Sports

Our 2021 NFL Projections Like The Bucs And Chiefs (Again)

Going into last fall, we called 2020 an “abnormally normal” season of pro football — and that basically ended up being true. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic throwing the league for a loop at times, the NFL pressed through and eventually played a full 21-week regular season and playoffs, culminating in that most normal of football traditions: Tom Brady winning yet another Super Bowl.

This time around, it might be fair to call the 2021 season “normally abnormal.” The NFL is hoping for smoother sailing on the pandemic front — though it remains to be seen whether the delta variant will cooperate — while also introducing the new normal of a 17-game schedule, the league’s first planned change to its season length since 1978. To help forecast that (and all of the odd-looking records it will produce), we’ve refreshed our NFL predictions with offseason roster moves, the upcoming slate of games and a slight model tweak to how we handle the end of the regular season. Read on to find out how your team fared in our forecast’s first batch of 50,000 season simulations:

How we’re predicting the NFC East race

Chance To …
Team Starting QB QB Rank* Elo Rating Proj. Record Make Playoffs Win Division Win Super Bowl
Cowboys Dak Prescott 4 1524 9-8 53% 39% 3%
Washington Ryan Fitzpatrick 12 1514 8-9 45 31 2
Giants Daniel Jones 25 1443 7-10 26 16 1
Eagles Jalen Hurts 27 1425 7-10 24 14 1

*Ranking among all opening-day starters, according to our QB Elo ratings.

Simulations as of Sept. 2, 2021.

Last year’s NFC East was one of the worst divisions in league history, with a combined 11-28-1 record against teams from all other divisions. Will it be any better this season? Elo thinks so — though it still looks to be a below-average group. For their part, the division-favorite Cowboys are counting on Dak Prescott’s return from injury to help them improve upon last year’s 6-10 debut under coach Mike McCarthy. Surely Prescott, Elo’s fourth-ranked QB, will boost a passing offense that ranked 21st in schedule-adjusted expected points added (EPA) per game last year … but the big question is whether Dallas did enough to improve a defense that ranked 29th.

Meanwhile, the Football Team will try to defend its division crown with surprisingly effective journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick under center. Provided it can overcome Elo’s third-toughest projected schedule, a little FitzMagic might work for a team that was strong defensively (No. 6 in EPA) but held back by its weak passing (No. 28) last season.

Like Washington, the Giants also face a fairly difficult schedule (fifth-hardest), but they have some promising talent as well — if the team manages to stay healthy. Regardless, it might be make-or-break time for third-year QB Daniel Jones.

Finally, the Eagles are looking to turn the page on the Carson Wentz era with new coach Nick Sirianni, but things might get worse before they get better. While it’s certainly possible that Jalen Hurts improves to more of an average passer in his second NFL season (particularly with touted rookie wideout DeVonta Smith as a target), Philly ranked 29th in Pro Football Focus’s offseason survey of roster talent. Still, even this Eagles team has a 24 percent playoff probability in a division best known for its parity (and mediocrity) in recent years.

How we’re predicting the NFC North race

Chance To …
Team Starting QB QB Rank* Elo Rating Proj. Record Make Playoffs Win Division Win Super Bowl
Packers Aaron Rodgers 1 1602 10-7 72% 57% 8%
Vikings Kirk Cousins 10 1511 8-9 44 26 2
Bears Andy Dalton 24 1456 7-10 26 13 1
Lions Jared Goff 18 1368 5-12 10 4 <1

*Ranking among all opening-day starters, according to our QB Elo ratings.

Simulations as of Sept. 2, 2021.

After a drama-filled offseason, Aaron Rodgers is back with the Packers for at least one more go-round. And as it turns out, returning Elo’s top-rated quarterback is a good way to earn division favorite status — provided Rodgers keeps playing like an MVP in his age-38 season. (And let’s face it, 38 is a positively youthful age by today’s QB standards). As Rodgers goes, so will the Pack, and this team was nearly good enough to make the Super Bowl a year ago.

Behind Green Bay, the Vikings are where they usually find themselves: good enough to be in the playoff hunt, but not much better than that. With big problems up front, Minnesota’s defense (which had been so good in 2019) wasn’t able to compensate for the uneven play last year of QB Kirk Cousins; do either of those factors change this season?

After jettisoning Mitchell Trubisky, the Bears are embarking on a new era with veteran QB Andy Dalton keeping the seat warm for rookie Justin Fields. But while LB Khalil Mack and Chicago’s seventh-ranked EPA defense were strong enough last season to carry the team to the playoffs, our model is skeptical that the formula can work again in 2021.

Speaking of new QB eras, the Lions will go into a season without Matthew Stafford under center for the first time since 2008, after shipping their longtime franchise passer to the L.A. Rams for Jared Goff in March. Although Stafford and the Lions’ offense were going nowhere last year, Goff’s mediocrity is also well-documented; it’s unlikely that he can overcome a Detroit defense that ranked dead last in EPA in 2020 and probably won’t be much better under new coach Dan Campbell this season.

How we’re predicting the NFC South race

Chance To …
Team Starting QB QB Rank* Elo Rating Proj. Record Make Playoffs Win Division Win Super Bowl
Buccaneers Tom Brady 7 1643 12-5 83% 61% 13%
Saints Jameis Winston 21 1537 9-8 49 21 3
Falcons Matt Ryan 15 1463 8-9 30 10 1
Panthers Sam Darnold 31 1441 7-10 26 8 1

*Ranking among all opening-day starters, according to our QB Elo ratings.

Simulations as of Sept. 2, 2021.

After last season’s remarkable run to the championship, what can Brady and the Buccaneers do for an encore? Well, thanks to an offseason that saw them bring back practically all of the major contributors from a team that ranked first overall in both Elo and total EPA per game, Tampa Bay is set up for even more success as Super Bowl favorites (though barely) in 2021. Going into the preseason, PFF judged this Bucs roster to be the NFL’s most talented; they’ll also face the league’s 12th-easiest schedule according to Elo. Perhaps the only thing standing in their way is the eventual inevitability of decline for the 44-year-old Brady, who had offseason knee surgery and is trying to become the oldest QB to ever start more than six games in a season. But we’ll believe that when we see it — and maybe not even then.

The Saints will find out what it’s like to move on from their own aging QB after Drew Brees retired in March. But despite some salary-cap shuffling, the cupboard is hardly bare, as New Orleans had the No. 4 EPA defense and No. 1 EPA rushing offense surrounding Brees last year. With Jameis Winston beating out Taysom Hill for the job of replacing Brees at QB, it will be interesting to see the Saints’ offense evolve from one of the league’s shortest-passing attacks to presumably one that throws deep more.

It’s difficult to say what to expect from the Falcons this season: On the one hand, Atlanta’s 4-12 record last year belied the point differential of a nearly .500 ballclub, so with better luck — and yes, I am aware of this franchise’s cosmic misfortunes — plus QB Matt Ryan joining forces with new coach Arthur Smith, this team could be a candidate for major improvement. On the other hand, Ryan is 36 years old; he’s coming off two straight years of less-than-elite efficiency; he lost his top career target when Julio Jones was dealt to the Titans this offseason; and his defensive support has been below-average (by EPA) for three straight seasons, with little reason to think 2021 will be any different.

As for the Panthers, they are a young team still building after going 10-22 over the past two years. We give them a 26 percent playoff probability, but that largely depends on whether ex-Jet Sam Darnold can turn his career around after ranking among the NFL’s worst QBs during his first three pro seasons.

How we’re predicting the NFC West race

Chance To …
Team Starting QB QB Rank* Elo Rating Proj. Record Make Playoffs Win Division Win Super Bowl
Rams Matthew Stafford 17 1570 10-7 62% 32% 6%
49ers Jimmy Garoppolo 23 1544 10-7 58 28 3
Seahawks Russell Wilson 13 1553 10-7 57 27 4
Cardinals Kyler Murray 6 1489 8-9 36 13 1

*Ranking among all opening-day starters, according to our QB Elo ratings.

Simulations as of Sept. 2, 2021.

Last year’s Rams went 10-6 and won a playoff game despite a passing offense that ranked just 23rd in EPA per game. So what can they do with a better aerial attack? Coach Sean McVay is hoping to find out after making the offseason move from Goff to Stafford. L.A.’s defense, led by all-world DT Aaron Donald, already ranked first in EPA last season, so an improved offense could have the Rams thinking about another Super Bowl run. (Of course, a cynic would say Stafford led just one top-10 offense during his 11 years as Detroit’s primary starter — and that you can’t often count on great defenses to repeat those performances.) Either way, the Rams sensed their window for title contention was open now, and moved to maximize it.

Our model thinks better health and a more favorable schedule will help the 49ers battle for the West’s top spot as well. San Francisco fell from its Super Bowl perch with an injured (and ineffective) Jimmy Garoppolo last year, part of a league-leading spate of injuries and illness. But they fought through it better than their 6-10 record would indicate, and they’ll run things back with a number of the difference-makers from that 2019 team. It just remains to be seen whether Garoppolo will last the season at QB, or if rookie Trey Lance’s upside eventually earns him the call from coach Kyle Shanahan.

We can’t forget about the Seahawks after yet another outstanding season from QB Russell Wilson — and after Wilson didn’t depart the team in the offseason, as had been rumored at times. Perhaps new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron will take even more advantage of Wilson’s gifts, though a lot is also riding in Seattle on improving a defense that ranked 21st in EPA (and 25th against the pass in particular).

And the Cardinals are not your typical predicted fourth-place finisher, either. Elo rates Kyler Murray as the top QB in the whole division, and he could be even better with more protection up front. Likewise, future Hall of Famer J.J. Watt has the potential to help a defense that ranked 20th in EPA last season — if healthy (always an “if”). All four teams in the NFC West might have Super Bowl potential.

How we’re predicting the AFC East race

Chance To …
Team Starting QB QB Rank* Elo Rating Proj. Record Make Playoffs Win Division Win Super Bowl
Bills Josh Allen 2 1617 11-6 78% 54% 9%
Dolphins Tua Tagovailoa 22 1516 9-8 49 22 2
Patriots Mac Jones 30 1505 9-8 43 18 2
Jets Zach Wilson 29 1390 6-11 15 5 <1

*Ranking among all opening-day starters, according to our QB Elo ratings.

Simulations as of Sept. 2, 2021.

After 25 years of trying, the Bills finally broke through and returned to the AFC East winner’s circle in 2020. Josh Allen helped spearhead the effort, transforming his play from mediocre to outstanding in one of the finest year-over-year improvements we’ve ever seen from a QB. Although there is regression potential for players (and teams) who improve so dramatically between seasons, Buffalo should be division favorites here — the only big question is where the Bills ought to rank among Super Bowl contenders.

Behind them, the Dolphins have a coin flip’s chance at the playoffs on the strength of their defense (No. 8 in EPA last year) and an improved arsenal of weapons for Tua Tagovailoa to target in his second NFL season. (Assuming Tua remains the starter.)

Miami’s preseason odds were also helped slightly by the Patriotsdecision to cut Cam Newton last week and name as their starter rookie Mac Jones, who carries a lower QB adjustment. Newton wasn’t exactly great in 2020, however, and New England had spent too much money overhauling its roster to merely see a repeat of last year’s 29th-ranked EPA pass offense. With the Pats still projected around .500, we’ll have to see whether Jones can lead them beyond those expectations.

Finally, we have the Jets, who are pressing the reset button on the Sam Darnold/Adam Gase era with rookie QB Zach Wilson and new coach Robert Saleh. New York had a lot of needs on both sides of the ball last year — it finished dead last in total EPA — and it has begun to chip away at them some; a 6-11 record would be a nice step in the right direction from 2-14.

How we’re predicting the AFC North race

Chance To …
Team Starting QB QB Rank* Elo Rating Proj. Record Make Playoffs Win Division Win Super Bowl
Ravens Lamar Jackson 9 1593 10-7 66% 42% 7%
Browns Baker Mayfield 16 1566 10-7 62 35 4
Steelers Ben Roethlisberger 5 1511 8-9 37 16 2
Bengals Joe Burrow 20 1431 7-10 20 7 1

*Ranking among all opening-day starters, according to our QB Elo ratings.

Simulations as of Sept. 2, 2021.

Last year’s playoff race in the AFC North was a wild ride, and this season could give us more of the same. The Ravens are favorites in our model; they had the most complete team of anybody in the division last season (finishing 13th in offensive EPA, fifth on defense and second in special teams) and spent the offseason upgrading QB Lamar Jackson’s supporting cast. Jackson never quite found the same rhythm in 2020 as he did in 2019’s MVP season, but a Baltimore offense more resembling that year’s top-ranked unit — to go with a version of last year’s top-five defense — would make the Ravens a dangerous Super Bowl threat.

Last season, the Browns went 11-5 despite being outscored by 11 points, but they made plenty of noise in the playoffs and spent the spring refreshing their secondary, the weak point in a defense that ranked 24th against the pass by EPA. By PFF’s accounting, Cleveland has one of the best talent bases in the league on paper, and it should help the Browns make a real push for their first division title since 1989.

The defending division champion Steelers are not to be discounted, either, though they were not the same team by season’s end as they’d been while starting out 11-0. The defense (No. 2 in EPA) stayed tough and Ben Roethlisberger’s return from injury boosted the team’s passing attack, but at age 38 he was down a tick from his usual efficiency level. Heavy offseason personnel losses — and the toughest schedule in the league according to Elo — will make Pittsburgh’s task harder this year, but the Steelers should still be right in the mix as usual.

And the Bengals are an intriguing pick to improve greatly in 2021, depending on how well QB Joe Burrow can play on his surgically repaired left knee — and how much the team can keep him upright — as the season progresses. Burrow will have more help on offense, headlined by former college teammate Ja’Marr Chase at receiver, but the Bengals’ progress will also depend on how much their defense improves on last season’s 25th-ranked EPA showing.

How we’re predicting the AFC South race

Chance To …
Team Starting QB QB Rank* Elo Rating Proj. Record Make Playoffs Win Division Win Super Bowl
Titans Ryan Tannehill 8 1541 10-7 64% 52% 4%
Colts Carson Wentz 32 1506 9-8 51 36 2
Jaguars Trevor Lawrence 28 1379 6-11 17 10 <1
Texans Tyrod Taylor 26 1256 4-13 3 2 <1

*Ranking among all opening-day starters, according to our QB Elo ratings.

Simulations as of Sept. 2, 2021.

In 2020, the Titans built on their late-season breakout from the previous year to go 11-5 with an improved offense that was more efficient both on the ground and through the air. Then, after losing by a touchdown to the Ravens in the playoffs, Tennessee acquired Jones as another target for QB Ryan Tannehill and revamped a weak defense by adding talent up front. So why isn’t our forecast higher on the Titans? Some of it has to do with the team outperforming its expected record by nearly two full wins last season, going 7-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less, among other red flags. The Titans also sustained a number of personnel losses that could offset their improvements. But Tennessee remains a strong playoff contender, and the model foresees another close battle atop the South.

The Colts actually had a better point differential (+89) than the Titans (+52) last year, with a tough defense (No. 9 in EPA) and Philip Rivers leading the offense to 28.2 points per game — its best offensive output since Peyton Manning was at the helm in 2007. But Rivers is now retired, off coaching high school football, and Indy’s QB situation is kind of messy. The team traded for ex-Eagle Wentz in February — already gambling on one of the league’s biggest wild cards — and Wentz was injured in training camp, requiring foot surgery in August. Just as he was returning ahead of schedule, Wentz was then placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list, further cutting down on his prep time for the regular season. The Colts have a good supporting cast around their QB, but they need Wentz to stay healthy, produce and shed his reputation as a selfish malcontent.

The Jaguars also have a new QB in rookie Trevor Lawrence, and he will surely generate some excitement for the future thanks to his unflappable manner and throws like these. But incremental improvement is all Jacksonville can hope for after last year’s 1-15 disaster.

Which brings us to the Texans, who may be the worst team in the NFL this season. But the situation is far uglier than just losing football games: Shortly after requesting a trade in January, starting QB Deshaun Watson was accused of sexual assault and misconduct by at least 20 women. Despite actively being investigated by law enforcement, Watson reported to training camp and made the team’s final 53-man roster, though he was limited in practice and is unlikely to play all season. With backup QB Tyrod Taylor starting for a team that went 4-12 with Watson last year, Houston will undoubtedly struggle on the field, while the accusations against Watson are just as certain to consume both quarterback and franchise for a long time to come.

How we’re predicting the AFC West race

Chance To …
Team Starting QB QB Rank* Elo Rating Proj. Record Make Playoffs Win Division Win Super Bowl
Chiefs Patrick Mahomes 3 1642 11-6 78% 55% 12%
Chargers Justin Herbert 11 1523 9-8 48 20 3
Broncos Teddy Bridgewater 19 1504 9-8 43 17 2
Raiders Derek Carr 14 1457 7-10 24 8 1

*Ranking among all opening-day starters, according to our QB Elo ratings.

Simulations as of Sept. 2, 2021.

Up until they were dismantled by the Bucs in the Super Bowl, 2020 had been a pretty charmed season for the Chiefs as they defended their title — and now our model has them basically ranked as co-favorites (alongside Tampa Bay) to win it all in 2021. K.C. is hoping an overhauled offensive line can offer Patrick Mahomes more protection than he had back in February; the Chiefs will also count on their QB’s all-time talent as an antidote to other indicators of potential regression, such as a league-best 8-0 record in games decided by a single score in 2020. But even if K.C. drops from 14-2 to, say, 11-6, this is still a powerhouse team and an easy division favorite. Who’s next in line, though?

We give the Chargers a slim edge, with QB Justin Herbert looking to do even more statistical damage in Year 2 after a debut season that saw him put up 4,336 yards and a rookie-record 31 TD passes. Los Angeles could be dangerous if it can shore up 2020’s last-place EPA finish in special teams — always an area of struggle for the Bolts — and do a better job of closing out games.

But the Broncos are also right in the playoff mix out of this division, thanks in large part to the prospect of better QB play. It’s not just that new starter Teddy Bridgewater rates higher than incumbent Drew Lock, but presumably a more stable year — devoid of starts from the Jeff Driskels and Brett Rypiens of the world, to say nothing of the farcical game in which Denver was forced to start a wide receiver at QB — will help Denver improve on its 32nd-place ranking in passing EPA from a year ago.

And the Raiders are always a good candidate to at least flash some potential and play spoiler. QB Derek Carr is coming off his best NFL season (across multiple different metrics), while Vegas spent yet another offseason trying hard to overhaul a defense that finished 30th in EPA a year ago. If this is the year that effort finally pays dividends — and Carr can stay effective despite a patchwork offensive line — the Raiders might build on the promise they showed in the first half of last season.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.


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