Analytics expert Cynthia Frelund took data from the past 10 NFL campaigns to create historical references for personnel, scheme and matchups, identifying factors that are proven to lead to wins (or losses).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 2019 campaign, ordered from most to least wins, with playoff berths noted. (Click here for the NFC figures.)
New England Patriots: 11.5 wins (projected AFC East champions)
The highest win total for both the projected median and ceiling in the NFL belongs to the defending Super Bowl champions. This projection isn't just based off reputation, though. They lead the pack in my model because they have the highest blend of all of the most predictive metrics for 2019. Their total did take a bit of a dip with recent injury news (regarding center David Andrews and wideout N'Keal Harry, most notably) but it had a minimal effect on the projection. We've heard before that the Pats use September as their "preseason," working out the kinks before turning it on later, but this year, they have the best odds of being the league's last undefeated team. A "Sunday Night Football" matchup with Pittsburgh (at home) in Week 1 has their lowest win odds (58%) of the season, but after that game, they don't dip under 61% until Week 8 (vs. the Browns). They have the best odds of any team to make it through Week 10 without a loss. They have a bye in Week 10, which helps.
Kansas City Chiefs: 10.9 wins (projected AFC West champions)
I've written about a number of Chiefs recently (Patrick Mahomes leads all players in win-share projections, Tyreek Hill is my model's top slot receiver) and discussed the defense's potential to improve (putting Mahomes in situations where he has a higher probability to convert). The most improved position group this offseason for this team? Safety. Between signing Tyrann Mathieu and drafting Juan Thornhill, the potential for this position to be a source of strength, as opposed to causing uncertainty, accounted for almost one full win in the median projection (0.78 games).
Pittsburgh Steelers: 9.5 wins (projected AFC North champions)
If you've read any of my previous work, you'll notice I spend a lot of time talking about offensive lines. It's because they are a really big deal, even though they don't always get the attention they deserve. The Steelers may not have Antonio Brown or Le'Veon Bell on the roster anymore, but their O-line ranks in the top three or better in run blocking and pass protection. Add in that rookie linebacker Devin Bush creates the opportunity to significantly improve the middle of the defense (and my tracking on him so far, in a tiny sample size, is really exciting) and this team projects to be playing past Week 17.
Los Angeles Chargers: 9.5 wins (projected wild card)
Derwin James' foot injury -- which is expected to keep him out until at least November -- drove the Chargers' median win total down about 0.6 games. His absence had a greater impact on the projection than Melvin Gordon's uncertain status, which moved the needle down about 0.3 games. The disparity shows that the Chargers' substitutes for Gordon are stronger than those for James.
Cleveland Browns: 9.3 wins (projected wild card)
My model agrees with the media hype about the Browns, for the most part. One area that doesn't seem to get discussed as much? Questions along the O-line, especially with the departure of guard Kevin Zeitler, flag as a concern that could limit some of this team's upside. One projection I really like: 1,355 receiving yards for Odell Beckham Jr. The new former Giant has only played all 16 games in a season once (2016) since entering the NFL in 2014. While his projection here does not match the career-best 1,450-yard season Beckham had in 2015, it does top his total over the past two seasons combined (1,354).
Houston Texans: 8.8 wins (projected AFC South champions)
While the Texans' recent bold moves generated plenty of controversy, adding left tackle Laremy Tunsil and running back Carlos Hyde changed things in a positive direction for the team. When I track where the disruptive pressures against the Texans came from last season (that led to Deshaun Watson being sacked a league-high 62 times), rushers from the left side of the O-line reached the QB an average of 0.3 seconds faster than they did against any other team. Tunsil will help shore up the protection on that side of the line. Further, between recent additions Duke Johnson and Hyde, the ability for rushers other than Watson (second on the team in rushing last season) to earn first downs increases. In my post earlier this week on the NFL's projected win-share leaders in 2019, Watson was No. 4 in the QB section, but one player who was just outside of the top five among defenders? J.J. Watt, who is No. 6 on that list now that Jadeveon Clowney is a Seahawk. I project Watt to have his fifth season with at least 14 sacks (only Reggie White has more 14-sack seasons, as he did it seven times).
Baltimore Ravens: 8.6 wins
The Ravens have the most volatility of any team this season, meaning the biggest discrepancy between their ceiling and floor. With a top-three projection for defensive back efficiency, they can buy their defensive front some valuable time in order to create disruptions. However, with the offseason departures of Za'Darius Smith and Terrell Suggs, uncertainty about who will be rushing the passer now exists. On offense, coordinator Greg Roman's ability to craft an attack that suits Lamar Jackson's skills helps the ceiling projections, but one key difference for this year's team? Look for Jackson to rush to the edges, where he'll find more one-on-one matchups as opposed to rushing between the tackles as we've seen other Roman-coached quarterbacks do. My favorite projection for this team? Tight end Mark Andrews forecasts to lead the team in receptions.
Jacksonville Jaguars: 8.5 wins
Yes, the Jags have a higher ceiling than the projected division-champion Texans. In fact, prior to the Texans' recent blockbuster trades, the Jags were my model's projected division winner. Their defense is projected to rank in the top three in disruptions, run-stopping, red-zone touchdowns and first downs allowed. Areas of concern that will determine if they track to the floor or ceiling: running back depth and intermediate and deep passing.
New York Jets: 8.5 wins
We have yet to see even a preview of Le'Veon Bell or the Jets' starting offensive line all playing together, which are two drivers of the big discrepancy between the floor and ceiling projections. In 2017, Bell earned 105 first downs (most in the NFL), which was 27 more than the Jets' running backs combined to earn all of last season, just to give you a peek at the impact he could make. The defensive front and middle also got upgrades this offseason with C.J. Mosley and first-round pick Quinnen Williams being added to a unit where Jamal Adams already stood out, especially when it comes to rushing the passer. If the defensive front can keep the uncertainty at cornerback from being too impactful in the passing game, the Jets project to track toward their ceiling.
Tennessee Titans: 7.5 wins
The defense is the strength of this team, and I wrote over the summer about a key player from that unit -- safety Kevin Byard (I called him underappreciated and then he got paid so maybe now he's appreciated?). Now, Tennessee is similar to the Ravens (which makes sense considering Titans DC Dean Pees came from Baltimore) in that they have strong safeties and corners that increase the efficiency of their defensive front. At the same time, the Titans' multiple fronts help the defensive backs increase their effectiveness. This symbiotic relationship helps to offset uncertainty about the performance of the O-line (at least until Taylor Lewan returns from his four-game suspension) and quarterback.
Indianapolis Colts: 7.4 wins
Even before Andrew Luck's stunning retirement, my model did not have the Colts winning the AFC South, and Jacoby Brissett's promotion to QB1 did not gash the Colts' chances. My model flags the Colts' secondary as a source of concern. They drafted cornerback Rock Ya-Sin in the second round -- and added Justin Houston up front, which helps improve the overall circumstances for this D -- but the unit's ability (or lack thereof) to limit big passing plays figures to be an underrated area that will determine if the Colts track toward the ceiling or floor. I say "underrated" because Brissett's productivity feels like the obvious key factor for this team, despite my model believing in his upside behind a quality O-line and with high contributions from the running backs.
Oakland Raiders: 6.6 wins
No team travels farther than the Raiders this season. In fact, they will travel more total miles (32,023) than the Jets, Bills and Giants combined (27,258), which adds a wrinkle of complexity to their young team when projecting outcomes for 2019. As for on-field variables, the ability of the Raiders' defensive front (led by first-round pick Clelin Ferrell) to disrupt passes combined with the ability of their defensive backs (they drafted safety Johnathan Abram in the first round and cornerback Trayvon Mullen in Round 2) to create coverages that force quarterbacks to hold onto the ball longer than they'd like are two sources of "boom or bust" data for the Raiders. On offense, the net impact of adding both running back Josh Jacobs (another first-rounder) and Antonio Brown in the offseason helps offset an O-line that is a source of concern and helps project for more "boom" than "bust" on that side of the ball.
Buffalo Bills: 6.4 wins
The Bills' defense, which ranked second in yards allowed in 2018, projects to rank in the top 10 in pass disruptions this season. On offense, free-agent addition Cole Beasley projects to lead the team in receptions thanks to his efficiency operating out of the slot and Josh Allen's development in his second season.
Denver Broncos: 6.4 wins
Cincinnati Bengals: 5.0 wins
So, back to discussing offensive lines. This is another example of how a weakness in that area becomes a problem in terms of earning first downs and touchdowns, especially when a team's WR1 is likely going to miss a number of games (A.J. Green is recovering from an ankle injury). One player to keep an eye on (especially if you have a fantasy WR who could match up against him) is cornerback William Jackson III, who is my model's highest-ranked player on the Bengals' defense (in terms of win shares).
Miami Dolphins: 3.6 wins
Efficiency and versatility at the safety position has increased in value as passing on first down and tight end and running back pass catching has increased. Minkah Fitzpatrick excelled in a number of roles as a rookie and shows great potential for developing into one of the league's best at defending slot pass catchers. His versatility will be one of the building blocks for the Dolphins long-term.