Predicting 2021 NFL Season Win Totals: AFC South

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*This is part six of an eight-part series looking at each division. NFC East

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The AFC South is the lightest division in the NFL. The two teams generally considered to be at the top of the division, Tennessee, and Indianapolis, face a negative regression. Jacksonville is facing a positive regression before we even consider the coaching change and addition of Trevor Lawrence. Houston remains an organization in chaos. 

Based on the Vegas over/under win totals, the following graph ranks the relative strength of each division in the NFL. The AFC South has a projected win percentage of 41.9%. By far, the lowest rate in the league.

The NFC South will play the NFC West and AFC East in addition to each other. Those divisions project as the first and the tied for fourth-most difficult divisions. The NFC West and AFC East have expected win percentages of 58.09% and 52.94%, respectively.  

The NFL schedule has expanded to seventeen games this season. The two conferences will rotate yearly between hosting the ninth game and going on the road for a ninth game. This year, the AFC gets the benefit of hosting nine home games. 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. 

In years past, 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 will exert an outsized role in determining win totals, division titles, and playoff births. These three different opponents will be referred to throughout the article as non-standard opponents.

The AFC South’s non-standard opponents are listed in the table below:

TeamOpponent OneOpponent TwoOpponent Three
TennesseeKansas CityNew Orleans@ Pittsburgh
Indianapolis@ BaltimoreTampa BayLas Vegas
JacksonvilleDenver@ CincinnatiAtlanta
Houston@ ClevelandCarolinaChargers

The first thing you should notice from the table is that it is imbalanced. The AFC East will play two of its three non-standard games at home, 66%. The imbalance is an inherent part of a seventeen-game season. 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 third game this season amplifies that imbalance. These games now comprise 17.6% of the schedule.   

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. 

These are not small disparities. With a win percentage of 44.12%, we would expect Jaguars’ opponents to have 1.2 wins through three games. Conversely, we expect the Titans’ and Colts’ opponents to have 1.76 wins. The Texans’ opponents expect to have 1.61 wins through three games. The result implies a net +1 for the Jaguars over the rest of their division. 

There are three things needed to win in the NFL; talent, schedule, and scheme. 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.

Tennessee Titans

Projected Finish: 1st, AFC South

Projected Range: 8 – 11 Wins

Las Vegas Win Total: 9

Model Win Projection: 9.25

The Titans find themselves atop the AFC South projections more by default than as a ringing endorsement. While nine games are akin to 8.5 in a 16 game season, there are several red flags in Tennessee. The issues primarily concern negative regression, coaching and player changes, and schedule. 

As I wrote earlier this month, Tennessee has several data points indicating they overperformed last season. The data suggests that despite their 11 win campaign last season, the team performed more similarly to an eight or nine-win team. Tennessee benefited last season from a two-game positive win rate over expectation. They went an outstanding 7 – 2 in one-score games. They also had the league’s highest turnover net differential at +11. It is unreasonable to conclude that those data points will repeat in 2021.

Over the off-season, Tennessee lost offensive coordinator Arthur Smith. He is now the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons. The loss of Smith is a significant blow – he resurrected Ryan Tannehill’s career. He is an innovative play-caller that optimally utilized Tannehill, Henry, and Jonnu Smith at tight-end. Smith ran a ton of play-action and a ton of 12 and 13 personnel groupings. Especially in the red zone. Tannehill was magnificent in those positional groupings. He ranked fourth in the NFL with a +.27 EPA. To what extent Tennessee will roll with the same scheme or how effective it will be with the departure of both Smiths remains unknown.

The addition of Julio Jones is a tremendous signing. It also signals a different approach by new offensive coordinator Todd Downing. If the Titans move away from 12 and 13 in favor of 11 and 10 personnel, then there are, at least, valid questions. Downing is not known for employing a great deal of play-action, and that is cause for concern. Tannehill flourished with the increased use of play-action.   

There is an inclination to think the Titans will be fine because they still have Tannehill and Henry. Keep this in the back of your mind. Before the 2019 season, when Smith took over as OC, Tannehill took over at quarterback, and the Titans drafted wide receiver AJ Brown; Henry averaged a pedestrian 66 rushing yards per game.

The schedule is more difficult on paper this season than last, as they face the NFC West and the AFC East. Yet, the path to the division title may be more accessible. I look for Indianapolis to endure a steeper regression than Tennessee. The Jaguars will be improved, but Houston is zero threat. 

Indianapolis Colts

Projected Finish: 2nd, AFC South

Projected Range: 7 – 9 Wins

Las Vegas Win Total: 9

Model Win Projection: 8.2

First, there is some good news. The coaching staff is well above average. The Titans possess upper-tier running backs and offensive linemen. Their defense will be average –  right at the league median. Their schedule gets markedly easier after week eight. Yet, they project as favorites in 12 games this season. 

Second, the bad news, and there is plenty. The Colts disproportionately benefited from unlikely to be repeated statistics last season. This indicates that a negative regression is on the horizon. 

The Colts have a quarterback problem. I understand the narrative one can craft to be optimistic. Wentz was on his way to an outstanding career when he was beset by injuries. In his best season on record, 2017, Frank Reich was his offensive coordinator. The combination of his injuries and the departure of Reich derailed his career. He is still young, and now he is back with Reich. 

Sounds good. And it is true to an extent. Wentz’ 2017 is an extreme outlier. There are a million statistics to demonstrate this, but one stands out above all others. Wentz completed a historically unprecedented number of passes on third and long. It was an anomaly. The Eagles had an abundance of skill position players and offensive line talent in 2017. Further supporting this conclusion is the fact that Nick Foles looked invincible when he stepped in for Wentz at quarterback. He gave us ‘Big Nick Energy.’ He gave Philadelphia a championship. Yet, he has hardly been heard from since. 

Is Wentz as horrific as he has looked since 2017? Probably not. And there is reason to think that Reich will put him in a better position to succeed. The offensive line is solid, but his weapons are not. Wentz can be better than he has been, but it is highly unlikely that he recaptures anything akin to his 2017 season. It was an outlier. 

The Colts’ schedule is shockingly front-loaded. If they can survive until week nine against the Jets, they can make a run. If they struggle early, this will create an opportunity to take the Colts once the line undervalues them. 

The model projects the Colts to finish second because the model trusts Tannehill and not Wentz. 

Jacksonville Jaguars

Projected Finish: 3rd, AFC South

Projected Range: 6 – 8 Wins

Las Vegas Win Total: 6.5

Model Win Projection: 6.41

There is a world in which Jacksonville wins the AFC South. If you accept the principles of regression, this team performed last season as a five-win team. Based on that same regression, the Colts and the Titans overperformed in 2020. 

Trevor Lawrence is now at quarterback, and Urban Meyer is the coach. The Jaguars have the most manageable schedule of the four teams in the AFC South, as their non-standard opponents should win only 44% of their games. The current odds, 6 to 1, are too thin for the model. If the odds were slightly higher, I would take a flyer on this side. 

Though favored only against Houston in week one, the Jaguars’ first five games are winnable. They will be sub-three-point dogs in the following four games.  

There could also be some overreaction if Lawrence looks sharp and they blow Houston off the field in week one. Until we have data, there is just too much speculation around this team for my comfort level. 

First-time NFL Coach Urban Meyer has not aced the offseason. The handling of Minshew was particularly odd. The first question that comes to mind is, why would you let him take any reps with the starters from Lawrence in the preseason? It made no sense. Secondly, I find it difficult to believe that a conditional sixth-round pick was the best offer. Even if it was, why not keep him as your QB2? He could increase his trade value if forced into action during the season. Unlike the Patriots’ situation with Newton and Jones, where cutting Newton made sense because he was the projected starter, there was never a question that Lawrence would start for the Jaguars.   

Factoring in some other Meyer moves, red flags start to appear. The hiring of Chris Doyle as a strength and conditioning coach was bound to implode. It also smacks of the dictator-Esque environment that Meyer employed in college but will not play in the NFL. It is not simply that the hire was insensitive; it was foreseeably stupid. The backlash was predictably immediate and unrelenting. Finally, bringing in Tim Tebow did not make sense. I am sure his teammates loved him. Still, on some level, you have to ask, what was the point? He had zero chance of making the league as a tight end. Reps in the preseason are valuable, and teams do not need pointless distractions. 

Almost everything with Jacksonville is pure speculation until we have some game data on Lawrence and Meyer.

Houston Texans

Projected Finish: 4th, AFC South

Projected Range: 0 – 3 Wins

Las Vegas Win Total: 4

Model Win Projection: 2.08

It is difficult to comprehend the Texans’ epic collapse. They went from a good team on the rise, to laughing stock, to an organization whose actions created legitimate concern for their mental health in under two seasons. In 2018, the Texans went 11-5 and made the playoffs. The future was bright. They had Watson, Hopkins, and Watt. After the season, Cal McNair took over the Texans from his father. At first, Cal did little. A year later, the Texans were up 24-0 on the Chiefs in the playoffs. They lost, and Cal got to work.

As a long-suffering Knicks fan, I am aware of the chaos that ensues when billionaires let their children run franchises. In Cal’s defense, he did make some of his own money. He sold his energy company to Enron. Yes, that Enron. Not to be outdone by James Dolan, Cal seemed single-mindedly determined to reach new levels of incompetence. 

Under his stewardship, the Texans hired former Patriots’ chaplain Jack Easterby. Houston gave him a voice in personnel decisions – I am not kidding. Easterby is now the Executive Vice President of Football Operations. The Texans traded DeAndre Hopkins in what remains the most lopsided, inexcusable, backward trade since Jimmy Johnson pawned off Hershal Walker for back-to-back Super Bowl victories. The Texans got RB David Johnson and a second and fourth-round draft pick. The Cardinals got Hopkins, a fourth-round selection, and away with grand larceny. 

This David Johnson:

For this DeAndre Hopkins:

This is gross negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress by McNair on every single Texans fan. An elite wide receiver for a running back that does not matter.

By the end of last season, Watt and Watson demanded out. (Watson made his position public before the multiple allegations against him regarding sexual assault. Those matters remain pending in civil court and are subject to a police and NFL investigation) We have no idea, but it seems less and less likely that Watson will be traded. Watt will always be Houston royalty. What he did for that franchise will be ensconced in the hall-of-fame. What he did for the City of Houston after Hurricane Harvey is ensconced in the hearts of everyone that witnessed his actions. 

This is the state of the 2021 Texans, and it is not good. They have the oldest roster in the league and the least talented one. They have the least competent front office in the league. It was the front office that brought in David Culley as head coach. 

Culley served as Baltimore’s passing game coordinator in 2020. Forgive my tepid response. He was the passing game coordinator for the most run-heavy team in the league. The Ravens were one of four teams that finished the season under 200 passing yards per game. Baltimore’s passing offense produced the least amount of yards in the entire league. Baltimore ended the season a mind-numbing 74.3 yards per game beneath the league passing median. It is the right approach in Baltimore. They have a unicorn at quarterback. That approach will not work in Houston. 

This is akin to hiring the landlocked country of Bolivia’s Navy to teach nautical engineering. If you want to hire someone from Baltimore, hire the people in charge of making their running game unstoppable. Then go back in time and draft Lamar Jackson. Baltimore’s offense is the least replicable offense in the entire league. Culley may be great, but this makes no logical sense.  

Neither does the hiring of Lovie Smith as their defensive coordinator. If you do not recall Lovie Smith, it is understandable. After coaching his way out of the league, he spent the last four years leading the University of Illinois to a 17 – 39 record before being fired last season. 

I assume Lovie is a wonderful person. This is not personal. I just do not understand the approach by the Texans. They hire a passing game coordinator from the league’s worst passing offense, and who comes from a system that he cannot replicate in Houston under any circumstances. Then, that coach hires a 63-year-old defensive coordinator that was just fired from his collegiate job. 

Way to read the zeitgeist, Houston. 

Finally, the team has squandered the one asset that remains. Like a weak poker player just getting blinded out. Watson will never have more value than he had when he asked for the trade. That was the best time to trade him. They could have reasonably got into the top five in last year’s draft, acquired at least two additional firsts, a couple of seconds, and players. Of course, this is not entirely Houston’s fault as I assume they too were blindsided by the allegations. The fact remains, had they traded him when he asked, this article would be about their draft haul and their new starting quarterback. It would be about their future and not their past. 

If anyone is in favor of the Texans holding on to Watson because he signed a contract and you wonder what happened to loyalty, then you are missing the point. You are longing for the “good old days” that never existed. This league is not about loyalty. It is about maximizing the value of your assets – whether you are an owner, coach, or player. I understand that fans have romanticized their experience with a certain team and its players. The smart move was to trade Watson at an all-time high value.  

This team is an absolute disaster. If Cal’s next two seasons are the same dumpster fire as the previous two, I think the NFL will have a serious issue on its hands. How to deal with a team that is so egregiously incompetent that it disrupts the competitive balance and impugns the integrity of the league? Perhaps before then, Cal’s mom will just fire him.  

The Model Sees Value in the Following Sides:

  1. Titans to Win the Division, -110
  2. Colts Under 9 Wins, -110
  3. Houston Worst Record in the League, +200
  4. Texans and Detroit to Finish Last in their Divisions, +100

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