NFC West: schedule strength

Around the NFC West: No Cards quick fix

November, 5, 2012
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Defeats such as the one Arizona suffered at Lambeau Field in Week 9 can lure a team into thinking victory was near if only a few things had gone differently.

If only receiver Early Doucet had held onto the football. If only quarterback John Skelton had resisted throwing into coverage. If only linebacker Paris Lenon or someone had covered Packers tight end Tom Crabtree. If only the coaching staff had called pass instead of run near the goal line.

If only, if only, if only.

Back to reality: There was no reasonable expectation for a Cardinals victory on the road against Green Bay. There is little reason to expect the Cardinals, in their current form, to threaten the 8-0 Atlanta Falcons on the road in Arizona's next game.

Benching left tackle D'Anthony Batiste for Nate Potter isn't going to transform the offensive line. Benching Doucet for Michael Floyd isn't going to revitalize the passing game. Benching Lenon for Stewart Bradley -- something the Cardinals have not done, but conceivably could consider -- might actually worsen the situation, based on what we saw from both players last season.

These types of moves can promote accountability even if they don't provide significant upgrades in the short term. Teams have relatively few personnel options at this point in a season, however.

The Cardinals' best bet will be to weather the trip to Atlanta following their Week 10 bye, then focus on defeating St. Louis at all costs at University of Phoenix Stadium the following week. Lose both of those games and the path to 4-12 starts coming into focus.

After facing the Rams, Arizona finishes with three of its final five on the road. The two home games are against Detroit (won three of its last four) and Chicago (7-1).

The Cardinals' remaining opponents have posted a 36-21 record (.632) to this point in the season, according to Elias Sports Bureau. Only Detroit (.706) and Minnesota (.690) play tougher schedules from this point forward.

There should be no way to go but up following a drop from 4-0 to 4-5. That is not necessarily the case for Arizona, however.

Tougher road ahead for the NFC West

October, 17, 2012
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Sometimes, it's not who a team faces, but when a team faces them.

As San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh likes to say, you're either getting better or getting worse; you never stay the same. An opponent looking formidable now might have significant issues in a month. A struggling one might be vastly improved by then.

That's important to keep in mind when looking at NFL strength of schedule. We're looking at a snapshot, not a full motion picture.

The chart shows NFC West teams with four of the six hardest remaining schedules by opponents' winning percentage, according to Elias Sports Bureau. The NFC West can partly blame itself for the difficult road ahead. It's the only division with multiple winning teams and no losing teams.

NFC West teams also face the AFC East, which has no losing teams (every team is 3-3), and the NFC North, which has only one losing team.

Denver (.339), Oakland (.355), Kansas City (.364) and San Diego (.393) have the easiest remaining schedules. There's no secret why. They play in the same division and also face teams from the mostly struggling NFC South. All four AFC West teams have played the 6-0 Atlanta Falcons already, another reason the remaining schedules appear easier.

The St. Louis Rams have played the fifth-toughest schedule to this point (.588). San Francisco (.543) has had the 14th-toughest, Arizona the 19th-toughest (.528) and Seattle the 20th-toughest (.471).

The three easiest schedules to this point belong to Atlanta (.353), Baltimore (.371) and New Orleans (.379). The four toughest to this point belong to Dallas (.679), Jacksonville (.643), Carolina (.607) and Green Bay (.606).
The San Francisco 49ers return all their starters from one of the NFL's best defenses.

Others play great defense, too.

The earlier item pointing out what history says about the 49ers' chances for another 13-victory season generated immediate defensive responses via Twitter.

"Thanks, Sando. You're a freaking genius," @in4td wrote.

A sarcastic comment, obviously, and one with some merit. It should be clear that any team finishing 13-3 will be more likely to finish with a worse record the following year. I wanted to provide context to help set expectations. I also realized the headline -- "Bank on it: 49ers heading south in 2012" -- was more provocative than most and would generate some reaction.

Another response, one suggesting the 49ers would face a tougher strength of schedule, was the genesis for the remainder of this entry.

First, the usual disclaimers about schedule strength. How a team finished one season doesn't always indicate how it will fare the next, so there are limitations.

The chart, from ESPN Stats & Information, shows where teams rank in 2012 schedule strength based on 2011 records. The 49ers' success last season partly explains why Arizona, Seattle and St. Louis rank among the top 11 in strength of schedule using 2011 records. The 49ers rank tied for 24th; they obviously cannot play themselves.

The scheduling rotation pits the NFC West against teams from the NFC North and AFC East this season, a change from the NFC East and AFC North last season. The rotation means NFC West teams will face the 15-1 Green Bay Packers and 13-3 New England Patriots. Those teams might not go a combined 28-4 again, but they have been consistently formidable.

Chicago could improve upon its 8-8 mark with Jay Cutler healthy. Minnesota finished 3-13, an unusually poor record that could improve. AFC East teams Miami and Buffalo went 6-10 and could reasonably finish within a couple games of that, either way. And if Jeff Fisher can help the Rams improve markedly from 2-14, schedule strengths for their NFC West rivals and other opponents would toughen up accordingly.

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2011 NFL strength of schedule: Weeks 10-17

November, 10, 2011
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Not that the San Francisco 49ers need any help at this point, but the remaining NFL schedule is on their side.

The 49ers, having built a six-game winning streak against teams outside the NFC West, own the NFL's third-easiest schedule from this point forward. Schedule strength, as calculated by Elias Sports Bureau, reflects winning percentages of remaining opponents.

The 49ers still play games against the 6-2 New York Giants, 6-2 Baltimore Ravens and 6-3 Pittsburgh Steelers. But with two games against 1-7 St. Louis, two against 2-6 Arizona and one against 2-6 Seattle, their remaining opponents have a combined 26-39 overall record (counting records for the Rams and Cardinals twice).

The 49ers can clinch the NFC West title early if they win their next two games, Arizona and Seattle lose their next two and the Rams lose to Cleveland. San Francisco's five-game lead in the NFC West is the NFL's largest after eight games since the 49ers opened the 1990 season with an 8-0 record, Elias notes.

The Rams, like the 49ers, also have five remaining games against NFC West opponents, but instead of facing themselves, they draw two games against 7-1 San Francisco and only one more against Arizona. They have already faced the Giants, Baltimore Ravens, Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints.

NFC North teams own three of the five hardest remaining schedules, largely because they must play one another. Minnesota's record is tied for the toughest because the 2-6 Vikings play each of their division opponents, but not themselves. They also face New Orleans and Atlanta.

Seattle, after facing Baltimore in Week 10, plays four games against teams that currently have losing records, with two of those games against the Rams. Three of the four are at home, giving the Seahawks an opportunity to improve upon their projected 4-12 record.

There are other ways to measure schedule strength, including by how many opponents with winning or non-losing records remain on each team's schedule. I haven't broken down the schedules along those lines. Percentages gives us a good general feel.

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