Traditional strength of schedule (SOS) calculations add up the previous year’s record of a team’s upcoming opponents to get a cumulative win percentage for next year’s opponents.
That’s like the guy who confidently predicts the Cowboys will win six games this year, simply because they won six game last year. That’s backward-looking nonsense.
Don’t be that guy.
The 2021 Cowboys could very well end up winning the NFC East, just as they could very well end up last in the division. If they do, it will have nothing to do with last year’s team, and everything to do with this year’s team - and the opponents they’ll face this year.
A forward-looking way to look at SOS is to use the latest win projections from Vegas as a proxy for team strength this year. Win projections aren’t an exact science, of course, but they at least have the advantage of looking at projected future performance, while W/L records are simply a snapshot of past performance.
The Chiefs (12 projected wins) currently have the highest projected win total, closely followed by the Buccaneers (11.5). The Ravens, Bills, Rams, and 49ers are tied for third with 10.5 projected wins each. The more of these top teams that show up on your 17-game schedule, the tougher the schedule is likely to be.
Conversely, if you have the Lions (5 projected wins), Bengals (6.5), Jaguars (6.5), Jets (6.5), or Eagles (6.5) on your schedule, that schedule is likely to be a bit softer, especially if you get to play them twice.
And if, like the Cowboys, you play in a crummy division with the Eagles (6.5), Giants (7.0), and Washington (8.0), you’re likely going to end up with a softer schedule by default.
Using the odds-based method, the Raiders have the toughest SOS in 2021. Their 17 opponents combine for 153.5 projected wins. The Steelers have the second-toughest SOS by this method, with 152.8 projected opponent wins. The 49ers (138.2) and Browns (141.9) have the softest schedules.
Here is what the odds-based SOS looks like for all 32 teams:
|"Tough" Schedules||"Meh" Schedules||"Soft" Schedules|
|Rank||Team||2021 Opp. Win Totals||Rank||Team||2021 Opp. Win Totals||Rank||Team||2021 Opp. Win Totals|
If you compare these numbers to a traditional SOS based on last year’s W/L record, you’ll see that the different methodologies don’t change the overall picture that much for the Cowboys. They have the 26th toughest schedule by projected wins and were ranked 31st in the traditional SOS.
The calculations are not as kind to the Eagles: the traditional SOS had them with the softest schedule in the league, and now they’ve jumped up to 18th.
Washington and the Giants also make big leaps. Washington jumped from 15th (traditional SOS) to sixth (projected wins), while the Giants moved up from 25th to 10th.
Either way, you can only play the teams on your schedule, whoever those teams may be, whatever those teams’ W/L record looked like last year, and wherever the Vegas sportsbooks have them ranked. But overall, the schedule should not stand in the way of the Cowboys making the playoffs this year.