Life isn't fair. Eventually, we all learn this the hard way. This is especially true in the NFL. Some teams play in a weak division, some teams draw a weak non division schedule, and others aren't so lucky.
In the NFL, strength of schedule matters.
According to the statistics used by Football Outsiders, it really matters. If you want to predict who might make a big turnaround, look at their schedule. Want to try to predict who might end up being this year's San Francisco? Look at their schedule. Trying to make a wager on who might be this season's Cincinnati? Look at their schedule.
The results might shock you.
The Niners had a seven win improvement last year, going from 6-10 to 13-3. They were the breakout team in the NFL, causing media outlets all over the country to heap praise on rookie head coach Jim Harbaugh. Meanwhile, how quickly we forget, the St. Louis Rams were actually the team most people (including yours truly) picked to win the NFC West. The Rams fell from 7-9 to 2-14, and their once promising head coach Steve Spagnuolo got fired.
Sometimes you're the windshield. Sometimes you're the bug.
So how did this happen? Well, QB Alex Smith played near mistake-free football. The Niners' D was awesome. They also played the weakest (32nd ranked) schedule in the NFL. The Rams, on the other hand, saw an epidemic of injuries to their offensive line and secondary. Sam Bradford, the NFL's offensive rookie of the year in 2010, got beat to a pulp.
Oh yeah, the Rams also played the toughest schedule in the NFL.
Do a little digging, and you'll see a pattern develop. Who were the major disappointments in the NFL last season? How tough was their schedule? The Rams (No. 1), the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (No. 2), Indianapolis (No. 5), and Miami (No. 6) were all supposed to be in the hunt for playoff spots after the way they played in 2010, right?
Instead, they all ended up in the hunt for new head coaches.
On the flip side, 10 out of 12 playoff teams had a very favorable schedule. San Francisco (No. 32), Green Bay (No. 31), New Orleans (No. 30), Houston (No. 29), Pittsburgh (No. 28), Cincinnati (No. 26) Baltimore (No. 24) and New England (No. 23) all caught a break with their slate of games.
Of course, injuries are a major factor. Of those teams that fell flat on their face a year ago, the Colts surely would have been a better team with Peyton Manning. The Rams, as we discussed, were hit hard with injuries that derailed their season before it started. Also, coaching changes, the NFL draft and free agency will change the roster and playing style of every team.
With all of that being said, here are three teams I think are poised for a five game improvement in 2012:
1) St. Louis Rams
The Rams were 2-14 a year ago, playing with a decimated roster against the toughest schedule in football. They turned the RG3 pick (No. 2 overall) into Michael Brockers (No. 14 overall), Janoris Jenkins (No. 39 overall), Isaiah Pead (No. 50 overall) and two future first-round picks (2012 and 2013). That is how you turn a franchise around in a hurry. With those reinforcements, along with their incumbent players getting healthy, the Rams should get closer to where they were in 2010, when they went 7-9.
The Schedule: The Rams have winnable home games against the Redskins, Seahawks, Cardinals, Jets and Vikings. They have winnable road games against the Seahawks, Bucs, Bills, Cardinals, Dolphins, and Bears. If the Rams could steal a game—they beat the Saints last year for crying out loud—it's not impossible for this team to finish as high as 10-6. That would be an eight win improvement, so they are easily the No. 1 team on this list.
The Bills had a very nice start to their season last year before injuries and the schedule—the third toughest in the NFL—took over. This is a team that has been making solid moves for a couple of years, and if they catch any kind of break with the schedule and injuries, those moves will pay off this year. Marcell Dareus is a beast at the DT position, so lining him up next to free agent pickup Mario Williams just doesn't seem fair. If QB Ryan Fitzpatrick can have a solid year, and C.J. Spiller can live up to the hype in teaming up with Fred Jackson out of the backfield, this could be a very good football team.
The Schedule: The Bills have winnable home games against the Chiefs, Titans, Dolphins, Jags, Rams, Seahawks and Jets. They have winnable road games against the Dolphins, Colts, Cardinals, Jets and Browns. Mark it down, if the Jets struggle—and I think they will—the Bills could finish as high as 11-5, a five win improvement over last year's team. Expect the Bills to finish what they started last year.
This might be a shocker for a lot of NFL fans, but just hear me out. The Vikings lost Adrian frickin' Peterson last season. Aside from Peyton Manning, that might have been the single biggest injury in the NFL last year. If Peterson is healthy, the Vikings could make some noise. They drafted a franchise caliber left tackle in Matt Kalil. Christian Ponder should play better as a sophomore, especially considering he had a true offseason to prepare. The Vikings play in a brutal division where they play the Packers, Lions and Bears twice apiece. However, if the Vikes can just stay healthy, their schedule might allow them to make a huge jump in 2012.
The Schedule: The Vikings have winnable home games against the Jags, Titans, Cardinals, Bucs and Bears. They have winnable road games against Rams, Bears, Seahawks, Redskins and Colts. Do the math—that's eight teams on their schedule that might be really bad. If they stay healthy, and if they can win a game or two in their division—both big if's—then expect the Vikings to finish as high as 9-7. That would be a six win improvement over what they did a year ago.
Indianapolis (only two wins a year ago, but with a rookie QB, rookie head coach, rookie GM, and a roster that was gutted, I don't see them getting to seven wins).
Miami (lots of questions about their QB situation, they won six games a year ago, no way they get to 11 wins).
Cleveland (four wins a year ago, they play in a brutal division with a rookie QB. Add in the loss of DT Phil Taylor for the season, possible loss of Joe Haden for four games, questions about rookie RB Trent Richardson's knee, and there is no way they make it to 9 wins).
Jacksonville (five wins a year ago, no way they make it to 10 wins with Gabbert as their starting QB), Washington (five wins a year ago, can RG3 make them a 10 win team in the NFC East? Highly doubtful).
Carolina (six wins a year ago, can Cam Newton take this team to 11 wins? Not yet. Playing in the NFC South is tough enough, they play the NFC East and AFC West in their non division schedule—too unforgiving).
Somebody is going to come out of nowhere in 2012. It happens every year. That's why we love the NFL. My money is on the Rams, Bills or Vikings. Who knows, I might be right? Then again, maybe Andrew Luck is the second coming of Elway, and the Colts blow away their 2-14 record from a year ago.
Who knows? That's why we watch. As always, thanks for reading.