Which NFL Teams Have Challenging Schedules in 2016?
The NFL released it's schedule for the 2016 season last week, and fans are already starting to project the records of their favorite teams.
Emotional fandom aside, how can we expect the 2016 year to play out mathematically?
We already saw which teams could start and finish strong next season, but who could struggle in 2016 with luck not on their side?
In order to find this, we can look at analyzing each team's schedule and that team's nERD -- which is numberFire's way of quantifying a team's efficiency throughout the season. nERD uses a mathematical formula combined with an advanced algorithm for factoring in situational variables to get a much clearer and more accurate sense of performance. You can read more about the specifics behind nERD in our glossary.
By utilizing each team's nERD rating from last year (available on our power rankings page), we can see which team's schedules line up against more difficult, efficient competition that could make a post-season berth more challenging.
Granted, rosters have altered and changed from the end of last season thanks to free agency, but we can still use last season's efficiency metrics to project relative difficulty.
By breaking down the season into each team's first and last eight games and summing last year's nERD finishes, we can start to visualize who could have a slow start to the season and who could have a difficult final stretch as teams try to fight their way to the postseason.
Which NFL Teams Have A Challenging Start to the Season?
New York Jets
Combined First Half Opponent nERD: 32.60
The Jets have a brutal start to the season in their first eight games. Their first six games come against opponents who finished in the top 12 in nERD last season, before getting a reprieve facing Baltimore (25th) and Cleveland (26th). Five of those six teams made the playoffs last season and will put the Jets' playoff hopes under duress immediately to start the year.
New York's biggest moves this offseason have been retaining Muhammad Wilkerson with the Franchise Tag and acquiring running back Matt Forte. Among all running backs with at least 100 carries, Forte ranked seventh in Total Net Expected Points (NEP) last year. Coupling a difficult schedule and uncertainty looming at the quarterback position, it's hard to foresee the Jets getting off to a good start until any clarity arrives under center.
Combined First Half Opponent's nERD: 26.05
The Dolphins have a tough first month of their schedule, going on the road to face the Seahawks, Patriots, and Bengals. The second set of four games doesn't get much easier, and they face two more top-10 nERD teams in the Steelers and Jets.
Head coach Adam Gase will have his hands full trying to implement his new offense against some difficult defenses early. Unfortunately, things don't get much better for the Dolphins, as they collectively have the second-most difficult schedule over the entire year. Perhaps we should temper our fantasy expectations for Miami's offense.
Combined First Half Opponent's nERD: 22.36
Arizona's first eight games start with a tough home opener against New England and end with back-to-back games against Seattle and Carolina in Weeks 7 and 8. The rest of their opponents are manageable, but those three teams went for a combined 37-11 last season.
We saw last season what a healthy Carson Palmer could bring to the Arizona offense. Now with another offseason of continuity within an offense that finished last year with the top Adjusted NEP, Arizona will need to put together a hot second half to make up for what should be a challenging start to their year.
Which NFL Teams Have A Challenging Finish to the Season?
Combined Second Half Opponent's nERD: 20.37
Playing five of their final eight games against 2015 playoff teams, Oakland will need a hot start if they wish to end their playoff drought in 2016. While we have yet to see what Denver's final moves are at the quarterback position, playing that defense twice is sure to present some challenges for Oakland. Matchups with the Texans, Panthers, and Chiefs will also make it tough for the Raiders in their final stretch of games.
The Raiders' biggest moves this offseason have been on the defensive side of the ball, adding Bruce Irvin, Sean Smith, and Reggie Nelson. Adding Kelechi Osemele should help bolster their offensive line while keeping depth receivers Seth Roberts (five touchdowns last year) and 6'4" Andre Holmes provides some offensive continuity without impacting Oakland's cap space.
Oakland made some smart free agent acquisitions this year, but will it be enough to add to their seven wins from last year? A tough second half schedule doesn't make it any easier.
Combined Second Half Opponent's nERD: 17.86
Seattle's schedule sets up for four opponents in the top-10 in nERD in their final eight games, presenting what could be a challenging second half of their season. Facing what amounts to the fifth-toughest schedule according to last year's records, Seattle needs to take advantage of their less challenging start in order to contend in the rough NFC West.
Losing Marshawn Lynch hurts, but Thomas Rawls proved to be an adept rusher by finishing the season with the seventh-highest Rushing NEP per carry among all running backs. While questions remain along the offensive line, Seattle has a defense capable of keeping them in any game.
New Orleans Saints
Combined Second Half Opponent's nERD: 15.67
The Saints have the third-most difficult end of season schedule, with their second half opponents combining for a 15.67 nERD. Matchups with the Broncos, Panthers, and Cardinals present difficulty, but two matchups with the Buccaneers in Weeks 14 and 16 could provide a boost to a potential wild card spot.
Adding Coby Fleener already has the fantasy community abuzz with anticipation because New Orlean's top tight end has averaged 132 targets over the past five years. A defense that was torched by the pass did nothing to rectify the situation in free agency. Do they have the talent in-house to shut down the offensive playmakers in the NFC South? Time will tell, but their end of season schedule won't be doing them any favors.