Digging Deeper Into The 2011 NFL Schedule

Cowboys receivers Hurd and Austin high-fiving fans after hearing of the Cowboys' 2011 strength of schedule.

Yesterday, the NFL officially released the list of the opponents each team will face next year (provided there is a season). In fairness, there wasn't much to be released, because the opponents are determined by a predetermined formula that Dave explained in his post yesterday, and they were clear as soon as the last game ended on Sunday.

To call it a full schedule would be a slight stretch at this point, because so far we only know the home and away games as well as the opponents, but not the dates. But that won't keep us from looking ahead at next year's Strength Of Schedule (SOS) in a little more detail.

The importance of the SOS in determining your draft slot was driven home by the events of the past weekend, but a closer look at the SOS can help to better understand what exactly your team is up against next season. The Cowboys, thanks in large part their third place finish and a pairing with the atrocious NFC West, have a SOS of .504 which ranks them right in the middle of the league. After the jump, we break down the SOS in a lot more detail for all NFL teams.

Volatility and Strength of Schedule (SOS)

At the start of last season, the Cowboys had the third toughest SOS with .543. By the end of the season the actual SOS had mellowed to .512, Dallas ranked a comfortable 12th and secured the number nine draft slot in the process. The biggest winners in the SOS lottery: the Chiefs, who dropped from 0.516 to 0.414. The biggest losers: the Vikings, who started with a seemingly manageable 0.441 and ended up with 0.539.

And it's almost certain to happen again this year. The 'real' SOS at the end of the season will have little to do with the SOS published at the start of the season, and the reason for that is the volatility in team performance from year to year.

Take the playoff teams as an example. For the last couple of years, an average of five to six teams made it to the playoffs who did not make it in the season before. The five teams who made the playoffs in 2010 but did not qualify for the postseason in 2009 (PIT, KC, CHI, ATL, SEA) combined for a 51-29 record (.638 winning percentage) in 2010. That's a significant jump from the 34-46 (.425) record that group had in 2009. Similarly, the five teams (DAL, CIN, SD, MIN, ARI) who failed to make the playoffs in 2010 after qualifying in 2009 dropped from a 56-24 (.700) record in 2009 to 30-50 (.375) in 2010.

The volatility inherent in the league makes it almost impossible to figure out which teams will have a soft schedule and which teams will have a tough schedule in 2011. On paper, the NFL schedule this year looks fairly balanced compared to some previous years. Here's how the highs and lows in terms of SOS compare versus the last five years:

SOS by Year
2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
High 0.543 0.539 0.598 0.594 0.547 0.555
Low
0.445 0.461 0.387 0.414 0.445 0.441
Cowboys 0.504 0.496 0.523 0.516 0.543 0.504

Quality opponents: One way to understand just how tough a schedule a team may be facing is to look at the number of quality opponents (teams with nine or more wins in the 2010 regular season). The Jaguars, Vikings, Lions and Panthers all have their work cut out for them as they'll face a league high nine quality opponents. The Cowboys are in the middle of the pack with seven quality opponents. The 49ers and all teams in the AFC North (they all get to face the NFC West this year) face only five quality opponents, while the Cardinals will see only four.

Points differential: Another way to look at the quality of your opponent is through points differential. Which teams' 2011 opponents had the highest combined negative points differential in 2010? You guessed it, the Cardinals. Their 16 opponents were outscored by 545 points in 2010. The Broncos can't seem to catch any breaks and sit atop the list, facing 16 opponents who had a positive combined points differential in 2010 of 528 points. The Cowboys are 22nd on this list.

Vs. 10 playoff teams: Yet another way to gauge the difficulties ahead is to look at match-ups with the 2010 playoff participants. And here the schedule is unusually balanced. Ten teams get to play seven 2010 playoff teams next year, ten get to play five, and twelve teams get to play six 2010 playoff teams. The Cowboys face five: the Eagles twice and the Seahawks, Jets and Patriots.

Away schedule: Last but not least, strength of the away schedule. The Chiefs have the toughest away schedule (.570), followed by the Cowboys (.563) who have to take on the Bucs, Patriots and Jets among others, in addition to the division rival Eagles and Giants. Conversely, the Cowboys have the second softest home schedule (.445). Maybe next season we'll see a couple more wins at Cowboys Stadium than we did this year.

2011 Schedule under the Microscope (click column header to sort)

Teams 2010 Win % Opp. W/L 2010 Point Differential Games vs. 2010 Quality Teams Games vs. 2010 Playoff Teams 2010 Away Opp. Win % 2010 Home Opp. Win %
CAR 0.555 142-114 315 9 7 0.563 0.547
BUF 0.535 137-119 423 8 6 0.555 0.516
DEN 0.520 133-123 528 8 6 0.469 0.570
JAC 0.520 133-123 346 9 7 0.508 0.531
NYJ 0.520 133-123 90 7 5 0.508 0.531
DET 0.520 133-123 260 9 7 0.516 0.523
IND 0.520 133-123 183 7 6 0.555 0.484
SD 0.520 133-123 113 7 7 0.563 0.477
KC 0.520 133-123 440 8 6 0.570 0.469
MIN 0.516 132-124 243 9 7 0.523 0.508
HOU 0.516 132-124 85 7 6 0.531 0.50
MIA 0.516 132-124 217 8 6 0.539 0.492
NO 0.508 130-126 -35 8 5 0.484 0.531
GB 0.508 130-126 41 8 5 0.523 0.492
PHI 0.504 129-127 -222 6 5 0.469 0.539
NE 0.504 129-127 -25 8 6 0.484 0.523
DAL 0.504 129-127 -172 7 5 0.563 0.445
CHI 0.500 128-128 198 8 7 0.508 0.492
TB 0.496 127-129 -18 7 7 0.484 0.508
OAK 0.492 126-130 154 8 6 0.438 0.547
ATL 0.492 126-130 -176 8 7 0.492 0.492
CLE 0.492 126-130 -68 5 6 0.492 0.492
NYG 0.492 126-130 -141 6 7 0.539 0.445
TEN 0.488 125-131 -271 7 6 0.469 0.508
SEA 0.488 125-131 -188 6 5 0.484 0.492
STL 0.477 122-134 -253 6 7 0.477 0.477
WAS 0.473 121-135 -401 6 5 0.414 0.531
PIT 0.473 121-135 -210 5 6 0.453 0.492
CIN 0.473 121-135 -292 5 6 0.477 0.469
SF 0.465 119-137 -458 5 5 0.445 0.484
BAL 0.457 117-139 -161 5 5 0.453 0.461
ARI 0.441 113-143 -545 4 5 0.453 0.43
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