This past Wednesday, the 2021 NFL season began to take shape.
We now have concrete opponents and dates and times. While the start of the NFL season remains months away, it’s never too soon to look ahead.
Last season’s abysmal all-around performance by teams in the NFC East underscored the importance of division matchups. It was no surprise that the division winner was determined in the final week of the regular season as the New York Giants faced the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Football Team took on the Philadelphia Eagles.
The schedule provides the framework and backbone for these matchups. For example, the Giants did not play a division opponent until Week 5 last season and then proceeded to have five division matchups in a six-week span. This was arguably the most important stretch of the Giants’ season as they picked up three of their six wins. Similarly, the Football Team’s explosive win over the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day provided them with the momentum to execute a four-game win streak that was highlighted by a defeat of the previously unbeaten Pittsburgh Steelers.
Before diving into each team, let’s consider how schedules are designed. In addition to playing each team in the division twice, schedules are structured in the following manner:
- Each team plays all four teams from an in-conference division, based on a three-year rotation (four games). This year, it’s North vs. West and East vs. South in both conferences.
- Each team plays all four teams from a non-conference division, based on a four-year rotation (four games). This year, it’s AFC East-NFC South, AFC North-NFC North, AFC South-NFC West and AFC West-NFC East.
- Each team plays two intra-conference teams based on the previous year’s standings (two games). First-place teams in each division will play the two first-place teams from the same conference who weren’t already part of the yearly rotation.
- Starting this year, each team will play one non-conference opponent that finished in the same standings spot the previous season and isn’t already part of the schedule rotation (one game). For the 2021 season, AFC East teams play NFC East teams; AFC North teams play NFC West teams; AFC South teams play NFC South teams; and AFC West teams play NFC North teams.
We know what the New York Giants’ 2021 schedule entails but let’s take a closer look at the schedule of the other teams in the division.
Washington Football Team
Because the Football Team won the division last season, we already knew that they would likely have the hardest schedule in 2021 because of how the schedule is structured. Washington, a 7-9 team last season, will face five teams that won their division last season, including the Bills, Saints, Chiefs, Packers and Seahawks. And just for the fun of it, the Football Team is also playing the defending Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Based off of opponents’ combined 2020 win percentage, the Football Team is tied for the 15th most difficult strength of schedule in the division at .504 - the most difficult schedule in the division.
Washington was negatively impacted by the addition of the 17th game this upcoming season. If the schedule had stayed at 16 games, the Football Team would have the 22nd most difficult schedule. Because of the 17th game, in which Washington will face the 13-3 Buffalo Bills, the Football Team’s toughness of schedule vaults up to No. 15.
In addition to playing five 2020 division winners, Washington will face five straight division opponents to close out the regular season beginning with the Cowboys in Week 14 and Giants in Week 18. That’s a very important stretch of games at a very important time in the season.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys’ strength of schedule is ranked 31st in the league at .452. Dallas will start off the season with two straight road games, including a Week 1 matchup against the Bucs, for the first time since 2012.
The Cowboys’ schedule will also feature two Thursday night matchups this season as Dallas will open the season against the Bucs and play at New Orleans in December. Because the Cowboys will be playing on two different Thursdays, they essentially gain two mini-byes in addition to their actual bye which will allow them more time to prepare/rest.
Vegas has the Cowboys at 9.5 wins which is only just over .500 but is also the best over/under in the NFC East.
The toughest part of Dallas’ schedule will be on the backend as four of their final six games are away from AT&T Stadium. Four of the last five of their games are against NFC East opponents, while three of those five are on the road. Especially because New Jersey, Philly and even Washington will be cold by that time of the year, Dallas is in for a challenge in the final weeks.
The Cowboys might have the 31st strength of schedule in the league, but the Eagles have the 32nd at .430, meaning they have the easiest schedule in the NFL next season. Philly is the only team that has a strength of schedule below .450. The Eagles, who finished with a 4-11-1 record last season, play only three games against teams that finished above .500 last season (Saints, Bucs, Chiefs). They play just five games against teams that went to the playoffs.
Of course, playing both Super Bowl LV participants is no easy task and the Eagles are just one five teams next season who will have to do so. But Philly at least gets to play both of those games at home.
While the Eagles’ schedule is statistically the easiest, the number is relative especially considering that Philly is entering a rebuilding season. It’s easy to imagine that teams like the Chargers, 49ers, Panthers and Falcons improving enough to give the Eagles a difficult time. But even so, the Eagles’ schedule smooths out down the stretch as they will face their toughest opponents in the beginning of the season and then close out the regular season with four straight division matchups.