In the newly-formed desert that resides between the NFL Scouting Combine and the revised May start date for the NFL Draft, we’ve finally reached an oasis; the NFL schedule release. While most sports simply unload their schedule without so much as a whisper, the National Football League has turned the event into a greatly-anticipated event, including it’s own prime-time, three-hour special. All of this, mind you, for a schedule in which we already know the list of teams that each franchise will face, just without the order.
However, the order, in itself, can play a significant role in success throughout the season. Various aspects of the schedule, such as the timing of the Bye week and the layout of home and away games, can obviously have an effect on performance. For example, last season the Rams’ Bye week was not until Week 11, which forced to Rams to adjust their offensive philosophy “on the fly” at the one-quarter mark of the season. The 2013 regular season schedule also forced St. Louis on the road for their last three divisional matchups; all three ended as losses. Moreover, those road games against (eventual) 10+ win squads were all crammed into the final five games of the season; a nearly impenetrable gauntlet for a quarterbackless squad fighting to hit the .500 mark for the first time in over half a decade.
So, how does it look this season?
Well, setting aside the fact that the Rams will play the 3rd-hardest strength of schedule (based off opponent’s combined 2013 win-loss percentage), St. Louis does appear to be in a better position than last year to succeed.
For one, their Bye week is relatively early, which could be a godsend for a young roster with questions surrounding the rotation within the wide receiving corps, as well as the offensive line. If last season is any indication, three games into the season is a fair point to gauge the efficacy of the offensive and defensive schemes. Granted, the early “week off” may haunt the Rams towards the middle or end of the season, assuming there are some injury issues. However, being able to regroup at the one-quarter mark of the year and assess the “state of the franchise” might be more valuable to this particular squad.
Secondly, the Rams schedule is relatively “easy” to start the season, facing off against three teams that failed to reach the playoffs last season. Moreover, four of their first six games are in the Edward Jones Dome, including the intra-divisional opener against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 6. The more a young team can play at home in front of a “friendly” crowd, the more quickly they should be able to develop chemistry on the football field; at least, theoretically.
St. Louis will also get a break at the end of the season, to some extent. Not only are three of the final five games at home, they also avoid playing a breakneck schedule of NFC West grinders. As previously mentioned, last season the Rams faced all three division opponents on the road within the final five game of the regular season. This year, St. Louis final three games against the NFC West will come in Week 10 (at Arizona), Week 15 (Arizona), and Week 17 (at Seattle). More spread and more variety, in terms of location, should be another plus on the 2013 schedule.
Obviously, with all of the talk about the front- and back-end of the schedule, there has to be some downside in the middle. The Rams will have to face a treacherous path between Week 5 and Week 12, taking on eight straight teams that either a) were in the playoffs in 2013, b) won 10+ games during that regular season, or c) both! Luckily, some of the more difficult games (i.e. 49ers, Seahawks, Broncos) will be played at home… so that should provide some relief. However, that is about as daunting as a stretch as you’ll find on an NFL schedule this upcoming season, and should be a true test of the St. Louis Rams ‘worth’ following their Bye week.
So, simply skimming over the schedule and using last year as a modest reference for opponent’s difficulty, how should the Rams fair in 2014?
While it is too early to make any steadfast predictions, it would appear that there are seven non-divisional games where the Rams should be favored or, at least, not massive underdogs: Vikings, Buccaneers, Cowboys, Raiders, Redskins, Giants, Chargers. Four of those teams were in the Bottom 10 last season, in terms of record, and only the Chargers made it into the postseason (thanks to a miracle of failure from a handful of other AFC teams). Even some of the likely favored teams, such as Kansas City and Denver, both struggled mightily last season against top tier pass rushing units; and, to make matters worse (for them), both lost significant chucks of their offensive lines this offseason. That leaves only the NFC West, where there is no telling how the wins and losses will play out. On a positive note, Sam Bradford is 5-2-1 against division opponents over the last two season. Assuming that St. Louis can merely “split” within the division, win the lion’s share of the “evenly matched” games, and pull off an upset somewhere on the schedule, the Rams should certainly be teetering on their first .500+ record, and maybe even break into the 10+ wins club.
With it being the offseason, there is no reason to not think optimistically about the St. Louis Rams 2013 schedule. Despite the Top 5 SOS, the Rams did catch some breaks at both the early and latter portions of the season, and should have plenty of “winnable” games that will keep them “in the hunt” for a playoff spot well into December.