2021 NFL Week One: Sunday Games Projections & Analysis: Part One

2021 NFL Week One- Sunday Games Projections & Analysis Part One

First, A Word About the Most Wonderful Day: NFL Sunday

I have a friend that played bass in a funk band. The Vikings hired his crew for a season to play outside the stadium before the game. The team gave the band field passes for every home game, but they just wanted to go home. The band always played on Saturday nights so they were functioning on zero sleep. Several times that year, my wife and I would travel to her hometown, Minneapolis, and get to watch the game from the field. There is nothing like it at that level and proximity: raw speed, power, and force. The sound is what stuck with me more than anything. 

The first time we had this experience was for the Saints/Vikings game in 2005. The Saints fumbled the ball on the opening kickoff, and the Vikings started first and ten from the New Orleans’ 24. Here is the nonsequitur string of thoughts I had during the next incredible 30 seconds from the huddle to the end of the play: 

Culpepper is f***ing huge. How does he even squat down to get under Center? I can see everything—every player. The safety is cheating. All his weight is coming forward. He is not showing, but he is coming. Pep sees him. Pep sees him! He is going to audible. He is audibling! It is going to be a touchdown, back-right corner of the end zone! It is going to be a touchdown!

I grab my wife’s hand before the snap and start running with her toward the end zone. We got as close as we could. Travis Taylor beats the corner off the line after the snap. No safety help, he is blitzing. Taylor is one-on-one. He is so fast. They are all so fast. Culpepper throws immediately. I can hear the ball in the air. I became hyper-focused – as if everything slowed down. I swear I could hear the players grunt as they sped down the field, fighting for position. I could see individual beads of sweat. Taylor goes up for the ball. What body control. It is contested. Catch. Touchdown. It all happened seemingly at arms-length from me. Then everything shoots back to full speed. I can hear the crowd. I am stunned. I am speechless. My final two thoughts, this game is impressive, and as the crowd exploded in delight, the Metrodome is f**king loud. 

As great as that experience was, it was week five and there is nothing quite as special as that first Sunday. Two years earlier, I spent opening Sunday at the Venetian Sportsbook. I got there early to secure a seat at the bar. In the words of Leonard Hofstadter, the place “popped, sparkled, and buzzed electric.” The bartenders were happy, the servers were happy. The customers were delighted. It was slammed. Whatever “it” is, this place had it on this day. 

The banter was loud but friendly. Every game was showing on the countless TVs in the book. Then a wonderful thing happened. As one team, then another, and another, started jogging out for the opening kickoff, we began to stand, clap, and cheer. It was one person, then another, and another. Then the whole place was on its feet. The bartenders stopped serving for a minute and joined in the festivities. The cocktail servers banged their trays on the bar and screamed in delight. This all happened in a matter of seconds. 

The euphoria continued to build, louder and louder. People began smacking the tables and stomping their feet. They were standing on chairs. The larger casino took notice and joined. The kickers started to put the ball on the tee. The place got louder. The players lined up, and the kickers lifted their hands. Every person is at a full roar. We spoke no words, but we all knew this would continue until the first moment, in any game, that foot touched the ball. It was deafening. All these people were making as much noise as they possibly could, simply because they were happy. Then the first ball was airborne. The noise reached its apex and then subsided – like a wave rolling back out to sea. We looked around grinning, exchanging pleasantries. Then sat down and order a drink. It was beautiful. It was pure, unadulterated joy. 

I love this game.  

Second, A Word About the Model

Since the projections that appear below are the product of an objective NFL model, it relies solely on data. There is no data for the 2021 season since it has not begun. While most sports bettors I know believe they have the most significant advantage early in the season, I am a contrarian. We can all see the mistakes the book makes early and capitalize (Seattle +3 to open, now -2.5), but for the games involving no apparent error, I prefer data. 

You will likely notice that there are times where the model remains neutral on one game, where it took a position in another with less apparent value. This is a result of a confidence metric. The more doubts the model has about a team, the less likely it will take a position, even if the edge appears larger.

All lines are from Pinnacle and were available at the time of publication. In the charts that follow, you will see the books’ winning percentage for each team. Those numbers are derived simply from the moneyline it assigns. Thus, they will total over 100% as the book protects its edge.  

The model performs best with actual data. It will be more confident by week four, until then I use reduced units.   

The Projections: Talk Data to Me

Los Angeles Chargers v. Washington Football Team (1, 44.5)

I understand Washington is a trendy pick. The model is not convinced yet. It rates the offense below the median. Fitzpatrick is an improvement, but not enough to move the dial significantly. The model ranks Fitzmagic in the lower third of the starting 32. It rates the Washington defense above average but slightly overrated at this point. Washington’s lack of quality wins last season form the basis of the model’s contrarian view of their defense. What follows is a list of the quarterbacks Washington faced in half of its games last season: 

Dalton (twice), Daniel Jones (twice), Hurts & Sudfeld, Wentz, and Mullins

Not exactly a murderer’s row. I am guessing the over/under on gold jackets in that group is .5 with the under juiced heavily. The most startling fact is that they lost two games to the quarterbacks listed above. Washington won only seven games last season. Those wins came against the following five teams:

Dallas (2x), Philadelphia (2x), Cincinnati, San Francisco, and Pittsburgh. 

Those five teams had a combined winning percentage of .375. 

Justin Herbert is a second-year player, but he is the far superior talent to any quarterback above. The Chargers are also a superior team to any team that Washington beat last season. The Chargers’ offensive line has been overhauled and should be able to withstand Washington’s front seven. The Chargers signed PFF’s highest-graded Center, a PFF top 25 Guard, and drafted Rashawn Slater. Herbert will have time, and Allen and Williams are an above-average combo. 

The defense has some question marks for the Chargers, but that is Brandon Staley’s calling card. Admittedly the talent does not compare to what he had with the Rams, but a healthy Bosa and James are enough to start. The only person on Washington’s offense that is of serious concern to the Chargers is Terry McLaurin. The model trusts Staley’s ability to use combination coverages with James to limit Scary Terry, far more than it trusts Rivera’s ability to get him open. 

The model gives the talent edge at quarterback and coaching to the Chargers. Herbert is a top-ten quarterback, Fitzpatrick is a bottom-ten quarterback. It may seem stunning that first-year head coach Staley is ranked higher than Rivera, but it is not close either. 

The model sees value on the Chargers -1 +102 or MLB -105.

Denver Broncos v. New York Giants (2.5, 42)

This side should not surprise anyone that read the model’s win total predictions. The model is high on the Broncos and low on the Giants. Bridgewater will not put them into Super Bowl contention, but this team is solid, and he can pick teams apart with a short to intermediate passing game. Bridgewater is the most accurate short passer in the league. It is not a sexy stat, but it is an efficient one. Fangio should be able to frustrate and confuse Daniel Jones into some turnovers.

If I were to make a list of inspiring sentences, the following would not make that list. The New York Giants offensive coordinator and quarterback are Jason Garrett and Daniel Jones. In a battle against Fangio, Miller, Chubb, Fuller, Darby, and Surtain…well, since I like my money, I will take the latter. And, yes, I know Garret is the OC and Judge is the head coach, but it is a Garrett offense. The way you can tell is its hallmark combination of being both wildly inefficient and monotonous. 

One thing I find hilarious, being a New Yorker, is that all the talking heads, Francesca in particular, are so desperate to find a reason to be optimistic about the Giants. They all default to some version of the same statement. It resolves to something akin to; Belichick thinks very highly of Judge. Look, Belichick is a great coach, maybe the best, but let’s face two facts. First, he is an egomaniac worried about his legacy. Second, his coaching tree has been rather pathetic. 

It has been beyond pathetic. Do you remember McDaniels blowing up the Broncos in a single season and then returning to New England? Do you remember McDaniels leading on the Colts and then ghosting them? And then he returned to New England. Do you remember the disaster Patricia created in Detroit and then the Patriots welcoming him back? Belichick is calculating. Maybe he tells his assistants, “yeah, take the job, set the franchise back a decade, then come back here. We will have one less team to worry about.” 

The model sees value on the Broncos -2.5, Javonte Williams OVER 32.5 yards.

Cleveland Browns v. Kansas City Chiefs (-6.5, 53)

Mahomes is the better quarterback. Kansas City is the better team. Kansas City has the better coach. Kansas City has the better scheme. Kansas City is more trustworthy. Arrowhead is a difficult place to play. Everything points to a Chiefs’ victory.

There is no reason to think the Browns can win this game, except one – because they can. If they played this game ten times, the Chiefs might win nine. But not tonight. Not this game. Yes, I am deliberately plagiarizing Kurt Russell’s speech in Miracle as an homage and a foreshadow. Can we get Al Michaels to call this game? 

Cleveland had multiple opportunities to send the Chiefs home in the playoffs last year. They should have won that game two different ways. They will not be intimidated. Look for the Browns to have a pace of play rate around 29 to 30 seconds. They will move deliberately, but slowly. The Chiefs vastly improved their offensive line. As stated above, the Chiefs have all the edges, but the edges are not as big as one may think. The Browns are also improved, OBJ is back, and they rebuilt their defense. The model makes the Chiefs a 3 to 3.5 point favorite. 

There is value on the Browns moneyline. Pinnacle makes the Chiefs a near 73% favorite -263. The model sees the accurate number closer to a 63% favorite, -170. Pinnacle has the Browns at +230, 30%. The model thinks the fair price is +170, 37%.   

I have one irrationally specific prediction for this game. There will be a play in the fourth quarter where JOK will have to sack Mahomes before he makes some insane off-platform throw for a first down or tackle him short of the sticks after a scramble. He will make the play. The Browns will get the ball back and have the chance to win the game.

I have one less irrational prediction, OBJ scores a touchdown.  

I cannot wait for this game. 

The model sees value with the Browns + 6.5

Seattle Seahawks v. Indianapolis Cols (2.5, 48.5)

As I write this, I can only think of one thing, “once more into the breach dear friends; once more.” – Shakespeare, Henry the V. Such is the nature of my relationship to the Seahawks. I grabbed the Seahawks when they were dogs, but the model still backs Seattle at -2.5. Waldren as OC opens all kinds of possibilities for a legitimate Wilson MVP run. It also shines a light on a path that will lead to vastly increased offensive efficiency. 

Wilson and Waldron are the perfect match. The model is convinced they will form a lasting love connection. We will refer to them as the Wildron. The model paints a picture of a world that is just and fair as we watch Wilson throwing the ball on early downs, utilizing a substantial dose of pre-snap motion, play action, and multiple personnel groupings. A world in which Wilson’s heroics are required only occasionally and replaced by late-game double-digit leads. This world assumes Carroll keeps his horrible offensive ideas to himself and lets Russ cook. Something he has failed to do repeatedly in seasons past.

The Colts have a problem at quarterback. Teams with issues at quarterback struggle mightly. Their best receiver is injured. And the cherry on top, they are overvalued based on an outlier performance last season that is unlikely to repeat

The model still sees some value on Seattle -2.5

Miami Dolphins v. New England Patriots (-3, 43.5)

This is a straight value play. In the range of probable outcomes, this game results in a Patriots victory within three points in nearly 9% of the simulations. When I add in the frequency that the Dolphins win outright, 51%, it results in a 60% win or push proposition. With reduced vig at -106, the bet is an automatic play for the model. This necessarily means there is excellent value on the Dolphins moneyline as well at +145.  

These teams are near mirror images. One team is coached by Bill Belichick, the other his protege. Both teams have young, unproven quarterbacks. Both teams have very good defenses. The only prominent edge is for the Patriots because they are at home. My model does not value home-field advantage (HFA) anywhere near the commonly used default position of 3 points. The model finds that three is an inflated number. Each team has its own number (HFA), and the Patriots’ number falls below three.

The model sees value on the Dolphins +3 (-106) & MLB +145.

Philadelphia Eagles v. Atlanta Falcons (-3, 47)

I have been vocal in my support of the Falcons this season. Form a personal position that does not waiver here. The model sees two teams that have made significant changes. For the Falcons, they brought in Arthur Smith and traded Julio Jones. For the Eagles, we have Jalen Hurts, who remains a complete unknown. We also have an entirely new coaching staff. 

Watch this game, if for no other reason, to watch Pitts play.  

Too many unknowns for the model, but it leans Falcons -3

This article will continue with Part II.

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