Analytics expert Cynthia Frelund took data from the past 10 NFL campaigns to create historical references for personnel, scheme and matchups, identifying factors that are proven to lead to wins (or losses). She vetted the correlations with a bunch of real football people (e.g., coaches) and had her math checked out by real math people (e.g., PhDs) to make sure the model reflected reality as much as possible. Then she compared this season's personnel, schemes and matchups -- with the vetted mathematical weightings -- and simulated the season more than a million times, producing a ceiling, floor and projected win total for all 32 teams. The ceiling-to-floor range is something to home in on -- a big discrepancy means the team is projected to play in more close games.
Without further ado, here are the projected win totals for AFC teams in the 2020 campaign, ordered from most to least wins, with playoff berths noted. (Click here for the NFC figures.)
Patrick Mahomes forecasts to earn the most passing yards (4,790) and passing touchdowns (37) in my model. In fact, Mahomes throws 35 or more TD passes in 59.3 percent of simulations. I have written about Mahomes a lot recently, so let's look at the other side of the ball. Defensive tackle Chris Jones recorded nine sacks in 13 games last season after posting 15.5 in 16 games the year prior. Edge rusher Frank Clark netted eight a season after earning 13 as a Seahawk. My model has both Jones and Clark earning at least 10 sacks in 33.2 percent of simulations, which will be a very fun benchmark to track on a team that projects to make the postseason.
Adding the pressure-generating Calais Campbell to a team that boasts my model's third-ranked cornerback unit, and an offense that speaks for itself, drives the Ravens' league-high win-total ceiling. Lamar Jackson passes for more than 3,250 yards in a very high 62.2 percent of simulations.
My model identifies Ben Roethlisberger as the player most likely to win the 2020 Comeback Player of the Year award. He forecasts to connect with his receivers for at least 26 touchdowns. Roethlisberger has played in at least 13 games in six of the last eight seasons and threw 26 or more touchdowns in each of those six seasons. Part of what boosts Roethlisberger's odds of being named Comeback Player of the Year is the projected success of the team as a whole (postseason appearances help drive this award). The Steelers' stout defense and strong potential for efficient run/pass play-calling balance -- James Conner earns at least 775 rushing yards in 60.3 percent of simulations -- drives the Steelers' playoff probability of 70.5 percent. If you want to pick a team to win the AFC title that's not quite as popular a selection as Kansas City or Baltimore, strongly consider Pittsburgh.
O-line continuity, efficient rushing, exceptional receivers and a defense that boasts the league’s second-best safety and cornerback units (per my model) all help drive the projection for the Bills to win the AFC East. One of the surest benchmarks my model forecasts is Josh Allen's rushing yardage -- specifically, his ability to cross the 525-yard mark, which would be 15 more than he had last season, when he ranked third among QBs in the category. That happens in 62.3 percent of simulations. Why? Well, defenses have to account for John Brown and Stefon Diggs while also respecting the run, so designed rushes are likely to net more yards. The increase in offensive potential (thanks to the upgrades in personnel) means that Allen's scrambling could be more likely to turn into rushing gains than a higher probability for turnovers. Allen is more likely to earn 600-plus rushing yards than 500 or less in my models.
I've been all over the Titans' offense in the projections I've shared with you this offseason. Between Derrick Henry's league-leading stat (that’s what we call a tease -- click here for the article) and Ryan Tannehill's touchdown benchmark (there's a high probability for him to reach at least 22 in my model) I’ve been pretty clear about how offensive coordinator Arthur Smith's game plan projects for continued success. I have neglected A.J. Brown a little bit, though, so I'll fix that right now: Brown earns at least 1,025 receiving yards in 58.3 percent of simulations.
I know I might sound like a broken record here, but it's worth repeating: Quality O-line play combined with efficient rushing and a defense that forecasts to stop the pass results in greater odds of winning more games. It also means that no one should be estimating a huge surge in Philip Rivers' passing touchdowns. At a benchmark of 27, Rivers doesn't reach that total in 56.6 percent of simulations. This doesn't mean he'll underperform and it's certainly not meant to fade T.Y. Hilton (in fact, I think he's being slept on in fantasy leagues). It just reflects a more balanced game plan, one that includes a lot of volume for rookie back Jonathan Taylor, who is a clever sleeper pick for Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Cam Newton connects with his receivers for 21 or more touchdowns in 56.4 percent of simulations en route to the Patriots making the playoffs for the 18th time since 2000 (which happens in 57.4 percent of outcomes). I spent a lot of time this offseason learning about roster-construction philosophies and studying their relationship to wins. This season, when teams will be playing with an expanded practice squad amid the COVID-19 pandemic, roster depth could play an even bigger role than usual, which certainly suits Bill Belichick's strengths as a highly successful architect of the last 15-plus roster spots (and practice squad). It's extremely likely Belichick will yet again have his team in the postseason despite the club's losses via opt outs and free agency.
The fit between head coach Kevin Stefanski's play-calling style and Baker Mayfield’s profile has a lot of upside (I wrote about it when training camps were just getting underway). Play-action production helps drive Mayfield's projection to connect for 25 or more touchdowns in 60 percent of simulations. While my model is high on Nick Chubb and his impact on selling play-action, he exceeds 1,225 rushing yards in just 42.5 percent of simulations. Don't get me wrong, my forecast for him falls between 1,150 and 1,120 yards, but remember that Kareem Hunt is also in the mix and just five backs rushed for more than 1,220 yards last season (and just three backs reached that mark in each of the previous two seasons). Chubb's 1,494 rush yards last season also reflect a different system and play-callers. As you can see, the race for the final wild-card spot in the AFC projects to be very tight, but my model likes the Patriots' chances just a bit more than that of the Browns, who have a higher ceiling but a lower floor.
Oh, and one last thing: Myles Garrett earns eight or more sacks in 59.6 percent of simulations.
The combination of a strong defense and an efficient run game leads to greater odds for success in the unique environment that is 2020. This plays out all the way into the Broncos having the ninth-best playoff odds (39.3 percent) in the AFC, per my model. That might sound low, but keep in mind that seven teams will make the playoffs from each conference this year. If Denver wins a game or two that my model isn’t currently forecasting as a likely win for the team, the Broncos could surprise this season.
UPDATE: Von Miller suffered what could potentially be a season-ending ankle injury at practice on Tuesday, according to NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport and NFL Network's Mike Garafolo.
Derwin James’ preseason injury drove the Chargers’ median win total down about 0.6 games in 2019 and his season-ending ailment this year had a similar effect (down 0.5 wins). However, the Chargers could easily exceed their median projection given the combined potential efficiency of their improved O-line and talented pass defense (front line and cornerbacks).
Side note: Tyrod Taylor forecasts to fall within the top 12 quarterbacks for fantasy purposes in Week 1 against the Bengals.
The Raiders' defense (corners and pressure-generating potential up front) is a source of concern that drives my model's low median-win-total projection. The Raiders gave up 33 passing touchdowns last season, which was tied for fourth-most in the NFL. However, stopping the run was a source of strength as their 3.9 yards allowed per rush was fifth-best in the league. Defending the middle of the field is an area they reinforced by adding Nick Kwiatkoski this offseason. As for the offense, don't underestimate Josh Jacobs' impact as he earns at least eight rushing touchdowns in 58.9 percent of simulations. While my model ranks three backs ahead of Jacobs in terms of total rushing yards, if you want to cheer for someone other than the obvious favorites to lead the league in rushing, Jacobs is your guy.
The Texans' two most recent big-ticket contract extensions (signed by Deshaun Watson and Zach Cunningham) reinforced the strengths of the team (linebackers and quarterback). Watson earns 28 or more passing touchdowns in 56.7 percent of simulations, which suggests he's likely to exceed the 26 he posted in 15 games last season. Watson's strong chances of throwing more passing touchdowns after losing DeAndre Hopkins seems counterintuitive. Keep in mind, though, that Watson only attempted 33 passes per game (ranking 21st in the league) and that number forecasts to increase. If you haven't had your fantasy draft yet, don't be scared to take Watson, who is my model's QB4.
The Jets saw my model's biggest decrease in projected wins between May and September. With C.J. Mosley opting out, Jamal Adams being dealt to the Seahawks and injuries mounting for an already-suspect receiving corps, New York took a step back in recent months. However, the Jets' floor is insulated by quarterback Sam Darnold, who, in a pivotal Year 3, forecasts to throw at least 23 touchdowns (55.9 percent of simulations).
The Dolphins' offensive line ranks last in the league in my preseason model. The good news, with respect to boosting win totals, is that Ryan Fitzpatrick's projected performance helps make up for the deficit caused by the O-line. The bad news is that in this no-preseason climate, O-line woes forecast to be even more costly than usual, especially in the month of September. Think of what happens when a play gets called: Coordinator Chan Gailey has a specific amount of time to communicate it to the QB, Fitzpatrick tells the team the play and, depending on the tempo, there's a limited amount of time to process and execute once everyone is set. With two projected rookie starters on the O-line -- LT Austin Jackson and RG Solomon Kindley, who haven't had the benefit of preseason games to prepare in this unusual year -- the chances for error, confusion and penalties is higher. Defensive fronts project to have an advantage across the league, so the fact that this is a very below-average O-line becomes even tougher to overcome. The silver lining here, though: This team is much-improved from last season and Fitzpatrick's example creates a lot of value for first-round pick Tua Tagovailoa.
The Bengals' O-line ranks second to last in my preseason model. As I mentioned in my note on the Dolphins, the negative impact of the issues up front is amplified due to the circumstances of this season. The difference here, compared with Miami, is that Cincinnati is going with its rookie quarterback from Week 1. While this means there will be tough sledding early on, Joe Burrow reaches or exceeds 22 passing touchdowns (a mark 18 quarterbacks achieved last season) in 57.2 percent of simulations.
Josh Allen somewhat quietly earned 10.5 sacks as a rookie in 2019. After Jacksonville traded Calais Campbell to Baltimore this offseason, Allen will be asked to improve on his ability to cause disruptions. The good news? He earns 10 or more sacks this season in 57.4 percent of simulations.