Last week on Facebook, one of the ubiquitous Dallas Cowboy haters complained that this year the Cowboys benefited from the easiest schedule in football. I responded that the Cowboy schedule, with top-10 opponents San Fran, Seattle, Arizona, and Indianapolis, was a lot more difficult than the schedule for my friend’s infamous Cleveland Browns, with Indianapolis its only top-10 opponent.
Why was Dallas given such a tough row to hoe, while Cleveland was given an easy slide? I vaguely recalled that NFL scheduling was based primarily on a rotating schedule, with some match-up of cellar-dwellers and pennant winners. A quick check of the NFL website confirmed my understanding. Every team plays 16 games as follows:
- Home and away against its three division opponents (6 games).
- The four teams from another division within its conference on a rotating three-year cycle (4 games).
- The four teams from a division in the other conference on a rotating four-year cycle (4 games).
- Two intra-conference games based on the prior year’s standings (2 games). These games match a first-place team against the first-place teams in the two same-conference divisions the team is not scheduled to play that season. The second-place, third-place, and fourth-place teams in a conference are matched in the same way each year.
Cleveland and the AFC North won the lottery this year because they rotated to play one of the worst divisions ever – the NFC South – which has a division leader at 4-7 and a combined won-lost record 17 games below .500. Its other divisional opponent – the AFC South – is only marginally better at 14 games below .500, entirely on the shoulders of its leader, 7-4 Indianapolis. In fact, every team in those two divisions other than Indianapolis has a losing record.
Because Cleveland finished last in its division last year, it was awarded the right to play the two last-place finishers in the other AFC divisions. The cellar-dweller in the West was Oakland, currently 1-10, and, in Cleveland’s only bit of bad luck, the cellar-dweller in the East was Buffalo, which is a surprising 6-5 this year, compared to the East’s current cellar-dweller Jets, who are 2-9.
In sum, the Browns’ non-divisional opponents are 39 games below .500, and that goes a long way toward explaining the Browns’ illusory record of 7-4. That also explains why the preeminent analytical website, fivethirtyeight.com, gives the Browns less than a 25% chance of making the playoffs.
Unless they move up Johnny Manziel. Then all bets are off.