams facing the four most difficult schedules in 2017 come from that division.

Now, I know some of you are thinking: “Does strength of schedule even matter?”

The answer: “Kind of.”

Of the five teams that had the five easiest schedules heading into the 2016 season, four made the playoffs -- Green Bay Packers , Detroit Lions , Giants, Cowboys. The Chicago Bears  were the only team that didn’t take advantage of an easy schedule.

That’s good news for the Colts, Jaguars, Tennessee Titans and Cincinnati Bengals -- plus the Pittsburgh Steelers and Minnesota Vikings , who tied for the fifth-easiest schedule -- because they’ll be playing the six (including the tie at No. 5) easiest schedules in 2017.

On the other hand, of the teams playing the eight most difficult schedules heading into the 2016 season, only two made the playoffs. One was the Atlanta Falcons , so your season isn’t necessarily over if your schedule looks like a nightmare.

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Take schedule strength with a grain of salt -- just ask Matt Ryan. USATSI

Speaking of the Falcons, they demonstrated why a preseason strength of schedule can be misleading. Before the 2016 season started, the Falcons were set to play the league’s most-difficult schedule. But after the games were played, Atlanta actually played the eighth-easiest schedule. One big reason: Before last season, the Carolina Panthers counted as a 15-1 record toward Atlanta’s strength of schedule; the Panthers finished 6-10, representing a 18-game swing.

Playing the most difficult schedule almost never works out well. Of the teams playing the 10 most difficult schedules in 2016 (calculated after the season), none made the playoffs.

Of the 10 easiest schedules in 2016, seven teams made the playoffs, ( New England Patriots , Seattle Seahawks , Miami Dolphins , Cowboys, Lions, Falcons, Giants), another finished with a winning record (the 9-7 Titans) and the others ( Buffalo Bills , Arizona Cardinals ) won seven games.

Before you complain about another team’s strength of schedule or that Patriots seem to have an easy schedule every season, keep this in mind: Every NFL team plays the exact same schedule in terms of the standings.

For the 2017 season, all 32 teams play four games against a 2016 division-winner, four against a team that finished second, four against a third-place team and four against a fourth-place team. And that’s your 16-game schedule.

You can see a complete breakdown of the formula at the bottom of the page.

Anyway, here’s the 2017 strength of schedule rankings for each team (combined 2016 record of all 16 opponents, combined winning percentage):

1. Denver Broncos: 147-107-2, .578

2. Kansas City Chiefs : 147-108-1, .576

3. Los Angeles Chargers: 145-110-1, .568

4. Oakland Raiders : 144-111-1 .564

5. Buffalo Bills: 143-112-1, .561

6. Miami Dolphins: 140-116-0, .547

7. Washington Redskins : 138-116-2, .543

T-8. New York Giants: 135-117-4, .535

T-8. New York Jets : 137-119-0, .535

T-10. Dallas Cowboys: 134-118-4, .531

T-10. Philadelphia Eagles : 134-118-4, .531

12. New England Patriots: 135-121-0, .527

13. Atlanta Falcons: 133-122-1, .521

14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers : 132-123-1, .518

15. New Orleans Saints : 130-125-1, .514

16. Carolina Panthers: 129-127, .504

17. Los Angeles Rams: 121-130-5, .482

18. Green Bay Packers: 122-132-2, .480

19. Chicago Bears: 122-133-1, .479

20. San Francisco 49ers: 119-132-5, .475

T-21. Detroit Lions: 119-135-2, .469

T-21. Cleveland Browns: 119-135-2, .469

23. Arizona Cardinals: 118-135-3, .467

24. Baltimore Ravens : 117-137-2, .461

T-25. Seattle Seahawks: 115-138-3, .455

T-25. Houston Texans : 115-138-3, .455

T-27. Minnesota Vikings: 115-139-2, .453

T-27. Pittsburgh Steelers: 115-139-2, .453

29. Cincinnati Bengals: 115-141-0, .449

T-30. Jacksonville Jaguars: 111-142-3, .439

T-30. Tennessee Titans: 111-142-3, .439

32. Indianapolis Colts: 107-146-3, .424

One final note: In three of the past four seasons, the team with the easiest schedule has gone on to make at least the conference title game. 

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 Los Angeles Chargers and at Oakland), while other teams in their division had none (e.g., at Kansas City and at Denver).

Finally, here’s a link to a list of every home and away opponent that each team will play in 2017. The time and dates of each game will be released in the spring.

CBS Sports Writer

John Breech has been at CBS Sports since July 2011 and currently spends most of his time writing about the NFL. He's believed to be one of only three people in the world who thinks that Andy Dalton will... Full Bio

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