Strength of Schedule Numbers Put Bucs in Middle of the Pack

The Buccaneers’ scheduled opponents in 2013 season combined to play exactly .500 ball in 2012.

Tampa Bay has known its list of upcoming foes since the final day of the 2012 regular season, when the completed standings filled in the last couple blanks.  The Bucs will play six games against their NFC South division mates, of course, and will also meet each club in the NFC West and the AFC East.  The final two games match them up against the teams from the NFC East and NFC North that finished in the same spot in their respective division standings: Detroit and Philadelphia.

Despite the fact that three of the four 2012 conference championship game participants are on that list, the Bucs’ 16 opponents in 2013 put up a combined 127-127-2 record.  (Playing both teams that produced the one tie of 2012, St. Louis and San Francisco, puts that strange-looking coda on the end of those numbers.)  Not surprisingly, that puts Tampa Bay’s “strength of schedule” number for 2013 right in the middle of the pack.

Yesterday, NFL.com posted a list of each team’s 2013 strength of schedule, ranked from hardest (highest combined 2012 winning percentage of opponents) to easiest.  Topping the list is one of the Buccaneers’ fellow NFC South teams, Carolina, which must face a list of opponents that won at a .543 clip last fall.  Another NFC South squad, New Orleans, is tied for second on the list (.539) with Detroit and St. Louis.

What’s interesting is that the Panthers bought themselves this supposedly more difficult schedule on the last day of the season when they won at New Orleans, 44-38.  Had Carolina lost that game, they would have finished fourth in the division and drawn the Lions and Eagles as their final two opponents rather than the Vikings and Giants.  By winning and improving to 7-9, the Panthers ended up in a three-way tie with the Saints and Buccaneers, and the tiebreakers “favored” them in determining the exact order of the standings.  Had the Saints won, they would have finished second and drawn the Vikings and Giants while the Buccaneers would have been third and drawn the Bears and Cowboys.  The Saints’ strength of schedule totals would have gone down by two wins by virtue of beating the Panthers in that last game, but that would have been halfway countered by swapping the Giants (9-7) for the Cowboys (8-8).

Most NFL fans and analysts understand, of course, that these “strength of schedule” numbers need to be taken with a grain of salt.  A team’s record in 2012 is not necessarily predictive of how difficult an opponent they will be in 2013.  The Bucs appeared to get “easy” draws last fall with Minnesota and St. Louis, teams that finished 3-13 and 2-14 in 2011, respectively.  However, the Vikings improved to 10-6 in 2012 (despite losing to the Bucs) and the Rams climbed to 7-8-1.  And the Denver Broncos were a lot more Peyton Manning-y in 2012 than they were in 2011 while going 8-8.  On the other hand, the Eagles proved to be less of a threat to most of their opponents in 2012 than was expected after a promising 2011.

Probably the surest thing one can say about the difficulty of Tampa Bay’s schedule in 2013 is that it will likely once again be a dogfight for the division crown.  The NFC South was the only one of the NFL’s eight divisions in which all four teams won at least seven games last year, and it has historically been the most competitive foursome in the league, from top to bottom.

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