Nov. 04, 2012; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (12) hands off to teammate Vick Ballard (33) during first half action against the Miami Dolphins at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports
Every year someone makes the mistake, a common and quite forgivable one. You may even hear it from the broadcast booth of an NFL game, possibly even a Colts game: “Well, Bob, their schedule is going to be a lot tougher this time around because they won a lot of games last year.” While there was once some truth to that assumption, many of you well-versed football fans are quite aware that it’s no longer the case.
The idea that NFL teams face weighted schedules in the name of parity has become a bit of a myth. Indianapolis’s strength of schedule last year, coming off an oppressively bleak 2-14 finish, ranked 14th before the season, at 128-128; hardly a murders’ row, but certainly not the soft schedule many believe is afforded to a team that finished last in the league.
As we know, the Colts orchestrated a dramatic turnaround in 2012, finishing their storybook season 11-5 (oddly the first 11-5 record for Indianapolis) and making a brief playoff appearance. The myth says they will face a tougher slate of teams this year, when in actuality, the Colts 2013 opponents have a worse combined record than last season.
The reason for the misconception is that it used to be right. From 1988-2001 with a small tweak here and there, NFL teams played four games each year that were weighted based on their (and their opponents’) rankings and records from the year before. A team that finished first in their division would play the first and second place finishers from one division and the first and third place teams from another. A franchise that finished at the bottom of what would have been a five-team division played four games against teams that finished third, fourth, and fifth in their respective divisions.
Thus, a quarter of a team’s regular season contests were decided by the previous year’s standings. A losing team would view those four potentially winnable matchups with opportunism. Winning all four, or three plus an upset of a winning team, could bridge the gap between 6-10 and 10-6. On the other hand, for a young team coming off a breakout season, the stiffer competition served as a chance to prove they belonged at the top.
Since the league changed to eight four-team divisions in 2002, the system has been very different. There are now 14 predetermined games on each team’s schedule: six divisional matchups, four games against another division in the conference, and four against a non-conference division. Last season, the Colts and the rest of the AFC South played against the AFC East and the NFC North. This year, they will take on the AFC West and the NFC West (yep, Luck’s old coach in San Francisco, and of course, Peyton Manning).
The remaining two slots are what is left of the “parity” games, which are against teams in the same conference that finished the same in their respective divisions. Last season, Indianapolis played against 2011 division bottom feeders Cleveland (4-12, 4th, AFC North) and Kansas City (7-9, 4th AFC West). This season, they will face fellow second place finishers, Cincinnati (10-6, 2nd, AFC North) and Miami (7-9, 2nd, AFC East).
With just two games determined by records, there is an even greater focus on how teams stack up against their division and common opponents thereof. Though the NFL season is short, magnifying the importance of each game, the reduced weighted scheduling is not as likely to propel a losing team into the playoffs, or result in a letdown for a team coming off a turnaround like the Colts.
In fact, although it means little once the games are actually played, the Colts have the NFL’s third weakest strength of schedule for 2013, at 117-137-2. This is due in large part to four games against the Titans and Jaguars as well as a home game against the Raiders and another trip to Kansas City.
The Denver Broncos, last year’s top playoff seed, have the league’s “easiest” strength of schedule, with opponents who went 110-146 in 2012, while, according to NFL.com, the toughest slate of opponents (138-116-2) belongs to the Carolina Panthers, who went 7-9 last season.
Despite the overall record of Indy’s opponents, six of their games will be against 2012 playoff teams (Houston twice, Denver, San Francisco, Cincinnati, and Seattle). Only one of those, Cincinnati, is a parity game. Thus, as we approach a very important offseason in Indianapolis, leading up to what should be an exciting year of football; the myth of parity scheduling should receive neither full blame nor credit for how the Colts finish in 2013. For now, at least, they are the owners of their destiny.
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