It's pretty fashionable to pick on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers right now. Their quarterback is delusional. Their fans aren't showing up to games. They actually claimed Albert Haynesworth off of waivers in the hopes that he would help their team. After starting the season 3-1, a 1-4 slump has seen them get outscored by nearly 17 points per game. And this week, they have to travel to Green Bay and play the 9-0 Packers.
Fortunately, things are about to get better for the Buccaneers, if only because they can't get much more difficult. That 1-4 stretch included two games against the 7-3 Saints and matchups versus the 49ers (8-1), Bears (6-3), and Texans (7-3). With the 9-0 Packers about to show up, that's a remarkably difficult set of opponents over their past six games. How difficult? By our measurements, it could be the toughest stretch of the past 18 seasons.
To figure out how difficult a team's schedule was, we used each team's score differential to calculate their Pythagorean expectation, which you might remember from our preseason NFL preview. Essentially, a team's score differential does a better job of predicting their win-loss record in the future than their current win-loss record, so we're using that. We've used that expected winning percentage to get an expected win total for each team (per 16 games), and then we found the average win total put up by the average opponent of each team during each six-game stretch since 1994. (We chose 1994 because 1993 had a funky schedule with two bye weeks and an 18-week season.)
As it turns out, the average team Tampa Bay's played during this six-game nightmare has been playing at about the level of a 12-4 team. And that's the average team. By the Pythagorean expectation, the creamsicles have played the league's top three teams, its fifth-best team twice, and its ninth-best team in six weeks.
The closest example of a schedule this tough was in 2000, when the Washington Redskins played six games against teams who had an average Pythagorean expectation of 11.6 wins. That group included both the eventual Super Bowl winners (Ravens) and losers (Giants), along with the Titans (13-3), Eagles (11-5), and Buccaneers (10-6), each of whom made the playoffs. The 7-9 Jaguars, who had a Pythagorean expectation of 9.1 wins, finished out the slate. Amazingly, the Redskins went 5-1 against this murderer's row and still managed to miss the playoffs. It's no surprise that Norv Turner was involved.
If you prefer to just use raw win-loss record, the disparity between what Tampa Bay's endured and the rest of the league grows even wider. If you pro-rate each team's win-loss record to a full 16 games, the Bucs have spent the past six games playing teams who would combine to go 75-21 over a full season. That's like playing a team that's better than the average 12-4 squad each week! In 2005, the 49ers had a six-game run versus teams that finished the year with a combined record of 70-26, each of whom won ten games or more and made the playoffs.
As we mentioned, though, the devastatingly tough schedule faced by the Buccaneers comes to an end with their game against the Packers this Sunday. The problem is that their opposition gets easier, but to the point where we might expect them to coast. From Week 12 on, the Buccaneers will play teams with an average Pythagorean expectation of 7.3 wins for a 16-game season, which is the 13th-easiest schedule in football. And if we include the Packers game that they're yet to lose, Tampa's schedule is the 13th-hardest in football over the final seven weeks of the year. That's certainly a lot easier than what they had been facing, but far from what disgruntled Tampa Bay fans might hope for.
The easiest schedule in the league from here on out clearly belongs to the Patriots, who will face, on average, a team with an expected Pythagorean win total of 5.8 wins per 16 games. After the Chiefs this week, they've got games against the Colts, Eagles, Redskins, Broncos, Dolphins, and Bills. Here comes Tom Brady's MVP candidacy! Just behind the Patriots in the friendly skies are the 49ers (average opponent: 6.3 wins), Steelers (6.5 wins), Bears (6.6 wins), and Texans (6.7 wins).
On the flip side, the team replacing the Buccaneers as the bearer of difficult opposition is the New York Giants, who have already begun their hell months and still have to play teams who have been producing at an average level of 9.6 wins per 16 games. Coming off of games against the Patriots and 49ers, the Giants must now play the Eagles, Saints, Packers, Redskins, and Jets, and go home-and-home with the Cowboys. And behind them are a group of teams who could use some ham-and-eggers on the schedule: the Chiefs (average opponent: 9.3 wins), Browns (also 9.3 wins), Colts (9.0 wins), and Dolphins (8.9 wins).
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