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.