NFL Schedule Release: Who Has the Easiest Road?

The NFL released the full 2017 regular-season schedule this week and, as always, it’s thoroughly imbalanced. That’s not a shot at the schedule-makers. It’s the reality of having a 16-game schedule in a 32-team league.

The NFL’s scheduling rules attempt to create some semblance of parity. Division mates all play 14 identical opponents, and the better teams are matched up against each other in the remaining two. But that can only create so much parity, league-wide, and there are also drastic differences in terms of rest/preparation days; certain teams find themselves in the Monday/Thursday primetime slots more often than others.

Who has it best in the 2017 slate, and what are their new Super Bowl odds? Let’s take a look.

The “Lucky” Few: Teams with the Easiest 2017 Schedules

Indianapolis Colts

Opponents’ Winning Percentage: 42.4%

The Colts have the easiest SOS in terms of opponents’ 2016 winning percentage. They also watched their biggest divisional rival, Houston, completely whiff on finding a quarterback in the offseason.

The AFC South teams will face two divisions on the decline: the AFC North and the NFC West. In the games that differ from their divisional opponents, the Colts play two teams with massive question marks: the Bills, who are bringing in a new head coach after a disappointing 2016, and the Broncos, who just lost DeMarcus Ware to retirement, will be starting Trevor Semien or Paxton Lynch at QB, and are also bringing in a new head coach after a disappointing 2016.

If Andrew Luck and the secondary hold up, injury-wise, and they make some small strides on both sides of the line, the Colts have an excellent chance to return to the postseason for the first time since 2014.

Super Bowl 52 odds: 40/1

With Luck coming off shoulder surgery, there is reason for both optimism and caution. He hasn’t looked himself due to lingering shoulder issues the last couple years. Will the surgery put him back to his 2014 self, or will it further weaken an existing problem? Even if Luck is 100-percent, there are other issues … like the entire defense. It’s not the worst unit in the league when fully healthy, but it’s not going to win you any games, either.

Tennessee Titans

Opponents’ Winning Percentage: 43.9%

Surprise, another team from the AFC South! Getting to play a bunch of mediocre (at best) opponents six times a year does wonders for any team’s SOS. The Titans have all the same advantages as the Colts (two games against the Jaguars, plus matchups with the AFC North and NFC West teams), but their other two games (Oakland and Miami) are a little tougher because they finished ahead of Indy last year.

Super Bowl 52 odds: 35/1

If they can shore up the secondary and find a deep threat for Marcus Mariota, this team can do some real damage leaning on its league-best ground game. Two first-round picks in this defensively stacked draft class will help a ton.

Cincinnati Bengals

Opponents’ Winning Percentage: 44.9%

The Jaguars actually have an easier strength of schedule (43.9%) based on 2016 records. But, like the top two teams on this list, that’s largely a product of playing in the abhorrent AFC South. The Jags went 2-4 in the division last year and 1-5 in both 2015 and 2016. There are reasons to like their team coming into the year after a slew of sexy offseason moves. But we said the exact same thing heading into the last two seasons and it’s yet to work out. I’m not going to label Jacksonville a “lucky” team because they have a bunch of games against teams they keep losing to.

So that brings us to the Bengals. The AFC North matches up with the already-maligned AFC South and the middling NFC North. The Bengals get the transitioning Bills and the QB-questionable Broncos in their other two. All in all, it’s a manageable slate. Even if the team doesn’t improve internally, it should better its 6-9-1 record just by virtue of an easier schedule.

Super Bowl 52 odds: 70/1

This team should do better than last year, and might even crack the playoffs in the mediocre middle of the AFC. But they had huge problems on the o-line last year and let arguably their two best linemen go (Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler). A Super Bowl is a pipedream.

New England Patriots

Opponent’s Winning Percentage: 52.7%

Based purely on 2016 records, the Pats have a tough schedule. But ESPN and Football Outsiders dug a little deeper. Using FO’s Defense-Adjusted Value over Average metric (which ranks teams based on their efficiency on offense, defense, and special teams), New England actually has the easiest schedule in the whole league. In other words, the cumulative DVOA ranking of their opponents is the lowest of all 32 teams. DVOA isn’t a perfect metric by any means, but it has proven rather accurate at predicting which teams will regress next season, and it thinks many of the Patriots’ opponents will do so. Thank goodness. It’s high time the Pats caught a break.

Super Bowl 52 odds: 9/2

Most books have New England at around 7/2, but that’s not accurate to their true probability. The books are shortening their odds because the Pats are a public team and people will bet on them at unrealistic odds. That said, they’re still the class of the AFC — the weaker conference — and can basically be penciled in for another AFC Championship Game appearance.


Photo credit: NFL News Desk Admin (flickr) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/].

AlexanderP

Alexander is the MTS editor-in-chief. Frank, Alex, and Geoff brought him in when they realized that their betting expertise far surpassed their grammatical abilities. He loves overanalyzing college basketball trends. Talking to him during the first weekend of March Madness is like talking to a wall. A very focused wall, but a wall nonetheless.