The NFL schedule release may be just hours away, but thanks to the league's overall schedule formatting, we know every game that will be played in 2020. We're simply now just waiting on the order. As we wait, there's no better time than now to dive into which teams face the toughest and easiest roads ahead based on their schedules. Remember all those years when everyone complained that New England had the easiest schedule in the NFL? Well, no one's going to be able to make that complaint this year, and that's because the Patriots will have the league's most difficult strength of schedule in 2020.
Based on the final standings from 2019, the Patriots will be going into 2020 with a strength of schedule of .537, making them one of only two teams in the NFL -- along with the Jets -- that will have a strength of schedule above .530. Bill Belichick better get his quarterback situation figured out quickly because the Patriots will be facing a brutal schedule that includes seven games against teams that qualified for the playoffs last year (Bills x 2, Ravens, Texans, 49ers, Seahawks), which is tied for the most in the NFL.
A big reason the Patriots schedule is so difficult is that they'll be playing both Super Bowl LIV teams in 2020 (Chiefs and 49ers). As a matter of fact, all four teams in the AFC East will have to face both the Chiefs and 49ers, and not coincidentally, those four teams will be playing four of the most difficult schedules this season (the Saints are the only other team in the NFL that will face both Super Bowl teams in 2020). Behind the Patriots, the Jets have the second most difficult strength of schedule in the league, the Dolphins have the third and the Bills have the fifth. It could be a long year for the AFC East.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, if you're looking for a division that could produce a few surprise teams next season, then you might want to look at the AFC North. Collectively, every team in the AFC North actually has a pretty easy strength of schedule in 2020, with all four teams set to play a schedule that ranks among the six easiest.
Don't be surprised if the Ravens repeat as division champs, and that's because Baltimore has BY FAR the easiest strength of schedule in the NFL at .437. To put that in perspective, no other team in the NFL has an SOS below .455. As for the other teams in the division, the Steelers have the second easiest strength of schedule in the NFL (.457), the Browns have the fourth-easiest and the Bengals have the sixth-easiest, which means if Joe Burrow gets drafted at No. 1 overall by Cincinnati, he'll likely be able to help the Bengals top their 2019 win total.
If you're looking for a team out of the NFC that could have a big 2020 season, don't be surprised if the Cowboys put together a solid year. In his first year as coach in Dallas, Mike McCarthy and the Cowboys will be facing an SOS of .459, which is the least difficult in the NFC. Basically, now might be a good time to jump on the Cowboys bandwagon, and the good news is, if you do jump on now, you'll be there before most actual Cowboys fans, who only jump on when the team is winning.
As for the two teams from Super Bowl LIV, the Chiefs probably have a better chance of repeating if we're looking at SOS only. The Chiefs are one of two teams that have a strength of schedule of exactly .500 (The Panthers are the other). On the 49ers end, they'll be playing the fourth-most difficult schedule in the NFL, and that mostly has to do with the fact that they have the hardest first-place schedule of any team. For winning the NFC West, the 49ers have to play the Packers and Saints in 2020, two teams that had a combined record of 26-6.
Now, before you complain about another team's strength of schedule, keep in mind that the schedule is inherently the same for everyone, whether you're playing a first place schedule or a last place schedule. Each team will play four games against a team that finished in first place in 2019, four games against teams that finished in second, four games against teams that finished in third and four games against teams that finished in last place (At the bottom of the page, you'll be able to see the formula the NFL uses to put the schedule together each year).
This formula is why a team playing a "last place" schedule (like the Dolphins) can have the fourth-most difficult schedule overall (Since all schedules are inherently the same, the biggest difference in each schedule is the division that you get stuck playing each year, and this season, the AFC East is playing the NFC West).
This formula is also why a team playing a "first place" schedule (like the Patriots) can have the most difficult schedule in the NFL while another team playing a "first place" schedule (like the Ravens) can have the easiest.
The biggest difference for those two teams is that the Ravens will have a much easier divisional schedule, as the Steelers, Bengals, and Browns combined to go 32-64 (They went 16-32, but you double both numbers since the Ravens play each team twice). On the other hand, the Patriots AFC East opponents went 44-52. Also, the Patriots are stuck playing the AFC West and NFC West, who combined to go 69-58-1. As for the Ravens, they get to face the AFC South and NFC East, two divisions that combined to go 56-72.
The one thing about strength of schedule is that there's no perfect way to measure schedule difficulty before the season kicks off. Between injuries, free agency and the draft, a lot can change between now and the start of the season in September. That being said, strength of schedule does give you a good idea of what your favorite team will be facing in the upcoming season.
Here's the 2020 strength of schedule rankings for each team (combined 2019 record of all 16 opponents, combined winning percentage).
|Opponents' combined 2019 record
|Opponents' combined 2019 win percentage
New England Patriots
New York Jets
San Francisco 49ers
Green Bay Packers
Kansas City Chiefs
New Orleans Saints
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 intra-conference 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 Raiders), while other teams in their division had none (e.g., at Kansas City and at Denver).
Finally, here'swill play in 2020. The time and dates of each game will be released in the spring.