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The Lions strength of schedule matters... sort of

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There's reason to believe that the Lions strength of schedule actually matters, but let's sort through the reasons as to why.

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Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Ever since the 2016 NFL schedule was released, much has been made about the Lions’ strength of schedule, especially for those looking for a reason to be optimistic about the team’s chances this season. I decided to take a look at the 2015 season’s strength of schedule (SOS) as calculated before the season and examine how things actually turned out for teams by season’s end.

Rk. 2015 Strength of Schedule 2015 Actual Strength of Schedule
1 Pittsburgh Steelers: 147-107-2, .579 Chicago Bears: 140-116, .547 (-12)
2 Cincinnati Bengals: 144-112, .563 San Francisco 49ers: 138-118, .539 (-1)
3 San Francisco 49ers: 143-112-1, .561 Detroit Lions: 137-119, .535 (-12)
4 Seattle Seahawks: 142-112-2, .559 Green Bay Packers: 136-120, .531 (-10)
5 Arizona Cardinals: 142-113-1, .557 Dallas Cowboys: 136-120, .531 (-19)
6 St. Louis Rams: 141-114-1, .553 Cleveland Browns: 136-120, .531 (-3)
7 Oakland Raiders: 139-116-1, .545 St. Louis Rams: 135-121, .527 (+1)
8 Kansas City Chiefs: 139-116-1, .545 San Diego Chargers: 135-121, .527 (-8)
9 Cleveland Browns: 138-116-2, .543 Seattle Seahawks: 133-123, .520 (+5)
10 Denver Broncos: 138-117-1, .541 Oakland Raiders: 131-125, .512 (+3)
11 Baltimore Ravens: 137-117-2, .539 Buffalo Bills: 130-126, .508 (-8)
12 Minnesota Vikings: 138-118, .539 Philadelphia Eagles: 130-126, .508 (-11)
13 Chicago Bears: 136-120, .531 Baltimore Ravens: 130-126, .508 (+2)
14 Green Bay Packers: 135-120-1, .529 New Orleans Saints: 129-127, .504 (-14)
15 Detroit Lions: 135-121, .527 Minnesota Vikings: 129-137, .504 (+3)
16 San Diego Chargers: 132-123-1, .518 Pittsburgh Steelers: 129-127, .504 (+15)
17 Miami Dolphins: 126-130, .492 New York Giants: 128-128, .500 (-4)
18 New York Jets: 125-131, .488 Denver Broncos: 128-128, .500 (+8)
19 Buffalo Bills: 124-131-1, .486 Indianapolis Colts: 128-128, .500 (-12)
20 Washington Redskins: 122-133-1, .478 Houston Texans: 127-129, .496 (-10)
21 New York Giants: 122-133-1, .478 Kansas City Chiefs: 127-129, .496 (+13)
22 New England Patriots: 122-134, .477 Tennessee Titans: 126-130, .492 (-4)
23 Philadelphia Eagles: 121-134-1, .475 Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 124-132, .484 (-6)
24 Dallas Cowboys: 119-136-1, .467 Atlanta Falcons: 123-133, .480 (-8)
25 Jacksonville Jaguars: 118-137-1, .463 Cincinnati Bengals: 122-134, .477 (+23)
26 Tennessee Titans: 111-144-1, .435 Arizona Cardinals: 122-134, .477 (+21)
27 Carolina Panthers: 111-145, .434 Jacksonville Jaguars: 121-135, .473 (+2)
28 New Orleans Saints: 109-145-2, .429 New England Patriots: 121-135, .473 (+6)
29 Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 108-146-2, .425 Miami Dolphins: 120-136, .469 (+12)
30 Houston Texans: 106-148-2, .417 Washington Redskins: 119-137, .465 (+10)
31 Indianapolis Colts: 106-149-1, .417 New York Jets: 113-143, .441 (+13)
32 Atlanta Falcons: 104-150-2, .409 Carolina Panthers: 113-143, .441 (+5)

It’s no surprise that the Lions had one of the toughest schedules of any team in the league last season, but the team moved from the middle of the pack (15) in SOS before the season to having the third toughest schedule in the entire league at season's end. The Lions were also one of fifteen teams to be displaced from their preseason SOS ranking by ten or more positions, and one of eight teams who were faced with a tougher schedule by ten or more positions.

Okay, so does strength of schedule matter?

It does... sort of. Looking at the statistics in the chart above reveals that, for the most part, strength of schedule does a pretty accurate job of measuring what the win-loss totals of teams from one year to the next will be. For instance, 20 team's opponent's records at the end of 2015 were plus or minus ten wins from where they were in 2014. The Lions are tied with three other teams for the fourth-easiest schedule. Of the five teams that were poised to have the easiest schedule heading into 2015, all five ended up finishing outside of the top five in adjusted strength of schedule by the end of the season. Four of the five teams, however, still managed to end up among the top-14 teams in strength of schedule at the end of 2015. What's most important to notice about this chart is who makes up for eight of the 13 teams in the lefthand column and what commonality is it that they share.*

*Hint: you have the entire AFC South and NFC East within those 13 slots.

Who played the AFC South and NFC East?

A couple interesting notes about this chart are which teams had the chance to play the AFC South — the worst division in football in 2015 — and who played the NFC East — who were one win better — and how they performed against them. The AFC East and the NFC South both played the aforementioned divisions last season and both did a pretty good number on them. The AFC East was a combined 12-4 against the AFC South while the NFC South was 10-6. The NFC East played better against their interdivisional opponents: the AFC East finished with a 9-7 record against the NFC East and the NFC South went 12-4 when playing NFC East teams.

So what about this has to do with the Lions this season?

This year, the Lions drew the two weakest divisions from a year ago: the AFC South and the NFC East. Those teams won 25 and 26 games respectively in 2015, but as is the case when looking at an NFL season as a snapshot, there is a ton to consider that happens within the context of a season. For instance, in the NFC East, the Eagles fired their head coach before the season ended, the Cowboys were without their starting quarterback and their leading rusher from a year ago, the Giants were without their top pass rusher because of fireworks and the Redskins won the division by overachieving. In the AFC South, the Colts had their starting quarterback go down with a lacerated kidney, the Jaguars didn’t get to see their first-round pick play on defense, the Titans were just a flat out mess and the Texans managed to win the division by starting Brian Hoyer at quarterback but only because the rules say a team has to win the division. Both of these divisions were won with teams that had single-digit win totals, but are these two divisions going to be the worst in the league again in 2016?

I think the NFC East has the chance to be the worst division in all of football this season. I could watch Dak Prescott highlights until my eyes become as useless as "Ants in my Eyes" Johnson's are, but a rookie quarterback, a rookie running back and a run defense that was ranked 29th in DVOA last season have a lot to prove. The Redskins are trying to figure out who they can count on in their running game after finishing last in rushing DVOA in 2015. The Eagles are starting their rookie quarterback Carson Wentz, their starting right tackle — and best offensive lineman — is going to miss ten games at some point this season because of PEDs and they have a new head coach. The Giants spent a ton of money this offseason on a cornerback and a defensive end and that's never gone wrong for a team before.

The AFC South, on the other hand, has an opportunity to be better than last season, but how much better still remains to be seen. Mostly due in part to the return of a hopefully healthy Andrew Luck, the Colts should be better than their 8-8 record of a season ago, but they're going to have to figure out how to manage on defense while they wait to get their starters back on the field. Houston spent a lot of money on a quarterback who didn't ruin his team's chances to win a Super Bowl when Peyton Manning was sidelined with an injury, but they do have a healthy J.J. Watt ready to head up what looks to be one of the league's best defenses. The Titans are betting heavily on their running game with the addition of DeMarco Murray and rookie Derrick Henry, but the defense needs to take a step forward after surrendering the sixth most points in the league a year ago. And the Jaguars have done much to improve through the draft and free agency.

Of course the Lions' season will hinge on a multitude of factors, but recent history shows their schedule is favorable, and that's at least something that will be in their favor.