Bite-size nuggets: The importance of a first-place schedule

Happy Monday, friends.  I’m going to give yesterday’s game a broadcast-angle review tonight, and another coach’s film review on Wednesday, but for today, I wanted to write a quick article about something that gets talked about frequently, but isn’t well-understood.  Today’s topic will be the first-place schedule.

The best path to the playoffs in the NFL is in winning your division.  Organizing in divisions is a true test of quality for a subset of teams, because for 14 of their 16 games, they play the same teams.  Here is how an NFL schedule rubric lays out:


Type of game Number
Division home-and-home 6 games
Another division in same conference 4 games
Another division in the other conference 4 games
Teams from the other divisions in same conference with same finish 2 games


What that means is that in 2012, the AFC West plays each other twice, the whole AFC North, and the whole NFC South.  Additionally, each team plays the team from the AFC East and AFC South that mirrored their 2011 finish.

What I’m getting at is that the first-, second-, third-, or fourth-place schedule only bears on two games in each team’s schedule.  The Broncos have now gone 0-2 against their incremental opponents, which were New England and Houston.  Here is how the other three teams in the AFC West have fared thus far:


2011 Place Team Home Result Away Result
1 Denver Houston Loss New England Loss
2 San Diego Tennessee Win New York Jets Week 16
3 Oakland Jacksonville Week 7 Miami Loss
4 Kansas City Indianapolis Week 16 Buffalo Loss


The other two teams which have played their road games lost, and San Diego won their home game against Tennessee.  At this writing, I would give each of the other three teams a good chance to win their remaining “place game” too.

What I am getting at is that when a team loses both of its place games, it makes it difficult to win its division, unless the other teams lose too.  At this point, beating out San Diego for the division title will probably require the Broncos to beat the Chargers twice head-to-head, since they’ve already waxed Tennessee, and will likely do the same to the pathetic Jets late in the season.  Another way the Broncos can make up ground is by beating New Orleans in a couple weeks, after the Saints beat the Chargers last night.

Just to give you an idea of how it plays out, I went back and checked how the Broncos did in their place games over the last 10 years, since the present scheduling rubric was adopted, and looked at how it affected their record and division finish:


Year PY Place Home Result Away Result Record Finish
2011 Fourth Cincinnati Win Tennessee Loss 8-8 First
2010 Second New York Jets Loss Baltimore Loss 4-12 Fourth
2009 Second New England Win Indianapolis Loss 8-8 Second
2008 Second Jacksonville Loss Cleveland Win 8-8 Second
2007 Second Pittsburgh Win Buffalo Win 7-9 Second
2006 First Indianapolis Loss New England Win 9-7 Second
2005 First Baltimore Win Jacksonville Win 13-3 First
2004 First Miami Win Cincinnati Loss 10-6 First
2003 Second Indianapolis Win Cincinnati Win 10-6 First
2002 Third Indianapolis Loss Baltimore Loss 9-7 Second


One of the things you see is that winning those place games typically bodes well for the Broncos’ final record.  You can also see that they’ve almost always had first- or second-place schedules over the last 10 years.  Ordinarily, I’d say that’s good, but when you finish 8-8 and get a second-place schedule, you’re basically signing up to play second-place teams that are better than you the following year.

The 2011 Broncos put the 2012 Broncos (a totally different team) in a tough position by winning the AFC West as an 8-8 team that profiled more like a 6-10 team.  I believe that the 2012 Broncos hung in well enough physically with the Texans and Patriots to win, but that those are more proficient and consistent teams, and that their ability to play pretty mistake-free football, and to capitalize on the mistakes of the Broncos, is what won the games for them.

The question is whether the Broncos can win the division despite the 0-2 showing in their place games, and if they can, whether they can become proficient enough to win these games against the best teams in January.

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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Ted's AnalysisBite-size Nuggets