To help figure out good value for potential NFL win totals in 2021 when placing a bet, it is important to look back at what really occurred in 2020. Several underlying metrics have historically been effective in projecting whether NFL teams are likely to improve or decline in the upcoming season.
It’s important to note that it is not advised to blindly rely on one or more of these statistics to affect a team’s win total in 2021. Instead, these stats, along with qualitative factors like roster turnover, schedule, etc. should help give guidance into which teams have a good likelihood of improving or declining.
Numbers that matter for predicting NFL win totals:
TEAM RECORDS IN ONE-SCORE GAMES
So many games are decided by turnovers, field goals, and one play here or there at the end of games. Statistics say that over a course of a season, teams should win about half of the games decided by eight points or fewer. Any extreme win/loss records in those games tend to revert near 50% the following season.
78 teams since 1990 have posted a winning percentage of 20% or below in one-score games. The following season, their record in one-score games more than doubled to 45%.
Since 2017, 18 teams posted a win percentage of 30% or worse in one-score games. All 18 of those teams improved their close game record the following season for an aggregate record of 46%. Those 18 teams on average improved their overall win total by nearly three games the following season as well.
The four teams last season who won fewer than 30% of their one-score games include Atlanta, Carolina, Cincinnati, Jacksonville, and Houston.
In the last two seasons, 14 teams produced a win percentage of at least 70% in one-score games. In aggregate, those 14 teams had a close game win percentage of 80 percent and those teams saw their close game win percentages decline to 38% the following season. Those 14 teams had their win totals decline by an average of 2.5 games the following season from 10.3 wins to 7.8.
The seven teams who produced a close game win percentage last season of more than 70% include Buffalo, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Seattle, and Tennessee.
TURNOVER MARGIN & FUMBLE RECOVERY RATE
Turnovers play such a huge role in determining games in the NFL that extreme margins one way or another could greatly impact a team’s season. Within turnover rates, fumble recoveries specifically are very random. The argument can be made that forcing fumbles is a skill but recovering the football is a purely random proposition.
Very often, teams that rank at the top or bottom five in the NFL in recovery rate will see their rankings move towards the middle of the pack the following season.
Looking back at the last seven seasons, teams that ranked in the bottom five in recovery rate have improved by an average of 15 spots the following season. Looking at the other side of the coin, teams in the top five of recovery rates have declined by an average of 12 spots the following season. In both extreme cases, it is expected that these teams will fall closer to the middle of the pack the following season.
Las Vegas, Cincinnati, Jacksonville, Detroit, and San Francisco finished at the bottom of fumble recovery rate and should be expected in the aggregate to rank near the middle of the pack this season.
Carolina, Philadelphia, Chicago, New England, and Arizona ranked as the best teams in fumble recovery rate in 2020 and should be expected in the aggregate to rank near the middle of the NFL in 2021 as well.
TEAM’S POINT DIFFERENTIAL
A team’s point differential can be a better measure of future wins than its actual win total. The number of wins a team should have won purely based on their point differential is based on their Pythagorean expectation.
Many times, teams with a win total much higher than their Pythagorean expectation will decline the following year. In 2019, the five teams who posted the largest discrepancies between their point differential and their actual records included Oakland, New Orleans, Houston, Seattle, and Green Bay. These five teams saw their win totals decline by an average of two wins in 2020 and Houston went from a 10-win playoff team to the third-worst record in the NFL.
The opposite is true for teams who underperform their Pythagorean expectation. In 2019, the five teams whose point differential was better than their actual records the most included Dallas, LA Chargers, New York Giants, Detroit, and Cincinnati.
These five teams saw their win totals increase by an average of 1.2 wins. Both the Cowboys and Bengals lost their star quarterbacks early in the season or otherwise, this win total increase most likely would have been much greater. The prior season the five biggest underperformers increased their win totals by an average of nearly three wins. The 2008 New Orleans Saints and the 2016 Philadelphia Eagles missed the playoffs and underperformed their Pythagorean expectation wins by close to two games each. Both won the Super Bowl the following season.
Atlanta, Jacksonville, Houston, Carolina, and San Francisco underperformed their win total the most in 2020 while Tennessee, Seattle, Buffalo, Cleveland, and Kansas City overperformed the most.