The narrative at the start of this Vikings season was that their schedule during the first half of the season was considerably easier than their schedule during the second half of the season.
For a number of reasons, it sure looked that way — the most notable of which was that the Vikings got to play five of their first eight games at U.S. Bank Stadium, while one of their three away from home in that stretch, where they were technically the road team, was really a neutral site game in London against the awful Browns.
Conventional wisdom was that the Vikings needed to take advantage of the early schedule before things got harder. That still seems to be the prevailing sentiment now that Minnesota has arrived comfortably and happily — albeit with hiccups, of course — with a 6-2 record at the midpoint, which coincides with their bye week.
But a stat from Pro Football Focus caught my attention earlier this week. Per PFF’s metrics, the Vikings have had the 4th-toughest schedule in the NFL so far this season. And their second-half schedule only ranks as the 11th-toughest. So PFF is saying things actually get easier?
They are. Here’s what was written in the accompanying text: “They have also had the league’s fourth-toughest strength of schedule so far, and that eases off a little down the stretch.”
Are they nuts?
Well, let’s go back and look at the teams played in the first half of the season. Here was their first-half schedule, with results:
New Orleans (W), Pittsburgh (L), Tampa Bay (W), Detroit (L), Chicago (W), Green Bay (W), Baltimore (W), Cleveland (W).
New Orleans has turned out to be much better than most people thought. After starting 0-2, the Saints have rattled off five wins in a row. Pittsburgh is a Super Bowl contender. The Packers at least had Aaron Rodgers at the start of the game against the Vikings before he was injured. All three teams are still in the top 10 of FiveThirtyEight’s ELO strength rankings (as are the Vikings, at No. 9). That said, Cleveland, Chicago and Tampa Bay are all in the bottom five. Detroit and Baltimore (14th and 16th, respectively) are middle of the pack.
In the second half, the Vikings face, in order:
Washington, L.A. Rams, Detroit, Atlanta, Carolina, Cincinnati, Green Bay and Chicago.
The only top-10 teams, per FiveThirtyEight, in that mix are Atlanta (No. 6) and Green Bay (No. 10). If Rodgers is still out when the Vikings play the Packers late in the year, Green Bay figures to be lower on the list by that point. Both of those games looked tougher when the schedule first came out, before the Falcons sputtered a bit in the first half and Green Bay was ravaged by injuries.
Carolina (11th) and the surprising Rams (13th) are good teams with winning records, while the Vikings play No. 14 Detroit again (this time on the road). Cincinnati (19th), Washington (20th), and Chicago (29th) round out the potentially easier games, with the Vikings getting both the Bengals and Bears at home over the final three weeks.
That said, it doesn’t look at least from first glance like that second-half schedule is any easier than the first half — particularly when you consider four of the first five after the bye are on the road. Maybe you could squint and say they’re comparable, albeit in different ways.
The stranger thing within that number is that PFF also projects the Vikings, after running simulations, to finish with 9.9 wins (let’s just round that up to 10 since I’m pretty sure the NFL does not allow fractions of victories). That would mean the Vikings would go 4-4 down the stretch against an easier schedule than they went 6-2 against at the start.
The most favorable way to read that, in regards to PFF and the Vikings, is that Minnesota overachieved in the first half. Another way to look at it is that there are more true toss-up games in the second half of the year. The Vikings won’t play a team as good as Pittsburgh, but they also won’t face a team as easy as Cleveland.
In that sense, going 4-4 against the second-half slate would make some sense — and put them right at that PFF 10-win mark. If PFF’s numbers are truly to be believed, however, the Vikings could do even better than that against this next slate of eight opponents.