Unveiling our projections for the 2021 NFL season: 10 big takeaways, including the Super Bowl favorites


The Kansas City Chiefs may have lost Super Bowl LV, but they are still the NFL team to beat this season, according to the new ESPN Football Power Index (FPI) projections for 2021.

FPI, which launched Monday, is a forward-looking projection model that includes ratings and projections for every team, from projected win-loss records to percentages to win each division.

A full explanation for how FPI works can be found here, but here’s the abridged version: The model determines forward-looking strength ratings for every team based on a variety of factors, including team win total, projected starting quarterback, returning starters and past performance on offense, defense and special teams. FPI then uses those ratings to simulate the season 20,000 times to create projections.

For the 2021 version of FPI, we made some under-the-hood improvements, including an updated expected points added model and a better predictive quarterback rating system. But the outputs are all the same: We’re still talking football — and about the chances of each team’s success — which now includes 17 regular-season games and an expanded playoff field.

Let’s dive into the 2021 FPI projections with the 10 biggest takeaways. And we’ll start with the Chiefs:

Complete team-by-team FPI projections
Team-by-team strength of schedule rankings

The Chiefs are still Super Bowl favorites

Yes, the Chiefs — not the Super Bowl champion Buccaneers — are projected to be the best team and also have the best chances to hoist the Lombardi trophy next February.

Kansas City would be favored by 1.3 points over Tampa Bay on a neutral field if the teams were to suit up for a rematch tomorrow, FPI believes. And the Chiefs would hold at least a 3.5-point edge over every team outside of the Bucs, Bills and Ravens.

To no surprise: it’s the Patrick Mahomes-led offense — which includes Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill and a rebuilt offensive line — that leads the way and is more than 2.5 points per game better than the next-best offense (Green Bay). Kansas City’s middling defense (No. 11 in the league, per FPI) isn’t a problem with that kind of strength on the other side of the ball.

The Chiefs rank No. 1 in just about every projection you can imagine, including projected wins (11.5) and chances to reach the playoffs (89%), win their division (72%), be the No. 1 seed in the AFC (32%) and reach the Super Bowl (30%).

With a 19% chance to win the Super Bowl, the Chiefs are a bit above average for the league’s favorite heading into the season. FPI has created preseason projections every year since 2015, and the 2021 Chiefs rank third out of the seven favorites, behind the 2017 Patriots (32%) and 2020 Chiefs (22%). Both of those teams went on to lose in the Super Bowl.

Don’t sleep on the rest of the league, of course. While Kansas City’s 19% chance to win the Super Bowl might be more than any other team, FPI is also saying that there’s a 4-in-5 chance that a team other than the Chiefs will win the Super Bowl. Here are the 10 teams most likely to win Super Bowl LV:

The most likely Super Bowl matchup is … a rematch

Kansas City vs. Tampa Bay is still not that likely, however. FPI believes there is an 8% chance that the Chiefs face the Bucs again, more than any other potential matchup.

The Bucs, despite not being quite on Kansas City’s level, remain the favorite in the NFC and are the only other team to cross double digits in terms of chances to win the Super Bowl. Their strategy to run it back with nearly the same squad looks (on paper) like it could pay off; the Bucs have an 85% chance to reach the playoffs and a 15% shot to repeat as champions, according to FPI. Those numbers are buoyed by two factors:

  • FPI projects them to have the best defense in the league. The Bucs finished the season, including playoffs, with the sixth-most efficient defense under coordinator Todd Bowles. FPI thinks they take another step forward this season. The model gains confidence because of all of the returning starters from an already good unit. On the other side of the ball, Tom Brady & Co. are projected to be the No. 5 offense.

  • The NFC, with two of the top six teams in FPI rating, is a little less threatening than the AFC. And the NFC South doesn’t have any other teams ranked in FPI’s top 10.

Here are the 10 most likely Super Bowl LV matchups:

The difference between the Packers with and without Aaron Rodgers is … everything

The Green Bay Packers are clearly Super Bowl contenders. They’re the fifth-best team in football and have the fourth-best chance to win it all with a 6% shot, according to FPI. They’re returning the 2020 MVP and had the league’s most efficient offense last year — yes, even better than Kansas City’s.

But it wasn’t always so certain that FPI would give Green Bay the love. As Rodgers’ future hung in the balance over the summer, so too did the Packers’ projections. Had Rodgers simply decided to retire rather than suit up, Green Bay’s chances to make the playoffs would have dropped from 70% to 24% and their Super Bowl chances would have dropped from 6% to … 0.2%.

The Ravens and Browns are contenders, but they hurt each other’s chances

The AFC North features two major Super Bowl threats in Baltimore and Cleveland. And while the effect isn’t dramatic, they would each be a little better off if the other weren’t around. The Ravens and Browns rank fourth and sixth in FPI rating — basically true talent level — but are fifth and seventh in chances to reach the playoffs and win the Super Bowl, respectively.

That they have to play each other twice and are vying for the same divisional crown are limiting factors when it comes to win total and a chance to earn the coveted top seed in the AFC. While that’s a long shot with Kansas City in the conference, both the Ravens and Browns have at least a 10% shot to pull it off.

Baltimore is well balanced, with a projected offense and defense (and special teams!) that each ranks in the top 10. By contrast, FPI is bullish on Cleveland’s offense — which ranks third in the league behind the Chiefs and Packers but ahead of the Bills — but gives the Browns the 18th-best defense.

As far as the division title is concerned, Baltimore is a narrow favorite over the Browns: 43% to 40%.

Which team is most likely to pick No. 1 in the 2022 NFL draft?

We’ve been projecting preseason chances to get the top draft picks only since 2018, but no team has entered the year more likely to walk away from the No. 1 pick than the 2021 Houston Texans, at 24%. That tops the 2020 Jaguars, who entered last season at 23% and ended up earning that No. 1 pick (hey, at least it worked out for them with Trevor Lawrence being available).

FPI considers Houston more than a touchdown worse than an average NFL team on a neutral field and believes the Texans simultaneously have the worst offense and worst defense in the league. FPI is working under the assumption that Deshaun Watson will not play for the Texans this season. Twenty-two women have said in lawsuits that Watson sexually assaulted them or engaged in sexually inappropriate behavior during massage sessions.

The Lions are the next-most likely team to earn the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NFL draft, with a 15% chance, followed by the Jets (10%), Jaguars (8%) and Eagles (7%).

49ers are narrow favorites in strong NFC West

The NFC West features three of FPI’s top 10 teams in the Rams, 49ers and Seahawks, and the 21st-ranked Cardinals aren’t necessarily an easy out, either. Despite the Rams being FPI’s top team of the bunch, San Francisco is actually the favorite here. Slightly.

Why? It’s all about the schedule. Despite the strength of the division, the 49ers play one of the easiest strength of schedules in the league (SOS rank: 29th). In a 17-game slate, the division matters that much less to strength of schedule. San Francisco’s three games based on last year’s standings are against the Eagles, Bengals and Falcons, who all rank 24th or worse in FPI. Meanwhile, the Cardinals, Rams and Seahawks all rank in the top half of the most difficult schedules.

The 49ers’ projection is based on the assumption that Jimmy Garoppolo is the starting quarterback. That decision is based on two factors:

  • Garoppolo is generally believed to be the favorite over rookie No. 3 overall pick Trey Lance entering the season.

  • If we made Lance the starter or partial starter, it would hurt the 49ers’ projection because the model assumes Lance is a little worse than Garoppolo, as of now. If Lance does beat out Garoppolo, that would be a sign he is comparable to the veteran, and thus a downgrade might not make sense. Therefore, designating Garoppolo as the starter seemed the safer choice.

This isn’t just about winning the closely contested division, though. This is how good the NFC West is: There’s a 37% chance that three of the four teams reach the playoffs, and there’s even a 3% chance that all four get in.

Cowboys lead the weak NFC East

It took just seven wins for Washington to top the NFC East last season, and FPI still doesn’t think much of the division a year later. The only team in the division with a positive FPI rating — making it above average — is the Dallas Cowboys, who are just barely there at +0.7 (meaning they would be favored over an average NFL team by less than a point).

With quarterback Dak Prescott back and the possibility of an offensive line returned to full strength, the Cowboys are the division favorites with a 45% shot to win it. Washington, despite being the reigning champ and making an improvement at quarterback in the form of Ryan Fitzpatrick, is second (29%), followed by the Giants (15%) and Eagles (11%).

Again, FPI doesn’t think the division is much improved. And that’s embodied by an extreme result: The NFC East is the only division that recorded a simulation with a five-win champion. In one of our 20,000 sims, the Eagles took the crown at 5-11-1. That doesn’t even sound like a real record, let alone a division winner.

Can the Colts weather the storm without Carson Wentz?

When Indianapolis traded for Wentz, the organization bet on a bounce-back year from the former Eagles quarterback. Now, the Colts will need to stay afloat while he recovers from foot surgery, which likely will cause him to miss the beginning of the season.

Not having Wentz is certainly a downgrade: FPI’s predictive quarterback rating system believes backup Jacob Eason‘s mean projected season is roughly on par with Wentz’s (poor) 2020 campaign. The same model expects Wentz to improve considerably off last season but not all the way back to pre-2020 levels.

To handle the uncertainty in the timing of Wentz’s return, FPI gives the QB a very small chance to play in Week 1 and gradually increases the chance of his return until Week 8 — spanning the range of the recovery timeline laid out last week by coach Frank Reich.



Louis Riddick breaks down the risks the Colts would bring on if they decide to trade for Nick Foles after Carson Wentz’s foot injury.

The first five weeks of Indianapolis’ schedule are rough, as the Colts host the Seahawks and Rams before hitting the road to face the Titans, Dolphins and Ravens. Even without Wentz, the forecast for that stretch is better than one might guess; on average, the Colts win 2.2 of those games, and the chances that they start 0-5 is just over 1 in 20. Keep in mind, those numbers assume there is some chance Wentz plays in each of these games, particularly the later ones.

In the end, FPI’s projections for the Colts are not all that bad; they have a 44% chance to win the AFC South (second to the Titans) and a 59% shot to make the postseason. For a team with quarterback uncertainty, it could be much worse.

As of now, FPI is working under the assumption that two rookies — the Jaguars’ Lawrence and the Jets’ Wilson — are their respective teams’ current starters. And it isn’t particularly bullish on their prospects. The Jaguars and Jets are back-to-back in FPI’s rankings — at Nos. 29 and 30.

This isn’t entirely a reflection on them, though FPI is never particularly bullish on rookie quarterbacks. But the rest of the roster is important, too. And in these two cases, both quarterbacks will have below-average pass protection in front of them, and both will be trying to compensate for their teams’ defenses, which both rank in FPI’s bottom six.

Bears and Broncos on scheduling extremes

Any NFL fan intuitively knows that basing strength of schedule on the previous season’s record is a fool’s errand because teams’ abilities change too much from year to year to go off that, not to mention the fact that a single NFL season is not always a great indicator for the talent of a team.

A step up from the traditional method is to look at the mean win total for every team’s opponents, but this too has an issue; for instance, every Chiefs opponent’s win total is depressed because it has to play the Chiefs (division opponents doubly so!), and every Texans opponent’s win total is inflated for the same reason. FPI is able to reconcile that issue to determine a more accurate SOS. And no one has it rougher than the Bears in 2021.

For starters, the NFC has nine road games this season, so a team from that conference was always likely to occupy the top spot. And Chicago finds itself with eight games against FPI’s top 10 teams: at Rams, at Browns, at Bucs, vs. 49ers, vs. Ravens, at Seahawks and then a home-and-home with the Packers.

On the other end of the spectrum is Denver. The Broncos do have to see Mahomes and the Chiefs twice, but they play only four top-10 FPI teams and get the extra home game for being in the AFC. Denver has eight games against FPI’s bottom 10 teams: at Giants, at Jaguars, vs. Jets, vs. Eagles, vs. Lions, vs. Bengals and a home-and-home with the Raiders. Those first three are the Broncos’ first three games of the season, an easy slate right off the bat.

Check out the full strength of schedule rankings here.

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