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2023 AFC win-total projections: Chiefs, Bengals, Bills reign; Dolphins, Steelers miss playoffs

Analytics expert Cynthia Frelund took data from the past 10 NFL campaigns to create historical references for personnel, schemes and matchups, identifying factors that are proven to lead to wins (or losses). She vetted the correlations with a bunch of real football people (e.g., coaches) and had her math checked out by real math people (e.g., PhDs) to make sure the model reflected reality as much as possible. Then she compared this year's personnel, schemes and matchups -- with the vetted mathematical weightings -- and simulated the season to produce a ceiling, floor and projected win total for all 32 teams. The ceiling-to-floor range is something to focus on -- a big discrepancy means the team is projected to play in more close games.

Cynthia's simulations included 1,000,000 runs of every single regular-season game, which equals 272,000,000 total games "played." Without further ado, here are the projected win totals for AFC teams in the 2023 campaign, ordered from most to least victories, with playoff berths noted.

NOTE: All FanDuel over/under listings are current as of 2:30 p.m. ET on Monday, Sept. 4.

Kansas City Chiefs

Ceiling: 12.5

Floor: 9.7

FanDuel over/under: 11.5

The Chiefs return to the playoffs in 75.1 percent of my models. (Think of 65 percent as signifying an extremely strong chance.) It’s just another indicator that Patrick Mahomes and Co. are at an elite level. I should add that this projection presumes Chris Jones does return to the team in a timely fashion. 

Cincinnati Bengals

Ceiling: 11.9

Floor: 8.8

FanDuel over/under: 11.5

Losing not one but two upper-tier safeties in the offseason is never an easy thing for a defense to overcome, but the good news is Cincinnati's new starters at the position aren’t brand new to the NFL. 2022 first-round pick Dax Hill got a chance to learn behind Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell before they departed this offseason, and Nick Scott was a 16-game starter for the Rams last year. Also, there are a lot of options for defensive back formations with the team’s veteran corners. 

Sidebar: I played a lot of chess this summer, and Bengals CB Chidobe Awuzie and Chiefs LB Drue Tranquill are both excellent at chess. Is it just a coincidence they’re on top teams? I say NO!

Buffalo Bills

Ceiling: 12.2

Floor: 8.7

FanDuel over/under: 10.5

Von Miller is starting the season on the PUP list, which pushes the ceiling down a bit, but I’m still projecting the Bills to win their fourth straight AFC East title. Buffalo’s offseason roster moves should lead to new formation opportunities on both sides of the ball. The Bills used 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TEs, 2 WRs) at the lowest rate of any team last season, per Next Gen Stats, and they played nickel defense (five DBs) at the highest rate of any team. They should be able to mix it up more now. Getting healthier at safety, specifically, helps a bunch, too. 

Baltimore Ravens

Ceiling: 12.0

Floor: 7.7

FanDuel over/under: 10.5

Note that the Ravens’ ceiling is higher than that of the Bengals. This is due to Cincinnati having a tougher strength of schedule (based on opponents’ 2022 winning percentage) after winning the division last season. The Ravens often have a high variance between their floor and ceiling, but this year, it’s less about the offense and more about whether the defense will come together (especially to stop the pass). Roquan Smith was electric after coming to Baltimore via midseason trade last year, but with Marlon Humphrey likely out for at least a couple games after undergoing foot surgery and some questions about the pass rush (even after bringing in veteran Jadeveon Clowney), stopping the aerial attack could be difficult. And in the extremely competitive AFC North, margins are razor thin. 

New York Jets

Ceiling: 11.9

Floor: 8.0

FanDuel over/under: 9.5

The Jets make the playoffs (either as the division winner or as a wild card) in 54.1 percent of simulations. That number would be higher if they were in the NFC, but it’s still a strong figure. For context, the only teams over 66 percent are the Eagles, 49ers and Chiefs.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Ceiling: 10.4

Floor: 7.8

FanDuel over/under: 9.5

You’ll see the Titans, projected to finish behind the Jaguars in the AFC South, have a higher ceiling. Let me explain ... If the Jags’ offensive line can withstand the four weeks it will be without the suspended Cam Robinson and then settle in once he’s back, it dulls the questions my model raises about the team’s defense giving up explosive plays. I know that might sound confusing, but the offense -- and Trevor Lawrence specifically -- really works well when play-action is humming (which means the run game needs to be productive). If the O-line can hold up its end of the bargain, the offense will carry the team and control the pace.

Los Angeles Chargers

Ceiling: 11.1

Floor: 7.8

FanDuel over/under: 9.5

The next three teams are separated by extremely slim margins, as you can see. As for the difference between the Chargers and Dolphins, it really comes down to their Week 1 matchup being slightly tipped in favor of Los Angeles in my model. Should Miami win that game in SoFi Stadium, switch the Chargers and Dolphins in the rankings. 

Cleveland Browns

Ceiling: 10.2

Floor: 8.3

FanDuel over/under: 9.5

There’s a ton of upside on this team, but playing in such a talented division makes for more nail-biter games (closer to 50/50 odds of winning). If the Browns can win at least three of their four matchups against AFC South teams, and at least two of its three contests against the Bears, Broncos and Jets, they will trend more to the ceiling.

Miami Dolphins

Ceiling: 10.9

Floor: 8.2

FanDuel over/under: 9.5

Jalen Ramsey’s knee injury takes a chunk out of Miami’s projected win total, as he’s expected to be out until December. If Terron Armstead and Jaylen Waddle are not 100 percent (each missed time in the preseason with injuries), that would also be problematic -- especially since, as I mentioned earlier, the Dolphins’ Week 1 game against the Chargers has potential playoff implications. 

Ceiling: 10.5

Floor: 7.9

FanDuel over/under: 8.5

If Kenny Pickett is going to take the step forward many of us are anticipating, the O-line will need to do a better job of supporting the offense. The Steelers made moves this offseason to address the front five. That group’s play will go a long way toward deciding how things go for the Pittsburgh offense. By the way, I tracked T.J. Watt in person during the Bills-Steelers preseason game. His first three steps off the line of scrimmage were faster than they were two seasons ago.

Denver Broncos

Ceiling: 9.3

Floor: 6.6

FanDuel over/under: 8.5

The Broncos’ schedule has the potential to be pretty punishing, featuring a five-game stretch that includes the Chiefs twice, the Jets and -- after a Week 9 bye -- the Bills. In fairness, the AFC is stacked. Overall, my model projects the teams in the AFC to win six more games than the NFC teams. (So of the 272 games, it’s 139 wins for the AFC and 133 for the NFC; usually there’s maybe 1.5 or 2 games separating the conferences, tops.) Early-down success on offense flags as a key area determining whether Denver tracks to the ceiling or the floor.

Tennessee Titans

Ceiling: 10.6

Floor: 7.2

FanDuel over/under: 7.5

It’s looking like "Win the AFC South or bust" for the Titans. Two teams from the division make the playoffs in just 8.1 percent of model simulations. For Tennessee -- aside from staying healthy, which is something all teams need -- both lines likely will determine how this season goes. If it all comes together as planned -- and DeAndre Hopkins helps open up space near the line of scrimmage -- then the Titans could steal a playoff berth from the Jaguars. 

Ceiling: 9.1

Floor: 6.5

FanDuel over/under: 7.5

Among AFC teams, the Patriots have the second-hardest schedule in the first four weeks of the season, according to my math. However, if new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien can get play-action to work well (so run the ball with Rhamondre Stevenson and allow play-action passes to follow) this projection trends toward the ceiling. That might sound simple, but it’s definitely not an easy thing to do.

Ceiling: 8.9

Floor: 5.6

FanDuel over/under: 6.5

The Raiders’ first four games look to be very challenging (at Broncos, at Bills, vs. Steelers, at Chargers). While the pass rush projects to improve, solving challenges on the back end, especially early in the season, would go a long way toward changing the upside case for the Raiders this season. 

Houston Texans

Ceiling: 8.1

Floor: 5.0

FanDuel over/under: 6.5

My models show the Texans, who won three games last season, have improved significantly, and that their defense, in particular, is poised to take a step forward in 2023. They have added new head coach DeMeco Ryans, formerly the 49ers defensive coordinator, as well as third overall pick Will Anderson Jr. (and should benefit from a healthier Derek Stingley Jr.). If they can shore up the run defense and improve the run offense, it should take some pressure off rookie QB C.J. Stroud as he gets acclimated to the NFL. 

Ceiling: 7.9

Floor: 4.7

FanDuel over/under: 6.5

My models like rookie QB Anthony Richardson a lot. I saw him in person when the Colts visited the Bills this preseason and I somehow think he’s gotten faster since the NFL Scouting Combine. I will be tracking him all season, and I'm certain he will be a fast learner. 

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