The NFL returns on September 9 as defending champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers host the Dallas Cowboys in the opening fixture of the season. Mark Taylor takes a look at the favourites to win next year’s Super Bowl and what might unfold during the campaign ahead.
Listen to the NFL Opening Line
Inform your NFL predictions ahead of this season with Pinnacle Podcast's NFL Opening Line, featuring host James Gregg alongside football expert Eric Eager.
Super Bowl LVI: Who are the favourites?
Kansas City Chiefs
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Green Bay Packers
San Francisco 49ers
Los Angeles Rams
How will this NFL season work?
This NFL season will retain the expansion to 14 postseason teams (seven from each conference), of which only the top seed will earn a postseason bye week.
An additional 17th regular season game has also been added, meaning the regular season will now run for 18 weeks, during which each team will get one bye week. To address the unbalanced home and away schedule this will cause, NFC teams will visit an AFC opponent for the extra game.
In a new rule designed to encourage players to get vaccinated against COVID-19, matches will also be forfeited by a team if they are unable to contest the fixture as a result of a COVID-19 outbreak among unvaccinated squad members.
Using Pythagorean expectations for NFL predictions
As usual, the most proficient method for making predictions ahead of the upcoming NFL season is to study the expected number of wins for a team according to the number of points they have scored and allowed, as opposed to their actual win/loss record.
This is because the ability to score more points over a season than you concede may not always manifest itself in individual games and an uneven distribution of how points appear in single matches may inflate or decrease actual win/loss records.
Luck plays a large part in the now 17-game regular season and being on the right or wrong end of this unsustainable but powerful game-deciding influence can skew an evaluation of a team’s underlying quality.
For instance, in 2015 the New York Giants recorded six wins and 10 losses during the regular season (a 38% win rate). However, they scored 420 and allowed 442 points in the process, equating to a Pythagorean win percentage of 47% and indicating they were better than their results suggested. Suitably, they then made the playoffs in 2016.
The five teams who underperformed against their Pythagorean win percentage to the greatest extent in 2020 were the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, and San Francisco 49ers. Conversely, the Cleveland Browns (who earned 11 regular season wins despite conceding more points than they scored), Buffalo Bills, Green Bay Packers, Kansas City Chiefs, Seattle Seahawks, and Tennessee Titans were all flattered by their win/loss record compared to Pythagorean expectations.
Reviewing turnovers and passing efficiencies
Interceptions tend to be a slightly more repeatable feature of games than fumble recoveries or giveaways. The data suggests that a large positive or negative turnover differential will boost a team’s win/loss record, but that also in either instance it will generally regress to the mean over the span of more than one season.
Teams who gain a lot of yardage with their passing can be expected to perform well.
In 2015, the Baltimore Ravens’ poor 5-11 regular season was partly due to a large negative turnover differential, during which they allowed 14 more turnovers than they created. The following year they turned in an 8-8 regular season featuring a small positive turnover differential.
The Denver Broncos, Las Vegas Raiders, Philadelphia Eagles, and San Francisco 49ers each endured double-digit negative turnover differentials in 2020 and can therefore be somewhat expected to improve on this front this year.
At the other end of the scale, the Indianapolis Colts, Miami Dolphins, New Orleans Saints, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Tennessee Titans enjoyed the most helpful turnover differentials last year and thus may have to brace themselves for a regression towards the league average.
Another metric that offers a solid indication of a team’s underlying ability is their average yardage gained per pass or rushing attempt. In this instance, it is important to take into account the quality of the pass defences among the opponents they have faced.
On average, a side will attempt around 560 passes and 430 running plays in the regular season. Last year, the Buffalo Bills, Green Bay Packers, Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Rams, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers recorded the best opponent-adjusted differential between how well they passed and how well they defended against the pass, meaning that in a pass-orientated league they were the most difficult teams to keep pace with.
Meanwhile, the Cincinnati Bengals, Jacksonville Jaguars, Philadelphia Eagles, and both New York teams endured the biggest negative differential between passing ability and defending against the opposition’s passing game.
The importance of schedule
While there are 32 teams in the NFL, a team will actually only play 14 opponents during the regular season. Their 17 matches include two each against their three divisional rivals (one at home and one on the road).
The Cincinnati Bengals are among the teams with the most difficult schedules this year.
Therefore, some schedules will be more difficult than others. Many mainstream media outlets add up win percentages from the previous year for a side’s opponents to determine their strength of schedule, although once again Pythagorean win expectation is a better indicator of future performance than actual wins.
Thus, schedule strength is better assessed by accounting for such factors as the previous Pythagorean win expectations of a team’s upcoming opponents instead of their actual prior wins.
For instance, the Jacksonville Jaguars, who won just one game in 2020, are likely to be a better team in 2021 and indeed their Over/Under for regular season wins this year is set at 6.5. This assessment suggests that any team facing the Jaguars in 2021 are likely to encounter a stronger challenge than one that assumes the Jags are only capable of a solitary regular season win.
Incorporating these factors into the 2021 schedule (along with the extra game), the easiest schedules appear to fall to the Cleveland Browns, Denver Broncos, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, San Francisco 49ers, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who will be facing teams projected to average around 8.3 wins during the 17-game regular season.
The toughest schedule has been handed to the Cincinnati Bengals, Detroit Lions, Houston Texans, Las Vegas Raiders, and Pittsburgh Steelers, whose opponents are expected to average closer to nine wins.
Who has the best NFL squad?
Naturally, personnel changes will play a part in team performance. The worse performing teams get the better picks in the NFL Draft, which coupled with the salary caps means that teams often perform in cycles.
However, on occasion, the signing of just one player can transform a side into Super Bowl contenders, as most recently witnessed when Tom Brady’s move to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers led them to the coveted trophy.
This year, the Los Angeles Rams will be hoping to repeat the trick with the addition of Matt Stafford, while Dak Prescott has returned to lead the Dallas Cowboys after suffering an early season-ending injury in 2020.
Many teams may tick multiple boxes capable of indicating an improved or reduced win total in 2021, although such well-established indicators will not go unnoticed by the bookmakers. Despite the fact they recorded just four regular season victories in 2020, the Over/Under for the Atlanta Falcons has been set to 7.5 this year, largely because their Pythagorean win expectation was just under 50%.
Conversely, Kansas City’s raft of narrow wins last season has culminated in their Over/Under for wins sitting at just 12.5, despite the fact they recorded 14 regular season wins last year and have an extra game to add to that total this time round.
Who will win the Super Bowl?
We can simulate the entire season using team ratings derived from these multiple sources. Using such an approach, here are my divisional and championship picks for the upcoming NFL season:
- AFC East: Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots
- AFC West: Kansas City Chiefs and Las Vegas Raiders
- AFC North: Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers
- AFC South: Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars
- NFC East: Dallas Cowboys and Washington
- NFC West: Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers
- NFC North: Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings
- NFC South: Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons
- NFC champions: Los Angeles Rams
- AFC champions: Buffalo Bills
- Super Bowl champions: Los Angeles Rams
You can also read Mark's previews for the biggest matches throughout the NFL season with his Game of the Week.