Predicting 2021 NFL Season Win Totals: NFC South

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

For Part 1: NFC East

The NFC South is tied for the fourth most difficult division with the AFC East. There is a clear front runner, the defending Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The real intrigue is the race for second place and potentially a wild card berth. Based on the Vegas over/under win totals, the following graph ranks the relative strength of each division in the NFL. The NFC South has a projected win percentage of 52.9%. 

The NFC South will play the AFC and NFC East in addition to each other. Those divisions project as tied for fourth and the seventh-most difficult divisions. The AFC and NFC East have expected win percentages of 52.9% and 45.59%, 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 NFC gets the short straw and will have nine road 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 NFC South’s non-standard opponents are listed in the table below:

TeamOpponent OneOpponent TwoOpponent Three
Tampa Bay Bucs@ RamsBears@ Colts
Atlanta Falcons@ Jaguars@ 49ersLions
New Orleans SaintsPackers@ Seattle@ Tennessee
Carolina Panthers@ TexansVikings@ Cardinals

The first thing you should notice from the table is that it is imbalanced. The NFC East will play two of its three non-standard games on the road, 66%. They will also play nine total road games. 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 additional 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. 

The information from the graph pops off the page. These are not small disparities. With a win percentage of 41.18%, we would expect Carolina’s opponents to have 1.23 wins through three games. Conversely, we expect the Saints opponents to have 1.7 wins through three games. This bears out in the spreads as Carolina will be favored in one game, an underdog in one game, and pick’em in the third game. The Saints will be favored in only one of their three non-standard games. Atlanta is favored in two games and an underdog in one. 

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.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Projected Finish: 1st, NFC South

Projected Range: 11 -13 Wins

Las Vegas Win Total: 12

Model Win Projection: 12.68

If the model is correct that talent, schedule, and scheme are needed to win games in the NFL, the Buccaneers have all three. To show the importance of the scheme last year, the model projected a narrow Green Bay victory over Tampa Bay in the NFC Championship game. However, it would have taken the Chiefs in the ensuing Super Bowl. After Tampa won the game, the model predicted the Super Bowl within one point of the final score. Scheme matters. 

Tom Terrific is the most successful quarterback in NFL history. I tend to stay away from terms such as “the greatest.” I have only ever agreed that Ali was the greatest. Perhaps it is my contrarian nature. Of course, had Ali lost his belt to Eli Manning twice, I probably would not call him the greatest either.  

Tampa Bay arguably has the most talented roster in the NFL. The scheme fits the talent perfectly. The schedule makers brought the gift of the NFC East, the Bears with their porous offensive line, a Colts team facing a massive regression, and the Jets. The Buccaneers will be favored in 15 games this season, and a 15-2 finish is not out of the realm of possibility. On paper, the only two games that cause concern for Tampa Bay are the Rams and the Bills.    

The problem is that everything above is common knowledge, and there is no value on Tampa Bay’s numbers. The worst kept secret in the sportsbook is that a large portion of the betting public leans heavily toward favorites and overs. It is understandable, even if it is not mathematically supportable. Something in our DNA compels us to perceived winners and more points. As a result of this, books hedge their lines.

This season, the model will look for those individual games where bettors run the spread up on Tampa Bay and across key numbers. The model will take the points in those situations and fade the Buccaneers. 

Tampa Bay’s only two fears are that Brady’s age catches up to him overnight and his play plummets, or a spate of unprecedented bad injury luck. The model does not advise betting on either. 

Atlanta Falcons

Projected Finish: 2nd, NFC South

Projected Range: 7 – 10 Wins

Las Vegas Win Total: 7.5

Model Win Projection: 8.66

There have been times when the model seems to get “crushes” on specific teams. This year it is the Falcons. One reason for this crush is that Atlanta endured an outlier negative deviation last season, resulting in three to four wins below expectation. Another reason is that they drafted Kyle Pitts. The final reason is the schedule.

In 2020, the Falcons went a dismal 2-8 in one-score games – a win rate of just 20%. Atlanta led in 13 of its 16 games last season. They had the lead at halftime in nine games, yet they managed only four wins. These are unlikely to be repeated stats that are more probable to result in a positive regression to the mean. In addition, the Falcons win expectation last season based on the Pythagorean theorem was closer to eight wins. Atlanta finished last season with an offensive and defensive rating that straddled the league median, which indicates an eight-win team.  

The model is very high on Kyle Pitts. It is uncommon for a rookie to take a prominent position in a team’s over/under total win analysis. It is a testament to Pitts that he is in this section. The man stands 6’6” and weighs 240, and runs the 40-yard dash in 4.4. The comparison is absurd, but it is Megatron. He has size, speed, strength, and elite hands. He can line up all over the field, and he is a mismatch at every spot. He is too big and powerful for a cornerback and too fast and quick for a linebacker.

Pitts, along with Mac Jones now that he is the starter in New England, are the model’s picks for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Last year in Tennessee, new Head Coach Arthur Smith used 12 personnel more than any other team and targeted tight ends at the fourth-highest rate. There is a universe in which Pitts’ end-of-season stat line displays triple-digit receptions, quadruple-digit yards, and double-digit touchdowns. It is a rare universe, but his median projected production is more than enough to impact scoring positively. 

The Falcons’ schedule is significantly easier this year as compared to 2020. Last Season the Falcons faced the number one toughest set of offenses, this season they face the 22nd most difficult group of offenses.

Atlanta has the opportunity to sprint to their week six bye with a 4-1 record by beating up on 75% of the NFC East and the Jets. They will still have the Jaguars and Lions on the schedule. Atlanta will also have the Panthers and Saints twice and the Cowboys. Here is a sampling of the quarterbacks the Falcons are expected to face this season; Hurts, Daniel Jones, Fitzpatrick, Zach Wilson, Tua (unless Watson is traded to Miami), Darnold (twice), Winston (twice), Newton, or Mac Jones, Trevor Lawrence, and Goff. The Falcons do not have to beat an elite team to get over the total.  

The Falcons traded the franchise’s best player ever, Julio Jones. Bill Simmons has his Ewing-theory. Essentially, it states that a team may improve despite losing its best player. I am a massive fan of both Ewing and Jones. However, the model does not find this loss as significant as it appears on paper. It creates even more opportunities for Pitts. The offensive line is a considerable concern. They are going to have to cobble together a run game for the second half. They also only have seven home games, as they play one “home” game in London. 

New Orleans Saints

Projected Finish: 3rd, NFC South

Projected Range: 7 – 10 Wins

Las Vegas Win Total: 9

Model Win Projection: 8.61

The model loves Sean Payton. He demonstrated last year that he could scheme around significant injuries to Thomas, Brees, and Sanders. The model is also much higher on Winston than most. The Lasik is working! The excellent offensive line returns all five starters. Alvin Kamara is capable of bailing the team out in the running or passing game.  

Then, it may seem odd that the model has the Saints in third place behind the Falcons. First, notice the closeness of the two teams’ win total projections – .05 wins separate them. That separation is caused solely by the two teams’ non-standard opponents. (And exacerbated now because the Saints appear to be homeless for the first month of the season after Ida. Fortunately, it may only be two-home games) The Packers, Seahawks, and Titans are far more daunting than the Jaguars, 49ers, and Lions. Second, Michael Thomas is going to be out until October. Does that mean he misses four games or six?  While Payton will figure it out, it was a more manageable task last season with Brees, Sanders, and Cook. Look for Kamara to be targeted in the passing game early in the season at 10+ per game. Third, as much as the model sees upside to Winston, this team will struggle if he turns the ball over even at an average rate. Brees did not turn the ball over.      

Of all the teams in the league, the model seems to struggle most with the Saints. Winston has a range of potential outcomes for this season, and they chart as if the question is purely binary. It is least likely that we will play as an average quarterback. It is far more likely that he will be either very good or very bad. 

If the Saints get good Jamies, then look for them to grab second place and finish over the total. If the Saints get bad Jamies, then look for them to finish in third place and under the total. The model is fading the Saints. There are too many unknown quantities with Thomas out and Winston under center. 

Carolina Panthers

Projected Finish: 4th, NFC South

Projected Range: 5-8

Las Vegas Win Total: 7.5

Model Win Projection: 7.18

Carolina has a lot of juice this season with professional sports bettors. Rhule is a big reason. Well-respected people are taking the over, and for them to make the playoffs. Even they will admit the latter is a longshot, pure value play. They are not going to win the division. The only window would be through the wildcard. The model thinks two of the three slots are going to the NFC West. The NFC East is unlikely to send a team. So it comes down to Minnesota from the North and the three teams here. 

My model is not as high on Carolina. It ranks them 24th in its power rankings. Ultimately there are too many questions in Carolina. The questions start at quarterback. I am not sure we know anything about Sam Darnold. Last season’s stats aren’t particularly telling because of injuries and personnel changes at critical positions, but they did finish almost 10% below the median in offensive efficiency. In addition to the unknown at quarterback, the offensive line is one of the lowest-rated in the league. 

The defense played above the median last season, and faces are far easier schedule this season. The special teams suffered uncommon bad luck in terms of opponent field goal success rate. However, there were not many other significant indicators for positive regression. Turnover differential, for example, was plus one. They went a game and a half under .500 in one-score games, so there is room for positive regression.

The model is higher on the Panthers than I am. When I give the schedule the “eye-test,” I come away thinking five to six wins. 

The importance of the season for Carolina is to find out what they have with Darnold. 

The Model Sees Value in the Following Sides:

  1. Kamara Over 70.5 Receptions -120
  2. Kyle Pitts Over 775 Yards -112
  3. Kyle Pitts Over 6 Touchdowns -110
  4. Kamara Over 1500 Scrimmage Yards -125
  5. Atlanta Over 7.5 Wins -110
  6. Atlanta to Finish Second, +250

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