We cannot all be the Baltimore Ravens, who, depending on how you look at it, would only have to board three flights all season long if they really wanted to in 2020 (Houston Week 2, Indianapolis Week 9, Pittsburgh Week 12). I don’t believe much in the common strength of schedule metric (technically the Ravens have the easiest schedule in the league based on average winning percentage of 2019) but look more at the toll a schedule takes on a team throughout a long season. Are there pockets of winnable games stacked together? How friendly is the bye week location? In that way, Baltimore lucks out given their NFC East pairing, which gives them road games in nearby Philadelphia and Washington. They also don’t face off against a single team coming off a bye week.
Compare this with the Raiders last year, who had to travel more than 30,000 miles in the air compared to the troika of New York teams who had to travel less than 25,000 miles combined. This isn’t always an indicator of success or failure—I’d argue that the Raiders outperformed expectations slightly—it’s just something to take into consideration.
San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers play in the most competitive division in football, which will only get better in 2020 thanks to a strong offseason in Arizona. So, on top of the fact that they play Seattle, Arizona and the Rams twice a year, they were gut punched with the dreaded back-to-back cross-country road games against the Jets and the Giants. Normally this would not be a huge deal. Teams tend to stay out on the East Coast in between games and acclimate to the time zone shift. But in the age of COVID-19, this is going to be exceptionally difficult. Let’s assume the season begins on time, putting the 49ers in New York and New Jersey (the epicenter of the pandemic) between Sept. 20 and Sept. 27. Are we confident that an area—New Jersey specifically, given that the stadium is there and the percentage of cases is a bit lower than New York—that has seen 133,000 total cases so far will be hospitable enough for a large group of players and personnel to visit and stay safely with little concern? The NFL’s semi-collapsable schedule allows for some respite here if games need to be moved, but at the least, this is somewhat of a logistical nightmare.
This is an interesting one given that, by strength of schedule, Dallas has the third-easiest slate in the NFL. However, I don’t see many pockets on their schedule that provide a soft landing spot if they’re in a rough patch (not uncommon with a new head coach). In fact, I don’t count a single two-game stretch that would automatically lead me to pencil in a pair of wins for the Cowboys without thinking twice.
The Cowboys start the season with road trips to Los Angeles (Rams) and Seattle within the first three weeks (their home game is against the Falcons). Within the first eight weeks they have three prime time games followed by another stretch of three prime time games in four weeks at the end of the season (counting the Thanksgiving matchup at 4:25).
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
If I’m Jason Licht, I’m printing out the analysis Brian Burke and the analytics team at ESPN did on this year’s schedule and slamming it on the commissioner’s desk. Perhaps this is just the cost of doing business when you sign the greatest player of all time, but this schedule is brutal for a team hoping to maximize the twilight years of a 43-year-old passer and recently unretired tight end. The Buccaneers are tied with the Bills for the most short-rest weeks this season (five), which, as Burke notes, is the most for any team since the 2010 Vikings. Also working against the Buccaneers, the fact that they lead the league in games in which an opponent comes in having more rest.
Bill O’Brien has pulled his teams out of big holes before, but the beginning of their 2020 season is an absolute gauntlet: at Chiefs, Ravens, at Steelers, Vikings, Jaguars, at Titans, Packers. If things go horrifically wrong (and, given the team’s rocky offseason, would that be a surprise?) it wouldn’t be a total stunner to see Houston with only two or three wins heading into their Week 8 bye. A schedule realignment might help matters but Houston will also be battling a division that improved this offseason with the Colts adding Philip Rivers. Houston split the series with the Colts last year, with each game decided by three points. It’s difficult to argue that the Colts did not get demonstrably better this offseason, while the Texans have treaded water at best. At worst, they got rid of one of the best receivers of his generation.
New York Jets
The Jets have the second-hardest strength of schedule by 2019 opponent winning percentage, though that doesn’t really tell the entirety of their story. Like Dallas, this schedule offers almost zero respite, with their “easiest” games coming against the Dolphins in back-to-back weeks with a bye sandwiched in between. Assuming the schedule progresses as planned, the Jets could face the unenviable task of facing Ryan Fitzpatrick one week and Tua Tagovailoa the next, given how late in the season the games occur. Also, as Warren Sharp noted, teams rarely sweep these back-to-back series. The Jets have back-to-back road games at the end of the season against the Seahawks and Rams, which is a brutal schedule flaw. Their home slate is also peppered with talented opponents.
JetsCountry: The Jets will make three trips to the West Coast.
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