Early Look At 2012 NFL Strength Of Schedule

Each year the NFL makes a big production about 'releasing the schedule' in April. But with the close of the regular season, the NFL's scheduling formula has already determined which teams will face each other, just not when and in what sequence. And with that info, we can take a quick look at how the 2012 Strength Of Schedule plays out for the Cowboys and other teams.

Here's a visual overview of the teams with the hardest and softest schedules. After the jump, we break down the schedule a lot further for every single NFL team.


Volatility and Strength of Schedule (SOS)

At the start of the 2011 season, the Cowboys had a pretty average SOS of .504. After week 17, the actual SOS had mellowed to .473, and Dallas ranked a comfortable 25th - yet still only managed an 8-8 record against one of the weakest schedules in the league.

One of the biggest misunderstandings about SOS is that the 'actual SOS', or the SOS at the end of the season, is largely a function of a teams W/L record:

Let's assume you're an 8-8 team and your SOS is exactly .500, meaning your opponents in a 16 game regular season have a combined 128-128 W/L record. Now let's assume you're own W/L record is 0-16. Everything else being equal, your opponents W/L record would increase by eight wins and decrease by eight losses to 136-120 or .531. Same thing in reverse, a 16-0 record would result an opponent W/L of 120-136, or .469. That is a significant swing in opponent winning percentage (.469 to .531) based on your own winning percentage alone, which in very simple terms means that the more games you win, the softer your SOS gets.

And it's almost certain to happen again this year. The 'actual 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 is the volatility in team performance from year to year.

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 2012. On paper, the NFL scheduling formula actually delivers a fairly balanced schedule year after year. Here's how the highs and lows in terms of SOS compare over time:

SOS by Year
Year 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
High 0.543 0.539 0.598 0.594 0.547 0.555 0.547
0.445 0.461 0.387 0.414 0.445 0.441 0.453
Cowboys 0.504 0.496 0.523 0.516 0.543 0.504 0.504

Overall SOS: The Cowboys' 2012 opponents were a combined 129-127 this year, a winning percentage of 0.504. That is tied with three other teams for the eleventh toughest schedule. And while that may sound like a 'tough schedule', one opponent win less would put the opponent W/L at 128-128, the exact league average. The Giants have the toughest opponent schedule at 140-116 (they play the Packers and the 49ers where the Cowboys 'only' play the Bears and Seahawks). The Patriots have the softest schedule at 116-140.

But there are more ways to look at SOS than just winning percentage, and that's what we'll do below.

Quality opponents: Another 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 2011 regular season). The Eagles and the Jaguars have their work cut out for them as they both face a league-high eight games against quality opponents. The Cowboys face seven quality opponents, while two teams face only four quality opponents: the Falcons and Patriots. Regardless of how far they get in the playoffs this year, you've already got to like their chances of making the playoffs again next year with that schedule.

Points differential: Yet 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 2009? The Chargers with -368, courtesy of playing in the only division in the NFL where three teams had a negative points differential this season, including a division winner that ranked 25th in the league in points differential.

The Giants sit atop the points differential list and face 16 opponents who had a positive combined points differential in 2011 of +546 points. The Cowboys are 5th on this list with +156.

Home vs Away games: Ideally, you'd like to play all your difficult opponents at home and would be happy to travel to a relatively weak opponent. Green Bay got lucky there, drawing the softest away schedule at 0.398. At the other end of the spectrum, the Broncos have the toughest away schedule with 0.570 next year. The Cowboys are ranked 12th on the road with 0.516 and 18th at home with 0.492, not much of a difference.

2012 Schedule under the Microscope (click column subheaders to sort)

Teams Total Opponent records
Home vs. Away
Opp. Win %
Games vs quality opponents
Point Differential Away opp. Win% Home opp. Win%
NYG 140-116 0.547 7 546 0.555 0.539
DEN 139-117 0.543 7 104 0.570 0.516
CLE 135-121 0.527 7 -34 0.531 0.523
STL 134-122 0.523 5 286 0.484 0.563
BAL 134-122 0.523 7 87 0.492 0.555
SD 133-123 0.520 6 -368 0.500 0.539
PHI 132-124 0.516 8 97 0.492 0.539
MIN 131-125 0.512 7 59 0.461 0.563
ARI 131-125 0.512 6 336 0.555 0.469
CAR 130-126 0.508 5 -123 0.492 0.523
SEA 129-127 0.504 5 131 0.461 0.547
DAL 129-127 0.504 7 156 0.516 0.492
NO 129-127 0.504 5 -251 0.531 0.477
JAC 128-128 0.500 8 125 0.427 0.544
CIN 128-128 0.500 5 -75 0.477 0.523
PIT 128-128 0.500 6 -137 0.523 0.477
IND 128-128 0.500 7 165 0.547 0.453
OAK 127-129 0.496 5 -254 0.516 0.477
MIA 127-129 0.496 6 -62 0.539 0.453
NYJ 126-130 0.492 6 122 0.469 0.516
KC 126-130 0.492 5 -329 0.492 0.492
CHI 126-130 0.492 7 102 0.550 0.466
DET 126-130 0.492 6 73 0.539 0.445
WAS 125-131 0.488 7 17 0.469 0.508
ATL 125-131 0.488 4 -240 0.477 0.500
SF 125-131 0.488 5 44 0.539 0.438
TB 124-132 0.484 5 -96 0.508 0.461
TEN 123-133 0.480 6 117 0.430 0.531
HOU 121-135 0.473 6 -169 0.492 0.453
BUF 121-135 0.473 5 -68 0.500 0.445
GB 120-136 0.469 7 -73 0.398 0.539
NE 116-140 0.453 4 -288 0.430 0.477
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