Now that the NFL has released the 2020 regular season schedule, it's time to dive into the way-too-early analysis of all 17 weeks. One of our biggest pet peeves regarding the immediate annual analysis of the NFL schedule is that far too many still base it on the past season's win-loss records. So much has already changed regarding the complexion of all 32 rosters that 2019 win-loss records are meaningless. Instead, there's a much better way to do this and that's what we're going to explore in the 2020 strength of schedule rankings below.
In case you need a reminder, the schedule since 2002 has worked the same way. 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).
Take the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs, for example. They're in the AFC West, so they have three games each against the Broncos, Chargers, and Raiders. This year, the AFC West plays against the AFC East and NFC South, so the Chiefs will also take on the Bills, Dolphins, Patriots, Jets, Falcons, Panthers, Saints and Buccaneers. And finally, because the Chiefs won their division, they'll also play the division winners from the AFC North (Ravens) and AFC South (Texans). That's their full 16-game schedule.
(Here's a link to a list of every home and away opponent that each team will play in 2020.)
In order to figure out exactly how tough that schedule is, we turned to our friends at William Hill, who have set each team's win total over-under for the 2020 season. Using those over-unders gives us a better idea of how those teams are expected to do in 2020 than does using their records from 2019. The Patriots don't have Tom Brady anymore, so why should we count them as a 12-win team when Vegas expects they'll come in somewhere around 9.5, right?
Without further ado, here are the strength of schedule rankings for the 2020 NFL season, according to the combined win total over-unders for each team's opponents.
(In the chart below O/U is that team's win total over-under for the 2020 season and SOS is their strength of schedule based on opponent over-unders. For reference, the Colts have the easiest schedule and the Falcons have the most difficult schedule.)
The two easiest schedules in the league belong to a pair of teams in the AFC South, by virtue of their playing in the worst division in the NFL (the AFC South has a projected combined winning percentage of just 0.461) and playing against the second-worst NFC division (the NFC North has a projected combined winning percentage of 0.516, ahead of only the NFC East).
At the other end of the spectrum, the Falcons play in the NFL's toughest division (the NFC South has a projected combined winning percentage of 0.547) and play against the best AFC division (the AFC West has a projected combined winning percentage of 0.531); and unlike the Panthers, who get to play against Washington and Arizona by virtue of having finished in fourth place last season, the Falcons have to play the Cowboys and Seahawks after coming in second a year ago.