The Texans probably should have waited until January 2020 to fire their general manager. They might be looking for a scapegoat to fire if things go badly in 2019, and things might go badly based on how difficult their schedule is this year.
According to our scheduling formula, not only do the Texans have the most difficult schedule in the AFC South this season, but they also have the fourth most difficult schedule in the entire NFL. With the regular season still three months away, you might be wondering how we already know that the Texans have the most difficult schedule in the division, and that’s because we went ahead and ranked all 32 schedules.
The easiest way to rank each schedule in the NFL, but the problem with going that route is that it’s not exactly the most efficient way to rate schedule difficulty, which is why we went ahead and devised a formula.
So how does this formula work? Glad you asked.
First, we looked at Super Bowl odds from the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook. Since the oddsmakers in Vegas seem to know what they’re doing, we incorporated their odds into our formula, which is a big reason why the Texans’ season could turn into a nightmare.
If you look at Houston’s schedule, the Texans have to play five games against the teams that Vegas views as the top-five contenders this year (Colts twice, at Saints, at Chiefs, Patriots), and three of those will be on the road. On the other hand, a team like the Colts only has to play two games against top-five contenders (at Chiefs, at Saints), and that’s because Indy doesn’t have to play the Patriots (and also, they obviously don’t have to play themselves).
Another part of the formula is the first three games of the season. Those are going to be weighted slightly more than the other 13 games, because they tend to be a good indication of how a team will play throughout the year. Basically, teams that go winless in their first three games almost never make the playoffs.
Since 1990, only four teams have started 0-3 and made the postseason (1992 Chargers,1995 Lions, 1998 Bills, 2018 Texans). Although the Texans pulled off the feat last year, there’s a reason it’s only happened four times in 29 seasons, which means Houston probably shouldn’t count on it working two years in a row.
Although an 0-3 start almost always means you’ll miss the postseason, 3-0 usually means good things in the NFL: From 1990 to 2010, 75.9 percent of the teams that started 3-0 made the playoffs. Those odds drop to 54.9 percent for 2-1 teams and 23.3 percent for 1-2 teams.
This basically means that if your favorite team has a murderer’s row in the first three weeks of the season, you should probably just give up on 2019 and start paying attention to 2020. According to our formula, the Texans and Jaguars are the big losers here. The Texans open the year with two difficult road games over the first three weeks (at Saints, at Chargers), while the Jags open up the season with three straight games against teams that finished with a winning record in 2018.
Speaking of the first three games, it’s probably worth nothing that starting off the year with a winning record through the first three weeks has almost become a prerequisite for getting into a conference title game. Over the past four seasons, 15 of the 16 teams that took part in the AFC and NFC title games started the season at 2-1 or better. That doesn’t necessarily mean your favorite team will make it if they start 2-1, it just means they almost certainly won’t make it if they start 1-2 or 0-3. (Since 2015, the one team that bucked this trend was the 2018 Patriots, but the Patriots have bucked a lot of trends over the years and it’s unlikely that another team would be able to emulate them.)
On the other end of the schedule, the reason the final three games of the season aren’t being given more weight is because the final games don’t always mean the same for everybody, especially when a team is resting its starters. The Saints went 0-3 in their final three games in 2009 and still won the Super Bowl. The Ravens went 1-2 in their final three in 2012 and also won the Super Bowl.
Finally, each individual game on each team’s schedule is also being ranked based on difficulty.
For instance, the Texans have to travel to New Orleans to play a Monday night game against the Saints to open the season. On the other hand, the Titans get to play the Saints outdoors, in Nashville, in December. From a strength of schedule standpoint, the game is the same: Both teams are playing the Saints. However, the Texans’ game against New Orleans is viewed as more difficult in our formula, because they have to go on the road to face a Saints team that’s 18-4 in home primetime games over the past 10 years. Those individual nuances are factored into the schedule ratings.
Alright, that’s enough rambling, let’s get to these rankings.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, here’s how things are going to work: On Tuesdays and Thursdays over the next four weeks, we’ll be going division by division to rank every schedule in the NFL. After starting with the AFC East on Tuesday, which, we’ll be hitting the AFC South right now. Next week, you’ll be getting the AFC North (June 18) and the AFC West (June 20).
Ranking the AFC South schedules
4. Indianapolis Colts
Schedule difficulty rating: 96.75
Easiest stretch: Andrew Luck has never lost to the Titans in his career, so making the Titans a part of the Colts’ easiest stretch was a no-brainer. The easiest part of Indy’s schedule starts in Week 10, when the Colts get to play three homes games in four weeks against the Dolphins (Week 10), Jaguars (Week 11) and Titans (Week 13). Luck is 11-0 all-time against the Titans, and it’s getting to the point that no one out there actually believes that Tennessee will ever be able to beat him.
Anyway, the only game in this span that won’t be at home will come in Week 12 when the Colts travel to Houston for a Thursday showdown.
Roughest stretch: The ugliest portion of the Colts’ schedule comes at the end of the season, and that’s because they’ll be closing the year by playing three of four games on the road. Of course, the upside here is that the Colts likely won’t have to deal with any frigid December weather, and that’s because two of those road games will be played in Florida (at Tampa, at Jacksonville) and the other game will be played in a dome (New Orleans). You know what, maybe the Colts don’t actually have a rough stretch.
Weird scheduling note: The Colts won’t get to play their home opener until Week 3, making them one of just four teams in the NFL this year that will have to open the season with two straight games on the road.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars
Schedule difficulty rating: 97.0
Easiest stretch: The Jaguars could be heading into their Week 10 bye on a winning streak, and that’s because Jacksonville will be playing three very winnable games before taking a week off. Their “easiest stretch” starts in Week 7 with a road trip to Cincinnati. After that, the Jaguars will host the Jets before traveling to London to play the Texans. By that point in the season, we should know if Nick Foles has turned around the offense or if the team has fully imploded and fired everyone.
Roughest stretch: The schedule makers didn’t do the Jaguars any favors to start the season. Over the first three weeks of the year, not only do the Jags have to face three teams that all finished with a winning record in 2018 (Kansas City, at Houston, Tennessee), but two of those teams also won their division (Chiefs, Texans). Nick Foles better show up wearing his Super Bowl MVP pants to start the season because he’ll be leading an offense that scored the fewest points per game in the AFC last year (15.3), and his first game is against a Chiefs team that scored more points than anyone (35.3).
Weird scheduling note: The Jaguars’ Week 15 game against the Raiders is notable for two reasons. For one, it could be the final game ever played in Oakland. Also, the Jags could do something they haven’t done in 14 years: win a game in the Pacific time zone. Since 2005, the Jaguars have managed to go 0-9 out west. One other weird scheduling note: The Jaguars don’t get to play a single game in Jacksonville during the month of November.
2. Tennessee Titans
Schedule difficulty rating: 103.625
Easiest stretch: If the Titans have proven one thing over the past few years, it’s that they’re really good at beating NFC teams. In their last 11 games against the conference, the Titans have gone 8-3, which is why we’re listing their games against the Buccaneers and Panthers as the easiest stretch on their schedule. The Titans will host Tampa in Week 8 before traveling to Carolina for a Week 9 game against the Panthers. The Week 8 game against the Bucs could finally settle the debate about who the best quarterback was to come out of the 2015 NFL Draft, but the more likely scenario is that it won’t settle anything at all and we’ll all keep arguing …
… or maybe that poll is right and the answer is just Mariota.
Roughest stretch: The Titans’ season might be over before September ends, and that’s because their roughest stretch comes during the first four games of the season. Not only do the Titans have to hit the road for three of their first four games, but the one home game they have in that span will come against a quarterback they’ve never beaten: Andrew Luck. The Titans are 0-11 all-time against Luck and they’ll have to face him in Week 2. The three road games will be coming against the Browns (Week 1), Jaguars (Week 3) and Falcons (Week 4).
Weird scheduling note: The Titans’ season will open with three of their first four games on the road, which isn’t an ideal situation for a team that hasn’t finished any season with a winning record on the road since 2007. The Titans are one of just three teams in the NFL, along with the Chiefs and Bengals, that have to open with three of four on the road.
1. Houston Texans
Schedule difficulty rating: 109.0
Easiest stretch: When you have the fourth most difficult schedule in the NFL, there aren’t a lot of easy stretches, but the Texans might getting one at the end of the season. Over the final three weeks of the year, the Texans get to play the Titans twice (Weeks 15 and 17) with a game against the Buccaneers sandwiched in the middle. Bill O’Brien is probably thrilled that the Texans are closing the season with multiple games against Tennessee, and that’s because O’Brien is 7-3 all-time against the Titans since being hired as Houston’s coach in 2014.
Roughest stretch: It’s almost fitting that the Texans went the “Game of Thrones” route to announce their schedule this year, because the only thing more disappointing than the final season of “Game of Thrones” might end up being the Texans’ 2019 season.
Houston’s schedule is basically a minefield. I mean, you know your schedule is rough when you open the season with two of three on the road — against the Saints and Chargers — and that’s not the most difficult part of your schedule. For the Texans, the hardest part starts in Week 11 when they have to play three straight teams that went to the playoffs last season: at Ravens, Colts, Patriots. What makes this stretch so brutal is that the Texans have to play at Baltimore, before returning to Houston to play the Colts just four days later on a Thursday night. Although that will give Houston three extra days to prepare for the Patriots, that might not matter, and that’s because New England is 10-1 all-time against the Texans.
Weird scheduling note: After waiting patiently for 12 years, Texans fans in England will finally get to see their team play in London this year. Since the international series started in 2007, 29 of the NFL’s 32 teams have played in England, with the Packers, Panthers and Texans being the only three teams that had yet to visit. The Texans will be making their first trip in November when they play the Jaguars at Wembley Stadium (The Panthers are also scheduled to play in London this year, meaning that once the 2019 season is over, the Packers will be the only team that hasn’t played in England).