By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — The NFL scheduling system is designed to make life a little bit harder for the best teams in the league, and a little bit easier for the worst teams.

The system might have a flaw.

According to a formula developed by CBSSports.com, the Patriots have not only the easiest regular-season schedule but also the easiest path to Super Bowl LIV.

Looks like Patriots fans can start pricing flights to Miami for late January.

As writer John Breech explains, the formula involved three components:

–Difficulty of schedule, which has a slight tweak from the standard strength of schedule formula

–Super Bowl odds

–An added weight to the first three weeks of the season, because of how significant a 3-0 or 0-3 start has proven to be in NFL history

The last bit is interesting, as Breech noted that “over the past four seasons, 15 of the 16 teams that took part in the AFC and NFC title games started the season at 2-1 or better.” (The lone exception to that rule? That would of course be the 2018 New England Patriots, who started last year 1-2 but nevertheless worked their way to a Super Bowl LIII victory.)

With that, the 2019 Patriots were deemed to have the easiest path to the Super Bowl for this upcoming season. The CBS formula rated their schedule difficulty at 84.375.

Anecdotally, one could quibble with the overall assessment. Hosting the Steelers, Browns and Chiefs while making trips to Baltimore, Philadelphia and Houston doesn’t jump off the page as “EASIEST.” But, absent a scientific formula, such an objection would be largely made without merit.

Here’s where the Patriots’ ranking stands among last year’s AFC playoff field:

Houston: 109.0
Kansas City: 101.75
Los Angeles Chargers: 100.75
Baltimore: 100.5
Indianapolis: 96.75
Patriots: 84.375

The most difficult road to the Super Bowl, per CBS’ formula, belongs to the Chicago Bears. After a double-doink finish to their excellent 2018 campaign, Chicago probably deserves better. Football, though, does not often have time for “deserves.”

Of course, as is always the case when the Patriots and strength of schedule are being discussed, the conversation is guaranteed to shift toward just how easy the Patriots always have it. (The fine folks on the Felger & Massarotti radio program had to furiously construct a canoe just to stay afloat atop the deep reservoir of saliva that had dribbled out of their mouths to fill their fancy studio after they had discovered this particular story.)

“The Patriots seem to have the easiest road every year,” Breech wrote. “Although it seems like a vast NFL conspiracy to keep the Patriots on top, the fact of the matter is that we really just need to blame the Jets, Bills and Dolphins for not being competitive at all over the past 20 years.”

By now, you’ve heard that criticism 11,000 times. You’ve likely heard the rebuttal — that the Patriots perform comparably well or better against every other division as they do against the AFC East — nearly as many times. Perhaps you’ve gone deeper to discover that the AFC East performs very well outside of the division, and that the AFC East’s biggest problem has been the Patriots’ dominance, rather than any lack of talent or ability that would be atypical of most every division in the NFL.

That is perhaps what gets obscured in the annual/perpetual “Patriots have the easiest road” conversation that takes place in all NFL corners — sometimes with delight, sometimes with contempt and rage. The Patriots are 30-10 against playoff teams in the playoffs since 2001. They’re 12-2 against playoff teams in the playoffs since 2014. Back when they won three Super Bowls in four years from 2001-04, they went … 9-0 against playoff teams in the playoffs.

Beating playoff teams in the playoffs is generally considered a difficult thing to do.

A year ago, they rolled through the 12-4 Chargers, the 12-4 Chiefs and the 13-3 Rams to win a Super Bowl. They’ve had some Super Bowl runs with less-dominant opponents, but they’ve also had years like 2001 (13-3 Steelers, 14-2 Rams), 2003 (facing co-MVP quarterbacks for 12-4 teams in consecutive playoff weeks), and 2004 (15-1 Steelers, 12-4 Colts, 13-3 Eagles).

The average record of their last 14 playoff opponents has been 11-5. The Patriots have gone 12-2 in those games, including 3-1 in Super Bowls.

The rush to discredit the Patriots’ six Super Bowl victories, nine conference titles and 13 conference championship game appearances in an 18-year span is always an example of folks missing the forest for the trees. For two full decades, the Patriots have beaten everyone. Bad teams, good teams, great teams — they’ve all gotten Belichick’d and Brady’d more than they ever imagined was possible. The Patriots have lost too, as football teams tend to do on occasion, but they’ve literally beaten and outlasted every single possible opponent (except the New York Giants) and conference rival for 20 years.

Far too often, the focus rests on how bad the Patriots’ opponents are, when perhaps that focus should be on just how preposterous it is that the Patriots manage to always avoid the same pitfalls that eventually plague every other team in the league. The Patriots have missed the postseason just twice since 2001; the Colts have missed five times, the Steelers six, the Ravens eight, and the Broncos 10 times.

The Patriots have made the playoffs every season since 2009. The Colts, Steelers and Ravens have each failed to reach the postseason four times in that same span, while the Broncos have missed the playoffs five times in those 10 seasons.

Strength of schedule may help aid those numbers in the Patriots’ favor by one or two games per season, but the primary, secondary and tertiary reason the Patriots always find themselves playing in January has to do with the unmatched consistency and philosophy from Belichick. Having the best quarterback of all time is a slight help, too.

So of course the Patriots have the easiest schedule and the easiest path to the Super Bowl. But that’s got a lot less to do with their opponents being who they are than it does with the simple fact that the Patriots are the Patriots. That, more than anything else, has proven to be the biggest advantage of all.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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