Even with a 17th game added as part of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the NFL’s scheduling-making process is basically the same every season. A significant portion of future opponents is already known in advance, while divisional standings are the only variable from year-to-year.
For the 2021 season, 16 of 17 opponents were set once the final snap of the 2020 regular season was played. The 17th opponent was added after the move to a 17-game schedule earlier during the offseason. We therefore already knew who the New England Patriots would go up against in their quest to bounce back from a disappointing 7-9 campaign in Year 1 after Tom Brady:
- They were scheduled to play the three teams in their division (twice).
- They were scheduled to play the three AFC teams who ended 2020 in the same divisional position.
- They were scheduled to play one entire division in each of the two conferences.
- They were scheduled to play one NFC team that ended 2019 in the same divisional position.
This is the same basis for all 32 teams’ schedules. In combination with the regular season standings from previous years, the system therefore creates a clear outline for each upcoming season.
The Patriots, courtesy of their third-place finish in the AFC East, already knew they would go up against the conference’s other three third-place teams: the Cleveland Browns (AFC North), Los Angeles Chargers (AFC West) and Houston Texans (AFC South). Furthermore, they were to take on the southern divisions in both the AFC and the NFC as well as their three division rivals from Buffalo, New York and Miami.
Additionally, the Dallas Cowboys, who ended the 2019 season as third-place finisher in the NFC East, were included in the mix as team No. 17. Add the home-away-split and you get the following opponents for New England during the 2021 regular season, with the week of the upcoming matchup in parentheses:
Patriots home opponents: Miami Dolphins (1), New Orleans Saints (3), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4), Dallas Cowboys (6), New York Jets (7), Cleveland Browns (10), Tennessee Titans (12), Buffalo Bills (16), Jacksonville Jaguars (17)
The league revealed the order in which the Patriots would go up against those teams on Wednesday, and they will open and end the regular season versus the Dolphins. In between, they will face some high-quality competition: from Tom Brady and the reigning world champion Buccaneers, to the AFC runner-up Bills, to four additional playoff games.
Just how tough will New England’s schedule really be, though? And how does 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 2020 versus how many they have lost. For the Patriots, this results in a win-loss record of .489 with their upcoming opponents having won a combined 133 games last season compared to 139 losses.
This win percentage is the ranked 21st in the NFL entering the 2021 season. That does not necessarily mean that New England’s upcoming schedule is the 21st hardest/12th easiest in the league, however. Every team looks quite different than it did last season, after all, and the Patriots are a drastic example of this: they were big spenders in free agency, and might even field a new starting quarterback this year.
While other clubs may not have had the same level of roster turnover, the gist is the same: measuring a schedule’s difficulty based on the previous season is a rather inexact science given how much changes in the NFL on a yearly basis.
That said, there are mechanisms to evaluate how hard a team’s upcoming schedule is that do put those changes into account.
ESPN’s Mike Clay, for example, uses his roster strength evaluations to predict future success and thus schedule strength. In his prognosis, the Patriots will face just the 27th hardest/6th easiest schedule in the NFL this season. Interestingly enough, the teams ranked with even easier slates are all on their own schedule as well: the Buccaneers, Falcons, Bills, Jets and Dolphins are ranked 1-5 in Clay’s analysis.
Another method used to determine strength of schedule is forecasted win totals. Take the following graphic shared by Sharp Football Analysis:
When measuring schedule difficulty based on how many games an opponent is expected to win during the upcoming season, we can see that the Patriots drop quite a bit from Mike Clay’s outlook: under this projection, they have the 16th hardest/17th easiest schedule in the league.
As can be seen, the Patriots’ schedule is ranked as the 12th hardest/21st easiest in the league in this prognosis. Once again, however, they are trailing their three division rivals in this category: based on all three projections outlined above, the Bills, Dolphins and Jets will have an easier road through the upcoming season.
While those projections paint a more accurate picture than simple win-loss references, they are still not able to fully capture the challenges of an NFL season. Injuries cannot be predicted, while other factors outside of a mathematical scope are equally impossible to foresee.
Then, there are scheduling quirks as well. Take the fact, for example, that the league’s schedule makers have decided to give the Patriots the worst net rest-day differential in the league: throughout the year, their opponents have a combined 15 more days to rest than they do. The fact that New England will face a league-leading three teams coming off their bye weeks plays a significant role in this.
At the end of the day, all the calculations and projections meant to visualize strength of schedule have to be taken with a grain of salt, and only be used as a guideline. There are too many variables at play to make accurate predictions about which teams will really have the hardest or easiest schedules in 2021. Whether the Patriots are ranked 12th, 17th or somewhere else entirely therefore does not matter.
What matters is how they will be able to perform relative to the talent that they and their opponents have available. The rest will sort itself out.