The final piece of the puzzle that charts the course to Super Bowl LV next February is in place as the NFL released its 2020 schedule last Thursday.
The league also took measures that anticipate potential changes that could arise due to the coronavirus which allows for a shortened 14- or 12- game schedule.
Strength of schedule (SOS) has been known since last season ended. The final regular season standings determine each team’s opponents for the next season both home and road. Thus it was widely reported that New England has 2020’s toughest schedule as the Patriots’ 2020 opponents were 137-118-1 in 2019 for a 53.7 winning percentage. Baltimore has the easiest schedule as its 2020 opponents were just 112-144 in 2019 (43.8 percent).
But basing this season’s SOS on last season’s results has a major conceptual flaw. Many experienced bettors prefer to use the Season Win Totals (SWT) for the current season as a better indicator of schedule strength.
Using the SWTs from the Westgate SuperBook results in some major differences from the ‘traditional’ SOS method. Rather than having the NFL’s toughest schedule the Patriots have the 11th toughest using 2020 SWTs. Baltimore’s easiest schedule under the traditional method is tied for the sixth-easiest using SWTs.
But those are far from the most dramatic variances. The most dramatic change involves the New York Giants. The traditional method has the G-men playing the seventh-easiest schedule. But SWT has the Giants with the most difficult schedule with an opponents’ projected record of 138-118 (53.9 percent).
The largest shift the other way involves Detroit. Using 2019’s results for this season’s foes the Lions are tied for the fifth-most difficult schedule. Using the SWT’s of this season’s foes Detroit has the fourth-easiest schedule.
In looking to bet SWTs, the release of the schedule allows us to look for favorable and unfavorable spots for each team that may have the effect of softening a tough schedule or toughening a weak one. Or it could exaggerate a weak or tough schedule. For some teams, the sequencing of their schedule will have minimal impact.
Consider the Giants. The SWT calculation has them with the toughest schedule. What makes the schedule even tougher is how it lays out. Their first four games are all against teams that won at least eight games last season. Five of their next six games are against NFC East rivals with the sixth against up-and-coming Tampa Bay. And those 10 games are before their Week 11 Bye.
No strength of schedule method is perfect. Even SWTs are flawed in that the spread between the lowest SWT (this season it’s Jacksonville at 4.5) and the highest (Baltimore and Kansas City at 11.5) does not reflect what happens in reality.
The current divisional alignment and schedule determination formula has been in place since 2002. In the 18 seasons there have been between three and six teams each season that won at least 12 games and the average is 4.7. There also been between six and 10 teams that have won five or fewer games with an average of 7.6. Excluding the extreme teams of the Ravens, Chiefs and Jaguars, the SWTs for the other 29 teams range from 5.5 to 10.5.
The majority of rosters are set with only a few key free agents still without teams. Training camp will find several veterans released or traded but for the most part current team rosters are such that attacking SWT wagers can be done with a greater degree of confidence than in mid-March when free agency moves, the draft and the schedule flow were still unknown.
And going forward, the biggest random unknown will be injuries and the ability of the impacted teams to deal with them.
Here are some early thoughts on five teams.
Kansas City Over 11.5 (-120): This is all about coach Andy Reid. His Philadelphia teams were 9-4-1 to the Over and he’s a perfect 7-0 to the Over with the Chiefs. Last season’s Wins Total was 10.5 and KC went 12-4.
In a scheduling oddity the Chiefs have seven instances of back-to-back home or back-to-back road games this season and no back-to-back division games.
NY Giants Under 6.5 (-130): Much of the reasoning was explained above. Long one of the most stable of NFL organizations, the Giants have their fourth coach in six seasons with Joe Judge. The Giants have won fewer than six games in five of the last six seasons.
Las Vegas Raiders Over 7.5 (Even): The Raiders improved from four to seven wins in two seasons under coach Jon Gruden with a lack of depth contributing to last season’s 1-5 finish. Those issues have been addressed by GM Mike Mayock. Although the impacts of COVID-19 might mitigate, recall how NHL teams suffered from the “Vegas Flu” on their early trips to Sin City.
Baltimore Ravens Under 11.5 (Even): The Ravens led the NFL with 14 wins last season but lost their lone playoff game. Since becoming coach in 2008, John Harbaugh’s teams have won at least 10 games seven times. Yet last season was their most since 2011 (12). They were 5-1 within the Division and that included two wins over Pittsburgh without QB Ben Roethlisberger.
NY Jets Over 7 (Even): The Jets struggled early last season when QB Sam Darnold missed three early-season games due to injury, all losses. Coach Adam Gase is in his second season and the Jets rallied from a 1-7 start with a 6-2 finish. Darnold and RB Le’Veon Bell got offensive line help in the off-season and the defense was top-seven in both total yards and, more importantly, yards per play.
Week 1 picks
Numerous books have posted lines for Week 1 of the season. A couple have attracted my early attention.
Atlanta Falcons +1 over Seattle Seahawks: Falcons coach Dan Quinn saved his job with a 4-0/6-2 finish after a 1-7 start. Seattle outperformed its stats last season, winning five games by four points or less with only one win by more than one possession. The Falcons are a home ‘dog, always an attractive proposition.
Arizona Cardinals +8 over San Francisco 49ers: The rookie duo of QB Kyler Murray and coach Kliff Kingsbury showed promise last season. Arizona was 5-9-1 but lost two competitive games to the NFC Champs. Will the 49ers struggle much as prior Super Bowl losers have? Perhaps. There’s room for the visiting Cards to be competitive.