Game Theory

2021 NFC win-total projections: 49ers, Rams, Cards make playoffs; Seahawks odd team out in West

Analytics expert Cynthia Frelund took data from the past 10 NFL campaigns to create historical references for personnel, scheme and matchups, identifying factors that are proven to lead to wins (or losses).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 to produce 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.

Now, with the addition of a 17th regular-season game, this is the biggest NFL season ever. Inherently, Cynthia ran the most simulations ever: 300,000 runs of every single regular-season game, which equals 81,600,000 total games "played."

Without further ado, here are the projected win totals for NFC teams in the 2021 campaign, ordered from most to least wins, with playoff berths noted. Click here for AFC win totals.

NOTE: All FanDuel over/under listings are current as of 2 p.m. ET on Monday, Sept. 6.

Wins
12.5
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
PROJECTED NFC SOUTH CHAMPIONS

Ceiling: 14.7

Floor: 9.4

FanDuel over/under: 11.5


Unprecedented personnel and coaching continuity, combined with the G.O.A.T. at the most valuable position in team sports, gives Tampa Bay the highest projected win total (12.5) and highest ceiling (14.7) in the entire league. A strong defense -- my model's second-best in preseason win-share rankings as a unit -- bolsters the win total, and a median projection of Tom Brady throwing 37-plus regular-season touchdown passes in 55.4 percent of simulations drives that sky-high ceiling.

Wins
10.5
Green Bay Packers
PROJECTED NFC NORTH CHAMPIONS

Ceiling: 14.2

Floor: 7.5

FanDuel over/under: 10.5


No QB makes his offensive line better than Aaron Rodgers. That's clear over the past five seasons, as measured by a computer-vision-derived formula that takes into account things like scrambling, effectiveness outside of the pocket and pre-snap adjustments. But the absence of left tackle David Bakhtiari for at least the first six weeks of the season sure doesn't help. Neither does facing the entire NFC West, the strongest division in football. So that helps explain why the Packers' median projection netted out two full games behind the Buccaneers. But the upside is there, as evidenced by that 14.2-win ceiling, just half a game behind Tampa's figure.

Wins
10.1
San Francisco 49ers
PROJECTED NFC WEST CHAMPIONS

Ceiling: 11.9

Floor: 6.9

FanDuel over/under: 10.5


Yep, with a clean bill of health in San Francisco, this is my model's selection for the team that goes from worst to first. George Kittle projects to reach the end zone at least six times in a whopping 59.8 percent of simulations.

Wins
9.9
Los Angeles Rams
PROJECTED WILD CARD

Ceiling: 11.8

Floor: 7.0

FanDuel over/under: 10.5


Changes to the defense, including the coordinator, create some risk in the league's toughest division. This isn't to say that Jalen Ramsey and Aaron Donald -- the latter of whom predictably boasts the biggest discrepancy between his projected win share and the next-closest player at his position of anyone in the NFL -- won't be phenomenal, but there are a lot of changes to the supporting cast. It will be fascinating to see how this unit fairs against Tom Brady, Kyler Murray and Russell Wilson in Weeks 3-5.

Wins
9.2
Washington Football Team
PROJECTED NFC EAST CHAMPIONS

Ceiling: 12.0

Floor: 7.4

FanDuel over/under: 8.5


Washington has sat atop my NFC East projections since the schedule was released, which would make the Football Team the first back-to-back East winners since Andy Reid's Eagles took the division in four straight seasons from 2001 through '04. Do NOT sleep on WR Terry McLaurin, who earns seven or more touchdowns in 59.0 percent of simulations.

Wins
9.1
Arizona Cardinals
PROJECTED WILD CARD

Ceiling: 12.4

Floor: 7.3

FanDuel over/under: 8.5


The Cardinals have a boom-or-bust profile, with quarterback and secondary play both flagging as strongly influential factors. As far as the QB is concerned, Kyler Murray earns at least 34 total touchdowns in 58.7 percent of simulations, which is a very high percentage in this exercise.

Wins
8.9
Dallas Cowboys
PROJECTED WILD CARD

Ceiling: 12.0

Floor: 7.3

FanDuel over/under: 9.5


Hard to find a better wideout trio than Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup. While the Cowboys' receiving corps has the second-highest win share forecasted (behind the Buccaneers' crew), Dallas is the most likely team to have three receivers with at least 900 yards each. And my model is on board with a Year 2 breakout from Lamb, who projects to lead the team in receiving touchdowns, with seven or more in 58.3 percent of simulations. Cooper earns seven or more just 50.3 percent of the time.

Wins
8.8
Chicago Bears

Ceiling: 11.8

Floor: 6.7

FanDuel over/under: 7.5


The Bears' offensive line is a significant source of concern, as evidenced by the unit ranking 27th in forecasted win share. Last season, Chicago's offense tied for the fourth-fewest big plays (passes of 20-plus yards, rushes of 10-plus) in the NFL. This season, that number forecasts to increase dramatically, helping drive Allen Robinson's forecast of more than 1,075 receiving yards in 57.3 percent of simulations.

Ceiling: 10.5

Floor: 5.8

FanDuel over/under: 9


Despite challenging circumstances to start the season in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, the Saints still have realistic preseason odds to make the playoffs (48.9 percent of simulations).

Wins
8.6
Seattle Seahawks

Ceiling: 10.8

Floor: 6.7

FanDuel over/under: 10


The NFC West is the only division with at least a one percent chance of producing four playoff teams. (That figure's at 2.3 percent for the West, to be exact.) Russell Wilson's chances to throw at least 34 passing touchdowns? Good. This happens in 57.9 percent of simulations.

Ceiling: 10.9

Floor: 6.2

FanDuel over/under: 7.5


The Panthers have sneaky playoff upside. No player forecasts to earn more trips to the end zone this season than Christian McCaffrey, who notches 16 or more scores in 55.5 percent of simulations.

Ceiling: 9.1

Floor: 5.1

FanDuel over/under: 8.5


Justin Jefferson racked up seven receiving touchdowns last season, tied for second among rookies with Gabriel Davis (behind only Chase Claypool, who notched nine). This season, Jefferson earns nine or more in 58.0 percent of simulations and has exceptional odds to pace the league in receptions.

Wins
6.9
Atlanta Falcons

Ceiling: 8.3

Floor: 5.0

FanDuel over/under: 7.5


Calvin Ridley's touchdown forecast? Ten or more in 59.1 percent of simulations.

Wins
6.9
New York Giants

Ceiling: 8.5

Floor: 4.9

FanDuel over/under: 7


Despite questions around New York's offensive line, my models like Saquon Barkley to earn at least nine rushing touchdowns in 55.4 percent of simulations.

Ceiling: 7.2

Floor: 4.4

FanDuel over/under: 6.5


Rookie receiver DeVonta Smith forecasts to produce 826 or more receiving yards in 59.7 percent of simulations.

Wins
4.3
Detroit Lions

Ceiling: 5.7

Floor: 1.8

FanDuel over/under: 5


T.J. Hockenson projects to score at least six receiving touchdowns in 60.2 percent of simulations.

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter.

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