Third-place schedules key for rising teams

12/29/2006 - NFL

Because I spend so much time promoting and studying Dick Vermeil's idea of the impact schedules have on standings, it's only fitting that we review how his concepts stand the test of time.

The former coach of the Eagles, Rams and Chiefs was a stats freak. He eagerly awaited mounds of statistical studies each year to determine trends. More than any other coach of his era, Vermeil understood schedules. His main theory was potential Super Bowl contenders could be relegated to .500 teams if they play too many teams with winning records.

Vermeil appreciated the toll it took on a team to play too many winning teams. The injury list swells. Slumps develop. Confidence slips. Teams with hard schedules wear down mentally. Next to quarterback play, the schedule might be the most important factor in determining a team's season.

What did we learn in 2006?

1. In quality divisions, third-place finishes are better than second. When the NFL went to a four-team, eight-division format, it lessened the benefits of the last-place schedule, which allowed a lot of worst-to-first jumps. Schedules had more balance, but with teams being so close on talent, little advantages could be huge.

That's why it was easy to project the 2005 third-place finishes of the Chargers and Ravens being huge factors this year. Divisional teams play 14 common games. The two differences are two conference games determined by where teams finished. Third-place teams going head-to-head is one of the reasons you can expect five to six new playoff teams every year. Remember, the division winners have to play two first-place teams, and that's a drain.

The Ravens added quarterback Steve McNair, and coupled with a third-place schedule, won the AFC North. Their two non-common games were against the Titans -- whom they beat -- and the Bills, who come to town Sunday. Adding the Bills game, the Ravens played a schedule consisting of opponents with a .469 winning percentage. The Ravens are 5-2 against winning teams in that schedule. The Bengals played a .532 schedule, went 3-5 against winning teams and lost to two division winners, the Colts and the Patriots. Huge advantage, Ravens.

And, just so you know, I am including the season-finale in the records because the true season bears out over 16 games.

The scheduling advantages for the Chargers in the AFC West were even more pronounced. A year ago, they were doomed to an impossible schedule. They went 5-6 against winning teams and finished third at 9-7. The Chargers overtook the Broncos this season by riding the third-place schedule. They beat the Titans and Bills while the Broncos split against the Patriots and Colts. The Chargers played a .457 schedule and went 6-2 against winning teams. The Broncos should clinch a wild card, but played a .519 schedule and went 4-5 against winning teams. In the NFC, the Cowboys rode a third-place schedule to a playoff berth, going 2-4 against winning teams in a .481 schedule.

2. Never apologize for an easy schedule. The easiest prediction in football this season was that the Bears would be the No. 1 seed in the NFC. Based on last year's records, the Bears entered with the league's easiest schedule, a Big East-like .445 slate. Thanks to the total collapse of the NFC, they are currently on pace to play a .415 schedule, which could be the sixth easiest in the last 10 years. The Bears played only three games against winning teams, and they were 2-1 in those games.

The key is converting the easy schedule into a Super Bowl. The Dolphins went 14-0 in 1972 against what was considered the easiest schedule in NFL history. Don Shula toasts his champagne glass to a Dolphins team that didn't play a team with a winning record during the regular season. Miami's opponents that year were a combined 67-125-2. No need to apologize. The Dolphins won the Super Bowl. Vermeil's Rams blew through a .363 schedule in 1999 and played only one winning team. They lost to the Titans in the regular season but came back to beat Tennessee in the Super Bowl. The 1999 Jaguars played a .391 schedule, went 14-2 and lost to the Titans in the AFC Championship Game.

3. Tough schedules broke down 2005 NFC playoff teams. Face it, the NFC is fragile. Whether it's the young quarterbacks or light defenses or constant coaching changes, the NFC is a second-class citizen in the NFL. It is 23-39 against the AFC and only the Cowboys had a winning record in interconference play. With only five NFC teams with winning records, it's only natural to see most NFC teams playing sub .500 schedules. Only four played tougher schedules in excess off .500. Three were playoff teams in 2005 -- the Bucs (.539), Giants (.528) and the Redskins (.511). That trio dropped an average of five games. The other team was the Lions, but they would have lost to an easy schedule.

4. Don't underestimate the Colts in the playoffs. A year ago, the Colts rolled through an easy schedule and went 6-0 against good teams. With the surprise rise of the Titans, the Colts' schedule turned into a tough one. As it turned out, the Colts played 11 games against winning teams and went 8-3. In the Vermeil concepts, that's bad because they played too many good teams. The attrition from those games ripped apart the defensive tackle and safety positions and left the Colts with a six-man defensive line rotation to stop the run. Still, eight victories against winning teams means something. The 16 teams in the NFC had only 22.

5. What does it mean for next year?

The NFC North draws the AFC West. Unless the Packers, Vikings and Lions get significantly better, the AFC West winner should be a No. 1 or No. 2 seed and the runner-up should be a top wild card. The AFC East went 12-4 against the NFC North this year, so most AFC West teams figure to go 3-1 in interconference games.

Thanks to their advantages in the NFC North, the Bears once again will have the league's easiest schedule. At the moment, the Bears are scheduled to play a .449 schedule. It was supposed to be .445 this year and could end up at .415.

Third-place teams to watch could be the 49ers, Steelers, Titans or Jaguars and Chiefs. A third-place finish could also benefit the Giants. Schedule is everything in the NFL. Combine that with good quarterback play, and expect change to the playoff lineup in 2007.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.