The NFL’s scheduling-making process is the same every seasons, as the opponents and the divisional rankings are the only variables from year-to-year. For the 2020 season, those opponents were set once the final snap of the 2019 regular season was played. We therefore already know who the New England Patriots will go up against in their quest of trying to recapture the Vince Lombardi Trophy:
- They will play the three teams in their division (twice).
- They will play the three AFC teams who ended 2019 in the same divisional position.
- They will play one entire division in each of the two conferences.
This is the same basic outline for all 32 teams in the NFL and in combination with last year’s regular season standings creates the following pattern for the upcoming season. Teams with the same-colored backgrounds and in the same rows and columns will face off against each other:
The Patriots, courtesy of their first-place finish in the AFC East, will go up against the conference’s other three division winners next season: the Baltimore Ravens (AFC North), the Houston Texans (AFC South) and the Kansas City Chiefs (AFC West). Furthermore, they will take on the western divisions in both the AFC and the NFC as well as their three division rivals from Buffalo, New York and Miami.
Add the home-away-split and you get the following opponents for New England during the 2020 regular season:
Considering that the team will play three games on the West Coast as well as two in Kansas City — against the reigning world champions no less — and Houston, respectively, one can safely say that the Patriots will have a tough stretch of games ahead in the 2020 season.
How tough will it exactly be, however? And how will New England’s slate of games compare to other teams around the league?
The most obvious and popular method of comparing schedule difficulty across the league is by analyzing the basic strength of schedule and find out how many games the future opponents have won in 2019 versus how many they have lost. For the Patriots, this results in a win-loss record of .537 with their upcoming opponents having won a combined 137 games last season compared to 118 losses and one tie.
This win percentage is the highest in the NFL entering the 2020 season. That does not necessarily mean that New England’s upcoming schedule is the toughest in the league, however, considering that there are other ways of evaluating teams: Pro Football Reference’s Simple Rating System, Football Outsiders’ Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) and the Elo-ratings developed by FiveThirtyEight.
Going through it one by one, we can see how the Patriots rank in each of the categories with 1 being the easiest schedule and 32 the hardest. Those league-wide comparisons, meanwhile, are courtesy of Arrowhead Pride’s John Dixon:
- Win-Loss differential: .537 (137-118-1) (32)
- Simple Rating System: 13.3 (12)
- DVOA: 30.8% (11)
- Elo: 1,534.8 (19)
Added up, we get the Patriots’ upcoming slate of opponents rated as the 17th most difficult in the league which graded as a straight C using John’s methodology — far easier than the 32nd-ranked strength of schedule makes it seem at first glance. The reason for that is pretty straight forward: while strength of schedule takes only wins and losses into account, the other systems go deeper into the matter and also include strength of opposition and success relative to the league averages.
New England’s upcoming schedule is therefore not significantly more difficult or easy than others around the NFL. And there is one major factor that needs to be kept in mind whenever talking strength of schedule and the like: no two teams are alike, meaning that the 2020 Patriots will look a lot different than the 2019 Patriots due to free agency and the draft having a huge impact — something that is true for all of the league’s 32 teams.
The calculations to visualize strength of schedule therefore need to be taken with a grain of salt, and only used as a guideline — one that shows that the Patriots will not play the hardest schedule in the league as will surely be mentioned quite a bit over the next few weeks and months.