NFL Pythagorean Projections, Vol. 1

Week Five in the National Football League ended emphatically as Derrick Henry stiff-armed Josh Norman into orbit during a 42–16 Titans victory Tuesday night. Assuming COVID-19 restrictions don’t force the outright cancellation of future games, the first quarter of the 2020 NFL season is officially over.

While it may be a bit early to look ahead to the postseason, that is exactly what we are going to do. This is the first in a four-part series covering Pythagorean expectation in the NFL and how it may affect the 2020 playoffs. Each subsequent iteration will follow the remaining quarter marks of the season, with a full season review following the final week of the regular season.

Pythagorean expectation is a formula used to predict playoff results and year-to-year performance by NFL teams. Football Outsiders, a fantastic site you should be reading if you aren’t already, popularized the metric about a decade ago. The formula, which can be found here, uses points scored and points allowed to determine the number of wins a team should theoretically earn.

As an example, let’s take a subject near and dear to my heart: the AFC North. What separates 4–0 Pittsburgh, 4–1 Baltimore and 4–1 Cleveland? Not much, if win-loss records are our primary means of analysis. Using Pythagorean expectation, however, we can see the Ravens profile as a 13.2-win team, the Steelers a 10.7-win unit and the Browns an 8.4-win squad.

To determine the information below, I used each team’s current points scored and points allowed totals and plugged them into a Pythagorean expectation calculator. All values were rounded to the nearest whole number, with tiebreakers determined by each team’s value before rounding. There were a few surprises in both directions, most notably in the AFC East. You can find all of the current results here.

This season’s field will be the first to feature 14 total teams and six wildcard match-ups. Wildcard weekend would certainly not disappoint and would see an entire division make the postseason for the first time ever.

Let’s get to the picks.

AFC playoff field
1. Baltimore (13–3); 2. Indianapolis (11–5); 3. Kansas City (11–5); 4. Miami (10–6); 5. Pittsburgh (11–5); 6. Tennessee (11–5); 7. New England (9–7)

NFC playoff field
1. LA Rams (12–4); 2. Green Bay (12–4); 3. Tampa Bay (10–6); 4. Dallas (7–9); 5. Arizona (10–6); 6. Seattle (10–6); 7. San Francisco (9–7)

Wildcard playoffs
New England at Indianapolis
Tennessee at Kansas City
Pittsburgh at Miami
San Francisco at Green Bay
Seattle at Tampa Bay
Arizona at Dallas

Is it too early to get excited for the playoffs? Wildcard weekend would see rematches of both 2019 conference championship games, track meets in Tampa Bay and Dallas, the renewal of an old rivalry in Indy and Miami returning to the postseason with hopes of avenging their last playoff defeat.

The Rams, owners of the NFC’s best record, would almost certainly face a third game against a division rival before potentially hosting either Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady in the NFC title game. Baltimore, in possession of home-field advantage in the AFC, would possibly see a third match-up with the Steelers, a Week 10 rematch with the Patriots, or a chance to avenge last season’s upset loss to the Titans. This, of course, assumes the surprise AFC East champions, Miami, don’t continue their unexpected success with a victory over Pittsburgh.

2021 NFL Draft top five picks
1. NY Jets
2. NY Giants
3. Washington
4. Jacksonville
5. Atlanta

Nothing here is surprising. Both New York teams are a mess and seem destined for the first two picks in next spring’s NFL draft. That spells bad news for Jets quarterback Sam Darnold, who would almost certainly be replaced by Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, the presumptive no. 1 pick in 2021. Washington would also be in position to take another swing at landing a franchise quarterback after Dwayne Haskins, the 15th overall selection in the 2019 draft, was benched for Kyle Allen earlier this month.

Look for volume two of these projections in early November.


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