It takes two teams to play a football game. Sometimes people seem to forget that – especially when a team like the Denver Broncos is on the field. Don’t fall for this trap when you bet on the NFL.
Imagine if every time your favorite NFL teams took the field, they had to play the 1985 Chicago Bears. That’s a tough row to hoe. Would anyone even finish the season with a .500 record? Maybe. Now imagine getting to play the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers every game. Would you wager a sports pick on anyone finishing under .500?
This is how important strength of schedule is in the NFL. It’s far too easy to look at a team’s record without taking the opposition into account. Consider the 2012 Houston Texans and Atlanta Falcons; they won their respective South divisions, but they did it while playing some of the softest schedules in the league. Then they cratered in 2013 in the face of stronger opposition, it was all so highly predictable.
Here’s how. At the end of the 2012 season, Football Outsiders published its final efficiency-based stats, including strength of schedule. Houston’s opposition was ranked No. 26 overall. Atlanta’s was ranked No. 27. The Texans ended up going 12-4 (9-7 ATS), taking advantage of the weak AFC East. The Falcons (13-3 SU, 9-6-1 ATS) had favorable matchups against the AFC West.
All that was bound to change in 2013, and was reflected in their NFL odds. The Texans were matched up against the NFC West and lost all four games at 1-3 ATS, en route to last place at 2-14 (4-12 ATS). The Falcons? Yup, they had to play the NFC West, too, and they ended the season at 4-12 SU and 7-9 ATS. Football Outsiders ranked Atlanta’s strength of schedule No. 2 overall, with Houston’s at No. 10.
How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us
Sadly, we can’t guarantee that the 2014 NFL season will deliver us another Houston meltdown or another Atlanta debacle. But we can still look for some likely candidates. The NFL schedule for 2014 is out, and if you go by the traditional measure of strength of schedule (opposition won-loss record from the previous year), you’ll naturally see the teams from the NFC West and the improved AFC West at the top of the list. And no wonder; every team plays its divisional rivals twice each during the regular season. In 2014, the NFC West and AFC West are also matched up against each other. Tough gig.
This could be a real problem for – wait for it – the Kansas City Chiefs, and those backing them with their football picks. Their 2013 strength of schedule ranked dead last at No. 32, as the Chiefs (11-5 SU, 9-7 ATS) fattened up on teams from the AFC South and the woeful NFC East. Notice that their nine straight wins to start the season were almost entirely against these cupcake opponents. Kansas City didn’t play the Denver Broncos or San Diego Chargers until Week 11. Kansas City lost all four of those games at 1-3 ATS, the only payday coming in crazy Week 17 as a 15.5-point dog in San Diego. Uh-oh.
You can use this method to suss out the teams worth following, as well. The AFC South doesn’t have to play those nasty brutes from the NFC West anymore; instead, the NFC East is on the menu, along with the AFC North. Only one team in either division finished above .500 last year. That doesn’t necessarily mean those divisions will suck again in 2014, but it’s got to be a relief for everyone in the AFC South.
That includes the Texans. They should have a much easier go of it this season, and when you take a closer look at last year’s performance, Football Outsiders has Houston collecting 3.9 Estimated Wins, nearly double those two Actual Wins. And the NFL even gave the Texans the top draft choice for their troubles, DE Jadeveon Clowney. To win is to lose, to lose is to win.