One of the criticisms the New England Patriots dynasty has faced over the past few years is the quality of its opponents: playing in the AFC East, the argument goes, the team is gifted an automatic six wins every single season. While it is true that the Patriots have dominated their division in unparalleled fashion since the dawn of the salary cap era in the mid-1990s, the argument simplifies the entire topic and devalues the Patriots’ rivals and their success.
However, it is one that will not go away soon. As long as New England resides on or near the NFL’s mountaintop, critics will find a way to use the team’s path there as an argument to somehow delegitimize its success. A recent article by Football Outsiders’ Aaron Schatz published as an In$ider story on ESPN.com will therefore only add fuel to the fire: it argues that the Patriots have the easiest schedule in the league.
This statement is reached by comparing team projections across the league via the DVOA- analytics system. To break it down in the simplest terms, DVOA — short for defense-adjusted value over average — takes a look at every single play and compares the scenario to similar ones across the NFL in order to find out which teams are the most efficient and successful in any given scenario.
Using this methodology, Football Outsiders calculated that New England’s schedule projects to be quite the easy one in 2018. Displayed in percentages deviating from zero into the plus and minus range, the Patriots’ opponents are projected to have a DVOA of -4.1% this season: the Patriots’ average opponent is 4.1% worse than the average team in the league – which makes for clearly the worst schedule in the NFL.
What does not help the Patriots’ strength of schedule as calculated by Football Outsiders is the fact that New England will in fact face some bad teams from a year ago: the Indianapolis Colts, New York Jets, and Chicago Bears were all among the worst teams in football a year ago and do not project to be much better in 2018. Simultaneously, teams like the Buffalo Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars are candidates to take a step back.
This element of projection is part of the calculation as well, and could very well turn out to be wrong. But putting all things together, the gist is that the Patriots’ schedule appears to be a rather favorable one this season. Until the first few games are played, however, and teams start to establishing themselves as contenders and pretenders, it will be impossible to tell whether or not this holds true.
One thing that seems to be a certainty, though: no matter the circumstances and opponents, no team in the league has proven to be as successful over the past few years when it came to adapting and facing challenges than the Patriots. They play and most of the times win, no matter the opponent and its projected strength.