Earlier this week, I wrote about the Carolina Panthers easy schedule and how Cam Newton was able to benefit from playing teams like the New Orleans Saints twice this season. I went onto a Carolina radio station on Wednesday and was even told that the assessment of schedule is unfair because even the Seattle Seahawks "played the Cleveland Browns."
Okay, yes, the Seahawks did play the Browns (a team that is ranked 29th on defense by DVOA, ahead of the Saints and New York Giants) but we're talking about the totality of a 16-game schedule here.
The Panthers played the two worst divisions in football -- the AFC South and NFC East -- plus their own hapless division that includes the worst defense we've ever seen, a Bucs defense that was 26th against the pass, and the Atlanta Falcons, who improved to 22nd in defense under Dan Quinn after being 32nd a year ago. It was easier. To say it was not easier isn't just ignorance, it's ignorance so willful that you'd imagine any fan claiming otherwise has probably also just ignored the last 49 Super Bowls and assumed that Carolina won all of those too.
This is what the Panthers have faced this season:
The DVOA ranks for every defense the Panthers faced this season. (Apologies if advanced stats frighten you) pic.twitter.com/mm4qJtML4I— this is a good tweet (@KennethArthuRS) January 11, 2016
And this is what the Seahawks have faced:
The DVOA ranks for every defense the #Seahawks faced this season. 10 of 16 games against an above-average defense. pic.twitter.com/z8MN7cJcOn— this is a good tweet (@KennethArthuRS) January 13, 2016
It's not even close. Russell Wilson faced seven top-10 defenses (compared to three for Newton) and nine of the defenses were ranked in the top 15 against the pass. Most of his schedule was teams with an above average pass defense, compared to only five such games for Newton, who faced seven teams ranked 24th or worse.
Both players had outstanding seasons, but you'd look foolish to claim that they did it against the same type of competition. And if you don't think your competition matters, why are you even a fan of sports ... an activity solely based on competition.
It's the same reasoning that people have for why Gonzaga can constantly go to the NCAA tournament, consistently get a top four seed, and still has never gone to the Final Four. Even more close to home is the Seahawks, of course, who in the mid-2000s were always in the playoffs because they played in a division that's probably even worse than what the AFC South looks like right now, but a team that was rarely actually competing for Super Bowls. Looking back at Super Bowl XL ten years later, I think it's fair to say that the schedule (Seattle's was ranked 32nd compared to 17th for Pittsburgh) played a part in what we felt was a surprising result.
After all, the Seahawks had won more games in the regular season, right? That has to count for something, right?
But I think if you could go back and put Seattle in a better division, against some tougher opponents, even if they won a couple fewer games, at least you'd know what it was like to get punched in the mouth. That year they got punched in the mouth a little bit by a Steelers team that had a better QB and rushing attack than the Seahawks had possibly seen all season. Seattle played five games total against San Francisco, St. Louis, and Houston, the three worst teams in the NFL.
Despite leading the league in points scored, the Seahawks scored a season-low 10 points in the Super Bowl. I don't care what the refs can do or say, they were never going to beat anybody without scoring more than 10 points.
So yes, Wilson played a much tougher schedule than Newton, and his final passing numbers were even a little better than the soon-to-be MVP's stats. However, what really matters this weekend? It's not about what you did, it's about what you will do; and the best defense Wilson faced all season belongs to the Carolina Panthers.
Now, I know that Panthers fans might think it's really stupid to use DVOA, but I'm going to do it anyway: Carolina was second in defensive DVOA and second against the pass. I know it sucks, but deal with it: DVOA loves your team. In fact, DVOA loves your defense more than it loves Seattle's defense.
In Week 6, the Seahawks put up 334 total yards of offense, their fourth-lowest output of the season and just 115 rushing yards for the number three rushing team in the league. Wilson's last two games against the Panthers have been good (four touchdowns, no interceptions) but this is the road and these are the playoffs.
Wilson was actually better on the road this season than most QBs are at home (17 TD/6 INT, 107.7 passer rating, one rushing TD) but how much of Sunday's poor start in Minnesota was affected by the weather?
I know which one of these QBs faced a tougher schedule this year and it's not even close, but none of that will matter this week as two top-five quarterbacks are going to each face top-five defenses. People have referred to this as "my Super Bowl" because of how much pressure I've put on Seattle to "prove they're better than Carolina" after my somewhat controversial MVP opinions, but the truth of the situation is that this might actually just be the Super-Bowl-before-the-Super-Bowl. Until we see the Arizona Cardinals rebound from the beatdown they just received from the Seahawks, I don't think you can say that there is a team playing better than Carolina or Seattle.
Technically then, they each have the "toughest schedule remaining."