We have simulated the 2017 NFL season 10,000 times to determine the division winners, playoff participants and the most likely Super Bowl champion. How do our projections compare to three stats (Pythagorean wins, record in close games and turnover differential) that can be useful in predicting which teams will improve and decline this fall?

Let’s start with Pythagorean Wins. The previous season’s win total has little value when it comes to predicting how a team will perform the next year. A better indicator of future success is point differential.

Football’s Pythagorean Theorem is a formula that converts the points scored and allowed by a team into an expected winning percentage. For example, in 2015 Carolina won its first 14 games and finished 15-1 on their way to the Super Bowl. The Panthers’ point differential suggested Cam Newton and crew should have won 2.6 fewer games. The Super Bowl runners-up regressed winning just six games last year.

There were five teams in 2015 that exceeded their Pythagorean expectations by more than a game. Those franchises combined to go in 51-29 that year. In 2016 those same teams went 33-47. On the other end of the spectrum were six teams that underperformed according to point differential by more than a game. Those teams won 32 games in 2015 but last year upped their win total to 51 games.

Which teams are candidates to improve and decline in 2017 based on Pythagorean Wins?

Team2016 Wins2016 Pythagorean recordPythagorean Differential
Jacksonville Jaguars35.8-2.8
Los Angeles Chargers57.7-2.7
Arizona Cardinals79.4-2.4
Cincinnati Bengals68.3-2.3
Cleveland Browns13.3-2.3
Philadelphia Eagles79-2
San Francisco 49ers23.9-1.9
Chicago Bears34.7-1.7
Buffalo Bills78.5-1.5
New Orleans Saints78.3-1.3
Carolina Panthers67.1-1.1
Baltimore Ravens88.6-0.6
Minnesota Vikings88.6-0.6
Indianapolis Colts88.5-0.5
Washington Redskins88.3-0.3
Denver Broncos99.1-0.1
Tennessee Titans99.1-0.1
Atlanta Falcons1110.90.1
Seattle Seahawks109.80.2
New York Jets54.40.6
Los Angeles Rams43.30.7
Green Bay Packers109.10.9
Pittsburgh Steelers119.91.1
New England Patriots1412.81.2
Detroit Lions97.71.3
Tampa Bay Buccaneers97.51.5
Kansas City Chiefs1210.11.9
Dallas Cowboys13112
New York Giants118.82.2
Houston Texans96.52.5
Miami Dolphins107.52.5
Oakland Raiders128.83.2

2016 was incredibly disappointing for Jacksonville, the team won just three games as Blake Bortles’ development stagnated. The Jags underperformed by nearly three wins according to point differential. This isn’t a playoff team yet, though the defense could finish top 10 in DVOA, but the Jaguars could flirt with a .500 record this fall.

Another candidate for improvement is the Los Angeles Chargers. Injuries once again crippled the Bolts. Keenan Allen, Stevie Johnson, Danny Woodhead, Antonio Gates and Melvin Gordon, to name a few, all missed time. The Chargers finished 24th in offensive efficiency. Like the Jags, the team won nearly three fewer games than expected. A bounce back season is on the horizon, the simulations agree as the Chargers win 8 or more games 46.7% of the time.

What goes up, must come down. There were five teams last year that exceeded Pythagorean expectations by more than 2 wins. The Raiders, Dolphins, Texans, and Giants all made the playoffs but might have missed out if their records reflected their point totals.

Oakland had the biggest difference in actual wins and Pythagorean record. A young franchise quarterback can have that affect. The Raiders are projected to win the AFC West but the team’s most likely record is 9-7, a step back after winning 12 games last season.

A ten-win season was enough for the Dolphins to end a seven-year playoff drought. Miami was an average offensive and defensive team last year and was outscored by its opponents. Point differential hints at regression for the Fins and the simulations agree. The team is projected to have a losing record.

Teams that win or lose more games than their point differential implies tend to regress to the mean the following season. This is bad news for the Raiders and Dolphins but welcome relief for the Jags and Chargers.

Continuing our NFL preview we will next look at record in close games and see which teams might have got lucky last year in games decided by seven points or less.


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