Taking it easy in 2009
The end of the NFL season gave my colleagues over in ESPN Stats & Information a chance to compile official strength of schedule for the 2009 season. The Reader's Digest version: The Detroit Lions have effectively bombed what already was a suspect statistic.
Largely because the Lions finished 0-16, the NFC North will feature the three "easiest" schedules in the NFL next season. Because the statistic is based on opponents' winning percentage for the previous year -- and because they each play the Lions twice -- the Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears pull up the rear on the 2009 list.
The Bears play a division-high seven games against 2009 playoff teams, but the combination of their games against the Lions, Cincinnati, San Francisco and St. Louis conspired to drive their opponents' winning percentage to .414.
Here is the full list:
I've never understood the allure of the strength of schedule chart, especially in a league where fortunes can turn wildly on a yearly basis. Maybe you can safely say that the team at the top of the list will have a tougher task than the team at the bottom of the list. I don't know if you can even say that for 2009 because of the Lions' skewed contribution.
The NFC North will play the AFC North in 2009, meaning each Black and Blue team will have to face both participants in the AFC Championship Game: Pittsburgh and Baltimore. And while we're on the topic of the Steelers, we should point out they won Super Bowl XLIII with the most difficult schedule in the NFL based on 2008 strength of schedule.
For me, it's more interesting to take a look at the postseason strength of schedule. That statistic is compiled based on the combined records of each team's opponents through the course of the season in which they played. For example, the Steelers' 2008 opponents had an NFL-high .598 winning percentage in 2007. But during the season, those teams' winning percentage was .525, the seventh-highest in the league.
In 2008, Cleveland faced the most difficult schedule based on its opponents' final records. Detroit was second. Interestingly, the Bears had the "easiest" schedule; their opponents had a .475 winning percentage. While there are still some flaws, this list provides better context for determining how tough a schedule was: