Many analysts and members of the media see an NFL schedule and immediately start making predictions based on the statistics from the season before — usually opponents win percentage. Naively following that trend would tell you that the Falcons have one the easiest schedules in the league as their 2021 opponents finished with a total win percentage of 45.4% — the fourth-easiest schedule by that metric.
I never understood equating how a team performed in wins and losses from one season to the next. The NFL is a much more complex system than that, and though there aren’t any perfect strength of schedule metrics, using future win totals provided by Vegas and other advanced metrics such as opponents’ offensive and defensive efficiency are much better indicators of future outcomes. The Vegas win totals portray more accurately what teams could look like in the future rather than past seasons.
Based on those win totals, the Falcons have the 12th easiest schedule, according to SharpFootballStats. Atlanta has nine matchups next year against teams projected to win nine games or more — better than a .500 record. Inherently, there are eight games where the matchups are against teams projected to win eight games or less — below a .500 record. The strength of schedule jumps eight slots when using an opponent’s future win totals versus the previous year’s record.
There are other ways to analyze how difficult or easy a team’s schedule will be, such as the opponent’s efficiency. Based on the Falcons opponents’ team efficiency, Atlanta has the 20th easiest schedule in the league — much different than the fourth easiest based on last year’s win percentages. You can further break down the opponents into offensive and defensive efficiency. Based on the opponent’s offensive efficiency, the Falcons’ defense has the 11th easiest schedule. This means that the Falcons will play more below-average offenses than above-average ones. Switching sides of the ball, the Falcons’ offense will have the 24th easiest schedule based on the opponent’s defensive efficiency.
Warren Sharp is a pioneer in analytical football and examined the rest edges of each team’s schedule. Though Falcons fans are aggravated by the lack of home games — only seven games in Mercedes-Benz Stadium — Atlanta doesn’t have that much of a disadvantage in terms of the team’s rest days. In fact, there is a slight disadvantage present, but the schedule isn’t as bad as it seems. When sorted by cumulative net rest, the Falcons ranked 20th with a -3 net rest edge.
rest edges for the 2021 NFL season
sorted by cumulative net rest
every block indicates a game with rest imbalance
positive means a rest edge that wk
negative means a rest disadvantage pic.twitter.com/5IxROXtpVL
— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) May 14, 2021
Sharp also used preparation variables in combination with the rest ones to illustrate how much rest teams get compared to the opponents on a weekly basis. The Falcons have the 12th ranked prep-rest rank.
I don't think people realize how important the release of the schedule is
it's not WHO you play, we knew that
the NFL doesn't control that
the NFL controls WHEN you play, how much rest you have & if you have an edge
it's crazy how imbalanced it is
— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) May 14, 2021
Essentially, I’m saying all this because there are thousands of ways to analyze a team’s schedule, but the moving parts of an NFL team are incomprehensible to everyday people like you and me. More factors go into it than just the previous year’s win percentage. But nobody can know how teams will truly perform; it’s all projections.
NFL rosters have more turnover than any other in professional sports — coaches, players, and front office members included. Schemes change, personnel change, player regression all play a part. The only thing that can be confidently agreed upon is the time and place of the game. An example of what I mean by that is the Falcons play the Bills in Highmark Stadium late in the season, which obviously has the potential for inclement weather. That can be certain, but not how well the Bills will be doing by that time. Sure, we expect Buffalo to be a Super Bowl contender, but that is if everything goes right, which it rarely does.
I keep ranting, but I’m almost done. Nobody knows if the schedule will be hard or not until we are done with the season. The early bye is unfortunate, and the home game in London is unlucky, but outside of that, everything is speculative.