Now that we know that in the first week of the 2021 NFL season, we'll get to see Dak Prescott take on Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes duel with Baker Mayfield and last year's Offensive Rookie of the Year (Justin Herbert) face 2020's Defensive Rookie of the Year (Chase Young), I'm somehow already a lot more excited. Even though we've got more than 100 days left before the campaign officially kicks off, we're one step closer to being able to more accurately map out each team's chances of victory in each of their games on the path to the playoffs.
There are 272 games on the schedule, and with the NFL heading into its second season with a 14-team playoff field, there will assuredly be plenty of contests with postseason consequences. While we've long known the identity of each team's opponents, the actual sequencing of the schedules has an impact on projected win totals. Having to make multiple cross-country trips, for example, could influence (that is, lower) a team's win probability in given weeks. Or consider the challenge ahead of the Bengals, who must play Lamar Jackson and the Ravens in Week 16, then Mahomes and the Chiefs in Week 17 -- over the past five seasons, defenses that faced quarterbacks who play with dramatically different styles in back to back weeks have seen a statistically relevant dip in first-quarter production. In fact, in that same time span, the order of games played has shifted season win totals by as many as 0.7 wins.
Here's how to read these win projections: Using the projected 53-man rosters as of today, I ran 50,000 simulations for all 272 regular-season games. (A quick note: Barring injuries, which are typically the biggest source of uncertainty, I am relatively confident of these roster projections -- EXCEPT in the case of Packers QB Aaron Rodgers and Texans QB Deshaun Watson, whose status with their current teams appears in doubt. However, because trying to account for multiple scenarios is impossibly complex, these projections presume Rodgers will be playing for Green Bay this season and Watson will be playing for Houston.) These simulations yielded a projected win total for each team, which, because of the multitude of factors involved, is not a round number. The top seven teams in each conference are my projected playoff participants.
Remember, these simulations account for many contextualized data points that have been proven to correlate to wins and losses based on historical, actually played football games; personnel is the most important, but other key factors include play-caller tendencies and in-game situations. I can re-run these simulations should any player change teams, suffer an injury or otherwise be made unavailable, thus changing the complexion of their team. The more important the player involved, the more the win totals shift -- including their opponent's probabilities. Should a high-impact player (or two) change status, we can track how those moves shift everything.
Below, you'll see win projections for the AFC, with projected division winners and wild-card teams noted. Click here to see win projections for the NFC.
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The first two weeks out of the gate (hosting the Browns in Week 1, then traveling to the Ravens in Week 2) will be a test for the Chiefs' retooled offensive line. And the stretch from Week 5 to Week 7 (hosting the Bills, then traveling to Washington and Tennessee) will also present some challenges, But ... Patrick Mahomes. The second half of the schedule lightens up after a Week 9 meeting with the Packers, which only tracks as tough here because we're assuming you-know-who will still be under center for Green Bay. Overall, this projected win total seems low, but it's still the highest in the AFC and the second-highest in the NFL.
The Bills' Week 5 meeting with Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs and their Week 14 matchup with Tom Brady and the Bucs are both going to be really exciting, very probable playoff previews. (These games could also be a sneak peek of that other thing, which I won't jinx by naming; let's just say it features one playoff team from each conference.)
Excluding divisional games, which kind of follow a different cadence from regular-season contests, the Ravens have pretty optimal spacing between the two most difficult dates on their schedule, with the Chiefs coming in Week 2 (Sept. 19) and Packers coming in Week 15 (Dec. 19). The stretch of Weeks 12-14, which includes the Browns twice and one trip to Pittsburgh, could go a long way toward determining which AFC North team wins the division and which ends up as a wild-card squad; this division is the most likely in all of football to send at least two teams to the playoffs.
Week 1 is a doozy in Kansas City, but apart from that, there are some scheduling perks here for the Browns, including a bye in Week 13 between the two matchups with the Ravens -- mentioned above in Baltimore's blurb as being likely to decide the division (added bonus: The Ravens have to face the Steelers during Cleveland's week off). It's very early, but the Browns make the postseason in 56.7 percent of simulations -- think of that 56 percent benchmark as being quite high, especially for May.
There's some definite volatility here, with a lot of the Colts' upside and downside being dictated by the performance of new quarterback Carson Wentz, who is coming off a rough final season with the Eagles -- but that isn't a surprise at all. The back-to-back challenge of Weeks 11 and 12 (at the Bills, vs. the Bucs) looks especially rough, as both non-divisional opponents feature top-tier QBs who play different styles.
The Dolphins will square off with the Jags in London in Week 6, then face the Falcons at home in Week 7 without taking a bye in between. Meanwhile, the Falcons, who play the Jets in London in Week 5, will get a break in Week 6 before heading to Miami in Week 7. This is more of an interesting note than a predictive factor, however, because the Dolphins have a good roster and could become a great team if they are provided with difference-making QB play by Tua Tagovailoa. Plus, having a bye later in the season (Week 14) will be better in the long run for a potential playoff contender.
The Titans could easily surpass the Colts in the AFC South if their defensive production increases from 2020 and their offense either remains at the level it was last season or improves, even with coordinator Arthur Smith now serving as head coach in Atlanta. The first two games of the season -- vs. the Cardinals and at the Seahawks -- will make for a good test of just what this defense is capable of now that first-round pick Caleb Farley and veteran free agents Bud Dupree, Janoris Jenkins and Denico Autry are in the fold.
I have no idea when rookie quarterback Mac Jones will start, but I do know the Patriots have a stretch from Week 5 to Week 7 that looks like the most favorable entry point of the season (at the Texans, vs. the Cowboys, vs. the Jets) for Jones. This projected win total reflects Jones starting at least eight games in 2021.
This season may not start out so pretty for the Chargers, with games at Washington (Week 1), vs. Dallas (Week 2), at Kansas City (Week 3), vs. Cleveland (Week 5) and at Baltimore (Week 6) all coming before their Week 7 bye. But given the current personnel configuration within the AFC West (that is to say, with Aaron Rodgers not being on the Broncos), the Bolts could make a second-half surge.
The early portion of the Broncos' schedule (at Giants in Week 1, at Jaguars in Week 2, vs. Jets in Week 3) sets them up well to gather momentum before facing their first big hurdle of the season: vs. Ravens in Week 4. This will give their QB -- whoever it ends up being -- a nice opportunity to get into a rhythm with the team and especially receiver Courtland Sutton, who seems to be flying under the radar as a factor in Denver after missing most of 2020 with a torn ACL.
The most volatility on the board goes to the Steelers, who could easily win at least 10 games behind 39-year-old QB Ben Roethlisberger and a defense that ranked third in the NFL or also end up under seven wins. Offensive line play flags as a big question following the departures of longtime left tackle Alejandro Villanueva (signed with the Ravens) and center Maurkice Pouncey (retired).
Secondary play doesn't forecast to be strong for the Bengals, which means we could see QB Joe Burrow attempt (and likely complete) the most passes in the NFL as he pushes the offense to keep Cincinnati in games. This receiving corps forecasts to be really fun, however, with first-round pick Ja'Marr Chase joining Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins.
We'll get a great opportunity to see No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence's skills after the Jaguars' Week 7 bye. He'll have had a chance to adapt to the NFL game before facing a tough stretch of defenses (at Seattle in Week 8, vs. Buffalo in Week 9, at Indianapolis in Week 10, vs. San Francisco in Week 11).
Sam Darnold vs. Zach Wilson in Week 1? Yes, please! I love a good revenge narrative, and Darnold, who was traded from the Jets to the Panthers this offseason, taking on the player who replaced him as the Jets' QB of the future fits the bill. Secondary play flags as one area of great uncertainty for New York.
It's pretty interesting that the individual win share for QB Deshaun Watson (whose status still, as I wrote, very much appears to be in doubt as he faces lawsuits alleging sexual assault and misconduct) is 5.3 games, yet the Texans' projection is lower. This means there are some major holes at other positions on Houston's roster -- especially the high-value positions that influence the team's ability to win.