A recent article by Mike Sando of The Athletic ranked strength of schedule for each NFL team based on the quality of quarterbacks they’d face in 2020. For the Buffalo Bills, the quarterback rankings they used had them with the 27th-hardest schedule. In other words, good news.
I did a similar thing for the Bills but using opponent defenses and Sando’s work inspired me to do the same thing with opposing offenses. This should be reassuring for Bills fans, but we’ve seen firsthand how an offense can put up points despite not having a “Tier 1” signal caller. Let’s look at total offense a couple different ways and see if it’s better, worse, or the same news for the Bills.
The Analytical Model
This works the same as the defensive version of this article. Briefly recapped, we average the offensive rankings of all the Bills opponents. Division opponents are scored twice. We use points scored and yards per play to measure teams across a couple metrics. For continuity’s sake we’ll also compare 2019’s results to 2020’s projections so there’s a baseline.
I’ll only do this for the first measure to illustrate the concept, so here goes. Based on points scored the Bills faced the following offensive rankings in 2019: 1, 6, 7, 7, 10, 12, 19, 22, 25, 25, 27, 28, 30, 31, 31, 32.
That averages out to 19.6 for team rankings. If you read the defensive version of this article you know my ultimate point was that these types of exercises tend to normalize around the 16-17 mark or “perfectly average.” To see 19.6 is a bit shocking. The 2019 Bills faced a lot of really bad offenses. I know what you’re thinking and yes, it is probably that an elite defense would skew the results so this might be colored a bit by that fact.
The 2020 Bills will face an average ranking of 17.4 when it comes to points scored. That’s still a bit skewed toward bad offenses but does suggest that the 2020 Bills will have a bit tougher task.
Yards per play
I know I said I would only write out the list of rankings for one metric. That was a lie. You need to see this one. In 2019, based on yards per play, the Bills faced off against teams ranked: 1, 3, 4, 14, 17, 21, 24, 24, 26, 27, 28, 29, 29, 30, 32, 32. There were only three games against teams that were above average. THREE! It averages out to a rank of 21.3, which is awful.
Believe it or not, the best division rival was ranked 24th in this metric. Not even the New England Patriots were all that good at moving the ball. The poor division measures help explain the 2020 average ranking of 18.3. That still suggests a lot of bad opponents but a major improvement from 2019. This could still be skewed by the Bills’ own defense, but it’s unlikely it can be completely explained that way.
The division was pretty bad overall last year. The Patriots found ways to score but aside from that it’s hard to find a lot that was good last year in the AFC East. I don’t see that changing in 2020 either. Tua Tagovailoa should boost the Miami Dolphins eventually but rookies aren’t typically known for overcoming the better defenses in the league. Talent wise the New York Jets could take a step forward but reports coming out of New Jersey surrounding the team culture aren’t inspiring. The big news is the loss of Tom Brady in New England of course. I’m a Cam Newton fan and think he’s likely their best shot at a successful season this year. Being honest with myself though, I don’t see how he improves the team over Brady. If the team remains stable, I’d consider it a major accomplishment.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, Tennessee Titans, and Denver Broncos all remain on the schedule. The Steelers get Big Ben back and even if he isn’t his old self he should be better than Devlin Hodges. The Titans found a hell of a groove with Ryan Tannehill last year after they lost to the Bills, meaning we didn’t face their best selves. It’s reasonable to think they’ll fall back to earth a bit, but could still be tougher than last year. The Broncos didn’t really upgrade the quarterback situation but they added a lot on offense in the draft. It’s possible all three games will be harder.
Last year’s tour of the North added the Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, and Cincinnati Bengals. This year they take on the AFC West. The Las Vegas Raiders are more likely to be excited about their new home than their offense, yet they’ll still be a stronger team than the Bengals last season. The Los Angeles Chargers were uninspiring last season and look to Tyrod Taylor to give them a spark. We’ve seen him produce a much better scoring offense than 21st in the league so don’t expect a drop-off at all from them. And finally there’s the Kansas City Chiefs. Stats-wise they fell below the Ravens, but realistically they could pose a much bigger threat to the Bills.
The NFC East had a good mix of teams. The Dallas Cowboys had a potent offense. The Philadelphia Eagles were higher average. The New York Giants were lower average. Washington was bad. The NFC West looks to be a much tougher gauntlet. Despite a pretty bad record, the Arizona Cardinals’ offense was average. They’re the worst offense in the West and another year of experience for Kyler Murray won’t hurt. The Los Angeles Rams were on the fringe of good and both the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers definitely can’t be taken lightly.
Team results tell a different story than strictly quarterback rankings. Whereas those are mostly optimistic with few elite threats on the list, the Bills do have to face off against the whole team not just the man under center. Neither look above is as optimistic when it comes to total team offense.
The analytic model is probably skewed to some degree by the Bills having an excellent defense. While it suggests a tougher year is coming, it’s harder to pinpoint the degree. However, taking some educated guesses reinforces an increase in difficulty is likely coming. The AFC East might be a wash or even small decline. The rest of the AFC teams shape up to be a tougher challenge on paper. The jump in NFC competition could be major.
The Buffalo Bills can’t afford to be complacent in 2020.