Predicting 2021 NFL Season Win Totals: NFC North

Predicting 2021 NFL Season Win Totals- NFC North

*This is part three of an eight-part series looking at each division:

Previously: NFC East l NFC South

The NFC North is tied for the second easiest division with the NFC East, narrowly beating out the bottom-dwelling AFC South. Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers are heavy favorites. The Vikings and the Bears will fight for second place and potentially a wildcard berth. The Detroit Lions firmly control the bottom of the division. 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 NFC North will play the NFC West and the AFC North. Those divisions project as the first and third most difficult divisions in the NFL. Their expected win percentage is 58.09% and 53.68%, 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 NFC gets the short straw. 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 NFC North’s non-standard opponents are listed in the table below:

TeamOpponent OneOpponent TwoOpponent Three
Green Bay Packers@ SaintsWashington@ Chiefs
Minnesota Vikings@ PanthersCowboys@ Chargers
Chicago Bears@ Raiders@ BuccaneersGiants
Detroit LionsEagles@ Broncos@ Falcons

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. 

It is essential to understand that the effect of selecting the seventeenth opponent in this manner provided a massive edge to the teams at the bottom of the league. Suppose there is a perfectly average NFL team. Green Bay’s opponents would expect to win 1.76 of the three games, Detroit’s opponents would expect to win only 1.32. 

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 Detroit. So the additional game, the 5% increase mentioned above, equates to a 14.7% edge for Detroit in those three games. I am not suggesting that Detroit might steal the division from Green Bay, but the seventeenth game could decide the division in the NFC West and a first-round bye.  

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.

Green Bay Packers

Projected Finish: 1st in the NFC North

Projected Range: 10 – 12 Wins

Las Vegas Win Total: 10

Model Win Projection: 11.04

There is no question that Tom Brady is the most successful quarterback in NFL history. Aaron Rodgers is the most skilled. After a typically enigmatic Rodgers-Esque offseason, he returns to Green Bay for a final trip around the block. It was Rodgers in all his glory – the draft day tweet, hosting Jeopardy, and the t-shirts. He spent his offseason subtweeting the Packers’ front office. The funniest moment was when he was asked about the field goal in the NFC Championship game while hosting Jeopardy. It would be on-brand for Rodgers to go out with a masterpiece. 

The model projects the Packers to race to week nine against the Chiefs with a 7-1 record. Hit a rough patch, then emerge from their bye 8-4. The final five games it sees as 3-2 at worst. If they manage 5-0, home-field advantage in the playoffs is a possibility.

There is some debate as to why this number is not at 10.5. Some people have supposed that the uncertainty around Rodgers returning is the cause of the number. I disagree. Most books had strict limits on these bets or took them off the board altogether. Moreover, Rodgers never really had a path to get out of Green Bay this season. And exactly nobody was buying that he would walk away. 

Some indicators portend a regression on the horizon. Their defense overperformed last season. Well, right up to the point that Kevin King self-imploded in the NFC Championship game. My heart broke for him, but I could not turn away either. It was not entirely his fault.

Dungy is not wrong. However, plenty else from that game was on King, including:

In true Brady fashion, he went after the weakest link, early and often.

It was so bad. And it got worse for King as the game went on. (See, the Fournette touchdown and the pass interference that effectively ended the game, both on King) The point of this is not to pick on King (Brady did that enough), but merely to highlight the schematic and talent deficiencies that can cause a regression. The front seven is in the lower third of the league.

There are also some concerns on offense. The Packers’ line lost the league’s top-rated center and will start a rookie. The center has become nearly as important as a tackle. Defenses employ increasingly exotic fronts to disguise pressure. The center is responsible for calling out the blocking assignments, and it can overwhelm a rookie. Mitigating those concerns is that Rodgers can call the blocking assignments in his sleep. Green Bay faced one of the easiest schedules of pass defenses last season, not so this season. Rodgers played outside of his mind last season, even by his standards. 

That is an 8.6 to 1 touchdown to interception ratio. Rodgers’ statistics on third down were even more unfathomable. Over 80% of his balls on third down, rated as catchable. It was the single greatest quarterback performance of the previous five years, maybe ever. 

Here is the thing with Rodgers, he is just that good. Case in point, for Rodgers’ performance last season to rank where it does, he had to beat himself. His 2016 performance now rates as the second greatest season by a quarterback. Record-shattering years are nothing new for Rodgers.

It is not difficult to explain the brilliance of Rodgers. Here is a statistic that I came across that hammers it home. Rodgers finished second in the league in the percent of throws at or behind the line of scrimmage. He also finished second in the league in the percentage of passes twenty yards or more downfield. Rodgers, through his elite operation of the RPO, lets defenses decide how he will beat them. He is that otherworldly. The lesson seems simple, if you have a great quarterback, give him options.

Rodgers made a cameo in the US version of The Office. In the episode, he gets auto-tuned, saying “You’re just not good” to Andy Bernard. When it comes to Rodgers, he is just that good. The most skilled quarterback the NFL has ever seen.  

Minnesota Vikings

Projected Finish: 2nd in the NFC North

Projected Range: 8 – 10 Wins

Las Vegas Win Total: 9

Model Win Projection: 8.76

The model is high on the Vikings this season, but a vast unknown lingers. Kirk Cousins, a solid NFL quarterback that has never reached the ceiling every model and fan sees, will not get vaccinated. A disproportionately large number of players on the Vikings either feel the same or are simply following Cousins’ position. They have been vocal that they will not get the vaccine even if that means they cannot play. Every team will face covid related issues, but Cousins has the most vocal opposition to the vaccine from a quarterback, and unvaccinated players will have to sit out longer. Cousins went so far as to say he will ensconce himself in plexiglass – some Pope-mobile for the quarterback. 

I know he meant in practice, but this cracks me up.

This creates two issues for bettors. First, with the delta variant mathematically likely to increase as we proceed into the fall, how many games will these players miss? Contact tracing has already kept Cousins away from the team during the preseason. Second, the NFL is trying to mandate the vaccine for all players. I think it is unlikely to gain traction, but not impossible. Kelly Mond is the team’s backup signal-caller. He has a strong arm and surprising upside. He also has precisely zero snaps as an NFL quarterback. It isn’t easy to incorporate this information into the model. 

Here is what I did. I told the model there is an X percent chance that Cousins will either get Covid or isolate based on contact tracing. If that occurs, Cousins will miss Y number of games. If he misses Y games, Kelley Mond is their quarterback. In some sense, we do this already with injury history and probability odds, but they are notoriously unreliable. For this reason, I will not be recommending a play on the over/under win total for the Vikings.  

If we set aside the vaccine issue, several indicators suggest the Vikings will have a much better season this year. Fortunately, we have a solid track record with Zimmer. His defenses consistently play above expectation. Throughout his entire career as DC or head coach, his units outperform expectations. Last season, the Vikings had terrible injury luck on the defensive side of the ball. The model trusts Zimmer.  

On the offense, the loss of Stefanski to Cleveland hurt, but Kubiak stepped into the role nicely. The loss of Diggs at receiver hurt, but enter Jefferson. The offensive line has been weak, but there is cause for optimism with two solid rookies slated to start. Dalvin Cook has been well above average. I think there is still a deep-rooted over-commitment to running the football in Minnesota. It is odd. Zimmer’s roots go back to DC in Dallas in the ’90s. Those teams had Emmitt Smith. Still, they were smart enough to throw the ball at an above-average rate in the first half and on early downs. Then they ran Emmitt with the lead in the second half of the games. The Vikings have Jefferson and Thielen. Running will not open up the passing game. Formation dictates the defensive box, not running the ball.   

It appears that others agreed with this assessment as the Vikings’ number has moved from 8.5 wins to 9. If Covid were not an issue, this analysis would be different. Even with the Covid question, the model still takes a side that the Vikings finish second in the NFC North. 

Chicago Bears

Projected Finish: 3rd in the NFC North

Projected Range: 5-8 Wins

Las Vegas Win Total: 7.5

Model Win Projection: 6.85

The Bears had a great draft. They got the second-best quarterback in Justin Fields. The city of Chicago has never had a quarterback. (No Chicago, the punky-QB called McMahon does not count). Well, Sid Luckman was alright. 

With the quarterback of the future in-house, two questions arise. When do you let him take over for Dalton? And will Nagy screw him up? Concerning the first question, Andy Dalton gave the obligatory, “he has a great future, but it is my time,” soundbite. It was Dalton’s time last year in Dallas after Prescott went down. It has been Dalton’s time since 2011. The results are in, and they are not good.

The Chicago Bears offensive line struggles with blocking. That was the nicest way I could think to write that sentence. The line is not making the correct blocking calls presnap. Calls you would expect a high school line to identify correctly. Their first opponent is on the road against the Rams. It is prudent not to put your prize rookie behind a porous line, on the road, and in front of Aaron Donald. So it will be Dalton-time for one game at least. 

The question is do you start Fields week two and give him a mini-run against sub-par pass defenses, or do you wait until week four at home against the Lions. My money is on week four. The Browns should handle the Bears with relative ease. The Bears will have given Dalton three weeks to prove himself. Nagy also wants to start Fields if for no other reason than rookie quarterbacks tend to give coaches cover for sub-optimal results. Nagy is coaching for his job this season. 

The second question is most important, will Nagy put Fields in a position to succeed? I did not think Trubisky would set the world on fire, but Nagy did not help with the scheme. Nagy is a far greater impediment to success for the Bears than Mitch ever was. It was not Mitch’s fault that he was drafted ahead of Watson and Mahomes. Moreover, Nagy never used him correctly. Like a frustrated child, Nagy kept trying to get the triangle block through the round hole. Mitch is way more competent on the move, throwing off-platform. Buffalo knew how to scheme an offense for Mitch, and he has responded during the preseason. He responded against the Bears:

The numbers above hardly tell the whole story, but this tweet does:

I know it was the pre-season, but it was the first half. And, sorry Chicago, but it was pretty damn funny. Perhaps even a harbinger.

The point is, Nagy is not a coach that inspires confidence. He does not get the most out of his players, and his players never seem to improve. This is not hyperbole, players do not improve under Nagy. It is shocking. Either way, this is going to be a tough year in Chicago. Growing pains by the score. A successful season is not a wildcard berth and first-round exit. A successful season is developing talent, especially Fields, and then drafting well again next season. Presumably with a new, competent coaching staff.

Chicago is favored in four games. The front seven will keep them in some games, but this is a 5-6 win team at best.

Detroit Lions

Projected Finish: 4th in the NFC North

Projected Range: 2-5 Wins

Las Vegas Win Total: 4.5

Model Win Projection: 3.41

If this article were about rebuilding a team and the long-term future, there would be something to say here. The truth is simple. The Detroit Lions were struck by a natural disaster, Matt Patricia. The team called FEMA and the Red Cross for help. They came in and looked around. I hope for Detroit’s sake the worst is behind them, but the immediate future is dark. 

New Head Coach Dan Campbell’s opening press conference was awkward and confusing rather than “inspiring.” In what seemed like a forced line that he had rehearsed countless times in the mirror, Campbell started talking about “biting people’s kneecaps off.” If I were a fan of the Lions, that is not what I would have wanted to hear at all. I would like to hear, “we are going to be a modern organization that embraces analytics and exhausts every resource to acquire talent.” 

It was less Coach Boone from Remember The Titans and a little more, “I am trying way too hard to endear myself to the city of Detroit.” Honestly, it was bizarre. He said, opposing teams will keep knocking us down, but we will bite their kneecaps. And he said “alright,” way too often—weird dude. 

Kneecaps or not, here is what matters for 2021. Detroit’s defense ranks 30th in the league. They performed a full 12% worse than the median. Their offensive line is above average, but the rest of the offense is not. And that was with Stafford. Now, it is Goff’s team. 

They will be underdogs in every single game this season, with the possible exception of their week eight game at home against Philadelphia, which could go off at “pick’em.” Their win total opened at five and has dropped to 4.5. 

Perhaps the model is underestimating Dan Campbell. Despite his opening press conference, which seemed to scream I have zero grasp of modern football, maybe he is an offensive savant. After all, he worked under Sean Payton, which is the NFL equivalent of ‘shaking Sinatra’s hand.’ We will find out.

There is no logical case for the over. 

The Model Sees Value in the Following Sides:

*I am not suggesting you take every side. These are just the sides the model sees value.

  1. Minnesota to Finish Second, +150
  2. Chicago to Finish Third, +135
  3. The Two Selections Above Parlayed (where possible), +485
  4. All Four Teams Exact Finish Parlay, +1300
  5. Green Bay to Win Division & Kansas City to Win AFC West +135
  6. Green Bay Over 10 Wins, -120 
  7. Chicago Under 7.5 Wins, -110
  8. Detroit Under 4.5 – 110

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