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2021 NFL midseason win-total projections: Chiefs make playoffs; Cardinals in line for top seed

NFL franchises use contextualized data to create competitive advantages. In order to realize an edge, teams need to employ the right data in the right way at the right time. This means distilling, interpreting and applying only the most influential data in a framework that accounts for their personnel, their opponents and their evolving game situations. My goal is to be YOUR analytics department. Each week this season, I want to work for you by providing a peek into which numbers flag in my models as the most impactful … or the most misunderstood.

This week, we’re taking a midseason look at win projections for all 32 teams for the 2021 season.

As always, let me know if your eye test is picking up on something interesting, or if there’s a stat/trend you’d like me to take a deeper look at. You can hit me up on Twitter @CFrelund. As with any great analytics department, the more collaborative this is, the more value we can create.

AFC PROJECTED WIN TOTALS

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Current record: 5-3

 

Next Gen Stats shows that in the Bills’ wins, Josh Allen has only been pressured on 22.2 percent of dropbacks. In losses, this number balloons to 32.9 percent. There have been four games in which Allen has faced pressure on more than 26 percent of dropbacks this season, and three resulted in losses. The good news? There is only one remaining opponent for Buffalo that ranks in the top 10 in pressure rate: the Panthers, who the Bills play in Week 15, rank eighth.

Current record: 7-2

Defensive pressure seems to be key to the Titans’ success. Per NGS, in their seven wins, they’ve compiled a pressure rate of 29.2 percent, compared to only 18.8 percent in their two losses. Not coincidentally, since Week 5, when the Titans’ current five-game winning streak began, three Tennessee players (Harold Landry, Jeffery Simmons and Denico Autry) rank in the top 20 in the NFL in sacks. 

 

Current record: 6-2

The Ravens have won four games in which they had a win probability of less than 15 percent, according to NGS. Lamar Jackson’s ability to develop as a passer while remaining a potent ground threat drives his status as a smart upside pick for MVP.

Current record: 5-3

To me, the AFC West will come down to the Chargers and Chiefs — and the winner will likely be the team that limits turnovers in the second half of the season, especially when you consider that both Los Angeles and Kansas City have things to work on defensively. In the Bolts’ three losses so far, Justin Herbert has thrown five picks combined; in their five wins, he’s thrown just one total. Herbert also has four games with a passer rating of 100-plus, all of which were victories.

Current record: 5-4

The Chiefs have scored 48 points in the first quarter of games, the seventh most in the NFL, which sounds great — but they have also allowed 49 points, which is tied for 27th and makes for a differential of -1. Even that fails to tell the full story, which is that first-quarter turnovers have contributed to this negative differential. Kansas City has committed four turnovers in the first quarter so far this season, tied for third-most, which sets up an extremely challenging game script early in games. The good news is, the Chiefs have been dealing with a fair number of “unlucky” plays, and that trend forecasts to normalize for Patrick Mahomes and the offense over time.

Current record: 5-4

Setting aside the drama over Odell Beckham, the Browns did an excellent job constructing a complementary team based around the run. Even though everyone knows this is their strength, they’re still able to generally execute at a high level. In their five wins this season, they’ve earned 195 rushing yards over expectation, per NGS. And the key to beating them is stopping them on the ground, as evidenced by their combined rushing yards over expectation mark of -13 in losses to the Chiefs, Cardinals and Steelers (we’ll set aside the track-meet loss against the Chargers, in which Cleveland still put up 107 over expectation). The good news for the Browns’ playoff hopes is that none of their remaining opponents rank in the top 10 in defensive yards allowed over expectation — in fact, their next four opponents (Patriots, Lions and Ravens twice) all rank 26th or worse in that category.

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Current record: 5-4

 

While Ja’Marr Chase looks like a leading contender for Offensive Rookie of the Year, QB Mac Jones could swipe the award, especially if he leads the Pats to the playoff appearance they are forecasted to make here. Thus far, he has the same number of QB wins (five) as all other rookie quarterbacks combined.

Current record: 4-5

The Colts stand out as a sub-.500 group that is right in the mix of teams that could make the playoffs. They figure to end the season stronger than they started it, with Carson Wentz having a chance to establish consistency behind a healthy Quenton Nelson and Eric Fisher. It doesn’t hurt that Jonathan Taylor drives a top-five running back win share for this season’s remaining games.

Current record: 5-4

 

Joe Burrow’s potential chances to win Comeback Player of the Year after losing much of 2020 to a torn ACL should really be getting more energy and attention. While his offensive line has outplayed my preseason assessment, that group still ranks in the bottom third of the NFL — and yet, Burrow is creating opportunities at an exceptional rate. Case in point: Between Week 1 and Week 7, he connected with rookie Ja’Marr Chase on at least one pass of 20-plus air yards in each game.

Current record: 5-3

The Steelers’ defense boasts three of the 10 fastest and most gain-stopping (meaning, once contact is initiated, they stop the play or push it back) defenders relative to their positions: pass rusher T.J. Watt, defensive tackle Cameron Heyward and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick.

Current record: 5-3

Per computer vision, the Raiders had at least a 30 percent defensive pressure rate in their first seven games, which was a big contributing factor in their wins. This is still a high-risk, high-reward team, even with Greg Olson calling plays under interim head coach Rich Bisaccia — and their projections in future weeks include even more variance than we saw in past weeks. 

Current record: 5-4

The Broncos’ first win against a team with a winning record this season was Week 9’s surprising upset of Dallas. If Denver is going to separate from the logjam of potential playoff teams in the AFC, the defense will need to stay tough, even without Von Miller, who was traded away before the deadline. The Broncos haven’t allowed a rushing touchdown in their last two games (both of which were played without Miller), and they rank in the top 10 in both pass and run defense. (Buffalo and Cleveland are the only other two teams to accomplish this.)

Current record: 2-7

 

Now we reach the teams in position to land a high draft pick next year. The Dolphins get to pick in the top five slots of the 2022 NFL Draft in 58.7 percent of simulations.

Current record: 2-6

Four rookies from the Jets’ 2021 draft class have three-year trajectories that project them to be at least average: QB Zach Wilson, guard Alijah Vera-Tucker, running back Michael Carter and receiver Elijah Moore. This doesn’t sound incredibly sexy, but hitting on draft picks like that is how winning teams are built, historically.

Current record: 2-6

 

In 68.8 percent of simulations, the Jags get to select in one of the top three picks of the 2022 NFL Draft — one year after taking Trevor Lawrence first overall.

Current record: 1-8

With at least two games on the remaining schedule (vs. Jets in Week 12, at Jaguars in Week 15) presenting a chance to add to their win total, the Texans select first in the 2022 draft in 19.2 percent of my simulations.

NFC PROJECTED WIN TOTALS

Current record: 8-1

Week 9’s incredible victory, which came without either Kyler Murray or DeAndre Hopkins, shifted the Cardinals to the top of the NFL, leap-frogging them ahead of the Bucs (who were idle on a bye week) and the Cowboys in terms of chances to earn the solo playoff bye available in the NFC. (Arizona has a 34 percent chance now, 10 percentage points better than the next closest team.)

Current record: 6-2

 

Per NGS, in the Bucs’ past three outings, the defensive backs have allowed 2 fewer yards after the catch on average than they did in Tampa’s first five games of 2021, improving in an area where they’ve experienced injuries. This team is really only limited by the health of its roster. 

Current record: 7-2

I know the Cardinals are projected to win the NFC West here, but the addition of Von Miller to this already-nasty Rams defensive front could still be the tipping point that decides the division. Because Arizona is one of the two teams left on Los Angeles’ schedule that ranks in the top 10 in terms of pressure rate allowed — the other is Green Bay. Those pivotal matchups (at Packers in Week 12 and at Cardinals in Week 14) could catapult the Rams into the division lead. 

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Current record: 7-2

 

Green Bay’s defense stands out as perhaps a bit underappreciated. So here’s a great NGS stat that helps drive their NFC North win total. When they don’t blitz, the Packers allow just 6.7 yards per pass attempt, with a passer rating of 86.1 (both seventh-lowest in the NFL).

Current record: 6-2

If they want to earn the top seed (and only playoff bye in the NFC), the Cowboys would do themselves a huge favor by beating both the Saints in Week 13 and the Cardinals in Week 17. Topping the Chiefs in Week 11 would also help. 

Current record: 5-3

Defensive continuity, production and reliability have lifted the Saints into playoff contention despite questions and injuries concerning offensive personnel. The defensive win share from this team is the biggest for any NFC squad.

Current record: 3-5

 

The Vikings’ upcoming schedule — featuring the Chargers in Week 10, plus the Rams in Week 16, Steelers in Week 14 and Packers (in Weeks 11 and 17) — is more difficult than the schedules of their peers in this muddle of NFC teams vying for the conference’s final playoff slot. Minnesota’s passing game is currently not a source of big plays, but it will be essential for that to change if the Vikings are to match (or improve on) this forecast. 

Current record: 3-5

This is the team with the most variance remaining, meaning the median win total you see reflects more close remaining games than any other team. Though the Seahawks (who are set to welcome Russell Wilson back from an extended absence) have a playoff probability of just 18.5 percent right now, the ceiling of their most likely projection range (the middle 50 percent of simulation results) reaches as high as the No. 6 seed. 

Current record: 3-6

 

The Eagles have run on 46.1 percent of their offensive plays overall (seventh-highest rate). Over the past two games, this number has ballooned to 71.4 percent of plays, by far the most in the NFL over that span (next-closest are the Pats at 58.2 percent). Quarterback Jalen Hurts’ value to this team (he’s averaging 54.9 rushing yards per game) is especially important, given the plays that have been called to date. 

Current record: 3-5

 

When George Kittle is on the field, his QBs earn an average of 3.7 more first downs and touchdowns per game than when he’s off the field. That is a significant number, considering the average increase for tight ends who are targeted on at least 10 percent of a team’s passes over the past five seasons have on/off splits of about plus-1.5. This shows the value of Kittle — who has played just five games so far this season — to this specific offensive strategy.

Current record: 4-4

 

This team has been in the most near-coin-flip contests ahead of kickoff, so it’s no surprise Atlanta is at .500. The Falcons’ defense is one of only three to have not allowed 300-plus passing yards to any QB so far this season. (The Bills and Packers are the others.)

Current record: 4-5

 

The October trade for cornerback Stephon Gilmore has already paid dividends, given that he’s posted an interception in each of the two games he’s played for Carolina, while earning Pro Football Focus’ second-highest coverage grade (91.4) among CBs over Weeks 8 and 9 combined.

Current record: 3-6

 

Rookie receiver Kadarius Toney leads his team in receiving yards with 352. He’s one of four rookies who currently hold that distinction. (Ja’Marr Chase in Cincinnati, Kyle Pitts in Atlanta and DeVonta Smith in Philly are the others.)

Current record: 3-6

Here’s a very positive indicator of future success for rookie QB Justin Fields: In Week 9, he earned an average of 13.4 more yards per play against zone coverage (per computer vision) than in his prior games.

Current record: 2-6

 

The biggest miss I made with my preseason model was with Washington, which I had slated to win the NFC East based on its defense — which now ranks outside the top 20 in pressure rate, speed to pressure, yards allowed when pressuring and first downs and touchdowns allowed, as measured by computer vision.

Current record: 0-8

Detroit’s best opportunity to win in my model comes against the Bears in Week 12 — and even that is just a 41.1 percent probability right now. The Lions earn the first overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft in 59.1 percent of simulations.

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter.

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