Aaron Schatz readily admits his projection numbers aren’t perfect.
Football Outsiders simulates the season a million times to predict the average number of wins for each team, which tends to group them closer together than proves true.
“The best teams, we tend to have lower than Vegas, and the worst teams, we tend to have higher, so you have to account for that a little bit when you look at our projection numbers,” the Football Outsiders Editor-in-Chief told Compare.bet. “You kind of have to stretch them out a bit. If Vegas has Houston at five and we have them at 6.7, I wouldn’t necessarily put money on Houston’s over. But what really stands out is when it’s not at the extremes, and we’re significantly different from Vegas.”
In a recent phone interview, Schatz — whose Football Outsiders Almanac 2021 is now available — detailed the teams he believes are good bets to finish ‘over’ their projected win total in 2021. Here are Football Outsiders’ choices for teams most likely to finish ‘under’ their win projection. Keep in mind, it’s now a 17-game regular season. (Win totals from DraftKings, as of August 3.)
New England Patriots
2020 record: 7-9
Win total: 9.5 (+110)
Football Outsiders’ projection: 9.8 wins
New England is an underdog to win more than 9.5 games in 2021, which stands out to Schatz. The post-Tom-Brady era didn’t get off to a roaring start last year, as the Patriots finished under .500 for the first time since 2000. However, a bounceback could be on the horizon. The Patriots were aggressive in free agency, adding tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, wide receiver Nelson Agholor, linebacker Kyle Van Noy, edge rusher Matt Judon and others. They also traded for tackle Trent Brown and welcomed back star linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who opted out of last season due to COVID-19.
“Their defense is getting a ton of talent back and added,” Schatz said. “There is a variable in the defensive projection that is based on talent added or returned on defense from the previous year. Last year, the Patriots had the biggest net loss of defensive talent of any team we’d ever measured, going back to 2003. This year, the Patriots have the biggest net gain of defensive talent of any team we’ve measured going back to 2003. And then the other thing I’d say is, the offense is not as bad as it looks.”
The rookie and the vet. pic.twitter.com/4P6YertOGU
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) July 30, 2021
New England finished 23rd in offensive efficiency last year, and once again, quarterback play is a wild card, as Cam Newton struggled throwing the ball a season ago. He re-signed this offseason and is the projected starter, but the Patriots also drafted Mac Jones at No. 15 overall.
The Patriots have a high floor because of a strong defense, great coaching and always-solid special teams play. If the offense takes a step forward, the ‘over’ could hit, and Schatz said not to forget about a slate of opponents which includes the Jets twice, the Texans, the Panthers, the Falcons and the Jaguars.
“The easiest projected schedule definitely plays a role,” Schatz said. “You’ll notice they’re fifth in (projected) wins but 11th in (team efficiency).”
2020 record: 11-5
Win total: 11 (+100)
Football Outsiders’ projection: 10.6
Even though Baltimore’s win-loss projection is under the total, this is where Schatz finds the folly in his simulations. The Ravens actually average more wins than the Kansas City Chiefs in his projections, finishing second in the NFL to only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. While the Ravens are only tied for the fifth-best odds to win the Super Bowl at +1400, Football Outsiders has them with a 10.3 percent chance to claim the title, which is second behind Tampa.
The Ravens are 25-7 with a sensational point-differential of plus-414 the past two seasons, and will rely on largely the same cast of stars, led by quarterback Lamar Jackson.
“They’ve just been really, really good in our numbers for the last couple years,” Schatz said. “They were No. 1 in 2019 with one of the best regular seasons of any team that we had ever measured. It sees a little bit of bounceback from that, and they have just been consistently good at all three phases.”
Week One in the books ✅ pic.twitter.com/ubwCqofpSV
— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) August 1, 2021
The Ravens are ranked No. 2 overall in team efficiency by Football Outsiders heading into 2021. They have impressive balance, with top-8 marks on offense (No. 5), defense (No. 8) and special teams (No. 2).
The Ravens fell short of the AFC Championship game each of the past two years despite the stellar regular seasons, which has people questioning their ability to win in the postseason. Schatz isn’t too worried about it, as he believes Baltimore is the main contender to the Chiefs in the conference.
“I definitely understand the idea that Jackson hasn’t been able to beat Kansas City,” Schatz said. “So I certainly would understand having them under Kansas City in Super Bowl odds. I’ve talked about my subjective Super Bowl pick. Our numbers might like Baltimore a little bit more, but I wasn’t happy about that. I think Kansas City is the best team in the AFC. I think Kansas City is the best bet in the AFC. I don’t think Vegas is wrong in giving Kansas City the best odds to win the AFC. But I think Baltimore has very strong odds to make the playoffs, and I think if Kansas City struggles, I think Baltimore is the most likely team to make it to the Super Bowl, although Buffalo is also really, really good. I don’t want to diss on Buffalo.”
2020 record: 5-11
Win total: 4.5 (-140)
Football Outsiders’ projection: 7.2
This is one where the win projection is higher than Schatz would like, but he believes there is reason for optimism. Detroit came in at No. 23 in team efficiency in Football Outsiders’ projections, compared to a win total that is second-lowest in the league, ahead of only the Houston Texans.
“I wouldn’t want to bet on them to go to the playoffs, even with the nice big odds, but at this point, at some books you can get Detroit at 4.5 (wins),” Schatz said. “If (former head coach) Matt Patricia was such a soul-sucking leech, don’t they need to be better this year? We’re simultaneously saying they had such a horrible coach that dragged them down, and that they’re going to be worse this year. I like the idea of Detroit going, like, 7-10. On an over of 4.5, 6-11 or 7-10 cashes.”
— NFL (@NFL) July 31, 2021
There is consternation about the Lions’ quarterback situation after they dealt longtime starter Matthew Stafford to the Rams for Jared Goff. While some believe Detroit will suffer from a clear downgrade at the position, Schatz isn’t so sure.
“Statistically, there really isn’t that much difference between Stafford and Goff, especially if you look at a two- to three-year period, rather than a one-year period,” Schatz said. “You really have to believe, subjectively, that there is just a colossal difference in the ability of those offensive coordinators to scheme for their quarterback. Maybe you do believe that. But you have to believe that last year Detroit had the worst coaching staff in the league, and you have to believe that this year’s coaching staff is worse. Because they have to be that much worse than Sean McVay. Not a little bit worse than Sean McVay. A lot worse than Sean McVay.”
2020 record: 7-9
Win total: 9 (-115)
Football Outsiders’ projection: 9.1 wins
The Vikings come in above the Rams on Football Outsiders’ average wins projection, which is a deviation from common perception. Minnesota started 1-5 last season, and while they clawed back to 6-6 at one point, the postseason was never very realistic.
Schatz likes the underlying numbers with the Vikings and sees them as the clear main challenger to the Green Bay Packers in the NFC North. Minnesota is projected to finish No. 6 on offense and No. 14 on defense this year.
— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) August 2, 2021
“We feel there’s a good chance they’ll rebound in a lot of statistics that tend to be inconsistent from year to year, that puts them back into playoff contention more seriously than they were last year,” Schatz said. “They’re returning a lot of talent on defense. They also suffered from really bad special teams last year, which is likely to be better this year. Even though we have them with a low special teams projection, it’s still better than last year. They’re likely to be healthier than they were last year. There was a big difference in their performance between first/second down and third/fourth down. That’s not likely to continue.”
Quarterback Kirk Cousins has been in the throes of controversy lately after landing on the COVID-19 list, but should be ready for the season. If he plays well, the Vikings should have enough firepower on offense to push for double-digit victories.