Now that eight weeks of the 2018 season have passed, we have enough data about 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 2019 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 2018 campaign, providing a peek at how things could play out as we head down the final stretch toward the playoffs.
But first, here’s a quick look at how my model works.
My model compares this season’s games with 15 previous seasons of situational production metrics that led to wins and losses (between 2003 and 2017). 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is because each team has different strengths and weaknesses, and the way they match up against each other has different historical references for "what happened most often." Because there are many different ways the situational aspect of football can play out, it’s necessary to run many simulations for each remaining game, to see each of the involved teams’ profiles stack up over a range of reasonable situations.
Just how many times is each game simulated? While I might ordinarily go with a figure like 10,000, I decided to up the number to 20,000, including each remaining game in the regular season (there are 135 left).
A quick note: Scoring is obviously up this year compared to past years (we’re on track to set a new offensive scoring record). But that change hasn’t yet — and likely won’t — significantly affect the use of historical data, as the most influential production factors (things like turnovers and red-zone efficiency), taken in context of the game situation (think: down, distance, score and time), remain consistent with what we’ve seen before, in terms of what relates most strongly to the ability to win games.
Below, you’ll see the projected final win totals for all 32 teams in the NFL, from highest win totals to lowest.
RAMS: 14.0 wins
Current record: 8-0. Projected playoff percentage: 99.9.
The Rams already ranked first in interior pressure before the addition of Dante Fowler at the trade deadline. Fowler will complement that strength by bringing more perimeter pressure potential and rotational depth. In the 15-season model, teams that won the most games and made the deepest playoff runs followed this blueprint: combining elite defensive front pressure with exceptional production from the offensive backfield. When your approach reduces the likelihood of offensive turnovers and increases the likelihood of causing turnovers on defense, good things happen. The Rams were already elite at both aspects of the game and just got better.
CHIEFS: 12.8 wins
Current record: 7-1. Projected playoff percentage: 99.9.
If they can hold their current pace, the Chiefs will produce the highest rates of offensive diversity and combined efficiency at the running back, tight end and wide receiver positions in my model’s history. So far, Kansas City has been able to outpace its defensive inefficiencies. The Chiefs’ defense has given up the most big plays per game (9.3), and it’s possible that this ineffectiveness, by forcing Patrick Mahomes to learn more offensive plays in high-pressure situations, helped accelerate his learning curve.
PATRIOTS: 11.8 wins
Current record: 6-2. Projected playoff percentage: 99.0.
Defensive pressures are increasing. In Weeks 1-4, the Pats ranked 26th; now they’re tied with Houston for the 13th-most pressures on the season.
SAINTS: 11.4 wins
Current record: 6-1. Projected playoff percentage: 91.2.
The next three games (vs. Rams, at Bengals, vs. Eagles) — combined with the Saints’ ability to handle elite pressure on offense (especially interior pressure) and their defense’s ability to stop the pass — will help us sort out just how high New Orleans’ ceiling is this season.
PANTHERS: 9.6 wins
Current record: 5-2. Projected playoff percentage: 53.5.
Cam Newton is averaging 8.9 rushes and 3.4 rushing first downs per game. Only 11 running backs have earned more than his 24 first downs with their feet. Cam’s production drives the Panthers’ playoff projection.
CHARGERS: 9.4 wins
Current record: 5-2. Projected playoff percentage: 56.8.
Their increased wins (and, consequently, their playoff chances) have corresponded with the increased effectiveness of their "small ball" defensive personnel (six defensive backs) in combatting speedy offenses.
TEXANS: 9.3 wins
Current record: 5-3. Projected playoff percentage: 59.7.
The biggest red flag with the Texans is their red-area results. They are ranked 28th in both offensive and defensive red-zone touchdown percentage.
PACKERS: 9.1 wins
Current record: 3-3-1. Projected playoff percentage: 58.4.
The Packers’ defense is currently allowing the sixth-lowest completion percentage to opposing quarterbacks (61.5) and the fifth-fewest passing yards per game (221.7). Last season, they were third-worst in completion percentage allowed (67.8) and allowed the 10th most passing yards per game (236.8). Between their generational quarterback, a third-place schedule and their improved pass defense, the Packers figure to win 6.1 additional games and capture the NFC North.
RAVENS: 9.0 wins
Current record: 4-4. Projected playoff percentage: 57.9.
Other than a game in Arrowhead against the Chiefs, the Ravens currently have win projections of over 55 percent in each remaining matchup.
EAGLES: 9.0 wins
Current record: 4-4. Projected playoff percentage: 55.7.
The acquisition of slot receiver Golden Tate from the Lions helps drive the Eagles’ projection to make them the first repeat winners of the NFC East since 2004. Since 2016, Tate has averaged 6.7 yards after the catch, which ranks second among wide receivers with at least 100 receptions. His impact on third down is especially important, as the Eagles have converted 51.7 percent of third downs in wins and only 29.4 percent in losses.
STEELERS: 8.9 wins
Current record: 4-2-1. Projected playoff percentage: 56.7.
The Steelers’ season likely hinges on the outcomes of their next three games (at Ravens, vs. Panthers, at Jaguars).
BEARS: 8.9 wins
Current record: 4-3. Projected playoff percentage: 51.1.
Mitchell Trubisky has rushed for 47 yards or more in each of his last four games. His threat as a rusher has helped create more favorable passing situations, and Trubisky’s passer rating of 113.1 over those four games is an increase of more than 35 points over the previous three weeks (when it was 77.8). Adding increased offensive efficiency to their eighth-ranked scoring defense means making the playoffs is a likely scenario.
Current record: 5-2. Projected playoff percentage: 50.9.
In 15 seasons, defenses that are strong up the middle at all three levels (interior pressure, stopping the run and pass defense in the middle of the field) earned between 1.7 and 2.2 more wins in a season. Looking at the Redskins’ defensive front — and factoring in the trade acquisition of safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix –the playoffs certainly appear to be within Washington’s reach.
BENGALS: 8.7 wins
Current record: 5-3. Projected playoff percentage: 49.8.
Despite being tied for third with the Rams in total defensive pressures (99), the Bengals’ defense is allowing the third-most big plays per game (7.6) and the fourth-most points per game (29.6).
JAGUARS: 8.6 wins
Current record: 3-5. Projected playoff percentage: 49.9.
Despite currently sitting in fourth place in the AFC South, the Jags still have a very strong chance of making the playoffs. Trading Dante Fowler, who generated a high percentage of pressures on passing downs despite not playing a high volume of snaps, did not significantly change their win projection. The key for the Jags is still to get off to a fast start, then rely on their elite defense to keep their offense playing from ahead.
SEAHAWKS: 8.6 wins
Current record: 4-3. Projected playoff percentage: 44.7.
In their past four games, the Seahawks have averaged 173 rushing yards per game. (Seattle’s rushing total from Week 4 to Week 8 is the third-highest in the NFL in that span, even with the team having a Week 7 bye.) Adding rushing efficiency to their offense has shifted their win projections up for all their remaining games.
VIKINGS: 8.0 wins
Current record: 4-3-1. Projected playoff percentage: 46.4.
The Vikings’ seven giveaways (three interceptions, four fumbles) under pressure lead the NFL. When you consider that Kirk Cousins has been pressured at the highest rate in the NFL (36.5 percent), it’s clear Minnesota will have to address this if it wants to make the playoffs.
FALCONS: 7.9 wins
Current record: 3-4. Projected playoff percentage: 14.4.
Injuries, especially to their defense, have limited the Falcons’ ability to win. While Matt Ryan and his pass catchers are having an excellent season, it doesn’t project to be enough, given the weakness in the middle of the defense.
COLTS: 7.4 wins
Current record: 3-5. Projected playoff percentage: 27.3.
The Colts have the league’s best third-down offense, converting 52.2 percent of the time on this crucial down. One of the main drivers of their success here — and when it comes to wins — is the improved ability of the O-line to keep Andrew Luck upright. Luck has only been sacked 10 times in eight games and is posting the lowest sack average in the league (1.25 sacks per game). Some of this is because of Luck’s excellent decision-making, but also note that over the past three games, Luck has been sacked exactly zero times.
COWBOYS: 7.4 wins
Current record: 3-4. Projected playoff percentage: 15.5.
If the addition of wide receiver Amari Cooper results in even marginal improvement in the passing game in Scott Linehan’s system (and it projects to), it will give Ezekiel Elliott more space, thereby increasing Dallas’ ability to earn first downs and touchdowns.
Current record: 3-5. Projected playoff percentage: 16.4.
The Broncos’ offense boasts the best rushing average in the NFL (5.3 yards per rush), but their defense allows the second-highest per-rush mark (5.1) to opposing ball carriers. Efficient rushing and run- stopping are characteristics of winning teams. Likewise, an inability to slow opposing runners can be a hindrance to teams with less-efficient passing offenses, even if they have high yard-per-carry runners. Think of it like this: opposing teams chew up yards and the clock by running. If an offense like the Broncos’ falls behind, they’re likely to pass more, meaning they don’t get to realize the benefits of their efficient rushing game as much. The Broncos currently rank 20th in passing yards per game (22nd in passing touchdowns) and only average 1.85 points per drive (also 20th).
BUCCANEERS: 6.8 wins
Current record: 3-4. Projected playoff percentage: 10.3.
The Bucs have the NFL’s worst red-zone defense and a lot of volatility on offense. I ran the model with both Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback. The 6.8 you see above is a blended result. If Fitz continues to start, the number increases to 7.2 — meaning he gives the Bucs almost a half-game uptick.
DOLPHINS: 6.8 wins
Current record: 4-4. Projected playoff percentage: 9.7.
Significant injuries, especially in the trenches (on both sides of the ball), have slowed the Dolphins after a 3-0 start. Miami earned those wins by playing complementary football and capitalizing on the turnovers the defense created. The Fins ranked third in total takeaways from Week 1 through Week 6, but they haven’t forced one in their past two games. Overall, their defensive third-down percentage ranks 29th, while they sack opposing quarterbacks at the second-lowest rate (1.38 times per game) and have the second-fewest quarterback hits (29). For the Dolphins to beat this projection, they’ll have to get back in balance and improve on defense.
JETS: 6.7 wins
Current record: 3-5. Projected playoff percentage: 7.0.
The Jets’ O-line hasn’t made it easy on rookie signal-caller Sam Darnold. The more an O-line is pushed back on passing downs, the more likely it is that turnovers will occur, and the Jets’ O-line has gotten pushed back the second-most so far this season.
LIONS: 6.5 wins
Current record: 3-4. Projected playoff percentage: 7.0.
The acquisition of Damon Harrison to stop opposing rushers and the continued development of Kerryon Johnson in the offensive rushing game project to help the Lions evolve their team identity and increase their ability to earn wins. However, their matchups over the next five games (at Vikings, at Bears, vs. Panthers, vs. Bears, vs. Rams) are unfavorable, especially given the unknown production in the slot following the departure of traded receiver Golden Tate.
TITANS: 6.5 wins
Current record: 3-4. Projected playoff percentage: 5.5.
No offense has generated fewer big plays (passes of 20-plus yards and rushes of 10-plus yards combined) than the Titans. Their 11 completions of 20-plus yards are the fewest in the league.
BROWNS: 6.4 wins
Current record: 2-5-1. Projected playoff percentage: 4.3.
The Browns’ defense ranks first in takeaways with 22. There are a lot of high-potential pieces on this team, but they haven’t seemed to work together yet. For example, Cleveland’s offense has only been able to earn 34 points off those turnovers. Compare that to the Patriots, who lead the league in points off turnovers with 69 (off of 16 turnovers).
CARDINALS: 4.0 wins
Current record: 2-6. Projected playoff percentage: 0.1.
The Cardinals should improve their O-line this offseason to better complement quarterback Josh Rosen’s skillset in Year 2 of his NFL career.
GIANTS: 3.9 wins
Current record: 1-7. Projected playoff percentage: 1.0.
Saquon Barkley’s impact on this offense has been far more positive than the win totals would suggest. Look for Barkley, Odell Beckham and Landon Collins to be the centerpieces around which the Giants brass builds when the apparent upcoming overhaul begins.
BILLS: 3.9 wins
Current record: 2-6. Projected playoff percentage: 0.1.
The Bills are most likely to end up with the third overall pick in the draft as of now, according to my projections, and they should use that pick to help support rookie quarterback Josh Allen and his development.
49ERS: 3.9 wins
Current record: 1-7. Projected playoff percentage: 0.1.
The Niners’ O-line has improved every game this season, allowing a lower percentage of passing plays in which it gets pushed back in each game. This is a really good sign for next season, when Jimmy Garoppolo (out with a torn ACL) should be back under center.
RAIDERS: 3.5 wins
Current record: 1-6. Projected playoff percentage: 0.1.
My model currently gives the Raiders the greatest likelihood of selecting first overall in the 2019 NFL Draft. Right now, they finish in this slot in 16.7 percent of the simulations.
Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter @cfrelund.
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