Following the official NFL schedule release, we can determine which teams have the easiest and hardest 2023 NFL schedules. With the dates and times of the games now released, we can use our calculations of estimated team strength and take a stab at figuring out who has the easiest and toughest NFL strength of schedule.
Who Has the Easiest Strength of Schedule in the NFL?
The New Orleans Saints have the easiest strength of schedule for the 2023 NFL season, according to these projections. The Saints benefit from being the strongest estimated team in their own division, meaning that they play the easiest combination of NFC South opponents for six of their games as well as the relatively weak NFC North.
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Adding the weakest AFC conference, the AFC South, to their schedule only helps. Their third-place ranking last year in the division also means they face a bottom-tier opponent in the Los Angeles Rams and bottom-half opponents in the New York Giants and New England Patriots.
Who Has the Hardest Strength of Schedule in the NFL?
The New York Giants have the most difficult strength of schedule for the 2023 NFL Season, taking into account the estimated strength of all of their teams. That’s unsurprising, given that they must play two of the toughest NFC teams — the Eagles and Cowboys — twice on top of a top-heavy NFC West.
Though the Giants get to play the Washington Commanders, meaning they should have some respite in their schedule that Washington does not, they lose ground against the Commanders by having the Packers, Raiders, and Saints on their schedule instead of the Bears, Broncos, and Falcons. Additionally, the Giants have some of their more difficult shared games on the road, like the 49ers, Bills, and Dolphins.
Which NFL Division Has the Hardest Combined Schedule?
By estimated point differential, the most difficult schedule belongs to the AFC East. Not only did the Bills and Dolphins demonstrate that they could be Super Bowl contenders with healthy quarterbacks, but the addition of Aaron Rodgers to the New York Jets and some projected improvement for Mac Jones and the Patriots should also mean that they beat up on each other in their intradivisional matchups.
They also all have the NFC East on their schedule, which is estimated to be the second-strongest division overall — so they must play each other and two NFC favorites for the Super Bowl.
Ranking All 32 NFL Teams by Strength of Schedule
1) New York Giants
The Giants’ difficult schedule means they have the best chance of missing the playoffs of any playoff winners from 2022.
2) New York Jets
The Jets are the only team estimated to go from an above .500 team to a below .500 team because of their schedule.
3) New England Patriots
Of all the fourth-place division teams, New England is projected to have the hardest schedule. They lose a home game from the International Series, hurting them even more.
4) Buffalo Bills
The Bills lose the most in potential playoff probability after dropping from 11.6 estimated wins to 10.9 in the toughest estimated division. With a neutral-site game in London, they could lose even more.
5) Miami Dolphins
After the Detroit Lions, the Miami Dolphins have the second-largest difference in home and away difficulty.
6) Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles and the Bills have the hardest schedules of any projected division winners.
7) Los Angeles Rams
The Los Angeles Rams are likely to have the biggest non-quarterback uncertainty in the NFL, with more rookies signed or drafted than any other NFL team.
8) Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers are tied with the Lions for the largest difference in strength between their toughest matchup (Chiefs on the road) and weakest matchup (Bears at home).
9) Dallas Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys may benefit most from quarterback health.
10) Washington Commanders
Sam Howell was the most difficult QB to project, with the fewest available samples for second-year late-round quarterbacks who did not start right away.
11) Seattle Seahawks
Seattle has the most uncertain quarterback schedule, with two games against San Francisco and one game each against Cleveland, Carolina, and Washington.
12) Arizona Cardinals
Of the five teams who hired a new head coach, the Cardinals have the worst projected defense and the most to gain from their defensive head coach hire.
13) Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs are the only team with an estimated win probability over 50% in all of their games.
14) Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos have the second-most “toss-ups” (win probability between 45% and 55%) in the NFL on their schedule, behind the New Orleans Saints.
15) San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers have the strongest estimated team performance in a world where all quarterback performances are set to the same value.
16) Las Vegas Raiders
Along with the rest of the AFC West, the Raiders are projected to play the strongest division in point differential (AFC East) and the weakest (NFC North).
17) Cincinnati Bengals
The Eagles, Jaguars, and Bengals have the hardest strengths of schedule inside their own division despite being the strongest teams in their division.
18) Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings have the largest difference between their estimated wins (7.9) and their 2022 win total (13).
19) Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh has one of the smallest estimated differences in point differential between 2022 and 2023.
20) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa Bay has the second-most “toss-ups” in the NFC after New Orleans.
21) Baltimore Ravens
The presence of Lamar Jackson swung four potential games for the Ravens, taking them into the playoffs.
22) Jacksonville Jaguars
The Eagles, Jaguars, and Bengals have the hardest strengths of schedule inside their own divisions despite being the strongest teams in them.
23) Cleveland Browns
Cleveland can swing from seven wins to 10 depending on which Deshaun Watson they get.
24) Detroit Lions
The Lions have the largest variance in opponent strength from week to week.
25) Tennessee Titans
The Titans, along with the Saints and Packers, are one of the three teams to go from a below .500 team to an above .500 team because of their schedule.
26) Chicago Bears
Despite an easy schedule, the Chicago Bears are the only team without a single game on their schedule with an over 50% estimated chance of winning.
27) Carolina Panthers
The Panthers have the most to gain from model uncertainty, with their quarterback swinging outcomes more dramatically than any other team.
28) Houston Texans
Houston has the easiest schedule in the AFC if it weren’t for international games, but the Colts had an away game turn into a neutral site.
29) Indianapolis Colts
Indianapolis doesn’t have a greater than 50% win probability in any of their away games.
30) Green Bay Packers
After New Orleans, the Packers have the second-friendliest away schedule.
31) Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons have the easiest home schedule in estimated point differential and the smallest difference in strength between their strongest opponent and weakest opponent.
32) New Orleans Saints
The Saints have gained one estimated win based solely on their schedule vs. a schedule of average teams.
Are Strength of Schedule Projections Accurate?
Using last year’s point differential, accounting for game location, quarterback changes, and luck-dependent events like fumble recovery rate, we can calculate a roughly estimated strength for each team based on their projected performance against an average opponent on neutral ground.
This method has done a better job of backcasting previous seasons than pure win total or point differential and is on par with models like DVOA. Nevertheless, so much uncertainty has to be baked into the model that no team is estimated to get below 5.5 wins or above 11.8 wins, even though that happens for multiple teams every season. This is a reason that every strength of schedule projection is inaccurate.
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Our model accounts for more than just a team’s record from the previous season. We take into account whether or not a team was the beneficiary of unsustainably bad or good luck – like through fumble luck, special teams production, turnover production and close-game record.
We also account for quarterback changes – teams like the New Orleans Saints and the New York Jets are going to be a bit different when they get to improve at quarterback. For teams planning to start rookies or players without a strong history of play, we project their performance based on the round they were drafted in and the number of years they’ve been rostered in the NFL.
In addition, the model contains adjustments for the historical increase in performance for teams coming off of bye weeks, decreased performance after consecutive road trips and the estimated loss for long travel distances as well as the time zone effects of traveling west for late games and traveling east for early games. There is also a small effect applied to teams from warm climates or who play indoors scheduled to play on the road against outdoor stadium teams in December and January.
This method doesn’t account for all offseason changes, so it likely underestimates teams like the Bears, who had a strong free agency. It also does not attempt to assign any value to the draft except at quarterback, where it gives those QBs the average performance of historical prospects drafted in their range.
The distance and time zone effects aren’t linear and the marginal change is smaller with increasing distance – the difference between a 500-mile trek and a 1000-mile trek is larger than the difference between a 1000-mile trek and 1500-mile trek.
For teams traveling to London, there is no “distance” penalty applied – both teams have to travel over 3000 miles round-trip – except in the case of teams playing against Jacksonville, who have demonstrated a fairly consistent home-field advantage there. In this case, the distance is equivalent to a cross-country trip.
Not every unique situation can be accounted for, but there are edge cases. The good news is that unique situations – like a team having consecutive road trips to visit both Los Angeles teams choosing to stay in the city – have fairly small impacts.
It is also possible it underestimates teams like the New York Jets, where their change in quarterback is more dramatic than the model can account for. It may also underestimate the Cleveland Browns, as the model takes a three-year average of quarterback performance, with more weight applied to their most recent season. It might be reasonable to believe Watson is more likely to perform closer to an MVP level of play.
For players like Desmond Ridder, Jordan Love, and Sam Howell, where we have a low sample of their regular-season performance, they get credit for the average rookie quarterback drafted in their range plus a small bonus for sitting on the bench for some time.
Nevertheless, we can gather from the broad strokes that both the NFC East and AFC East are going to slog through some difficult matchups.