If you’re thinking about betting against the Patriots to win the AFC East this season, I have some news for you: This probably isn’t the year to do it, and that’s because not only does New England have the easiest schedule in the division for 2019, but they also have the easiest schedule in the AFC, according to our NFL schedule ratings.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, and yes, New England does seem to have the easiest schedule in the division every year, but that’s not so much a conspiracy as it is that they get to play the Bills, Dolphins and Jets twice per season (Over the past 10 years, the Patriots are 47-13 against the three teams).
With the regular season still three months away, you might be wondering how we already know that the Patriots have the easiest schedule in the division and that’s because we went ahead and ranked all 32 schedules in the NFL, starting with the four teams in the AFC East.
The easiest way to rank each schedule in the NFL is, but we don’t like doing things the easy way around here, plus, that’s not exactly the most efficient way to rate schedule difficulty. Instead, we’ve devised a formula to rank every team’s schedule, because what else are you supposed to do with your time during the dead part of the offseason.
So how does this formula work? Glad you asked.
First, we looked at Super Bowl odds from the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook. Since the oddsmakers in Vegas seem to know what they’re doing, we incorporated their odds into our formula, which is why the Patriots have it so easy this season.
If you look at New England’s schedule, the Patriots only have four games against teams that Vegas views as the top-10 Super Bowl contenders (Chiefs, at Eagles, Steelers, Browns) and three of those will be at home. On the other hand, a team like the Dolphins has to play seven games against top-10 contenders (Patriots x 2, Chargers, at Steelers, at Colts, at Browns, Eagles) and four of those will come on the road.
Another part of the formula is the first three games of the season. Those are going to be weighted slightly more than the other 13 games because they tend to be a good indication of how a team will play throughout the year. Basically, teams that go winless in their first three games almost never make the playoffs.
Since 1990, only four teams have started 0-3 and made the playoffs (1992 Chargers, 1995 Lions, 1998 Bills, 2018 Texans).
On the flip side of that, 3-0 usually means good things in the NFL: From 1990 to 2010, 75.9 percent of the teams that started 3-0 made the playoffs. Those odds drop to 54.9 percent for 2-1 teams and 23.3 percent for 1-2 teams.
This basically means that if your favorite team has a murderer’s row in the first three weeks of the season, you should probably just give up on 2019 and start paying attention to 2020, and yes, I’m looking at you when I say that, Dolphins fans. For one, the Dolphins have no idea who their starting quarterback is going to be in 2019, which isn’t an ideal situation for a team that’s opening the season against three playoff teams from last season (Ravens, Patriots, at Cowboys).
Also, starting off the year with a winning record through the first three weeks has almost become a prerequisite for getting into a conference title game. Over the past four seasons, 15 of the 16 teams that took part in the AFC and NFC title games started the season at 2-1 or better. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re favorite team will make it if they start 2-1, it just means they likely probably make it if they start 1-2 or 0-3.
On the other end of the schedule, the reason the final three games of the season aren’t being given more weight is because the final games don’t always mean the same for everybody, especially when a team is resting its starters. The Saints went 0-3 in their final three games in 2009 and still won the Super Bowl. The Ravens went 1-2 in their final three in 2012 and also won the Super Bowl.
Finally, each individual game on each team’s schedule is also being ranked based on difficulty. For instance, the Patriots open up the season at home against the Steelers, which means they have all offseason to prepare for Pittsburgh. On the other hand, the Dolphins have to play the Steelers on a Monday night in Pittsburgh.
From a strength of schedule standpoint, the game is the same: Both teams are playing the Steelers. However, the Dolphins game is viewed as more difficult in our formula since they’ll be playing a Pittsburgh team that is 13-2 on Mondays under Mike Tomlin and has never lost a Monday game at home with him as coach. Those individual nuances are factored into the schedule ratings.
Alright, that’s enough rambling, let’s get to these rankings.
Oh, and one more thing, here’s how things are going to work: On Tuesdays and Thursdays over the next four weeks, we’ll be going division by division to rank every schedule in the NFL and we’re going to start with the AFC East. That way we can get all our complaints out now about how the Patriots always have the easiest schedule. I mean, Roger Goodell has to know, right? Is he in on it? Just kidding, there’s no conspiracy. I don’t think.
Ranking the AFC East schedules
4. New England Patriots
Schedule difficulty rating: 84.375
Easiest stretch: Based on how their schedule is set up, the Patriots might be able to rest their starters by the end of October. OK, maybe not that early, but don’t be surprised if the Patriots are running away with the division by the time Week 8 rolls around. If New England can survive its opener against Pittsburgh, the Patriots’ easiest stretch of the season will start in Week 2 and go through Week 7, a span where they’ll play six straight games against teams that didn’t have a winning record last season (at Dolphins, Jets, at Bills, at Redskins, Giants, at Jets). The Patriots going any worse than 4-2 in that stretch would be a total shock while 6-0 wouldn’t be a huge surprise.
Roughest stretch: The Patriots better enjoy their easy stretch, because as soon as that ends, they’ll heading into their roughest stretch of the season. Starting in Week 8, the Patriots will host the Browns, followed by four straight games against teams that all made the playoffs last year, with three of those coming on the road (at Ravens, bye, at Eagles, Cowboys, at Texans). The game in Baltimore will be on Sunday Night Football, which isn’t great news for the Patriots, because the Ravens are 10-0 in home prime-time games since 2011.
Weird scheduling note: If you’re wondering how popular the Patriots are compared to the rest of the AFC East, all you have to do is look at the NFL’s prime-time schedule for 2019: The Patriots are currently scheduled to play in more night games (5) than every other team in the division combined (4).
3. Buffalo Bills
Schedule difficulty rating: 85.75
Easiest stretch: The Bills better get off to a hot start in 2019, because three of their most winnable games of the season will come in the first three weeks of the year. Buffalo’s easiest stretch starts in Week 1 with a road game against the Jets. After that, they might want to just hang out at MetLife Stadium for the week, because they have a Week 2 road game against the Giants. After two games in East Rutherford, the Bills will finally get to play a game in Buffalo in Week 3, when they host the Bengals.
Roughest stretch: It’s going to be a rough holiday season for Bills fans and that’s because Buffalo’s roughest stretch of the year starts on Thanksgiving and runs straight to Christmas. During that span, the Bills will be playing four teams that all finished with a winning record last season, and three of those games will be coming on the road (at Cowboys, Ravens, at Steelers, at Patriots). The Bills are going to need a Christmas miracle to get out of that stretch with anything better than a 2-2 record.
Weird scheduling note: The Bills are one of just four teams that won’t get to play their home opener until Week 3. Bills fans also won’t get to set each other on fire at any night time tailgating events this year, and that’s because Buffalo is the only team in the NFL that wasn’t given a prime-time game for 2019. Of course, if the video below is any indication, this is probably for the best.
Definitely for the best.
2. New York Jets
Schedule difficulty rating: 87.125
Easiest stretch: If the Jets can survive the first half of their season without crashing and burning, they might be able to sneak into playoff contention starting in Week 9, thanks to an “easiest stretch” that will last for six weeks. Like the Patriots, the Jets have a stretch on their schedule where they’ll be playing six straight games against teams that finished the 2018 season with a losing record (at Dolphins, Giants, at Redskins, Raiders, at Bengals, Dolphins). Adam Gase probably already has this stretch circled on his calendar, and that’s because it begins and ends with the team that fired him following the 2018 season: The Dolphins. The Jets also will be playing a Giants team that might be dealing with a quarterback controversy by the time that game rolls around, and a Redskins team that could be starting a rookie at quarterback. Not to mention, the Raiders will be making the longest non-international road trip of any NFL team this season when they travel to New York in Week 12, and if we’ve learned one thing about the Raiders over the past few years, it’s that they’re terrible in the Eastern Time Zone. The Raiders have lost four straight games in Eastern time and are just 6-25 in that time zone over the past 10 years.
Roughest stretch: It doesn’t get much rougher than playing the two teams that have combined to win the past three Super Bowls — and playing them on the road — but that’s exactly what the Jets have to do starting in Week 3, and that’s only part of their roughest stretch. The Jets might be out of the playoff hunt before October if they go winless during this stretch, which is completely possible thanks to this nightmare stretch: at Patriots (Week 3), bye (Week 4), at Eagles (Week 5), Cowboys (Week 6), Patriots (Week 7). Before they even get to that four-game stretch, the Jets have to host the Browns in Week 2, a team that is currently tied for the ninth highest odds to win the Super Bowl.
Weird scheduling note: As far as traveling goes, the Jets have the easiest road schedule in the entire NFL this year. Not only will they be(6,730), but the Jets don’t have to leave the Eastern Time Zone for a single game this year.
1. Miami Dolphins
Schedule difficulty rating: 106.5
Easiest stretch: When you have one of the hardest schedules in the NFL, you don’t really get an easy stretch, which is kind of the situation the Dolphins are in this year. Based on our formula, the Dolphins’ easiest stretch will start in Week 14 and end in Week 16. During that time, they’ll play games against the Jets, Giants and Bengals. In a weird coincidence, the Dolphins have the same exact “easiest stretch” as Buffalo. Both teams play in New York for two straight weeks before hosting he Bengals.
Roughest stretch: Even if the Dolphins don’t plan on tanking this season, they might end up tanking anyway due to how difficult their schedule is. Not only is it the hardest in the division, but it’s ranked as the fourth most difficult in the AFC. The upside for the Dolphins is that they get to open with three of their first four games at home. The downside is that they might lose all four of those games because they’re coming against four teams that all made the playoffs last year (Ravens, Patriots, at Cowboys, Chargers). If the Dolphins are 0-4 heading into their Week 5 bye, they might as well spend that free week printing out “We’re Tanking for Tua” t-shirts, because that’s what everyone in Miami will be rooting for to happen if the beginning of the season gets ugly.
Weird scheduling note: The Dolphins better pick a nice hotel near MetLife Stadium, because they’re going to be spending a lot of time there in December. Not only will the Dolphins be playing the Jets on the road this year in Week 14, but they’ll also be playing the Giants at MetLife the very next week. The Bills also get to travel to New York for two straight games when they play the Jets and Giants in Weeks 1 and 2.