NFL schedule-making is pretty straight-forward. After all, it’s basically the same every year.
Even with a 17th game added to the equation last season as part of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, a significant portion of future opponents is already known years in advance. Essentially, divisional standings are the only variables in this process.
As a result of this, the New England Patriots already knew all of their 2022 opponents by the end of the 2021 regular season:
- They knew they would play the three teams in their division (twice).
- They knew they would play one entire division in each of the two conferences.
- They knew they would play the other two AFC teams who ended 2021 in the same divisional position.
- They knew they would play an additional NFC team that ended 2021 in the same divisional position.
This basis is the same for all of the league’s 32 teams. In combination with the regular season standings from the previous year, the system therefore creates a clear outline for each upcoming season.
The Patriots, courtesy of their second-place finish in the AFC East, already knew they would go up against the conference’s other three second-place teams: the Pittsburgh Steelers (AFC North), Indianapolis Colts (AFC South) and Las Vegas Raiders (AFC West). Furthermore, they would take on the Northern divisions in both the AFC and the NFC as well as their three division rivals from Buffalo, New York and Miami.
Additionally, the Arizona Cardinals, who ended the 2021 season as second-place finisher in the NFC West, were included in the mix as team No. 17. Add the home-away-split and you get a 2022 regular season schedule that looks as follows:
Official.— Pats Pulpit (@patspulpit) May 13, 2022
Here’s how they’ll play ‘em pic.twitter.com/M29WjVy14q
The league revealed that schedule on Thursday night, and on the surface it looks quite daunting. While the middle portion could see the team build some momentum, starting with three of four on the road and facing some of the best teams in the league down the stretch makes for a difficult slate of games.
Is the Patriots’ schedule really as tough as it looks, though? And how does it compare to other teams around the league? Let’s find out.
The most obvious and popular method of comparing across the league is analyzing the basic strength of schedule and finding out how many games the future opponents won in 2021 versus how many they lost. For the Patriots, this results in a win-loss record of .498: their upcoming opponents won a combined 144 games last season compared to 145 losses.
That win percentage is ranked 16th in the NFL heading towards the 2022 season. That does not necessarily mean that New England’s upcoming schedule is the 16th hardest/17th easiest in the league, however. Every team looks quite different than it did last season, which makes the traditional strength of schedule a pretty useless tool to work with.
That said, there are mechanisms to analyze 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.
The 2022 NFL schedule is here! Here’s the entire slate in grid form, ordered by strength of schedule (based on my assessment of current rosters) pic.twitter.com/J7e3zqJCni— Mike Clay (@MikeClayNFL) May 13, 2022
Clay’s analysis is certainly more useful than traditional strength of schedule simply because it does put into account the turnover each team experiences on a year-to-year basis. The Patriots, who lost starters at cornerback and along the interior offensive line, among others, will face the sixth hardest/27th easiest schedule in the NFL this season based on this evaluation.
Of course, that is not the only method to assess how challenging a schedule is. Another is adding forecasted win totals to the equation and ranking teams based on how many the oddsmakers believe they will end up winning.
Sebastian Carl, co-creator of the play-by-play analysis tool of nflfastR, did just that and created the following graphic to illustrate his findings:
Now that the #NFLSchedule has been released, want to know how tough your team will have it this season? Let's look at the strength of schedule with Vegas win totals.— Sebastian (@mrcaseb) May 13, 2022
(Data from @DKSportsbook, @FDSportsbook, and @BetMGM via @RotoWireNFL) pic.twitter.com/lAasPlr9iB
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 are near the bottom of the league once again. Carl’s analysis has them with the seventh hardest/26th easiest schedule in football.
What this essentially means is that New England is projected to go up against a lot of successful teams in 2022. Based on their opponents — including the reigning AFC champions (Cincinnati) and the current Super Bowl favorites (Buffalo) — it is no stretch of the imagination to indeed foresee something like that.
The roster quality and win total rankings are all based on projections, though. That cannot be said about the following analysis conducted by NFL data scientist Tom Bliss:
Here, teams are not listed based on thinking what will happen in 2022 but rather relative to the schedule itself. The question at its heart is this: did they gain or lose any advantage simply because of when a game is played?
The Patriots are near the bottom of the list yet again, mainly because of some “short rest disadvantages.” Those are defined as one to four days difference in rest between a team and its upcoming opponent. While the pendulum does swing the other way as well, the overall picture is again not a pretty one for New England.
Of course, a difference in rest can only lead to that big a difference in score; other factors have a much more direct impact on wins and losses in the NFL.
That is a general truth as far as strength of schedule analysis is concerned. While some projections paint a more accurate picture than others, 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.
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 2022.
Whether the Patriots are ranked near the bottom of the league or somewhere else entirely does therefore 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.
With all that said, however, is New England’s schedule really as tough as it looks? Based on what we know right now the answer to that question probably falls into the “yes, but...” category. That’s just the nature of NFL analysis in mid-May.