ESPN: Schedule has big impact on playoff race

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Jul 6, 2005
The NFL schedule always has and it always will mean everything in determining the playoff teams and the eventual Super Bowl participants.

Even though the realignment of the league into eight four-team divisions in 2002 turned the schedule-making process into more of a lottery than a strategy to create parity, the results are still the same. The teams that end up with the easy schedules have a distinct advantage, and that will never change. But cycles will change the divisions and conferences that will be strong or weak.

Last year, for example, the NFC was so down as a conference that everything was askew. The AFC dominated the NFC, winning 44 of 64 interconference games, and every AFC playoff team went either 3-1 or 4-0 against the NFC, an advantage that could turn a .500 team to a 10-6 team.

Improvements in the NFC South and East this year balanced the scales between the two conference somewhat, but the poor state of affairs in the NFC North and the NFC West should make a few things predictable:

• Expect home-field advantage in the AFC to come from the North (matched up against the NFC North) and the South (drawing four games each against the NFC West).

• The AFC wild cards also should come out of the North and South. The Bengals already are 2-0 against NFC North teams. In the NFC, the South has the advantage of playing the NFC North. The Bucs are already 3-0 against NFC North teams. The NFC East is feasting on the NFC West with a 5-0 start.

Those are the realities of life in the NFL and it won't change. The NFL can do only so much to create competitive parity. No league does a better job of coming up with competitive tweaks to create a sport in which 32 teams have a chance to win. Drafts are stacked to give the weaker teams higher picks. The salary cap guards against too much stockpiling of talent. But, there is only so much a league can do.

Since the divisions realigned in 2002, the NFC North and NFC West have been the NFL's homecoming guest. Everyone wants them on their schedule. From 2002 to 2004, the NFC North and West have been 18 games below .500 against the rest of the league (51-69). The North is 1-9 out of division this season and the West is 2-6.

In 2006, the rotation will give the NFC North and NFC West a break. They get to play each other. How much does that help? The only time an NFC North or West team had a winning record outside of the conference was in 2003 when the West, thanks to a 9-7 record against the North, finished 21-19 outside of the division games. The Rams went 12-4 and the Seahawks made the playoffs at 10-6.

Dick Vermeil of the Chiefs has talked about schedules for years. He studies schedules and knows the benefits of an easy schedule and the difficulties of a hard schedule. His theory is simple: You don't have to be better than .500 against winning teams to go to the Super Bowl and win. The key is not having too many games against winning teams.

Look at the Patriots, whose Super Bowl run could be foiled by a ridiculously hard schedule. Bill Belichick won't use schedule or injuries as a reason for the Patriots' 2-2 start, but everyone who follows the Patriots knows how hard it has been. After their opening victory over the Raiders, the Patriots faced a five-game, non-division schedule of Carolina, Pittsburgh, San Diego, Atlanta and Denver. Elias Sports determined this five-game stretch to be the toughest in history. Those five teams won 55 games last year, an average of 11 wins per team.

The drain on the team has been immense. Against the Steelers, the Patriots lost left tackle Matt Light, halfback Kevin Faulk, strong safety Rodney Harrison and defensive end Marquise Hill. New England's injury list during this brutal stretch of game has been 12 to 14 deep.

The Patriots have to wait until Oct. 30 to play their first AFC East game. They can hope to be 3-3 or 4-2 at the Oct. 23 bye week, but if they are 2-4 then, hopes of home-field advantage in the AFC are pretty much gone.

The Patriots can't really beef about who they play although they can wonder about when they play them. By switching to the four-team, eight-division format, the league took away one of the inequities, getting rid of what was known as the "first-place" schedule. Prior to 2002, schedules were set with a divisional rotation, but the first place teams played first-place teams and the worst teams played the worst. It allowed plenty of worst-to-first swings.

Now, only two games are determined by divisional rankings. The Patriots, for example, have to play the Steelers on the road and the Colts at home as part of the 2005 rotation. That is a fairer system for the good teams.

Maybe I'm a nitpicker, but I still wish the league would find better ways of spreading out the division games. Too many division races start too late. This tends to minimize the importance of races in the weaker divisions. Last year was a classic example because the AFC's dominance over the NFC and the late starts of divisional play made too many NFC divisional races look like the NFC West in baseball. Too many contenders had .500 or losing records.

Vermeil believes teams that have only six games against winning teams and 10 games against losing teams have the best chance to go to the Super Bowl. Go 3-3 against the winning teams and 10-0 against the losing teams and you have a 13-3 record.

He should know. In 2003, the Chiefs went 13-3 against teams with an overall winning percentage of .418. His Super Bowl championship team in 1999 with the Rams went 13-3 against a .363 schedule, perhaps easiest of all time. That year, the Jaguars went 14-2 against a .391 schedule.

Easy schedules can lead to perfection. The Dolphins went 14-0 in 1972 against a schedule that included only two teams with winning records and an overall record of 70-122-4. If you credit a tie as half a win, the Dolphins schedule was the second easiest at .367. If you don't include the ties, the number drops to .357.

Like I said, schedule is everything.