Ranking All 32 NFL Schedules for 2018
Predicting how difficult a team's schedule will be is always...difficult. Teams can win or lose one-possession games. Injuries occur that alter opponent and team strength. Teams change from year to year.
One thing that we shouldn't do is rely on last year's winning percentage to determine schedule strength.
So instead of doing that, we'll be utilizing our nERD metric to determine each team's schedule strength for the 2018 NFL season.
nERD accounts for a lot of different variables -- opponent strength, performance relative to expectation during in-game situations, offense, defense, and special teams, and more -- to indicate by how many points a team should be expected to beat (or lose to) an average team (whose nERD score would be 0.00) on a neutral field.
With that out of the way, let's dive into the 2018 NFL schedule.
The 2018 Season
Let's get right to it: here is how each team's schedule looks if we replace the opponent's name with the opponent's preseason nERD score.
The table is sorted by the most difficult (average opponent nERD per game) to the easiest.
The NFC West is getting a tough go in 2018, based on the preseason expectations.
The Los Angeles Rams have the toughest schedule by this method, barely beating out the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Rams face five opponents inside the top 10 in preseason nERD and just two opponents inside the bottom 10 in nERD. By comparison, the Bucs face six top-10 opponents but three bottom-10 ones.
Two teams face seven top-10 opponents by nERD: the Atlanta Falcons and the Detroit Lions. While the Falcons net five matchups against bottom-five opponents, the Lions get only two. Detroit certainly doesn't have an easy draw.
The AFC South collectively gets top-11 schedules in terms of ease, though the Houston Texans have the easiest path of any team in the NFL in 2018. They have five games against the bottom four teams in our preseason rankings (the Indianapolis Colts, Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, and Cleveland Browns). Collectively, they have nine games against bottom-10 nERD teams.
The Baltimore Ravens can also make that claim, while facing just five top-10 squads.
The New England Patriots finally catch a break and get the second-easiest schedule of all teams in the NFL by this method, and their 5.99 nERD ranks them fourth in the league. A playoff berth looks likely yet again (our algorithm sees them clinching a postseason spot 77.8% of the time).
Which team could struggle out of the gate or start hot based on their schedule draw? Here's how the schedule looks through Week 8 for these teams.
Like the Giants, the San Francisco 49ers face four top-10 opponents by Week 8's end and get no matchups against the bottom-10 teams in preseason nERD.
The Ravens, on the other hand, could start out the season blazing if Joe Flacco can keep them above water. Five of their first eight opponents are bottom-10 teams, same as the Texans.
Their division rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers, are the only team not to face a top-10 opponent through Week 8, and they get four matchups against bottom-10 teams in the first half of the season.
Let's check out the second half.
The Seahawks kick off the second half with the toughest schedule by a pretty big margin, and they face no bottom-10 teams after their Week 7 bye. The Rams also face no bottom-10 teams after Week 6.
The Jacksonville Jaguars should have a cakewalk after their Week 9 bye, assuming the Colts, Bills, and Dolphins all struggle as expected. No team even comes close to the Jags' second-half schedule.
Offenses and Defenses
This doesn't matter as much for just projecting overall schedule difficulty, but not every team and schedule is made the same. Some teams face great offenses. Some face stout defenses. Why not see who has the best matchups from that perspective?
Using our projected Offensive and Defensive Net Expected Points (NEP) metrics, here is each team's rank in difficulty based on opponent nERD, opponent Offensive Net Expected Points, and opponent Defensive Net Expected Points (as well as passing and rushing defense, which can help for fantasy football purposes).
The Green Bay Packers have a middling schedule overall but face tough defenses, primarily tough pass defenses. They have a great draw against rush defenses and weak overall offenses, however.
The Philadelphia Eagles get an easy go on the ground but do face some tough offenses. Green Bay and Philly have similar schedule strengths, but the opponent composition is wildly different.
Houston's only challenge comes in the form of tough rush defenses. Jacksonville is green across the board, as are Baltimore and Miami.