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NFL Schedules: Does It Matter When You Play Teams?

tom brady and the patriots choked badly

The talk about schedules and opponent strength is often vastly overrated. I was curious, though, whether there was any benefit to when you played certain teams. When I broke down the point spreads and looked at the underlying power rankings, I noted that some of the most divergent lines occurred in week 1, where both Denver and New England had lines much higher than you would expect based on the rest of the season, and late spreads were lower than expected based on the overall ratings.

So, is there a benefit to actually playing certain teams at different points in the schedule? I think the answer is possibly yes, though again, the effect is so small on an individual team basis that it’s not something to particularly fret about. For fun, here is a graph showing the wins by game number, for teams with 10+ wins the previous year (in blue), and 6 or fewer wins the previous year (in red). There were 105 10+ win teams from 2002-2011, and 104 teams with 10+ losses.

Wins By Week in the NFL

The teams with 10+ losses do randomly overtake the collective group of teams with 10+ wins for game #12, but for every other week, the teams that collectively had more wins the year before won more games. The gap, though, closes at the end of the next season. Over the last six games, the 10+ game winners won 53.5% of their games (compared to 57.0% for the first ten games). The 10+ game losers won 47.9% of games in the final six weeks, after winning 43.8% through the first ten. The teams that had lost 10 or more games the previous year actually won half or more of the games in three of the final six weeks, something that only happened once in the first 10 games (Game #6, 50% of games won).

This is obviously not dispositive, but I think there is a sound rationale for it. The likely culprit is injuries and young teams gaining experience, and the gradual effect that those have. For the best teams, the #1 reason they regress is injury issues. Those are likely to develop as the season progresses, and the top teams are probably closer to full strength more in September than December. I suppose if the league gave me a choice, I would want to backload my schedule, and play the best teams late. We are only talking about a 3.5% difference, though, so guessing how tough the schedule will be ahead of time is still largely a fool’s errand.

[photo via USA Today Sports Images]

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