Most Forgiving Schedules

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Most forgiving NFL schedules of 2021: Favorable draws for 49ers, Patriots

The strength of schedule metric is often used by NFL fans as proof that this just might be the year for their market's team -- or that their local professional football outfit might be in for an uphill battle. But we should take that metric with a grain of salt. After all, it's based on last season's results in a league that prides itself on parity.

Since 1990, at least four teams have qualified for the playoffs in every season that were not in the postseason the year before, per NFL Research. At least two teams have won their divisions the year after missing the playoffs in 17 of the last 18 seasons. Since the league's 2002 realignment, 30 of the 32 NFL teams have won a division title at least once. The only two that haven't are Cleveland and Detroit, and the former has a decent chance of exiting that club in 2021.

It's also worth noting that the Cowboys entered last season with the third-lowest strength of schedule at .459, but still finished 6-10 (thanks, in large part, to Dak Prescott's season-ending injury). So, strength of schedule isn't as rock-solid a predictor of future outcomes as we might think.

With this information in mind, I'm using a combination of recent results and the structure of schedules to determine the 10 most forgiving slates of 2021.

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Rank
1
New England Patriots
New England Patriots

Strength of schedule: T-12th lowest [opponents' record in 2020: 133-139 (.489)]

Prime-time games: Three

Short weeks: One

 

The Patriots begin with a two-game slate that could very well put them at 2-0 going into a showdown with the Saints at home. Miami, the Pats’ opponent in the opener at Gillette Stadium, has won in New England only once in the last decade (2019). Even if they fall to the Dolphins, a Week 2 trip to visit the Jets should have the Patriots on the right path going into their meetings with New Orleans and Tampa Bay to close out the first four weeks. Both of those games come at home, meaning the Patriots leave New England only once in the first month of the season. They then make a trip to Houston, home of the rebuilding Texans, before returning home AGAIN to host Dallas and the Jets.

 

The Patriots have a more challenging path beginning in late October, with road games coming against the Chargers, Panthers, Falcons (on a short week), Bills, Colts and Dolphins, but they will have home-field advantage in second-half meetings with Cleveland, Tennessee, Buffalo and Jacksonville. This might be the most ideal schedule out there for a team looking to return to contention.

Rank
2
San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco 49ers

Strength of schedule: T-12th lowest [opponents' record in 2020: 132-138-2 (.489)]

Prime-time games: Five

Short weeks: Two

 

The 49ers couldn't have asked for a better early road slate. Sure, every team would like to start the season at home, but San Francisco heads to Detroit and Philadelphia -- two teams that, on paper, are among those with the longest road back to relevance -- in the first two weeks before returning home for battles against Green Bay (a 2019 NFC title game rematch) and Seattle to close the first month. From there, San Francisco visits Arizona before the bye week. They have winnable road games around midseason against Chicago and the rebuilding Jaguars. The Niners also have favorable draws against Cincinnati and Houston in the final month of the regular season. The biggest hurdle in that final stretch: a date with Tennessee on a short week in Nashville. Overall, it's a balanced slate with a friendly start and doesn't really put San Francisco in a tough stretch, save for Weeks 3-5.

Rank
3
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Strength of schedule: Fourth lowest [opponents' record in 2020: 126-145-1 (.465)]

Prime-time games: Five

Short weeks: Two

 

The league knows Tom Brady moves the needle more than almost anyone, especially after he won a title in his first season with his new team, and the prime-time schedule reflects this reality. Brady and the Buccaneers host the Cowboys in the NFL Kickoff Game. Interestingly, only one of the Bucs' prime-time games stands to be a tough test on the road: New England, whom the Bucs face in a highly anticipated Week 4 showdown on Sunday Night Football. Battles against the Giants (Week 11) and Saints (Week 15) will be held at Raymond James Stadium in front of a national audience. The prime-time opponent we have yet to mention is Philadelphia (Week 6). The Bucs will have to travel on a short week, but the Eagles aren’t seen as a legitimate threat for the NFC throne in 2021.

 

This is a highly manageable slate for the reigning champions, with some of the toughest matchups coming at home (Buffalo, Chicago, Dallas, Miami and New Orleans).

Rank
4
Denver Broncos
Denver Broncos

Strength of schedule: T-fifth lowest [opponents' record in 2020: 127-143-2 (.471)]

Prime-time game: One

Short weeks: One

 

Starting the season with two straight games on the road is never easy, but the Broncos land here because of who they'll play to begin the campaign. Denver gets an immediate test in the New York Giants, a team coming off an energizing offseason but one -- like the Broncos -- built around a third-year quarterback who still needs to prove he can become the answer under center. From there, Denver gets the rebuilding Jaguars on the road before returning home against the team that finished right above Jacksonville in the 2020 standings in the New York Jets. A tough stretch awaits Vic Fangio’s team in October (Baltimore, at Pittsburgh, Las Vegas and at Cleveland on Thursday Night Football), but then there are three straight games against teams from the NFC East (the worst division in football last season), followed by a well-timed bye in Week 11. That should give the Broncos a necessary break before gearing up for a final stretch that includes five divisional matchups and consecutive home games against Detroit and Cincinnati, both last-place teams in 2020. The ideal start (in terms of opponents) and an opportunity to string together some wins before the final stretch makes this one of the most forgiving schedules.

Rank
5
Carolina Panthers
Carolina Panthers

Strength of schedule: Seventh lowest [opponents' record in 2020: 128-143-1 (.472)]

Prime-time game: One

Short weeks: One

 

Well, we won't have to wait long to see Sam Darnold play against his former team. The opener against the Jets and a Week 3 Thursday night clash in Houston could help position the Panthers at 2-1 or even 3-0 (if they score a home upset over the Saints) heading into their trip to Dallas to open October. The Panthers also get Minnesota, New England and Washington at home, while their travel largely consists of trips up and down the east coast for most of the rest of the season. The back end of the schedule is merciless, as Carolina has to go to Buffalo, New Orleans and Tampa in three of its final four weeks. Its lone home game during that final stretch? A meeting with the defending Super Bowl champs. The Panthers better stack wins early when the schedule is most forgiving, because December and January don't look to be nearly as friendly.

Rank
6
Buffalo Bills
Buffalo Bills

Strength of schedule: T-ninth lowest [opponents' record in 2020: 130-142 (.478)]

Prime-time games: Four

Short weeks: Two

 

Buffalo's opening slate isn't exactly easy. The Bills begin with the reigning AFC North champion Steelers at home, then travel to face the upstart Dolphins before returning to Buffalo for a two-game homestand against Washington and the rebuilding Texans. Things get tough with a pair of road games against 2020 AFC playoff teams (Chiefs, Titans), but a midseason respite on the road against the Jags and Jets should even things out a bit. A couple of the most difficult opponents (Indianapolis, New England) in the second half of the season will come in the friendly confines of Orchard Park. The final two weeks set up nicely for the Bills, who will host two teams still attempting to find their way back to contention in the Falcons and Jets.

Rank
7
Philadelphia Eagles
Philadelphia Eagles

Strength of schedule: Lowest [opponents' record in 2020: 117-155 (.430)]

Prime-time games: Two

Short weeks: Two

 

The Eagles are in the midst of what they hope will be a rapid rebuild, but it's a rebuild nonetheless. With that aside, two road games in the first three weeks isn't exactly ideal. The Chiefs come to town in Week 4, and the Super Bowl champion Buccaneers arrive in Week 6 on a short week, making for the largest hurdle of the season for the Eagles before we even hit Halloween. The bright side, though, is both of those games are at home. Road trips to Detroit (Week 8), and a pair of short flights to New York (Weeks 12 and 13) are among the most favorable remaining away games for the Eagles. It's not an easy schedule when you consider the headliners on the slate, but the strength of schedule tells us it's still the easiest out there.

Rank
8
Dallas Cowboys
Dallas Cowboys

Strength of schedule: Second lowest [opponents' record in 2020: 122-148-2 (.452)]

Prime-time games: Five

Short weeks: Two

 

The Cowboys will receive a massive test when they open the season on the road to take on the reigning champion Buccaneers. Week 2 might also present a challenge in the form of Justin Herbert and the Chargers, who didn't finish 2020 well but carry some weight as a potential sleeper in 2021. After that, Dallas has a prime-time date with the rebuilding Eagles, a pair of home games against the young and potentially promising Panthers and Giants, and a trip to New England to face the revamped Patriots. Dallas has another massive road hurdle at Kansas City in Week 11, but a late-season stretch loaded with division opponents could play in the Cowboys' favor as they eye a turnaround that the schedule makers might have envisioned based on their five prime-time games. Perhaps a season finale at Philadelphia could be one to clinch the NFC East for the Cowboys, provided they outlast Arizona in Week 17, another game that comes at home. In all, the Cowboys have only three games against teams that finished last season with a winning record. Playing in the NFC East, where each team finished below .500 last season, gives the Cowboys a deflated strength of schedule, but they don't have a ton of heavyweights on their schedule, setting up for a season that could see Mike McCarthy's bunch live up to expectations after disappointing in 2020.

Rank
9
Miami Dolphins
Miami Dolphins

Strength of schedule: T-fifth lowest [opponents' record in 2020: 128-144 (.471)]

Prime-time games: Two

Short weeks: One

 

The Dolphins make the bottom of the list because of their strength of schedule and a late-season stretch that could end up being advantageous, but there are a few glaring caveats that keep them from being any higher. First, they open the season with a game at New England, where they've won only once in the last decade, then return to Miami to meet the reigning AFC East champion Bills before. They visit the defending champion Bucs in Week 5, and then a sneaky-tough hurdle awaits. Miami plays the Jaguars (a game the Dolphins would like to think they could mark as a win) in London in Week 6 before returning home to face the Falcons a week later. Typically, but not always, a team gets a bye after the London game. Not the Dolphins, though at least they'll get Atlanta and not Tampa Bay or New Orleans as a follow up. They host Baltimore for Thursday Night Football in Week 10 before beginning a stretch that might finally ease up on Miami: at the Jets, home versus Carolina, home versus the Giants, a much-needed bye and home versus the Jets. Two road games against 2020 playoff teams turn up the intensity again before the Dolphins host the Patriots to close the season, hoping to score another win over New England at Hard Rock Stadium.

Follow Nick Shook on Twitter.

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