As I did for the AFC, I've used projected 53-man rosters to simulate all 272 regular-season games 50,000 times, yielding the projected win totals for the teams in the NFC below. (I went into greater detail about my methodology in that file, but again, because of the difficulty in accounting for different scenarios that could unfold between Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, I projected the season with Rodgers staying in Green Bay for now.) As in the AFC, the top seven teams below are my projected playoff participants in the NFC.
The scheduling gods smiled on the Buccaneers. With only one trip west (at Rams in Week 3) and a centrally situated Week 9 bye, the reigning Super Bowl champs have the highest projected win total for any team, not just in the NFC but in the whole NFL. Side note: Tampa's defense -- which, like the offense, returned every key member from a top-10 unit and also added rookie edge rusher Joe Tryon -- has a lot to do with this; I don't want that to be overshadowed.
Well, there's an elephant in the room here, and it's the question of whether Aaron Rodgers will still be with the Packers, given the quarterback's apparent unhappiness with the team. I don't have a forward-looking answer, but for the sake of simplicity, this projection presumes that one of the best players in the game stays in Green Bay. If Rodgers is still leading the team, Weeks 7-10 (vs. Washington, at Arizona, at Kansas City, vs. Seattle) could be the turning point in the Packers' quest for a third straight division title.
The fact that veteran Jimmy Garoppolo and No. 3 overall pick Trey Lance both project as strong scheme fits drives a return to prominence for the 49ers (the fourth-place schedule helps, too). Should Lance take over the starting job by Week 1, the first two games forecast to be favorable in terms of the rookie being able to learn the ropes (especially behind San Francisco's stout offensive line). Both are away games, but they're in Detroit (which is in the running to finish last in the conference) and then in Philadelphia (which is forecasted to finish with fewer than six wins). Note that this projection reflects eight-plus starts for Lance this season.
The Cardinals make the playoffs as any seed in 54.9 percent of my way-too-early projections. Receiver DeAndre Hopkins projects to collect more than 1,450 receiving yards in more than half of the simulations. Between Hopkins, Christian Kirk, free agent A.J. Green and rookie Rondale Moore, the Cards' receiving corps should support continued growth from QB Kyler Murray in Year 3.
Weeks 6 (vs. Chiefs) and 7 (at Packers) do not look like a fun part of Washington's schedule, as long as Rodgers remains on the Packers. Still, while some project the Cowboys to win the NFC East with Dak Prescott's return to health, my models like Washington. The Football Team's strength on defense, especially up front, can make up for the average offensive projection, whereas the Cowboys' offense will have a bigger challenge carrying the defense.
Right now, the Rams beat out the Bears for the seventh and final playoff spot by a very narrow margin in these projections -- which means these teams' Week 1 matchup in Los Angeles could be a potential key to determining which of them reaches the playoffs. Should Aaron Rodgers leave the Packers and Jordan Love become the starter in Green Bay, a lot would change, including the Bears being favored in the division, slightly edging past the Vikings. Note that this projection reflects eight-plus starts for rookie QB Justin Fields in Chicago.
The biggest question or flag regarding the Seahawks is whether they'll be able to stop the pass, with the potentially low defensive floor, countered by the possibility that Pete Carroll will be able to coach the unit up, driving a lot of volatility in this projection. QB Russell Wilson is so valuable (accounting for 4.8 wins) that Seattle stays in the middle of the conference, but until we have some clarity regarding how the defense will look, the 2020 division champs rank fourth in the West.
It's fair to say that the fact that the strength of the NFC South, paired with questions about how the QBs split snaps (in my projection, I gave around 60 percent of the snaps to Jameis Winston and the rest to Taysom Hill) in the post-Drew Brees era, drive this result, which is a significant drop for the Saints after winning double-digit games and capturing the division in each of the past four seasons. Good news: Receiver Michael Thomas, who only played in seven games in 2020 after leading the NFL in catches and receiving yards in 2019, projects to see the end zone at least seven times in 2021.
Should Aaron Rodgers leave the Packers and the NFC North, this total would increase considerably. The Vikings are one team I have an eye on as a sleeper to overperform offseason expectations. The schedule looks kind enough to Minnesota, with no exceptionally difficult back-to-backs, relatively favorable travel and a lack of daunting matchups; if the defense and offensive line outpace projections, we could see this group reach the playoffs.
Sam Darnold forecasts to get his revenge on the Jets in Week 1. Don't let the total here fool you; the Panthers are on the come-up. The NFC South is very challenging, but Carolina's first five games (vs. Jets, vs. Saints, at Texans, at Cowboys, vs. Eagles) are mostly manageable, meaning the team could easily get off to a great start, generating chemistry that could carry the Panthers to overperform in some of the harder contests later in the year.
The Falcons have the "easiest" projected schedule in the NFC South. Between that and questions surrounding Atlanta's defense, Falcons pass-catchers figure to be quite busy: Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley both forecast for more than 850 receiving yards, and rookie tight end Kyle Pitts projects for more than 500.
Before Week 7, the Eagles host the Niners (Week 2), visit the Cowboys (Week 3), host the Chiefs (Week 4) and host the Bucs (Week 6). That would be a difficult challenge for any team, but especially so for an offense like the Eagles'. Even accounting for the potential improvement driven by rookie receiver DeVonta Smith, Philly is coming off a season in which it ranked 24th in yards and figures to have a relatively unproven quarterback (second-year pro Jalen Hurts) at the reins.
Should Deshaun Watson end up playing quarterback for the Texans this season, the Lions would be forecasted to finish with the worst record in the NFL -- and thus pick first in the 2022 NFL Draft. If Aaron Rodgers exits the division, Detroit's two matchups with the Packers would become more winnable. The Lions would also have a better chance to establish early chemistry with new QB Jared Goff, given that the first of those games comes in Week 2 at Green Bay (sandwiched by home games against the Niners and Ravens). It's worth noting that Rodgers could still be a problem for Detroit, depending on where he ends up; the Lions visit Denver in Week 14.