As promised, I am going to endeavor to post twice a week here, hopefully on Tuesday and Friday each week.
Today I am going to discuss one of the biggest myths and misconceptions about the NFL. The schedule ranking. By that I mean that the NFL, in order to promote parity and keep fans hopeful that their team can turn it around (sorry to any Detroit / Arizona fans out there who root for the teams that disprove that rule) use two major facets to facilitate the evening out. The draft and the following year's schedule. We have already looked at the draft, and it is a general rule that the worse a team is in any given year, the higher up their draft position is that off-season. The thing that the NFL does that others don't is choose who a team is going to play based on their final standing in their division. Because of this, you will hear pundits all over talk about how a team is playing a "3rd place schedule" or a "1st place schedule". And that is true. But it doesn't mean crap.
The NFL has 32 teams. These teams are broken up into 2 conferences (the National Football Conference and the American Football Conference, homages to when they were the NFL and the AFL - American Football League - before they merged into one league under the name NFL). Each conference is broken up further into 4 divisions (the North, South, East, and West divisions of each conference). Each division has 4 teams. Simple, straight, and to the point, right?
Every team plays 16 regular season games. Every team plays the other three teams in their division 2 times, one home game and one away game. That is a total of 6 games, leaving 10 left unaccounted for. Every season each conference plays one game a piece against all 4 teams from another division in their own conference and one division from the other conference, on a rotating schedule. By that I mean that in 2007, the Ravens played all 4 teams from the AFC East (Miami, NY Jets, Buffalo, and New England) and the NFC West (San Francisco, St. Louis, Arizona, and Seattle). Last year the Ravens played the AFC West (Denver, San Diego, Oakland, and Kansas City) and the NFC South (Tampa Bay, Atlanta, New Orleans, and Carolina). In 2005 the Ravens played the AFC South (Indianapolis, Tennessee, Jacksonville, and Houston) and the NFC North (Detroit, Chicago, Green Bay, and Minnesota). So by that paradigm, we will be playing the AFC South and the NFC East in 2008 (there are 3 options in the AFC to rotate through versus 4 in the NFC, since we always play our own division). That takes away 8 more games, leaving 2. The last 2 games are going to be against the 2 teams in the AFC (since the Ravens are in the AFC) that finished in the same place in their division as the Ravens in the divisions that the Ravens are not scheduled to play this year. In other words, in 2008 the Ravens are going to play the 4th place teams in the AFC East and the AFC West. So as far as the schedule goes, there is only a 2 game difference between the Ravens and their divisional opponents. Now that being said, 2 games is a big deal in a 16 game schedule. But it isn't the be-all end-all overriding decision maker in a season that many make it out to be. The Ravens play in the AFC North, ended the season 5-11 and will be playing the following teams next year:
Now look at the schedule for the Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6, first in the AFC North):
Besides the fact that they play each other, the schedule is virtually the exact same schedule. The biggest difference will be who the teams get to play at home versus playing away, except for the home and home versus each of their divisional foes. And there is no set rotation of getting to play a certain team at home versus playing them on the road, as evidenced by the Ravens having to travel TO Washington to play the Redskins in both 2000 and 2004, with no other meetings between the teams in the regular season in between or since.
In reality, strength of schedule is more a product of the relative strength or weakness of your particular division and the division that you are playing. For instance, in 2007 the AFC South had 3 teams make it to the playoffs, had no team finish with a record below .500, and ended with a cumulative record of 42-22, while the AFC East had only one team make it to the postseason and had a cumulative record of 28-36. And since one team had 16 of those wins and none of the losses, it shows that the AFC East is a weaker overall conference. As far as the AFC North goes, it got one team in the playoffs, one team that had the same record as one of the playoff teams but missed the postseason due to tiebreakers, and ended with a cumulative record of 32-32.
So while the Ravens DO have a 4th place schedule in 2008, it doesn't necessarily translate into helping them have a better season. And THAT, my friends, is the true definition of parity.