NFL Pythagorean projections, Vol. 4

The final round of Pythagorean expectation projections arrive just in time for a titanic match-up in Super Bowl LV.

Before you fully immerse yourself in the lead-up to the big game, take a few minutes to see what our good friend Pythagoras and his math suggests the 2020 postseason could have been.

To see the full Pythagorean expectation standings, click here.

For the final time this season, let’s get to the picks.

AFC playoff field
1. Baltimore (12–4); 2. Buffalo (11–5); 3. Kansas City (10–6); 4. Indianapolis (10–6); 5. Pittsburgh (11–5); 6. Miami (10–6); 7. Tennessee (9–7)

NFC playoff field
1. New Orleans (11–5); 2. Green Bay (11–5); 3. LA Rams (10–6); 4. Washington (8–8); 5. Tampa Bay (11–5); 6. Seattle (10–6); 7. Arizona (9–7)

Wildcard playoffs
Tennessee at Buffalo
Miami at Kansas City
Pittsburgh at Indianapolis
Arizona at Green Bay
Seattle at LA Rams
Tampa Bay at Washington

Pythagorean expectation correctly projected 12 of the 14 playoff teams and even nailed two of the six wildcard matchups. The 8–8 Chicago Bears, who missed their Pythagorean win expectation by just a few hundredths of a point, are replaced by the Arizona Cardinals, who lost five of their last seven games and underperformed against their win expectation by a full victory.

More notable is the omission of the 11–5 Cleveland Browns. Despite finishing just a game behind division champion Pittsburgh, the Browns were outscored by their opponents this season. No other team with double-digit victories in 2020 finished with a point differential worse than Tennessee’s plus-52 margin. Cleveland’s average margin of victory was just 6.7 points while the Browns lost games by an average of 17 points. This disparity drove Cleveland’s win expectation into the ground and costs the Browns a hypothetical playoff spot.

On the other side of that coin is Cleveland’s division rival in Baltimore. The Ravens won their games by an average of 18.2 points while losing by an average of just a touchdown. Only one team — the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs — beat Baltimore by more than one score and only two teams, Philadelphia and Cleveland, lost to the Ravens by fewer than 14 points. This is what led the Ravens to a league-best 11.71 expected victories in 2020.

2021 NFL Draft top five picks
1. NY Jets
2. Jacksonville
3. Denver
4. Detroit
5. Cincinnati

Apologies to Jets fans for piling on, but the formula popularized by Football Outsiders gives New York the theoretical opportunity to draft Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Instead of selecting Lawrence, as is widely expected, the Jaguars would be faced with drafting another highly-touted quarterback, such as Ohio State’s Justin Fields, BYU’s Zach Wilson or North Dakota State’s Trey Lance.

Denver may also be in the mix for one of the young signal-callers, as the Broncos seem to have fallen out of love with 2019 second-round pick Drew Lock. Meanwhile, the Lions and Bengals would be in prime position to anchor their respective offensive lines by potentially drafting Oregon tackle Penei Sewell and Northwestern tackle Rashawn Slater.

Biggest overachievers
Kansas City (+3.6)
Cleveland (+3.2)
Buffalo (+2.4)
Green Bay (+2.2)
Seattle (+2.1)

A team’s record in one-score games ties directly to performance against Pythagorean expectation, for better and for worse. The Chiefs (8–0!), Browns (7–2) and Seahawks (7–3) all rode great records in close contests to double-digit victories, playoff berths and significant overachievement against win expectation.

The Packers, on the other hand, were only 3–2 in one-score affairs. Green Bay’s plus-2.2 win performance is likely due to the disparity between the Packers’ scoring offense (no. 1 in the NFL) and scoring defense (no. 13). A 38–10 Week Six loss to Tampa Bay — which proved to be an outlier in an otherwise stellar season — threw off Green Bay’s Pythagorean expectation as well.

The final team on our list of top overachievers, Buffalo, is a combination of both ideas. Buffalo won four of five games decided by a touchdown or less while nearly matching Green Bay’s offensive and defensive performance, finishing no. 2 in scoring offense and no. 16 in scoring defense.

Biggest underachievers
Atlanta (-3.6)
Jacksonville (-3)
Houston (-2.3)
Carolina (-1.7)
San Francisco (-1.7)

Once again, there is a direct correlation between teams on this list and their records in close games. Atlanta (1–8 in one-score contests) was comically bad at closing games. Jacksonville (1–5) and Houston (2–6) were equally poor.

Carolina and San Francisco, on the other hand, dealt with significant injuries throughout the season. Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey played in only three games this year, while the Niners may have been the most injury-ravaged team in the league. It is hard for any team to play, and win, under those conditions.

Regression to the mean is coming for most, if not all, of the teams listed above. The Chiefs, for example, are not likely to win all of their games decided by seven or fewer points, nor are the Jaguars likely to lose five of six such contests.

The Falcons, however, may not be so lucky. That organization needs an exorcism to rid itself of the ghosts of Super Bowl LI. Atlanta made blowing big leads an art form this season, and though mean regression suggests the Falcons will bounce back in 2021, there is no evidence to suggest Matt Ryan and company won’t continue to find new and interesting ways to lose.

Houston is another team that is unlikely to benefit from regression to the mean. The Texans organization is a tire fire. Houston completely botched their head-coaching hire and, by all outward appearances, will be forced to trade their disgruntled 25-year-old franchise quarterback due to organizational malfeasance.

San Francisco, on the other hand, screams out as a 2021 bounce-back candidate. Just getting healthy will provide the 49ers with help next fall. The Niners may also see a change under center after the team signaled its interest in upgrading on Jimmy Garoppolo. While GM John Lynch was unable to complete a deal for Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, the 49ers are expected to be players in the quarterback upheaval expected this offseason.

And then there is the Cleveland Browns. Like Kansas City, Cleveland is unlikely to repeat it’s significant overachievement in 2021. That isn’t a bad thing, however — the Browns are a talented team that is much more likely to play like a 10- or 11-win outfit instead of the 7.8-win squad their Pythagorean expectation suggests.

Footy junkie. Advanced statistics nerd. Kind of a big deal in Canada.