The 2014 NFL regular-season schedule has been released and already we are hearing phrases like "the easiest schedule in the league" thrown about with regard to a team like the Indianapolis Colts. Yes, Indianapolis' 2014 opponents were a combined 110-146 (.430) last season and it seems advantageous to play in the AFC South, but so much can change in one year with roster turnover, coaching changes and injuries.
Last year, the Carolina Panthers were supposed to have the league's toughest schedule, but by season's end, their schedule ranked a mediocre 17th. Lately, we have not been able to learn anything about the difficulty of a team's schedule based on opponent records from the previous season, and there's also the fact that past wins are not the best predictor of future team performance.
Point differential does a better job, but the most reliable metric is Football Outsiders' DVOA, or defense-adjusted value over average (explained here). DVOA breaks down every play of the season to reveal how efficient teams are relative to average performance in each situation.
When Football Outsiders projects how tough a team's schedule will be, DVOA is the stat of choice. For the purposes of projecting in April, we adjust last year's performance in DVOA for regression to the mean and make additional adjustments for injuries, key free-agent acquisitions and losses, and the 2013 schedule strength for each team to create an average projected rating for each team.
While these 2014 projections are not final -- with the draft and updated depth charts to come -- we picked six teams expected to navigate a far different caliber of schedule compared to what they had in 2013. Essentially, this is a breakdown of the teams that will be helped and hurt the most by their 2014 schedule strength. We start with the toughest roads.
Editor's note: DVOA figures are expressed here as percentages.
Teams hurt most by schedules
2013 Schedule (DVOA): -3.7 (27th)
2014 Schedule Projection (DVOA): 2.2 (12th)
Marc Trestman's NFL debut as a head coach was very successful on the offensive side of the ball, but the worst Chicago defense in years held the team back, and the Bears finished at 8-8. With two chances to secure the division at the end of the season, Chicago failed to beat two playoff teams (the Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers).
With the return of a healthy Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, the Bears will again be underdogs in the division. The Bears and Packers actually rank a hair behind Detroit in schedule projections, because the NFC North as a whole should face a much tougher schedule in 2014.