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What To Watch For In An Abnormally Normal 2020 NFL Season

Ready or not, the NFL will kick off its 2020 schedule Thursday with the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs hosting the Houston Texans. It comes against a backdrop of pandemic and protest that will no doubt affect the season beyond the league simply emptying the stands and conceding a few words of support. We admittedly don’t know what 2020 will hold for the NFL as it confronts its many off-field challenges — but we do have some ideas about how its teams will perform on the field. We’ve reloaded our NFL prediction model with the latest roster moves ahead of Thursday’s game and simulated the schedule 100,000 times to generate projected records and playoff odds for each team.

Here’s how we think the season will look if it happens remotely as planned:

How we’re predicting the AFC East race

Chance To …
Team Starting QB QB Rank* Elo Rating Proj. Record Make Playoffs Win Division Win Super Bowl
Patriots Cam Newton 20 1552 9-7 57% 39% 4%
Bills Josh Allen 22 1533 8-8 52 34 3
Jets Sam Darnold 26 1456 7-9 27 15 <1
Dolphins Ryan Fitzpatrick 11 1435 6-10 24 12 <1

*Ranking among all opening day starters, according to our Elo QB value ratings.

Simulations as of Sept. 8, 2020.

Source: ESPN

The Patriots are favorites to win the AFC East for the 12th consecutive season, but it will not be an easy journey. Replacing Tom Brady with Cam Newton is one thing; the Pats’ new QB actually looks better according to our ratings anyway. But can New England’s defense survive both the pull of regression and historic levels of personnel turnover? If not, the Bills are right behind them. Last year, Buffalo rode a strong defense (fifth in expected points added per game) and special teams (third) to its first double-digit win season since 1999. This time, they’re expecting more from QB Josh Allen with new WR Stefon Diggs to target. The Jets, who went 7-6 in 2019 with Sam Darnold under center, and Dolphins, who have the highest-rated Elo QB of the division in Ryan Fitzpatrick, are further back in terms of division odds — but we give each at least a 10 percent chance of ending New England’s streak. In a year like 2020, stranger things could happen.

How we’re predicting the AFC North race

Chance To …
Team Starting QB QB Rank* Elo Rating Proj. Record Make Playoffs Win Division Win Super Bowl
Ravens Lamar Jackson 1 1647 11-5 82% 55% 12%
Steelers B. Roethlisberger 5 1573 10-6 65 30 5
Browns Baker Mayfield 27 1496 8-8 41 13 1
Bengals Joe Burrow 30 1390 5-11 12 3 <1

*Ranking among all opening day starters, according to our Elo QB value ratings.

Simulations as of Sept. 8, 2020.

Source: ESPN

After seeing a unanimous MVP season end with his Ravens getting mega-upset in the playoffs, Lamar Jackson — our No. 1 QB — has something to prove in 2020. He also has an upgraded defensive supporting cast, which added a few pieces to help stop the Derrick Henrys of the world from running all over them. We think it’s enough to make Baltimore our second-most-likely champ going into the year. But the Steelers could offer more resistance with a healthy Ben Roethlisberger back from injury, to go with what was one of the best defenses (third in EPA) of 2019. Between Baltimore and Pittsburgh, the AFC North has two of the top five teams in our Super Bowl odds. That could make it tough for the Browns, even with an additional playoff slot in the AFC — although Cleveland’s talent looks better on paper than it did last year, despite the relative reduction in hype. The Bengals are just looking for signs of improvement after an active offseason that saw them draft Joe Burrow first overall and spend a bunch of money in free agency.

How we’re predicting the AFC South race

Chance To …
Team Starting QB QB Rank* Elo Rating Proj. Record Make Playoffs Win Division Win Super Bowl
Titans Ryan Tannehill 13 1549 9-7 60% 40% 4%
Colts Philip Rivers 18 1525 9-7 52 33 3
Texans Deshaun Watson 6 1501 8-8 38 21 2
Jaguars Gardner Minshew 28 1383 5-11 13 6 <1

*Ranking among all opening day starters, according to our Elo QB value ratings.

Simulations as of Sept. 8, 2020.

Source: ESPN

Can the Titans capture the lightning of last year’s playoff run in a bottle again? That’s the big question in the AFC South, where we give Tennessee a relatively slim edge in division odds over the Philip Rivers-led Colts and Deshaun Watson’s Texans. The Titans were the more complete all-around team last year,1 and they’ll try to replicate that in 2020. Meanwhile, Indy is hoping Rivers can jump-start a passing offense that slipped from seventh to 20th in EPA per game after Andrew Luck retired. (For what it’s worth, our QB ratings think Rivers is better than incumbent Jacoby Brissett, but at age 38, he’s no Luck). And for its part, Houston is counting on the mega-talented — and now very rich — Watson to overcome Bill O’Brien’s baffling trades. It probably says a lot that a team with the league’s No. 6-rated QB is somehow only projected to go 8-8 and finish third in a winnable division. Bringing up the rear, the Jaguars are clearly rebuilding after purging pretty much everyone associated with their 2017 AFC title game run over the past couple of years.

How we’re predicting the AFC West race

Chance To …
Team Starting QB QB Rank* Elo Rating Proj. Record Make Playoffs Win Division Win Super Bowl
Chiefs P. Mahomes 3 1658 11-5 86% 69% 14%
Broncos Drew Lock 29 1485 7-9 32 12 1
Chargers Tyrod Taylor 31 1462 7-9 31 10 <1
Raiders Derek Carr 9 1466 7-9 28 9 <1

*Ranking among all opening day starters, according to our Elo QB value ratings.

Simulations as of Sept. 8, 2020.

Source: ESPN

Was the Chiefs’ triumph in Super Bowl LIV the start of a dynasty? Maybe. We give them the best title odds of any team for 2020 — though at 14 percent, they’re much more likely to not win. (That’s just the NFL for you, particularly with the expanded playoff field.) Still, K.C. should be heavy favorites in the AFC West — and in the playoffs, as long as it has Patrick Mahomes, it’s never out of any game. The rest of the division is full of unknowns. The Broncos and Chargers have low-rated starting QBs but talented supporting casts, so if Drew Lock or Tyrod Taylor (or rookie Justin Herbert?) exceed expectations, they could be better than we project. The relocated Raiders have the opposite problem: a productive QB in Derek Carr but a revamped defense that needs to prove it has improved significantly from last year’s 31st-place EPA finish.

How we’re predicting the NFC East race

Chance To …
Team Starting QB QB Rank* Elo Rating Proj. Record Make Playoffs Win Division Win Super Bowl
Cowboys Dak Prescott 4 1561 9-7 63% 46% 4%
Eagles Carson Wentz 15 1548 9-7 57 39 4
Giants Daniel Jones 21 1419 6-10 17 9 <1
Washington D. Haskins 32 1372 5-11 11 6 <1

*Ranking among all opening day starters, according to our Elo QB value ratings.

Simulations as of Sept. 8, 2020.

Source: ESPN

The Cowboys and Eagles are basically NFC East co-favorites heading into 2020, with a combined 85 percent chance of winning the division. If that sounds familiar … well, that’s basically how the division played out last year, too. We give marginally higher odds to Dallas, thanks to the higher-rated QB (Dak Prescott and co. were fourth in 2019 passing EPA; Carson Wentz’s crew was 15th) and a slightly better ensemble of talent on paper. But the Eagles showed last season that they can outlast the Cowboys down the stretch of a tight race. Don’t be surprised if it comes down to the wire again. But do be surprised if the Giants or Washington figure in as anything but Week 17 spoilers. Both teams have young QBs and neither had a bad offseason (personnel-wise, that is — obviously Washington’s was a disaster in most other regards), but our ratings think there’s still a pretty big chasm between the top two and bottom two teams in this division.

How we’re predicting the NFC North race

Chance To …
Team Starting QB QB Rank* Elo Rating Proj. Record Make Playoffs Win Division Win Super Bowl
Packers Aaron Rodgers 12 1556 9-7 54% 32% 4%
Vikings Kirk Cousins 16 1544 9-7 50 29 3
Bears Mitchell Trubisky 24 1526 8-8 48 27 3
Lions Matthew Stafford 7 1453 7-9 25 12 <1

*Ranking among all opening day starters, according to our Elo QB value ratings.

Simulations as of Sept. 8, 2020.

Source: ESPN

With three teams at 25 percent or better probability to win the division, the NFC North should once again be an intriguing slugfest. The Packers are favorites by a razor-thin margin after coming within a game of the Super Bowl last year, though they did little to improve around Aaron Rodgers while the 36-year-old still has good seasons left in the tank.2In fact, they alienated Rodgers by trading up to draft another quarterback in the first round instead of bringing on receiving help for him.3 Statistically, Green Bay has a lot of signs pointing to experience a decline, which explains their 9-7 projected record, but they still rank first here for now. The Vikings are close behind, though they were also diminished some by an offseason spent clearing cap space and acquiring draft picks — hence, the Diggs trade — and they look less imposing on paper as a result. The Bears suffered their typical playoff hangover after 2018, but they’re still in the division race on the strength of their defense (seventh in EPA in 2019), a favorable schedule and the vague promise of improved QB play — whether from embattled starter-for-now Mitchell Trubisky, who defended his job in camp, or newcomer Nick Foles. Finally, the Lions are looking for a bounceback with Matthew Stafford — who was secretly great in 2019 before being lost to injury for the second half of the season — but an offseason of upheaval has them tracking for another 7-9 campaign in our projections.

How we’re predicting the NFC South race

Chance To …
Team Starting QB QB Rank* Elo Rating Proj. Record Make Playoffs Win Division Win Super Bowl
Saints Drew Brees 2 1614 10-6 72% 51% 9%
Buccaneers Tom Brady 23 1540 9-7 50 26 4
Falcons Matt Ryan 10 1499 7-9 34 16 1
Panthers T.Bridgewater 19 1428 6-10 19 7 <1

*Ranking among all opening day starters, according to our Elo QB value ratings.

Simulations as of Sept. 8, 2020.

Source: ESPN

The NFC South got a big makeover with the addition of two new starting QBs this offseason, though the Saints are our favorites to win a fourth straight division title. Putting aside Drew Brees’s advanced age — and the chemistry fallout from his ill-advised remarks in June — he still ranks as the second-best QB in the league and leads one of the NFL’s best groups of offensive weapons. We think New Orleans is more likely to win the division (51 percent probability) than not. It’s interesting to compare the Buccaneers with the Saints, though, because Brady is also very, very old yet also has a talented supporting cast. We project Tampa to go 9-7 with a 4 percent shot at the Super Bowl, although nobody really knows what to expect until the Bucs take the field. The Falcons surged to the finish last year with six wins in their final eight games, and Matt Ryan is a top-10 QB according to Elo. But as usual, it’s unclear if their shaky defense (26th in EPA last year) has improved enough to truly contend again. And the Panthers are projected for last place after moving on from the once-stellar Newton Era. New QB Teddy Bridgewater is not bad at all, and RB Christian McCaffrey is a stat machine, but they still lack too much talent in too many places.

How we’re predicting the NFC West race

Chance To …
Team Starting QB QB Rank* Elo Rating Proj. Record Make Playoffs Win Division Win Super Bowl
49ers J. Garoppolo 25 1601 10-6 68% 41% 7%
Seahawks Russell Wilson 8 1548 9-7 53 26 3
Rams Jared Goff 14 1541 9-7 49 23 3
Cardinals Kyler Murray 17 1465 7-9 28 10 <1

*Ranking among all opening day starters, according to our Elo QB value ratings.

Simulations as of Sept. 8, 2020.

Source: ESPN

The defending NFC champion San Francisco 49ers again lead the way in our NFC West forecast, with a 41 percent chance at winning the division. Though our model thinks surprisingly little of Jimmy Garoppolo under center, the Niners have built a very good team around him; they did their best this offseason to avoid the curse of Super Bowl losers (which is probably just another name for regression toward the mean). But the Seahawks and Rams both have more than a 20 percent shot at the division as well. (And both have starting QBs rated higher than Jimmy G.) Seattle’s Russell Wilson is a perennial MVP candidate, though the Seahawks could also be due for a decline after putting up a record wildly out of line with their point differential in 2019. Los Angeles has all-world D-lineman Aaron Donald leading what was a top-10 EPA defense last year, which will help the Rams factor into this division battle despite the hell they’ve found themselves in financially. And the Cardinals should just be flat-out fun with an improving Kyler Murray — who ranked 15th in Total QBR last year at age 22 — throwing to super-productive WR DeAndre Hopkins, even if we only give Arizona a 10 percent chance to win this stacked division.

Footnotes

  1. They ranked eighth in EPA per game on offense and 11th on defense.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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