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Take strength-of-schedule calculations with a grain of salt


Pencil in Chicago and Minnesota to challenge for supremacy in the NFC this season, and likewise for Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the AFC. And while you're at it, cross off Miami, New England, Carolina and Atlanta. All hopeless cases?

Not so fast.

Each year, the league's annual schedule release prompts players, fans and coaches alike to debate which team has the toughest road to navigate through the course of the season. Using the strength-of-schedule calculation as a basis for their arguments, league observers have opined that the success of a team's opponents during the previous year is an accurate indication of difficulty facing that team on the following season's schedule.

However, that opinion reflects flawed judgment, based on a recent study of playoff teams. Last season, the seven teams to make the playoffs who had not qualified for the postseason in 2007 compiled a 73-38-1 record (.651 winning percentage). That's a remarkable jump from the 41-71 (.366) record amassed by the group the previous season.

Further study reveals that the seven teams that qualified for the postseason in 2006 but failed to make the playoffs in 2007 saw their combined records go from 81-41 (.723) to 52-60 (.464). Thus, the volatility of the league makes it seemingly impossible to determine which teams will be strong based on their record from the previous season.

The theory also works when examining the schedule of the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers. The team entered the season expecting to face the league's toughest schedule, as their opponents' compiled a .598 winning percentage the previous season. Though they would face eight teams that made the playoffs in 2008, the Steelers' actual strength of schedule ranked fifth in the league based on their opponents' combined record of 133-120-3 (.525 winning percentage).

Of course, some would suggest the schedule was expected to be more difficult due to the presence of three playoff teams from the previous season -- the Cowboys, Jaguars and Patriots. The fact that all missed the postseason renders that argument pointless and makes the notion of the Steelers having the most difficult road to the title in league history appear more perception than reality.

So, with that in mind, let's examine each team's strength of schedule for the 2009 season before the NFL announces the dates and times for every game at 7 p.m. ET today.

Strength of schedule for 2009 opponents
Rk
Team
Opp. win pct.
Opp. W-L
2008 playoff teams
Winning records
.500 or better
Losing records
1
Miami Dolphins
.594
152-104
6
10
13
3
The 'Fins not only play in a division that should be highly competitive, but they face a daunting road schedule that includes trips to play the Panthers, Chargers and Titans.
2
Carolina Panthers
.592
151-104-1
7
12
15
1
If the Panthers are to win back-to-back division titles, they will have to overcome a schedule that includes 12 games against teams with winning records in 2008 and tough road games against the Giants, Patriots, Cowboys and Cardinals.
3
New England Patriots
.590
151-105
7
10
13
3
The Patriots face only 12 teams with winning records, including seven squads that qualified for the postseason in 2008. Fortunately, they host the Panthers, Titans, Falcons and Ravens at Gillette Stadium.
4
Atlanta Falcons
.588
150-105-1
5
11
14
2
The Dirty Birds face 14 teams that finished with a .500 or better mark in 2008 and must overcome the league's fourth-toughest schedule to go to the playoffs for the second straight season.
5
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
.580
148-107-1
7
10
13
3
The Buccaneers face 10 teams coming off winning seasons, but only face four of those teams on the road.
6
Buffalo Bills
.570
146-110
6
11
13
3
T.O. and crew will be challenged by a schedule that features out-of-division road games against the Panthers, Falcons and Titans. With 13 opponents coming off seasons with a .500 or better record, the Bills have a tough road to a playoff berth.
7
New York Jets
.568
145-110-1
6
9
11
5
Rex Ryan's new defense will be tested on the road against a pair of high-octane offenses (Saints and Colts). Yet, it's the home games against the Titans and Panthers that will be pivotal to their division title hopes.
8
New Orleans Saints
.557
142-113-1
7
12
13
3
If the Saints want to be the latest NFC South team to go from worst to first, they must overcome a schedule that features seven playoff qualifiers and 12 teams that had winning records in 2008.
9
Philadelphia Eagles
.535
137-119
5
8
13
3
The Eagles must overcome the league's ninth-toughest schedule and road games against the Falcons, Panthers, Bears and Chargers to qualify for their second straight postseason berth.
10
New York Giants
.527
134-120-2
7
9
14
2
Not only does the Giants' schedule feature 14 games against opponents that finished with a .500 or better mark, but they face three division champs (Cardinals, Panthers and Chargers) on the road.
11t
Dallas Cowboys
.516
131-123-2
7
7
12
4
If "America's Team" can survive their rugged division games, they can take advantage of a schedule that features four games against teams with new head coaches.
11t
Jacksonville Jaguars
.516
132-124
6
8
10
6
The Jaguars' 11th-ranked schedule isn't daunting, but two coast-to-coast road trips (San Francisco and Seattle) could be pivotal to their playoff push.
13
Indianapolis Colts
.512
131-125
5
7
10
6
The Colts will try to reclaim their division crown by taking advantage of a schedule that features games against only seven teams with winning records in 2008.
14
Tennessee Titans
.508
130-126
6
7
10
6
If the Titans are to secure the league's best record for the second straight year, they will have to do so against a tough schedule that includes matchups with four division winners (Steelers, Dolphins, Cardinals and Chargers) from 2008.
15
Houston Texans
.506
129-126-1
6
8
8
8
With eight games against teams with losing records in 2008, the Texans may finally get over the hump and finish over .500.
16
Washington Redskins
.492
125-129-2
7
9
12
4
The 'Skins face seven teams that qualified for the postseason in 2008, but they should benefit from squaring off with four teams (Raiders, Rams, Chiefs and Lions) that finished with five or less wins a year ago.
17t
Kansas City Chiefs
.484
123-131-2
6
5
10
6
The Chiefs are set to make a quick turnaround in Todd Haley's first season due to a schedule that features games against just five teams that had winning records in 2008.
17t
San Diego Chargers
.484
123-131-2
6
7
10
6
The Chargers have won three straight division titles, but the road to the division crown will be tougher in 2009 with road games against the Steelers, Titans, Giants and Cowboys.
19t
Denver Broncos
.480
122-132-2
7
7
10
6
If Josh McDaniels wants to end the Broncos' playoff drought, he must do it against a schedule that features games against seven playoff teams from 2008.
19t
Oakland Raiders
.480
122-132-2
6
6
12
4
The Silver and Black face 12 teams with .500 or better records, including road games against the Cowboys, Steelers and Giants.
21
Detroit Lions
.467
119-136-1
5
7
9
7
After going winless in 2008, the Lions have a chance to seek redemption against a slate that includes only seven games against teams coming off winning seasons, with three of those games coming on the road.
22t
Cincinnati Bengals
.465
119-137
6
7
10
6
Carson Palmer returns to the lineup and the Bengals should reap the benefits against a schedule that features games against five opponents that finished with six wins or less in 2008.
22t
St. Louis Rams
.465
119-137
5
6
9
7
If the Rams are to bounce back from their dismal 2008 season, they must take advantage of a schedule that features only six teams coming off winning seasons.
24
Seattle Seahawks
.457
117-139
5
8
9
7
The 'Hawks benefit from a softer schedule that features only five games against playoff qualifiers. If they can overcome tough road games against the Cowboys, Vikings and Colts, they could return to playoffs after a one-year hiatus.
25
Cleveland Browns
.449
114-140-2
6
6
8
8
The schedule sets up perfectly for Eric Mangini to engineer a quick turnaround in his first season. The Browns only face six opponents that had winning records in 2008, with three of those matchups on the road.
26
San Francisco 49ers
.443
113-142-1
7
8
9
7
Mike Singletary's troops face four playoff qualifiers on the road (Cardinals, Vikings, Eagles and Colts) but get the league's 26th-ranked schedule, with only eight games against teams with winning records.
27
Arizona Cardinals
.441
113-143
5
6
7
9
The schedule breaks perfectly for the Cardinals as they face nine teams that finished with losing records last season. With only two tough road games (Titans and Giants), they could be looking at back-to-back NFC West titles.
28
Baltimore Ravens
.438
111-143-2
5
6
8
8
If Joe Flacco is to avoid the sophomore slump, he will to have to perform well against a formidable set of defenses that includes the Patriots, Bears, Vikings and Chargers.
29
Pittsburgh Steelers
.434
110-144-2
6
6
8
8
The defending champs catch a break by facing the 29th-ranked schedule, and their quest for back-to-back titles may hinge on winning home games against the Titans, Chargers and Vikings.
30
Green Bay Packers
.428
109-146-1
5
9
9
7
If the Packers are to return to the playoffs after a year hiatus, they will have to take advantage of a schedule that features only five matchups against playoff teams.
31
Minnesota Vikings
.420
107-148-1
5
7
7
9
The Vikes' schedule ranks as one of the easiest in the league, but matchups with the Cardinals, Steelers and Panthers on the road will determine if the team is ready to move to the ranks of the elite.
32
Chicago Bears
.414
105-149-2
7
7
7
9
As owners of the league's softest schedule, the Bears have only two games on the road against teams who finished with a .500 or better record.


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