*This is part four of an eight-part series looking at each division
There are several uniques challenges in projecting season win totals in 2021. First, we are coming out of the pandemic-induced fan-ban. The absence of fans resulted in increased success for road teams. It also led to highly efficient scoring across the league. The question is to what measure those trends will regress with fans in the stands this season.
Second, the season is now 17 games instead of 16. The additional game changes the math rather dramatically. 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 division titles and home-field advantage. These three different opponents will be referred to throughout the article as non-standard opponents.
The NFC West is the perfect division to illustrate the significance of the change. It is the most challenging division on paper by almost any metric. The following chart displays the expected win percentage per division based on the Vegas over/under win totals.
There are three teams in the NFC West with win totals of 10 or greater. The fourth team in the division projects to finish with eight wins. Simple mathematics demonstrates that the division, as a whole, is expected to have a combined win percentage of 57.3%. That is by far the highest of any division in the league.
Since the three teams at the top of the division are all at 10, or 10.5 wins, the lines indicate that the division’s race is balanced. Given that the schedules are identical across 14 games, the three non-standard opponents for each team could decide the division. The non-standard opponents for each team are on the chart below:
|Team||Opponent One||Opponent Two||Opponent Three|
|San Francisco||@ Philadelphia||@ Bengals||Falcons|
|Los Angeles||Tampa Bay||@ Giants||@ Ravens|
|Seattle||@ Pittsburgh||New Orleans||@ Washington|
|Arizona||@ Browns||Panthers||@ Dallas|
Looking at the margins, where the three teams’ opponents differ, the edge goes to the 49ers. (Notice with the unbalanced schedule (17 games), the NFC will play two of these three games on the road. Each NFC team will have nine road games this season.) Again, it is no longer simply two games but three. That is a five-percentage point swing. In a division as stacked as the NFC West, the additional opponent could determine the division winner and a first-round bye.
The following chart drives this critical point home by displaying the combined projected win percentage of each teams’ three non-standard opponents.
Looking at the numbers above, it should be clear just how significant the advantage is for the 49ers. With just some simple, quick math, you could start from the position that San Francisco should emerge from those three games with 1.76 wins ((100 – 41.18)*3). Conversely, Los Angeles should emerge from their three non-standard games with 1.26 wins. And Seattle with 1.56 wins
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.
San Francisco 49ers
Projected Finish: 1st in the NFC West
Projected Range: 10-13 Wins
Las Vegas Win Total: 10.5
Model Win Projection: 11.58
The 49ers’ injuries last season cannot be overstated. They lost Bosa and Ford for thirteen games, Sherman for eleven games, Garoppolo for ten games, Samuel for nine, Kittle and Mostert for eight apiece. For that reason, there is very little value in pointing to last year’s data.
Those taking the over, of which there are plenty, will point to just how unlucky the 49ers were last year, their strength of schedule this year, and the arrival of Trey Lance. When it comes to being “unlucky,” it was not just the injuries detailed above that decimated this team. In addition, the 49ers recovered fumbles at a rate higher than only two other teams in the league. While causing a fumble is a repeatable skill, recovering fumbles is purely a matter of luck. I expect the 49ers to have a positive regression in this area.
After playing one of the most challenging schedules last year, the 49ers’ strength of schedule will rank as one of the easiest in the league this season. This year, they are trading the AFC East for the AFC South and adding on non-standard opponents Atlanta, Philadelphia, and the Bengals.
While I expect Garoppolo to enter the season as the starter, look for Trey Lance to have several early packages. Shanahan is a highly talented play-caller, and he will be salivating to exploit the mismatches Lance can create with his legs and arm.
Those taking the under will point to two factors. First, despite Shanahan’s play-calling chops, his offenses perform well below expectation when they do not have elite quarterback play. While the 49ers may seem stacked at the position, Garoppolo has to get the ball out on time for the scheme to work. A feat he struggled with in previous seasons. If not, they are relying on a rookie. Second, despite having the most manageable schedule in the league, they will still face Wilson, Stafford, and Murray twice. In addition, they will face Rodgers and Ryan. A 2-2 start before heading to week 5 in Arizona is a possibility.
Los Angeles Rams
Projected Finish: 2nd in the NFC West
Projected Range: 10-12 Wins
Las Vegas Win Total: 10.5
Model Projection: 11.25
The model sees the difference between San Francisco and Los Angles as a razor-thin .33 wins. There is a reasonable argument to be made that, given the slim margin, it may be prudent to conclude that McVey, Stafford, and Donald and company are more trustworthy than the 49er equivalents. The only reason the Rams project to finish second is the additional game on the schedule this season. The Rams’ non-standard opponents are Baltimore, NY Giants, and Tampa Bay. The Rams are going to be favored only against the Giants. The 49ers’ non-standard opponents are Atlanta, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia. The 49ers are favored in all three games by at least 3.5 points. Advantage: 49ers.
Under McVay, the Rams have taken a unique approach to player acquisition. The traditional arguments surrounding the use of draft picks centered on two schools of thought. First, never trade up in the draft, except for a potential franchise quarterback. Instead, trade back to acquire more players. Second, never draft a running back in the first round. While these arguments are mathematically sound, the Rams’ have decided to exchange picks for known commodities. This is, of course, how they turned Goff into Stafford. It is a risky approach, but it is not unreasonable when the organization has unmitigated faith in the head coach.
Stafford is a massive upgrade for the Rams. Goff deteriorated significantly over the last three years in LA. In each of the previous three seasons, Goff’s EPA and YPA have regressed. Similarly, and not surprisingly, the Rams’ early offense has regressed. Stafford is capable of stretching the field in ways Goff simply cannot.
Unlike Goff, Stafford is not fazed with pressure. The Rams paid Goff as one of the best quarterbacks in the league, but he was one of the worst. Stafford, despite his exile in Detroit, is one of the best quarterbacks in the league. With the addition of Jackson, McVey finally has all the pieces he needs to run his offense at a high level. Buckle up.
The Rams had some key losses in coaching and personal. Of particular note are Defensive Coordinator Staley, Passing Game Coordinator Waldron, and underrated defensive backs Johnson and Hill. A modest regression on defense will not be surprising, especially scoring defense, but they should not fall out of the top five.
Projected Finish: 3rd in the NFC West
Projected Range: 9-11 Wins
Las Vegas Win Total: 10
Model Projection: 9.89
The model is not a fan of Pete Carroll. If I swap out Carroll for either McVey or Shanahan, the projected wins increase to nearly 11. It is not simply play-calling but play sequencing that is so atrocious in Seattle. (run-run-pass-punt) Carroll repeatedly puts Wilson in a position where he has to bail the team out from highly improbable situations. I secretly suspect that Carroll does not stream the coaches’ film but has it delivered to him by US Mail on a Betamax tape – because he is not entirely sure this whole VHS thing is going to catch on. DVDs are going to blow his mind.
Carroll has relieved every OC that has displayed a tendency to pass on early downs. Now they have hired the former Rams’ Passing Game Coordinator. Waldron is an excellent hire if Carroll allows him autonomy. Seattle has one of the best quarterbacks in the league in Wilson. And Wilson, like the entire rest of the league, is far more effective when he throws on early downs. Seattle has a top-tier receiving corp. The concern is Carroll’s history of reverting to a run-heavy game plan after the first sign of trouble. It has become increasingly difficult to trust Carroll.
The Seahawks will face a much more difficult schedule in 2021. Their non-standard opponents are Pittsburg, New Orleans, and Washington. Only one of those games is at home, but they are favored against Washington and New Orleans. The Seahawks are going to have to win two of those three games to get to ten wins. They are going to have to sweep them to get to eleven.
Other indicators suggest Seattle is likely to face a negative regression. Most notably, the 49ers were an injured shell of themselves last season, and Seattle capitalized to the tune of two wins. Last season, Seattle’s win rate fell positively outside of expectation by a wide margin in single-score games and should regress to the mean.
Seattle has the capability to win this division. That is always the case when you have the best quarterback. The number is currently at +280 which is not quite where the model would want it to be. The model does project them, along with the 49ers and Rams, to make the playoffs.
Projected Finish: 4th in the NFC West
Projected Range: 6-9 Wins
Vegas Win Total: 8
Model Projection: 7.72
The Arizona Cardinals 2020 season is best characterized in Dickensian vernacular; it was the tale of two seasons. Before Murray’s shoulder injury, the team was efficient on both offense and defense and sprinted to a 5-2 record. The Cardinals continued to perform above average until Kyle Murray injured his shoulder in week eleven. The team finished the season 2-5 down the stretch.
The final data indicates the team performed slightly better than the league median on defense and slightly below the league median on offense. For a team that straddles median performance so closely on both sides of the ball, a .500 record is expected. Moreover, The data from 2020 does not reveal any anomalies in either close game outcomes (5-4) or turnovers (Net 0) such that one could anticipate a significant positive or negative regression. In a 17 game season, that would result in an over/under win total of 8.5, and the Cardinals presently sit, not unexpectedly, at 8.
Those taking the over are pointing directly to the health of Kyle Murray. One factor to watch for with Arizona will be Murray’s efficiency in running the ball. In the first nine games of the season, he was remarkably efficient. After his shoulder was injured, not only did he run less, his runs were also less efficient. With his running game neutralized, the passing offense similarly struggled.
Murray will return with a healthy shoulder, and the threat of his legs should keep opposing defenses off balance. The critical range of rushing attempts is eight to ten per game, and an average of 65-75 yards. If Murray’s rush attempts drop below six for 35 yards or fewer, the offense will struggle. Over-backers will also point to a healthy Chandler Jones and the addition of J.J. Watt on defense.
Those taking the under on the win total will point directly to the Cardinals’ schedule. Last year the Cardinals had the good fortune of playing four games against the NFC East. In addition, the Cardinals faced six backup or rookie quarterbacks. Overall, the Cardinals had one of the easiest schedules in the league last season.
This year, the Cardinals will face the NFC North, not the East, which is a significantly more difficult task. In addition to their division, which is the toughest division in the league on paper, they will face Aaron Rodgers, Dak Prescott, and presumably Deshaun Watson. In short, the Cardinals face the ninth most difficult schedule this year based on Vegas win totals.
The Model Sees Value in the Following Sides:
- Gerald Everett Over 4 TD Receptions
- 49ers Over 10.5 Wins
- Rams Over 10.5 Wins
- 49ers, Rams, and Seattle to Make Playoffs, +311