*This is part five of an eight-part series looking at each division.
The AFC East tied for the fourth-most competitive division with the NFC South. The Bills are the preseason favorite, but there is a universe in which the Patriots or the Dolphins steal the divisional title.
Uncharacteristically, the Patriots rebuilt their offense overnight in free agency. If Mac Jones exceeds expectations, they are a live dog. The Dolphins are exceptionally well-coached and talented. Rumors surfaced this weekend that they are front-runners for Deshaun Watson. Whatever you think of the off-the-field allegations, there is no denying Watson’s supreme talent on the field. Even if that is just smoke, Tua is poised for a massive improvement in his second season. The Jets have hope with rookie quarterback Zach Wilson and the new, outstanding coaching staff, but they just started the rebuild.
As it stands, the AFC East is expected to have a 52.94 winning percentage.
Apart from their intra-divisional games, the AFC East will play the AFC and NFC South. Those divisions project as the tied for fourth and eight ranked divisions in the NFL. Their expected win percentage is 52.94% and 41.91%, respectively.
The Patriots will enjoy nine home games this season thanks to the NFL’s imbalanced, 17 game schedule. Each team in the division will face three different opponents that correlate to their position in the 2020 final divisional standings. This change in scheduling is a statistically significant datapoint in assessing win totals and division winners.
Before this season, teams within a division shared a commonality of opponents in 14 of their 16 games, 87.5%. This year, teams within a division will share a commonality of opponents in 14 of their 17 games, 82.3%. This additional 5% disparity is not insignificant. These three different opponents will be referred to throughout the article as non-standard opponents.
The AFC East’s non-standard opponents are from the AFC North, NFC East, and the AFC West. The specific matchups are listed in the table below:
|Team||Opponent One||Opponent Two||Opponent Three|
|Buffalo Bills||Pittsburgh||Washington||@ Kansas City|
|Miami Dolphins||@ Las Vegas||Baltimore||Giants|
|New England Patriots||Dallas||@ Chargers||Cleveland|
|New York Jets||@ Denver||Cincinnati||Philadelphia|
There is also a massive disparity in the strength of each team’s non-standard schedule. While this was also true in the past, the seventeenth game this season amplifies that imbalance. These games now comprise 17.6% of the schedule. In prior years these games composed only 12.5%.
To illustrate the disparity in the strength of schedule of non-standard opponents, the graph below indicates the combined projected win percentage of each team’s non-standard opponents.
In a division with such a clear front-runner, the imbalance is mitigated to a degree. Still, the point is worth understanding. If we knew nothing about the teams except their combined projected winning percentage above, we could conclude that the Bills’ three opponents expect to win 1.73 times in three games. Conversely, the Jets’ opponents would only expect only to win 1.26 times.
The effect of selecting the seventeenth opponent in this manner provides a massive edge to the teams at the bottom of the league. Since you cannot win fractions of a game, the most likely disparity resulting from these games would be a net +1 in the win column for Jets. So the additional game, the 5% increase mentioned above, equates to a 14.7% edge.
The following end-of-season division projections derive from an objective mathematical model that has simulated the 2021 NFL season tens of thousands of times.
Projected Finish: 1st in the AFC East
Projected Range: 10 – 13 Wins
Las Vegas Win Total: 11
Model Win Projection: 11.04
The Bills made a substantial improvement last season. Most notably was the improved performance of Josh Allen. After his first season, it was not easy to see such improvement from Allen. The credit is spread around from the front office, the coaching staff, and, of course, to Allen himself. The question is whether or not it is sustainable.
While last year constituted a quantum leap for Allen, he has steadily improved across the board since his rookie season.
As I wrote about in my NFL 2021 MVP Projections, Allen’s improvement in efficiency outpaced the increased volume year over year. He is doing more each year, and he is more effective. It is sustainable because of OC Brian Daboll. He attacks all three levels of the defense, uses the field horizontally and vertically. They throw the ball early and often. The offense churns out first downs and seldom punts. When opposing teams bring pressure, Allen performed as the third-best quarterback in EPA.
The Bills have some schedule advantages according to the model. Having to play a first-place finish selection of non-standard games, the Bills are fortunate. They get two of those games at home. Beyond that, the model does not think as highly of Washington or Pittsburgh as Vegas does. There is also a psychological benefit of playing Kansas City on the road early in the season. No matter the outcome, they will be able to use the game as a basis for a potential rematch in the playoffs. If they played the Chiefs in week fourteen and lost by double digits, it would be much more challenging to overcome.
They will have some regression in one-score games. While Allen’s improvement is sustainable, that does not mean he will not experience a drop-off in some areas. Allen’s season last year was nowhere near as odds-defying as Wentz’ 2017 season. In Wentz’ case, the ensuing regression was more easily predictable. The larger point is that there is enough to expect him to play at a top-ten quarterback moving forward.
New England Patriots
Projected Finish: 2nd in the AFC East
Projected Range: 9 – 11 Wins
Las Vegas Win Total: 9.5
Model Win Projection: 9.84
As I am writing this, the Patriots named Mac Jones the starter, cut Cam Newton, and I had to redo the simulations with Jones starting. The quarterback change increased the projected win total by .64. Bill Belichick is savage, and the model loves it. Both moves were correct. This is Belichick doing a Cortes homage 502 years after landing in Mexico and ordering his men to scuttle their ships. Neither he nor the team will deal with any questions about Cam after a game where Mac Jones struggles. Jones will never look over his shoulder.
Although it was preseason, Jones made several sophisticated reads and adjustments in the preseason. PFF had him as the second-rated passer in the league. The two videos to the right are excellent examples of his intelligence. There are some things you can take from the preseason. Jones made some rookie gaffes, but he made several excellent reads and placed the ball well.
Belichick is one of the best coaches in NFL history. He is also an ego-maniac. It bothers him that Brady left and won a Super Bowl in his first season with Tampa Bay. The offseason spending was unusual, but it was sound. It is not hyperbolic to state that Mac Jones is stepping into a better position than the other rookie quarterbacks to succeed.
First, he has Belichick and McDaniels coaching him. Second, it is the most stable franchise in the NFL. Third, the offseason spending spree brought Mac Jones his two new best friends, Henry and Smith.
Belichick has wanted this offense since he had visions of Gronk and Hernandez. (I am not saying Henry and Smith are equivalent talents, but more than competent to run 12 personnel) Belichek knows that you do not need to run the ball to set up the pass. That is a terrible Madden-ism that has been said so many times through the decades people accept it at face value. It is simply not true. Formation dictates how many players a defense puts in the box.
If you employ heavy, 12 personnel (1 running back and 2 TEs), the defense will crowd the box and the passing game open – whether you run the ball or not. Conversely, if you want to run the ball, go with 11 or 10 personnel and lighten the defensive box. With Henry and Smith, the Patriots can do both without changing personnel groupings. Both tight ends can spread out or take a traditional stance inline. It is going to be an absolute nightmare for defenses.
With all the effusive optimism, Jones is a rookie. Generally speaking, rookies do not light the league up. Moreover, Jones does not profile as a “light the league up” type of player. He is intelligent and accurate. He has tremendous footwork in the pocket. He throws a catchable ball on time. He will have his struggles to be sure, but he has three massive advantages. The schedule, while short on rest, includes the AFC South. His coaches will scheme the offense perfectly to his abilities. There is talent all around him, and his coaches will put him in a position to succeed.
The defense is a bit more of a mixed bag. On paper, they are loaded, especially in the front seven. Unfortunately, Gilmore went on the PUP list and will miss the first six weeks. He is a tremendous corner that allows their defense to be creative. Much of the Patriots’ defensive scheme is predicated on him. The upside is that defense is Belichick’s domain, and the first six opponents include the Jets and Houston. If they stumble hard in the first six weeks, look for Miami to take over second place.
Schedule. Scheme. Talent.
Projected Finish: 3rd in the AFC East
Projected Range: 9 – 11 Wins
Las Vegas Win Total: 9.5
Model Win Projection: 9.72
♭♭It’s the Miami Dolphins, Miami Dolphins.♭♭
Quants love the Dolphins coaching staff. And quants are starting to embrace Tua. Depending on your point of view, quants have already fixed or ruined the MLB and NBA. They are on the verge of doing the same for the NFL. Do not blame the quants if you do not like modern basketball because you think teams take too many three-point shots. Blame the rules. Quants do not have a dog in the fight. Quants do not make the rules. Quants just determine the most effective and efficient way to win, given the rules. So, if you hate seeing guys run to the corner on a fast break, get rid of the corner-three. I promise you they will go back to the bucket. My point is that quants are never wrong on the macro level – identifying the most efficient way to win a game. They are wrong far more often when projecting whether a specific player is a winning player.
The concern on Tua stems from his professionalism.
It is not as bad as it sounds. Though, admittedly, it sounds bad. The context here is everything. The offense had been designed entirely for Fitzpatrick. A completely different style of quarterback. The switch to Tua was made suddenly. At that point in time, Tua only had a few packages installed. Still, it is a terrible soundbite that will be pinned to his chest like a Scarlett Letter.
The model expects Tua to take a massive leap forward this year. There is a ton of data supporting the expectation. He was coming off a severe injury last season. The offseason program, which is vital for rookies, was essentially scrapped because of Covid. Tua ran an offense that Gailey put together specifically for Fitzpatrick. Despite this, the advanced metrics indicate Tua performed similarly to Joe Burrow – who played in an offense designed to his strengths. Tua had minimal weapons on offense last season. This year he has Parker, Fuller, and Waddle.
The Dolphins’ schedule is favorable. In addition to the AFC South, they get the Jets (twice), Raiders, and the Giants. I look for them to employ a great deal more 12 personnel this season as Tua struggled mightly in 11 but performed above league median in 12.
Tua needs the offensive line to improve. It is ugly. The model ranks them as a bottom-five unit. If they can just perform as the 18-23 best offensive line, the wins will go up. The defense is solid and consistent. Howard is a fantastic corner. One of the very best in the league. He probably cannot repeat his performance from last year, but he does not need to repeat. If he stays healthy, the defense will be above the median even if they do not have a 10-13 sack guy in the front seven.
New York Jets
Projected Finish: 4th in the AFC East
Projected Range: 3 – 5 Wins
Las Vegas Win Total: 6
Model Win Projection: 4.2
The Jets are finally on the road back to relevancy. I still question the end of the season last year when the organization seemed to collectively say, “eh, we do not need Trevor Lawrence.” That aside, Saleh was a great selection as head coach. LaFleur was an excellent choice for an offensive coordinator. Zach Wilson will have a scheme that exploits his talents.
The team should be far more competent this year. Still, this is year one of a rebuild. And success is defined differently. The three other teams in their division are all loitering around the ten-win expectation. The Jets should be in the running for a top-three pick in next year’s draft. Many of the analytics people are far higher on the Jets and expect them to be sneaky good this season and in turn in 6-7 wins. In the range of possible outcomes, that is possible. It is just unlikely.
One benefit to the Jets schedule for those wanting to wager over the total is that Tampa Bay and Buffalo may rest their starters in Week 17 and 18. The team only has seven home games because they are playing Atlanta in London this year.
The Model Sees Value in the Following Sides:
- Mac Jones Offensive Rookie of the Year +1200
- Bills to Win the Division, -150
- Pats to Win over 3.5 Division Games, +175
- Waddle Over 750 Yards +100
- Tua Over 3899.5 Yards -112