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2020 NFL strength of schedule: Detroit Lions schedule is both really hard and really easy

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Strength of schedule this time of year is basically meaningless.

NFL: OCT 11 Cardinals at Lions Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Listen, I’m going to be upfront with you at the top. Any bold declarations about the Detroit Lions’ 2020 schedule—whether it be really easy or really hard—are completely baseless at this time of year. We have no idea how hard or easy the Lions’ schedule is, because we have no idea how good their opponents are. This time of year, you’ll hear bold proclamations from just about every fan base that their schedule is either way too hard or so easy.

Case in point, the Lions’ strength of schedule very much depends on which metric you’re using. Let’s start with the bad news. If you go by last year’s records, the Lions have one of the toughest 2020 schedules in the league. With a combined record of 134-121-1 (.525 win percentage), the Lions are tied for the fifth-hardest schedule in the NFL.

“Wow, that’s totally unfair! How is it possible they have a harder schedule than everyone else in their division? Doesn’t the NFL adjust to make it that way?”

Well, when everyone else in the division gets to play the 3-12-1 Lions twice, it tends to override any measures in place adjusting for competitive advantages.

Most statisticians, however, believe that using last year’s record is a poor way to predict success for the following season (and they’re right). So when determining strength of schedule, many prefer to use Vegas win total projections—the over/unders set by oddsmakers for the 2020 NFL season. And by using that metric, the Lions actually have one of the easiest schedules. Per Sharp Football Stats, the Lions have the eighth easiest schedule.

But while Vegas oddsmakers tend to make better projections than last year’s data, that, too, is a very inexact science.

So when talking about strength of schedule, it really makes most sense to talk about tangible advantages/disadvantages that are known. Opponent strength is an unknown factor right now. However, travel distance is something that is known. Amount of rest between games compared to your opponent is known. Those factors may not have as strong of an impact on the final outcome, they do have some impact.

Brian Macdonald, the director of Sports Analytics at ESPN, took a look at some of these known factors, and the Lions look like they fared pretty well:

The Lions won’t have to travel too far in 2020, they only have back-to-back road games twice this year—and never have three straight road games—and their rest differential is negligible. The only team in the NFC that came out better was the Chicago Bears and the Atlanta Falcons. Meanwhile, the Vikings and Packers have huge disadvantages in rest differential.

Obviously, there are other things to consider here. The Lions’ early bye week is an annoyance, but a season finale in Detroit could end up being a huge benefit. Just don’t pay too much attention to the strength of opponent stuff yet.