The AFC West may be the most competitive division in the NFL. The Broncos and Chargers both have realistic playoff aspirations in 2017, but most observers would still rank the Raiders and Chiefs as the top two teams in the division. But if Oakland is going to win the division, it’s likely going to have to do it by getting an early lead; for the Chiefs, they just need to not fall out of the race before Thanksgiving, because Kansas City should be able to make up ground late. Why? Because while Kansas City and Oakland have similar schedules (the Chiefs draw Houston and Pittsburgh in the two variable games, while the Raiders get the Titans and Ravens), the Chiefs schedule is frontloaded (in terms of difficult games) while Oakland’s schedule is backloaded.
In the first six weeks, the Raiders get the Jets, Ravens, and Chargers at home, along with road games against the Titans, Redskins, and Broncos. Oakland should be able to get off to a 4-2 or 5-1 start against that schedule. The Patriots game comes in week 11 (and it’s a “home” game in Mexico City), but it’s the final four weeks that are scary: Oakland goes to Kansas City and hosts Dallas (on SNF) in weeks 14 and 15, before finishing with road games in Philadelphia (on Monday Night Football) and against the Chargers. A 2-2 mark would be more than holding serve.
Kansas City opens in New England on Thursday night, as tough a game as there is on any schedule. And nearly all the “easy” games for Kansas City come in the final six weeks. The Chiefs host Buffalo at the end of November and face the Jets the following week. The last four games are three home games — the Raiders, Chargers (on Saturday night), and Dolphins — and the final game is in Denver. Kansas City can realistic hope for a 5-1 finish to streak into the playoffs, so the Chiefs just need to get to 5-5 through ten games.
A similar disparity exists in the AFC South: all of those teams have easy schedules (more on this below). But one team with a very favorable early season schedule is the Colts, who… just might need it given the uncertain health status of Andrew Luck. The Colts open up with a road game against the Rams, followed by home games against Arizona and Cleveland. Indianapolis also hosts the 49ers and Jaguars in the team’s first seven games. The Titans have the second easiest schedule in the league, but it’s also really easy late. Tennessee’s December slate? Home for Houston, at Arizona, at San Francisco, home for the Rams, and home for the Jaguars. The Titans are in position to ride a late-season winning streak into the playoffs.
I went ahead and created my own team ratings. You may disagree with them slightly, but the only reason I generated them was to generate SOS ratings. So even if you disagree with some of the ratings, it shouldn’t impact each team’s SOS that much. The ratings below represent how many points each team would beat an average NFL team by on a neutral field. [click to continue…]