Predicting 2021 NFL Season Win Totals: AFC West


*This is the final part of an eight-part series looking at each division.

Previous: NFC East l NFC South l NFC North l NFC West

AFC East l AFC South l AFC North

The AFC West is the second most challenging division in the League. The easy favorite is the Chiefs. Denver and the Chargers will be in a knockdown fight for second place and a wildcard. The loser of that battle may still get the final spot in the playoffs. Las Vegas is an enigma, wrapped in a Gruden and inside a Mayock. 

The following graph ranks the relative strength of each division in the NFL based on the Vegas over/under win totals. The NFC North has a projected win percentage of 45.59%. 

Apart from their intra-divisional games, the AFC West will play the AFC North and the NFC East. Those divisions project as the third and sixth most difficult divisions in the NFL. Their expected win percentage is 53.68% and 45.59%, respectively. 

The NFL expanded to an imbalanced, 17 game schedule this season. The odd number of games requires half of the teams to play nine road games – this year, the AFC gets the ninth home game. 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 West’s non-standard opponents are listed in the table below:

TeamOpponent OneOpponent TwoOpponent Three
Kansas City ChiefsBuffalo@ TennesseeGreen Bay
Denver Broncos@ JacksonvilleJetsDetroit
LA ChargersNew EnglandMinnesota@ Houston
Las Vegas RaidersMiamiChicago@ Indianapolis

There is 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. 

No team in the entire league benefited more significantly from adding the seventeenth game this season than the Denver Broncos. Denver is favored in all three of their non-standard games by a combined 14.5 points. For a team with an 8.5 win total, that is highly unusual. The Chargers are a close second and favored in all three of their games by a combined 10 points. The records the Broncos and the Chargers put up in these three games will likely determine second place in the AFC West.  

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.

Kansas City Chiefs

Projected Finish: 1st in the AFC West

Projected Range: 11 – 13 Wins

Las Vegas Win Total: 12.5

Model Win Projection: 12.84

The Buccaneers outplayed the Chiefs in the Super Bowl. The reason is simple. Between opt-outs and injuries, the Chief’s offensive line performed well below expectation. Still, Mahomes had the highest EPA in the league when under pressure. Heading into the Super Bowl, many thought the Chiefs would be fine. They were not. 

The difference is that the Buccaneers got pressure on Mahomes without blitzing. Since they were dropping seven, Mahomes did not have the larger windows which appear when teams blitz to get pressure. Not every team is talented enough upfront to apply the pressure Tampa did without blitzing. It is not even confident Tampa Bay could repeat the feat. Still, everyone understood the takeaway. The Chiefs had to fix the offensive line. 

They did. They signed Austin Blythe in free agency, a center with a PFF grade of 69.3. They signed guard Joe Thuney who has a PFF grade of 74.2. At the other guard spot, Duvernay-Tardif will be returning after opting out last season. The Chiefs traded the 31st pick in the first round to the Ravens in exchange for tackle Orlando Brown Jr. Brown has a PFF grade of 76.5. Then the Chiefs drafted a center and a guard in subsequent rounds. 

The Chiefs have several indicators that scream regression in 2021. First, they went 8-1 in one-score games last season. That is not going to happen this season. They ended 2020 with a plus-six turnover differential, a plus-three in fumble recovery, and the Chiefs prevailed in 3.5 games over expectation last season. Even with a looming regression, the model still views them as an 11 to 13 win team. 

The Chiefs’ defense performed slightly below league median. As long as they stay in the 17-22 range, they will be more than effective enough to allow the offense to win games. The Chiefs may face more defenses hell-bent on keeping everything in front of them. The Chiefs may have to be more methodical and patient this season. The model is not concerned. 

It is no secret how the Chiefs win – they win the same way everyone wins in the NFL. It is talent, scheme, and schedule. They have a Mahomes, Kelce, Hill, and a revamped offensive line. The Chiefs’ scheme is intelligent. They throw the ball more than any other team on early downs, use pre-snap motion above the median, and use play-action more than 26 other teams. They do those things that work. The schedule this season gives them nine home games and the NFC East.  

Los Angeles Chargers

Projected Finish: 2nd in the AFC West

Projected Range: 9-13 Wins

Las Vegas Win Total: 9.5

Model Win Projection: 10.41

The Chargers have upside. Herbert was sensational last season, and they added talent all along the offensive line. Staley was an exceptional hire who should immediately improve the defense. They face the NFC East, the Raiders twice, and their non-standard games are favorable. 

Talent. Scheme. Schedule. 

Rather than point to all the apparent reasons Herbert won OROY last season, it is more valuable to point to the one area where the model expects regression. Herbert ranked in the top three of the league in every relevant statistic last season while under pressure. As shocking as that is for a rookie, it is more attributable to luck than skill. It is a rarely repeated feat in the NFL. There should be some regression in that area this season. 

While you cannot expect that type of performance under pressure to repeat itself, you can take measures to mitigate it. The Chargers did. Herbert was pressured near the league lead on his deep dropbacks last season – nearly 50% of the time. 

To combat that, the Chargers did what intelligent teams do. They invested in their offensive line. They signed away PFF’s highest-graded center from Green Bay, Corey Lindley. They drafted guard Rashawn Slater who will start for the next twelve years. They also signed guard Matt Feller, a top twenty-five guard according to PFF. If they can reduce the pressures on Herbert, he can play catch with Allen and Williams.  

The defense did not perform well last season. All world safety Derwin James should be back, but durability has been a problem. Melvin Ingram left for the Steelers. The main thing the Chargers need is to be healthy. If Bosa and James play the entire season, the concerns begin to melt away. Staley is a master defensive coach. He will make the rest of the defense blend behind those leaders and get the best from the plethora of young players that have yet to step up in defense. 

The Chargers will be favored in eleven games and play three others as a sub 2 point dog. It should be neck and neck with Denver for second place. The Chargers get the nod because of Herbert and the offensive line, despite having a slightly more difficult slate of non-standard games. 

Denver Broncos

Projected Finish: 3rd in the AFC West

Projected Range: 9 – 11 Wins

Las Vegas Win Total: 8.5

Model Win Projection: 9.33

Since this article is about the upcoming season, I will not write about the fact that Denver has been a quarterback away since they last won the Super Bowl in 2016. Similarly, I will not write about the fact that Justin Fields fell into their lap on draft day. I would not mention that passing on Fields only makes sense if they were confident they would sign Rodgers next offseason. I will not point out that people can change their minds. Finally, I would not think of pointing out that Bridgewater is just good enough to keep you out of the top ten in the draft and just bad enough to prevent you from advancing in the playoffs. 

Still, the model loves Denver. The model is going to be backing Denver frequently this season, and that includes over 8.5 wins. There are multiple reasons, but their non-standard opponents are a significant segment of the logic. Denver will play the Jets, Jacksonville, and Detroit. That is the easiest slate in the entire league. Denver is favored in all three games by a combined 14.5 points. Denver has the most favorable schedule in the division. 

As you can see from the projected range above, the model considers the most probable floor for the Broncos at nine wins. That puts them over the current total and makes them one of the model’s favorite over plays for 2021.

In many ways, Denver is the anti-Jacksonville. They have everything but a quarterback of the future. Still, Bridgewater is better than his reputation. He is at the very least better than what Denver has had at the position recently. What Bridgewater can do well is conduct an effective short and intermediate passing game. He is ranked first in the entire NFL in short-throw accuracy. Bridgewater ranks in the middle of the pack on intermediate-throw accuracy.  

Denver is going to have to play ball-control offense and field position. Consistent scoring will require 8-12 play drives. One primary concern with Bridgewater is the interceptions. Bridgewater cannot throw the ball deep. He is the 31st least accurate passer on deep routes. So the recipe for Denver is exceptional defense and capitalizing with touchdowns in the red zone. Sutton will return, and that will be a massive boost for Jeudy. 

The defense is exceptional, designed by Fangio, and feature Von Miller and Bradley Chubb. Justin Fields was the better pick for Denver, but Surtain profiles as an absolute stud at cornerback. He joins an already stacked secondary. The Denver defense should finish the season in the top-five. 

Denver will be favored in nine games this season. Three games in which they will enter as dogs, at the Steelers, Cowboys, and Raiders, are all winnable.  

Las Vegas Raiders

Projected Finish: 4th in the AFC West

Projected Range:  Wins

Las Vegas Win Total: 6.5

Model Win Projection: 5.11

The Raiders confound description, but not in a good way. Gruden, Mayock, and Davis are not the triplets one wants. The ten-year Gruden contract is an albatross. I loved Gruden on ESPN when he had his quarterback school, or whatever he called it. I just do not want him coaching/running my franchise. Gruden isn’t a bad coach. He just has zero understanding of value and no ability to identify talent. He should not have any input into the groceries. 

Since Gruden arrived, personnel decisions, in free agency and the draft, have been a train-wreck. The Raiders are far less talented on paper than three years ago, most notably along the offensive line and at wide receiver. It does not make a ton of sense to gut 60% of your offensive line without upgrading it. It doesn’t make sense to draft running back Josh Jacobs in the first round, only to place him behind a below-average offensive line. The Raiders have been active in trades, but they are not hitting with any of their acquired assets. Talent acquisition is a significant problem in Las Vegas. Mayock, Gruden, and Davis are drunk gamblers on the strip, pissing away the Raiders’ future. 

The offense is better than people think, coming in last season slightly more efficient than the league median. It is the defense that is the catastrophe. The model ranked the Raiders as the 27th best defense last season. The team responded by hiring Gus Bradley from the Chargers and drafting players to fit Bradley’s scheme. 

No team in the league faces a more difficult schedule than the Raiders based on Vegas win totals. The path to mediocrity requires the offensive line to improve dramatically and Bradley to work a minor miracle with the defense. If they pull that off, the model can see them getting to 6 or 7 wins. When they hit their bye in week eight, the model sees them buried in a 2- 5 hole. If they are 3 and 4 at the bye, the over is in play, but still unlikely.  

The Model Sees Value in the Following Sides:

  1. Chiefs and Packers to Win Divisions, +135
  2. Chargers Over 9.5 Wins, +110
  3. Chargers to Finish Second, +125  
  4. Denver Over 8.5 Wins, -110
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