After 42 years of playing a 16-game schedule, the NFL is expanding to 17 games this year and if there's any team that's now regretting their vote for the expanded season, it's probably the Pittsburgh Steelers, and that's because they're slated to face the league's most difficult strength of schedule in 2021.
Based on the final standings from 2020, the Steelers will be going into 2021 with a strength of schedule of .574, which not only gives them the most difficult schedule for the upcoming season, but it makes them one of only two teams in the NFL -- along with the Ravens -- that will have a strength of schedule above .550.
The Steelers better get their offensive line situation figured out quickly, because they'll be facing a brutal schedule that will include 10 games against playoff teams from last season. Of those 10 games, three will come against teams that played in either the AFC or NFC Championship games last year as the Steelers will be playing the Chiefs, Bills and Packers.
Speaking of the Packers, who have the fourth-most difficult schedule, they're the only other team in the NFL this year that has to play 10 games against playoff teams from last season. They better hope Aaron Rodgers decides to stick around.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Eagles have the easiest schedule in the NFL in 2021 thanks to a .430 strength of schedule. The Eagles are the only team that has a strength of schedule below .450. A big reason for Philadelphia's easy schedule is because they only play THREE games against teams that finished above .500 last season (Saints, Buccaneers, Chiefs). The Eagles also only play five games against teams that went to the playoffs.
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That being said, the Eagles are one of just five teams that will have to play both participants from Super Bowl LV. Besides the Eagles, the other three NFC East teams and the Bills will all have to face both the Buccaneers and Chiefs (Making things even more difficult, the Cowboys, Giants and Bills will have to go on the road for both games against the two Super Bowl teams).
If you're wondering which Super Bowl team has a better chance of getting back to the big game, the answer is probably the Buccaneers and that's because they'll be facing the fourth-easiest schedule. As for the other Super Bowl team, the Chiefs have the 11th most difficult schedule in the NFL this year.
One thing that will be changing with the addition of the 17th game is that there will now be a true first-place schedule. From 2002 to 2020, the schedule was inherently the same for everyone, whether they were playing a "first-place" schedule or a "last-place" schedule. Each team played four games against a team that finished in first place, 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.
With the addition of the 17th game, a first-place team will now play FIVE first place teams, which means you're rarely going to see a division winner with an easy schedule. Last year, the Ravens had the easiest schedule in the NFL even though they were supposed to have a "first-place" schedule. Thanks to the 17-game formula, it's highly unlikely a team playing a first place schedule will ever get handed the league's easiest strength of schedule ever again.
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Of the teams playing a "first-place" schedule this year, the Bills have the easiest schedule, ranking 23rd overall.
As for teams who are playing a "last-place" schedule this year, the Eagles scored the biggest win with the least difficult schedule (as we previously mentioned). On the other hand, the Bengals and Lions, who are both playing a last-place schedule, tied for the sixth-most difficult strength of schedule.
The biggest loser under the expanded schedule was Washington. If the schedule had been 16 games, the Football Team would have had the 22nd most difficult schedule, but with the addition of the Bills as their 17th game, Washington now has the 15th most difficult schedule.
The Packers also got the short end of the stick. Under the 16-game formula, they had the eighth-most difficult schedule, but now that the Chiefs have been added to their schedule, they have the fourth-most difficult slate.
If you're looking for teams that caught a break with the expanded schedule, the Jaguars, Texans and Falcons all benefited. Under the 16-game formula, the Jaguars had the 11th most difficult schedule, but with the expanded schedule they now have the 18th-most difficult slate. As for the Texans, they dropped from 10th most difficult to 15th. On the Falcons' end, they went from having the 24th most difficult schedule under the 16-game formula to having the third-easiest schedule under the 17-game formula.
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, rosters are changing all the time and they will continue to 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 2021 strength of schedule rankings for each team (combined 2020 record of all 17 opponents, combined winning percentage).
|Rank||Opponents' combined 2020 record||Opponents' combined 2020 win percentage|
If you're curious about the scheduling formula, here's how the NFL does it. Under the formula implemented in 2002 (and updated this year), every team plays 17 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.
- One interconference game based on the prior year's standings on a rotating four-year cycle (one game). These games match a first-place team from one division against a first-place team in an opposite conference division that the team is not scheduled to play that season. The second-place, third-place and fourth-place teams in each division are matched in the same way each year. The home conference for this game will rotate each season.
Finally, here's a link to a list of every home and away opponent that each team will play in 2021. The time and dates of each game will be released on Wednesday.