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2021 NFL strength of schedule rankings: Detroit Lions among most difficult in league

No matter how you look at it, the Lions have their work cut out for them in 2021.

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Detroit Lions fans are in an interesting spot right now. Without question, fans are over the moon with the current regime. Head coach Dan Campbell is saying all the things Lions fans want to hear, and general manager Brad Holmes has made some savvy roster moves in both free agency and the 2021 NFL Draft. A recent poll suggests that 96 percent of Lions fans approve of the direction the team is headed.

Yet in the immediacy, after the 2021 NFL schedule dropped, we polled fans again to see what their expectations were for the Lions this year. 64 percent of fans are predicting the Lions to win six games or fewer this upcoming season.

So where’s the disconnect? Well, part of it is simply Lions fans accepting the fact that this is a team in a rebuild and rebuilds require time. The other part of the equation is the schedule. Looking at the thing as a whole, you can tell it’s quite daunting. The Lions have the unfortunate luck of facing the NFC West and the AFC North this season, two divisions that produced a combined five playoff teams a year ago.

There are several ways to measure the difficulty of one’s schedule, but no matter how you look at it, the Detroit Lions have one of the most difficult schedules in the NFL this year. Let’s take a closer look.

By 2020 record

Predicting 2021 games based on 2020 results is fundamentally flawed and one of the biggest mistakes analysts make when producing season projections. But it’s a good place to start to give an idea of where things could potentially stand for Detroit.

CBS Sports compiled every team’s strength of schedule by 2020 record, and the Lions came out tied with the sixth-toughest slate of games. Their upcoming opponents averaged a .529 winning percentage last year. The good news is that the Bears (.550), Packers (.542) and Vikings (.531) all have more difficult schedules than the Lions by this metric.

By amount of 2020 playoff teams:

Again, you see the Lions at the top of this list with the Bears, Vikings, and Packers all clustered there alongside. If you’re interested in the nine games against 2020 playoff teams, they are the Packers (twice), Seahawks, Rams, Bears (twice), Steelers, Ravens, and Browns.

By 2021 win totals

Perhaps the most common way to measure future strength of schedule—and arguably the most accurate—is to use 2021 win totals created by Vegas sportsbooks. Betting lines tend to be somewhat accurate every year, so analysts add up all the projected win totals from every opponent on a team’s schedule and use that as a metric of schedule difficulty.

The issue here is that not all sportsbooks agree on win totals for each team. So here are four different results.

BetMGM (via The Athletic)

Lions have the third most difficult schedule, with 151 projected wins from their opponents (8.9 per opponent).

Pro Football Network

It’s unclear what source PFN is using for their win totals, but by their calculations, the Lions are tied for the ninth most difficult schedule in 2021.

Sports Betting Dime

Using their own win total projections, the Lions come out with the fifth-toughest schedule. Detroit’s opponents have a 150.1 win total projection (just a single win less than BetMGM’s total). Of the other NFC North teams, only the Bears reside in the top-10 in most difficult schedules.

Warren Sharp

Sharp is using his own win total projection based on his own model, and the results are not good for Lions fans.

Not only do the Lions have the fourth-toughest schedule, but it appears to be much tougher than their NFC North counterparts. The Vikings are 14th easiest, while the Packers are 21st and Bears are 22nd.

Basically, any way you slice it, Campbell has the odds stacked against him in 2021. But with low expectations from fans heading into the season, Lions fans may not fault him if Detroit’s rebuild gets off to a slow start.

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