CHARLOTTE – Because the NFL's season-to-season volatility often makes it comically hard to predict, a look at a coming year's strength of schedule is mostly an exercise in futility. But it does provide a somewhat interesting snapshot of what's ahead – as long as you're willing to pretend what we saw the past few months will remain the same seven-plus months from now.
So let's suspend disbelief for the next few minutes.
John Breech of CBSSports.com, who readily acknowledges the fickle nature of his annual post, published the 2018 strength of schedule numbers last week. It's not a complicated formula. Just take the combined winning percentage of each team's opponents from 2017 and order from high to low. Here's what you get:
|Rank ||Team||'17 opponents record||'17 opponents win %|
As you can see, the Panthers check in with the 12th-toughest schedule, one that features full slates of games against the NFC East and AFC North. Of its 16 games, Carolina will play six against teams who made the playoffs last season: New Orleans and Atlanta twice plus visits to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
It's also worth noticing how difficult the Saints' and Buccaneers' schedules appear. They'll each play eight games against 2017 postseason teams.
By virtue of winning the NFC South, New Orleans gets matchups with the Vikings and Rams, who each topped their divisions. Tampa Bay's misfortune is that everyone else in its division made the playoffs last year.
But take a look at this breakdown among NFC South teams:
|Panthers||ATL, NO||ATL, NO, PHI, PIT|
|Falcons||CAR, NO||CAR, NO, PHI, PIT|
|Saints||CAR, ATL, LAR, PHI, PIT||CAR, ATL, MIN|
|Buccaneers||CAR, ATL, NO, PHI, PIT||CAR, ATL, NO|
The Saints and Buccaneers at least get to host Super Bowl champion Philadelphia and perennial power Pittsburgh. The Panthers and Falcons have to play those guys on the road.
How much of a predictor is this stuff? Eh.
Some of it may play out as it looks. The Jaguars and Titans, for example, went into last season tied for the second-easiest schedule. They finished the year tied for the easiest.
But more likely, many teams we assume will be good won't be and others we expect to struggle will surprise.
The Bears were pegged to have the 14th-easiest schedule heading into 2017. They wound up with the toughest.
The Panthers, meanwhile, were looking at the 16th-toughest road. After they actually played the games, they had the fifth-toughest schedule.
So make of all this what you will. With two months left before we even know when teams will play each other, it's at least something to think about.
View some of the best images of the Panthers' cheerleaders from the 2017 season.