Projected 2019 AFC win totals at midseason: South up for grabs

Now that eight weeks of the 2019 NFL season have passed, we have enough data detailing the identity and potential of each team to really start sorting out who will be contending in January and who will be picking near the top of the 2020 NFL Draft next spring. Just as I did before the season began, I've used a model to generate projected final win totals for the 2019 campaign, providing a peek at how things could play out as we head down the final stretch toward the playoffs.

But before we get down to the business at hand -- revealing the numbers that my model spit out -- here's a quick explanation of how my model works:

My model compares this year's games with 15 previous seasons of situational production metrics that led to wins and losses (between 2004 and 2018). Tracking personnel, matchups, play-calling and results from past seasons establishes historical "profiles." The results from the games that have already been played this season are then collected and analyzed in the same way, with the model revealing similarities between the current iteration of each team and its past versions. Then each remaining game is simulated. The reason every game isn't a 50/50 coin flip is because each team has different strengths and weaknesses, and the ways in which two teams match up against each other have different historical references for what happened most often. Because there are many different ways the situational aspects of football can play out, it's necessary to run many, many simulations for each remaining game, to see how each of the involved teams' profiles stack up over a range of reasonable situations.

Just how many times do I simulate each game? Last year, I went with 20,000 simulations per game. But this season, given the number of high-profile injuries involving teams in contention (SEE: Patrick Mahomes) and landscape-shifting trades (Jalen Ramsey), I decided to up the number to 50,000 for each remaining game in the regular season.

OK, without further ado, let's get to what you came here for: projected win totals!

Below, you'll see projected win totals and projected playoff percentage listed for each AFC team, with projected playoff berths based on playoff percentages. Click here to see the NFC.

New England Patriots: 13.8 wins (projected AFC East champions)

Current record: 8-0.

Projected playoff percentage: 90.3.

My projections have the Pats favored in each of their remaining matchups, with victories in five of their remaining eight games forecasted over 68 percent. My current favorite positive indicator amongst the long list of them? Their outstanding disruptive pressure differential. I use computer vision to measure how often defenses come within a 5-foot halo of the opposing quarterback in their field of view on dropbacks, to approximate influential defensive pressure. The Pats' defense ranks second best in this metric, coming within that 5-foot halo 27.2 percent of the time, and the offense ranks fourth, allowing defenders to come within the 5-foot halo around Tom Brady 14.7 percent of the time. The net of 12.5 percent is their disruptive pressure differential, meaning the Patriots cause 12.5 percent more pressure on opposing quarterbacks than they allow Brady to experience, and it's the highest in the NFL. No other team is within 5 percent of New England; the next-closest is New Orleans at 7.4 percent.

Kansas City Chiefs: 11.1 wins (projected AFC West champions)

Current record: 5-3.

Projected playoff percentage: 77.5.

The Chiefs project to give the Pats their toughest remaining test in Foxborough in Week 14, with a healthy Kansas City team currently upsetting Tom Brady and Co. in about 45.2 percent of simulations. The Chiefs' long list of injured starters at key positions, most notably quarterback Patrick Mahomes, hasn't significantly decreased their odds to win the AFC West, but it most certainly leaves the door open for them to miss out on a playoff bye.

Baltimore Ravens: 10.3 wins (projected AFC North champions)

Current record: 5-2.

Projected playoff percentage: 61.9.

One thing I find useful to consider is win-share, in which I assign a value for each player, position group and side of the ball reflecting their production on each play. (That is, does the entity in question help the team earn a first down or score a touchdown on offense or prevent opponents from earning first downs or scoring touchdowns on defense?) The Ravens' defense has averaged a higher win-share than their offense in eight of the past eight seasons ... until now. Of Baltimore's five wins, the offense has accounted for roughly 2.7, while the defense has accounted for 2.0 (special teams have accounted for 0.3). In past full seasons, the defense's win-share was about 0.8 games higher, on average.

Houston Texans: 9.7 wins (projected wild-card team)

Current record: 5-3.

Projected playoff percentage: 49.9.

Before suffering a season-ending torn pectoral muscle in Week 8, J.J. Watt had a significant presence on the left side of the defense this season, racking up a combined 44 quarterback pressures and hits, the most on the Texans. Losing Watt not only makes it harder for Whitney Mercilus and the rest of the Houston front to disrupt opposing quarterbacks, but it also increases the team's reliance on quarterback Deshaun Watson and the passing offense to stay efficient, because opponents will have a greater opportunity to earn first downs and touchdowns against the Texans. Houston has the AFC South's highest win-share quarterback, but with the Texans, Colts, Jaguars and Titans each having four divisional games remaining, the division is still wide open.

Indianapolis Colts: 9.6 wins (projected AFC South champions)

Current record: 5-2.

Projected playoff percentage: 50.0.

The Colts' current playoff projection is better than the Texans' by 0.1 percent, even though Indy's projected win total is slightly lower than Houston's, due to the Colts' win over the Texans in Indianapolis in Week 7. The Week 12 rematch between these teams in Houston and two remaining contests with the Jags are the games that are most likely to decide the winner of the AFC South. The Colts have the division's highest win-share O-line.

Buffalo Bills: 9.1 wins

Current record: 5-2.

Projected playoff percentage: 42.9.

The members of Bills Mafia will understandably be unhappy with me about their team's projected playoff percentage, but 42.9 is very high for a group that is very unlikely to win its division. Part of what drives the AFC South teams ahead of Buffalo is that the Texans, Colts, Jags and Titans all have a realistic chance of winning their division still, while the Bills happen to be stuck in the AFC East with the 8-0 Patriots. It's likely that Buffalo will need to win 10 games to earn a playoff berth, which happens in 33.1 percent of simulations. Instead of being mad at my simulations, it might be smarter to direct excess energy (beyond cheering for the Bills, that is) in a positive way to rooting for one of the AFC South teams to pull far enough ahead of the others (mathematically speaking, Houston or Indy are your best bets) to make it less likely that multiple teams from that division will end up in the playoffs, thereby making Buffalo's path to a wild-card spot a bit easier.

Jacksonville Jaguars: 8.1 wins (projected wild-card team)

Current record: 4-4.

Projected playoff percentage: 45.4.

One of the strongest comparable players to rookie quarterback Gardner Minshew so far is ... Tony Romo! (Yes, the sample size with Minshew is small, so we'll see, but still!) One other cool note? Leonard Fournette is tied for the most average rushing yards after contact per attempt (3.8, per Pro Football Focus).

Pittsburgh Steelers: 7.6 wins

Current record: 3-4.

Projected playoff percentage: 31.1.

Adding safety Minkah Fitzpatrickvia in-season trade with the Dolphins has already paid dividends, and it will continue to do so for many future seasons. Fitzpatrick's ability to limit slot receivers is clear; per PFF, the Steelers allowed 209.5 yards per game to slot targets before his Sept. 16 arrival to only 87 per game since.

Tennessee Titans: 7.4 wins

Current record: 4-4.

Projected playoff percentage: 44.4.

Rookie defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons has only played two games so far (he was injured in February and made his NFL debut in Week 7), but keep an eye on his production going forward, in terms of both defending the pass and stopping the run. In just 53 snaps, Simmons already has one sack, seven tackles and two key run stops that likely saved a first down being earned.

Los Angeles Chargers: 7.1 wins

Current record: 3-5.

Projected playoff percentage: 33.0.

Due in large part to injuries, the Chargers are only favored in one of their remaining eight contests by my model (in Week 16, when they host Oakland). However, four of their games project as near coin flips; the Bolts win at least 42 percent of the time at Oakland in Week 10, at Denver in Week 13, at Jacksonville in Week 14 and vs. Minnesota in Week 15.

Cleveland Browns: 6.9 wins

Current record: 2-5.

Projected playoff percentage: 34.9.

No stat is an end-all-be-all, but it's certainly surprising to see the Browns' offense, with its exceptional personnel, ranking 29th on third down and 22nd in the red zone. However, O-lines are a big factor, and no team had a bigger decrease in per-unit win-share from its O-line from 2018 to '19 than the Browns, whose O-line fell 16 slots from No. 6 last season to No. 22 this season.

Oakland Raiders: 6.7 wins

Current record: 3-4.

Projected playoff percentage: 29.7.

Forecasting out the rest of the season necessarily creates a model that projects where each team is most likely to be drafting. The Raiders are in a nice sweet spot, as they end up slotted to pick in the top 10, but their win total is a 2-3 game increase from the 2018 season (that is to say, they're going in the right direction). Defensive pressure/disruption is a huge predictor of wins, and if the Raiders are to continue trending toward more wins, creating pressure would help; they currently rank 28th in disruption, in my model.

New York Jets: 5.5 wins

Current record: 1-6.

Projected playoff percentage: 5.2.

The Jets are currently favored in six of their remaining nine games in my model, but they top 59 percent in just one contest (vs. Miami in Week 14). Increased health on the part of players like linebacker C.J. Mosley (set to miss five to six weeks after already missing five) and tight end Chris Herndon (who has yet to play in 2019) would increase their projected output.

Denver Broncos: 4.9 wins

Current record: 2-6.

Projected playoff percentage: 3.8.

The Broncos have one of the NFL's hardest remaining stretches between Weeks 11 and 15: at Minnesota, at Buffalo, vs. the Chargers, at Houston and then at Kansas City. And their quarterback for the foreseeable future could be the extremely untested Brandon Allen. Interestingly, losing Joe Flacco for the next six weeks at least doesn't impact the AFC West much, but it does increase the playoff potential of both the Vikings and Bills, who will likely be vying for a wild-card berth in their respective conferences. I'm watching the Broncos' offseason moves closely, as their defense, with Bradley Chubb poised to return from a torn ACL that ended his 2019 campaign in Week 4, has the potential to anchor a strong contender in 2020.

Cincinnati Bengals: 2.6 wins

Current record: 0-8.

Projected playoff percentage: 0.0.

Benching quarterback Andy Dalton, who's been the Bengals' starter since 2011, in favor of assessing rookie Ryan Finley's potential is likely a strategic move to shape their priorities at that position and elsewhere for 2020 and beyond. My model flags offensive line as the most pressing and high-impact area to focus on for their offensive needs currently, as it has ranked last or second to last in every week so far this season.

Miami Dolphins: 2.1 wins

Current record: 0-7.

Projected playoff percentage: 0.0.

In 70.2 percent of simulations, the Dolphins earn the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, with their Week 16 home matchup against the Bengals being the most likely game to determine whether Miami or Cincinnati will pick first. Looking ahead to that game, the Dolphins currently only win in 44.6 percent of simulations.

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter @cfrelund.

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