The 2014 opponents for the Arizona Cardinals are known. Aside from two games against each of the division foes (Seattle, San Francisco and St Louis), the Cardinals will host Philadelphia, Washington, Kansas City, San Diego and Detroit. They have road games against Dallas, New York Giants, Denver, Oakland and Atlanta.
On paper, this is a formidable list. Three of the 16 games will be played against the teams who just competed in Super Bowl XLVIII. Two-time opponent San Francisco was just one Richard Sherman tipped pass from being in the Super Bowl. St Louis is improving under Jeff Fisher. Andy Reid’s former team (Eagles) and current team (Chiefs) are on the upswing. So are the Chargers, who really put the pedal to the metal toward the end of the 2013 season. The Giants, Cowboys and Falcons under-achieved in 2013 and have rosters worthy of playoff consideration for the coming season.
Strength of Schedule is one measure of how competitive a schedule will be for an upcoming season. It takes the win-loss percentage from the prior season of all scheduled opponents for the upcoming season. It has the appearance of being statistically valid and has been accepted as a basis to predict future success.
There are, however, limits with this measure. First, while the past is often a good predictor of the future, there are many variables that impact a team’s prior season performance. For example, injuries that caused missed games but are not permanent will reduce a team’s performance in one season but not reflect the potential for the next season. Free agency and draft picks also change the make-up of a team from one season to the next. Progress made by a team over the course of a 16 game season is also under-valued in this measure. Opponents of the Chiefs late in 2013 would not have been as tested as those who faced the Chiefs early in the season. The converse is true for the Steelers, who everyone could beat early in 2013 but presented a far greater challenge as the season moved forward.
Lastly, and perhaps most noteworthy, is the impact of divisional play. The NFC West was for some time viewed to be a joke of a division but the Seahawks, 49ers, Cardinals and Rams are now seen to be the NFL’s version of college football’s SEC. Therefore, the winning percentage of teams in a thriving division will be lower because they play each other two times each season. Just think how much more difficult it is to string together wins when you have to play the Seahawks and 49ers twice than when you have to play the Jaguars and Titans two times during the season.
So where does the Cardinals’ 2014 strength of schedule rank among the NFL? The good news is that the winning percentage of the scheduled opponents is the lowest among the four divisional teams. Seattle, San Francisco and St Louis all have a more difficult strength of schedule than the Cardinals, with St Louis having the third most difficult strength of schedule, San Francisco being at number four, and Seattle having the sixth most difficult in the entire NFL. The bad news is that the Cardinals strength of schedule is number eight in the entire league. Compare that with the Colts, Saints, Bengals, Panthers and Eagles, all of whom made the playoffs this past season, yet have among the easiest strengths of schedule for the 2014 season (Colts at #32, Saints and Bengals tied at #23, Panthers at #22 and Eagles at #20).
To be clear, the NFL’s method for developing the coming year’s schedule is partially driven by creating parody. The more successful a team is in one year, the more likely the scheduled opponents will be difficult in the next season. In that regard, it could be a source of pride to see that the Cardinals have entered the upper echelon but it would be nice if there could be more than one season of a winning culture before being subjected to the NFL’s attempt to create an equalizer.