In the midst of the Rams schedule release last night, many focused primarily on nit-picking through every crack of St. Louis' week-by-week matchups. As highlighted by Turf Show Times extensive reactions to the release, there were plenty of peaks and valleys to dissect, looking at strength of schedules, elite quarterbacks, and primetime matchups, or lack thereof. However, lost in those knee-jerk breakdowns might have been that there were, in fact, 31 other teams whose schedules were released yesterday as well, including the three other squads in the division.
Unlike any other major sport, the relatively short regular season schedule in the NFL does not lend itself well to the concept of counterbalancing. Counterbalancing is loosely defined as using all of the possible orders of "conditions" to control for "order effects." In layman's terms, those conditions would be the individual games of the NFL regular season schedule, and the order effect would be the extent to which the order of those games influences team's records at the end of the year.
In scientific research, the thought behind the idea of counterbalancing is that by randomizing and "balancing" the order in which certain conditions are given, you are reducing (or, ideally, eliminating) the effect that the order of those events is having on your outcome(s). Simply put, you are attempting to eliminate (or control) any other factors that might be influencing the end result.
Sports like baseball, basketball, and hockey can, in some form, can counterbalance their schedule due to the shear length of their regular season. By the end of the year, most teams play similar strength of schedules, with similar numbers of back-to-back games, similar road-vs-home game mixes, and similar matchups against pertinent intra-division and intra-conference opponents. At the conclusion of their grueling schedules, it is hard to argue, in most cases, that the order in which the games were played had much of an influence on their record at the end of the regular season.
In football, due to the shorter season, that obviously cannot be done; hence, why the NFL schedule release is genuinely a "big deal." For that same season, it may be just as important to look at the rest of the NFC West's schedules when considering how the St. Louis Rams will fare in the upcoming season.
Taking that into consideration, we thought it might be an excellent time to "rank" the schedules within the division from toughest to easiest. We'll take a look at some of the highlights and lowlights for each team, and eventually rank them from worst to first.
Arizona Cardinals (Rank: 4th)
- Week 9 Bye Week. Not only is it at the perfect mid-point of the season, it also gives the Cardinals a full week to prepare for taking on Seattle on the road in Week 10.
- Three of their four opening and closing games are at home, including the Packers and Seahawks at the end of the regular season.
- Only one "primetime" game, that being Monday Night Football against the Baltimore Ravens. Cardinals luck into playing the Cleveland Browns on the following "short week."
- From Week 5 to Week 13, the Cardinals only play two of their eight games at home.
- Arizona finishes the season with against three (arguable) playoff-caliber teams.
- Several "brutal" back-to-back games against teams with quality quarterbacks and Top 15 defenses.
Seattle Seahawks (Rank: 3rd)
- Week 9 Bye Week. Rinse and repeat the explanation from above.
- Easiest three-game stretch to end the season, facing the Browns and Rams, at home, then the Cardinals on the road to cap off the year.
- Easily post-Bye Schedule in the NFC West, playing five of eight games at home, with only two "elite" quarterbacks in that same span.
- Face three "elite" quarterbacks on the road, including Aaron Rodgers in Week 2, Tony Romo before the Bye Week, and Joe Flacco in Week 14. Moreover, all three are the second game of back-to-back roadies during the regular season.
- Seahawks play four "primetime" games, not including Thursday Night Football, with a handful of road games on those following "short weeks."
- Have to face both the Arizona Cardinals and the San Francisco 49ers coming off their respective Bye Weeks. To make that worse, those post-Bye games come back-to-back in Weeks 10 and 11, following back-to-back road games against the 49ers and Cowboys in Weeks 7 and 8.
San Francisco 49ers (Rank: 1st)
- Week 10 Bye Week. Not only is it at the perfect mid-point of the season, it also gives the 49ers (just like the Cardinals) a full week to prepare for taking on Seattle on the road in Week 11.
- Only two back-to-back road games on their schedule, with one of those including the Cleveland Browns on the backend of the trip.
- Arguably the easiest end of the season schedule, in terms of opponents, finishing the year with games against the Bears, Browns, Bengals, Lions, and Rams.
- Toughest pre-Bye Week schedule in the NFC West, facing off against five "elite" quarterbacks in a six-game span from Week 2 to Week 7.
- Start off the season on Monday Night Football, forcing the 49ers to play the Steelers on their "short week" in Week 2. Also, have to face the Seahawks on the road during Thursday Night Football (i.e. another short week), after an inevitably tough matchup against the Ravens the week before.
- Arguably the toughest end of the season schedule, in terms of road-vs-home games, with three of their final five matchups on the road.
If you were paying attention to the rankings, that leaves the St. Louis Rams in the No.2 spot. Had it not been for their way-too-early, Week 5 Bye and facing off against three of their five "elite" quarterbacks on the road, they might have stolen the top spot from the San Francisco 49ers. However, the Rams by virtue of finishing last in the division, were gifted games against the Redskins and Buccaneers. They also don't have any additional "primetime" games, and have a "long week" to prepare for the Seahawks, after Thursday Night Football in Week 15. Moreover, their middle-of-the-season schedule includes only three games (out of nine) on the road, and they should only have one or two unbearably cold bouts on the backend of their schedule; Seattle in Week 16 being the only definitively frigid matchup.
All of that said, performance on the field will inevitably be the deciding factor in the race for the top of the NFC West. But, unlike in year's past, at least the Rams will not have to face an uphill battle against their schedule. Thankfull, St. Louiis will not have to end their year on the road in Seattle...