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What the Data Says About the NFL Schedule, Including the Packers’ Misfortune

By: Ethan D. Cooperson

With the NFL slate liberally sprinkled with bye weeks, Monday games, Thursday games, Saturday games and even a rare Friday affair, about one-third of the games in 2020 will feature a disparity in days of rest between the two teams.

To assess how much of an advantage the extra rest provides, we checked the numbers back to 1990, the year that bye weeks were instituted. We broke the numbers down by the differential in days of rest between opposing teams. A team with a plus-1 had one more day of rest than its opponent, plus-2 means two more days, etc.

Surprisingly, in 1,428 games in which teams had a differential between plus-1 and plus-3, those teams had a losing record. About two-thirds of those games were plus-1, occurring most often when a team coming off a Monday night appearance faced a team playing on regular rest. Taking the field on Sunday following an MNF appearance was hardly a disadvantage, but when the rest differential was four days or more, there was a decided edge for the fresher team.

Overall, the 2020 schedule is balanced. There are 29 games in which a team will have a rest differential of plus-4 or better — one such game, in fact, for each of 29 different teams. But one of the three teams that does not have a game with such an advantage is the Green Bay Packers.

Aaron Rodgers

To make matters worse for Aaron Rodgers and Co., they have a pair of contests in which they will be minus-6 or worse — both in divisional matchups. In Week 8, the Packers will play on regular rest against a Minnesota Vikings team coming off a bye; the scenario will repeat four weeks later against the Chicago Bears. In the standard measure of “strength of schedule,” Green Bay ranks in the middle of the pack, as the team’s 2020 opponents had an aggregate .504 winning percentage last season.

But the rest differential puts the Packers at a significant disadvantage.

Playing on the wrong side of a rest disparity has proven to be a problem for Green Bay in the Rodgers era. In the 11 games he has started in which the team was a minus-6 or worse, the Packers have a 5-6 record (.455). That’s a far cry from the .666 winning percentage Rodgers has crafted in all other regular-season starts in his career. In a league in which eight teams missed the playoffs by one or two games last season, those two games with a rest disadvantage might have a real impact on Green Bay’s fortunes.

Digging a little deeper, we wondered if an advantage in the amount of rest benefits inferior teams looking for upsets. To test this question, we again went back to 1990 and this time considered the end-of-season records of all teams. We excluded games in which the two combatants finished with identical records. Was the better team handicapped by having fewer days off than its inferior opponent? And did the size of that disparity affect the outcome?

For the stronger clubs, having an extra day or more to prepare helps, but not much. Form holds in about three-quarters of all games. Might those numbers be skewed because, when there is a large disparity in rest between two teams, it is typically the road team that has more days off? Perhaps the most equitable scheduling would have dictated that teams with a large advantage in rest would typically have to play on the road, but the league has not made that a priority, as the chart shows:

So when games with a large rest disparity are played, it is more often the home team that has had more days off. It’s noteworthy that the overall winning percentage of home teams over the last three decades is .577, and that number increases slightly to .588 when the home team has a large advantage in rest. But the success rate of road teams does increase significantly when the visitors have had at least six more days off — from .423 overall to .463.

So, when the Vikings and Bears visit Lambeau Field this November coming off bye weeks, there will be plenty of reason for optimism for fans in Minnesota and Chicago.

Research support provided by Jacob Jaffe.