12 NFL Teams That Over- & Under-Performed Expectation — And How To Bet Them In 2021
Dylan Buell/Getty Images. Pictured: Aaron Rodgers
When looking to predict NFL win totals, one of the best tools for determining a team’s future performance is the Pythagorean theorem or Pythagorean Expectation.
While the name bears resemblance to the formula we learned in grade school geometry, the original version of this formula created by Bill James estimates the percentage of games a baseball team “should” have won based on the number of runs they scored and allowed.
Statistician and current 76ers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey adapted this formula to other sports, including professional basketball and football, by using the exponent of 2.37 in order to provide the projected winning percentage.
Pythagorean Expectation = Points For ^ 2.37 / (Points For ^ 2.37 + Points Against ^ 2.37) * number of games
With football having such a small sample size, the projected winning percentage for the previous season provides a solid baseline of what to expect as teams over- or under-performed their point differentials. Teams that win more than their projected winning percentage tend to negatively regress (aka lose more) the following season while teams that lose more than their projection tend to positively regress (aka win more) the following season.
That said, you shouldn’t blindly accept the expectations based on this formula alone considering it’s not out of the ordinary to see teams improve despite over-performing their point differential the previous season.
For example, many believed that the 2020 Packers were going be prime regression candidates after they finished 2019 with a 13-3 record and a Pythagorean Expectation of only 9.7 wins, but other factors were at play. Most notably, Aaron Rodgers threw for 48 touchdowns and only five interceptions en route to winning MVP, finishing 13-3 and making the NFC Championship Game.
Now let’s take a closer look at 12 of the teams that either over- or under-performed their point differentials in 2020 and see whether we can find betting value on any.
- 2020 Record: 4-12-0
- Expected W-L: 7.6-8.4
- Point Differential: -18
Unlucky is an understatement when describing the 2020 Atlanta Falcons.
Although they finished with a 4-12 record, the Falcons were expected to win 7.6 games last season based on their -18 point differential. They fell short because of an inability to maintain leads.
Falling short of their Pythagorean Expectation by 3.6 games, the Falcons had the third-largest deficit between wins and expectation since the AFL-NFL merger — only the 1981 Patriots (2-14, 6.6 expected wins, -4.6 difference) and the 1971 Bengals (4-10, 7.6 expected wins, -3.6 difference).
All things considered, the Falcons were much better than their 4-12 record indicated.
They had the misfortune of having a 2-8 record in one-score games, a 1-8 record in games decided by seven or fewer points while also being the first team in NFL history to blow back-to-back fourth quarter 15 point leads against the Cowboys and Bears in Weeks 2 and 3. With the Falcons finishing with just four wins — their fewest since 2013 — Arthur Blank cleaned house. Now there should be some optimism with Arthur Smith as the new head coach and Terry Fontenot as general manager.
Smith comes over from Tennessee as the offensive coordinator who led a Titans offense that was fourth in points scored (30.7), second in EPA/play and third in success rate last season. The resemblance to Kyle Shanahan’s offense should instill even more confidence in the improvement of Atlanta’s offense given the success of Matt Ryan during the Falcons’ Super Bowl run in 2016.
Expect the Falcons to run the ball early and often with Mike Davis. Smith’s wide zone run scheme will not only improve an offense that was 29th in Football Outsiders’ rush DVOA, but it should also keep the chains moving and set up play action, which is something Ryan has found success with under Shanahan. The Titans were top five in play action and motion rate last year, ranking third in play action rate (35.9%) and fourth in motion rate (57.0%). This certainly bodes well for Ryan as he had an adjusted accuracy rate of 84% in play action, behind only Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers.
Sure, the Falcons traded away Julio Jones, but I’m expecting this offense to improve under the tutelage of Smith.
There are some concerns along the offensive line with the departure of Alex Mack, and it will be interesting to see how rookies Jalen Mayfield and Drew Dalman perform this season. Defensively, I’m expecting improvement from this unit that hired Dan Pees as coordinator, particularly in the absence of Dan Quinn. The Falcons were 30th in Defensive EPA during the first five games of last season and finished the season 15th after he was fired, meanwhile, Pees has won a Super Bowl with New England in 2004 and has led defenses that have finished top 10 in scoring defense in eight of his 12 years.
Nevertheless, the Falcons should play closer to expectation this year as they’ve gone from facing the most difficult schedule of opposing offenses to a bottom-10 schedule.
We’ve seen sharp money hit this win total over 7, but at 7.5, I can’t recommend a play. The Falcons will play 10 road games this season, losing one of them as they’ll host the Jets in London in Week 5. The Falcons will also have the second-most net yards traveled this season.
Overall, this is a much improved team that you could find decent spots to play week-to-week.
- 2020 Record: 1-15-0
- Expected W-L: 3.9-12.1
- Point Differential: -186
When you finish a season 1-15, the only way to go is up. And in a weak AFC South with the Texans and Colts floundering, it’s hard to imagine this Jaguars team not improving.
The Jaguars went 1-6 in one-score games, which we should expect to regress to the mean, particularly with them having the eighth-easiest schedule according to Vegas win totals. Nonetheless, the biggest reason for optimism is the presence of first-round rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence and new head coach Urban Meyer, who turned Ohio State into a perennial championship contender in college football.
There’s certainly skepticism about Meyer’s ability to turn this franchise around, and given the struggles of previous college coaches who made the leap to the NFL, it’s tough to argue with that concern. Of the 12 previous college coaches to transition to the NFL, only Nick Saban’s Dolphins, Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers and Chip Kelly’s Eagles have have been better than average in DVOA their first season.
The Jaguars should improve this season, but I’m not particularly interested in making a wager on their futures. If you’re looking for an angle, a flier on them to win the AFC South at +600 would be my recommendation, but I’m sitting this one out altogether.
- 2020 Record: 4-12-0
- Expected W-L: 6.2-9.8
- Point Differential: -80
If you’re blindly looking at the 2020 Pythagorean Expectation for the Texans, you’d expect them to improve.
Based on their point differential, they underperformed by 2.2 games, but it’s clear that the only reason they were in that position is because of Deshaun Watson, who completed 70.2% of his passes for 4,823 yards and 33 touchdowns to just seven interceptions.
While Watson was able to help this team remain competitive in 10 one-score games last season, that won’t be the case this season. All things considered, this is an aging roster and a team in transition that should challenge for the worst record in the league.
Last season, this team was 30th in defensive DVOA — including 29th against both the pass and the rush — and there isn’t much to suggest things have gotten better this season. If the Texans don’t win their opening matchup against the Jaguars, it’s likely this Houston team won’t have a legitimate chance at winning until Week 12 against the Jets.
With the Jaguars’ imminent improvement, and the Titans and Colts having the best odds to win the division, laying -230 on the Texans to finish last in the division is a steal.
Bet: Texans Exact Finishing Position: Fourth (-230) at FanDuel
- 2020 Record: 4-11-1
- Expected W-L: 5.9-10.1
- Point Differential: -84
The Eagles were absolutely decimated by injuries last season, particularly on the offensive line, where they had a league-worst 57.1 adjusted games lost (per Football Outsiders). They also dealt with injuries to their starting tight end, running back and wide receivers.
It didn’t help that Carson Wentz became a shell of himself, holding onto the ball too long and running himself into pressure, taking a league-high 50 sacks while also leading the league in interceptions (15). Add in Wentz’s 10 fumbles, and you had a QB who struggled to give his team an opportunity to win.
Jalen Hurts stepped in and provided an element of playmaking that Wentz didn’t, and while it remains to be seen whether Hurts is truly the quarterback of the future for this team, he’s an upgrade over the turnover-prone Wentz.
With the Eagles outperforming their Pythagorean Expectation by 1.9 games, playing in a weak NFC East, coming into this better health and (hopefully) turning the ball over less, this is a team that should improve. With that said, though, I can’t get on board with investing in this team — even with the league’s 10th-easiest schedule.
There are question marks about the culture under new head coach Nick Sirianni, and with sharp money hitting the under 7 wins, this could be a tough season for a team in transition.
- 2020 Record: 5-11-0
- Expected W-L: 6.7-9.3
- Point Differential: -52
The 2020 Carolina Panthers were a team in transition, moving on from longtime head coach Ron Rivera and franchise quarterback Cam Newton, and replacing them with Matt Rhule and Teddy Bridgewater.
Despite finishing 5-11, the same record they finished with in 2019, the Panthers got younger and improved in efficiency on both sides of the ball. Joe Brady’s first season as offensive coordinator was a success as they went from 27th in Offensive Efficiency to 17th in one season, despite missing star running back Christian McCaffrey for all but three games.
But the transition wasn’t completely smooth — the Panthers finished 24th in third-down conversion percentage (38.97%) and 27th in red-zone percentage (50.9%) with Bridgewater ranking as the third-worst quarterback in the red zone.
Bridgewater has since been replaced by Sam Darnold, who has even more question marks regarding his ability to be a capable NFL quarterback, particularly given his struggles on intermediate throws. There’s a common sentiment that Darnold will benefit in the absence of Adam Gase as did Ryan Tannehill in Tennessee. That remains to be seen, but it can’t hurt to have a top-tier offensive coordinator in Brady along with weapons like McCaffrey, D.J Moore, Robby Anderson and second-round rookie Terrace Marshall.
If Darnold can play like an average quarterback and the Panthers can get some positive regression on third down and in the red zone, this should be a solid offense.
The defense should improve in Year 2 with coordinator Phil Snow, and with Brian Burns becoming one of the best up-and-coming edge rushers, there are plenty of reasons for optimism on that side of the ball too .
The 2020 Panthers out performed their Pythagorean Expectation by 1.7 games and were 3-8 in one-score games. Now they’re scheduled to face only three quarterbacks who ranked in the top 13 of ESPN’s Total QBR last season, so this feels like a solid over bet.
Bet: Over 7.5 Wins (-105) at FanDuel
- 2020 Record: 6-10-0
- Expected W-L: 7.7-8.3
- Point Differential: -14
There wasn’t a more snake-bitten franchise than the San Francisco 49ers in 2020.
It was miracle they finished with a 6-10 record as they had the second-most injuries of any team over the last 20 years, finishing the season with 161.6 adjusted games lost. With Jimmy Garoppolo, Nick Bosa, George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, Richard Sherman, Dee Ford, Raheem Mostert, Solomon Thomas and others missing extended time, the 49ers never had a shot to redeem themselves after losing Super Bowl LIV.
In addition to injuries, the 49ers were also 3-5 in one-score games while also facing one of the toughest schedules in the league.
It remains to be seen if we see rookie quarterback Trey Lance play much this season as Garoppolo likely gives this team the best chance to win currently. Still, with the 49ers maintaining a top-tier roster not far removed from their Super Bowl appearance and now facing the easiest schedule in the league according to Vegas win totals, they should drastically improve from last season.
Bet: Over 10.5 Wins (+100) at FanDuel
- 2020 Record: 14-2-0
- Expected W-L: 10.5-5.5
- Point Differential: +111
With a career 38-8 record as a starter since joining the Chiefs, you won’t find many people willing to bet against Patrick Mahomes.
As the odds-on favorite to win the Super Bowl, most are expecting Kansas City to buck the Super Bowl hangover and compete for a championship. The combination of Mahomes, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce on a team coached by Andy Reid is tough to beat, and it’s not a surprise that the Chiefs have eclipsed their win total for the past eight seasons.
This is a team with both a high floor and a high ceiling, and they’ve addressed their issues on the offensive line, allowing Eric Fisher to walk and upgrading LT by acquiring Orlando Brown Jr. They also signed LG Joe Thuney and drafted center Creed Humphrey and guard Trey Smith.
Still, this is the NFL. And in the salary cap era, you’d be hard pressed to find a team that can continue to dominate year in and year out without a down season.
There are still question marks defensively with this unit that was 22nd in defensive efficiency, ranking 31st against the run. It’s also easy to see how this team can take a step back as they Pythagorean Expectation of just 10.5 wins despite finishing with a 14-2 record. The Chiefs were also 8-1 in one-score games, which is something that tends to regress year-to-year.
The Chiefs have the 20th-ranked strength of schedule and will be facing a first-place schedule that contains games against Baltimore, Buffalo and Green Bay. While they’ve been able to beat up on their division with a 16-2 record against the AFC West, the division is much improved with the Broncos and Chargers getting better, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Chiefs struggle to repeat their previous dominance.
This is risky given how good Mahomes and Reid are, but I believe this is the year the Chiefs take a minor step back.
Bet: Under 12.5 wins (-110) at PointsBet
- 2020 Record: 11-5-0
- Expected W-L: 7.7-8.3
- Point Differential: -11
It’s rare to see so many sharp NFL bettors fade regression from a team that over-performed its point differential in the manner that the Browns did last season. In the first year with head coach Kevin Stefanski, they finished 11-5, but had a point differential of -11 and a Pythagorean Expectation of just 7.7 wins.
If there’s a poster child for why we can’t blindly play the Pythagorean Expectation, it’s this team.
For starters, the Browns were extremely unfortunate to play bad weather games against Las Vegas, Houston and Philadelphia. They’ve also suffered some bad luck with teams scoring back-door touchdowns at the end of the games they led by double digits to make the margin one score.
All things considered, the Browns have built a team capable of challenging for the Super Bowl. They have arguably the best offensive line in the league with JC Tretter, Wyatt Teller and Jack Conklin — and the right duo of running backs to take advantage of it with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Baker Mayfield continues to progress, and with the return of Odell Beckham Jr., this offense should continue to be dominant.
It’s the other side of the ball on which the Browns have made the biggest improvement. After finishing 25th in Defensive Efficiency, the Browns replaced Olivier Vernon, Sheldon Richardson and Larry Ogunjobi with Jadeveon Clowney and Malik Jackson. The secondary is much improved with the signing of John Johnson III as well as the return of Grant Delpit to play with Greg Newsome, Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams.
As a whole, Cleveland feels like a Super Bowl contender. And with the Browns playing the third-easiest schedule in the league according to Vegas win totals, they should improve as opposed to regressing this season.
I’m taking them to win the Super Bowl, AFC and over 10.5 wins.
- Browns to win Super Bowl (+1600) at BetMGM
- Browns to win AFC (+750) at BetMGM
- Over 10.5 Wins (-110) at BetMGM
- 2020 Record: 13-3-0
- Expected W-L: 10.6-5.4
- Point Differential: +126
The Buffalo Bills over-performed their point differential by 2.4 games with Josh Allen making the leap from a quarterback who was thought to be carried by his defense to a Pro Bowler who threw for 4,544 yards and 37 touchdowns while rushing for 421 yards and eight more scores on the ground.
Allen became one of the most relied upon quarterbacks in the league as the Bills were the most pass-heavy team on first down. With Stefon Diggs already in the fold and the addition of Emmanuel Sanders, Buffalo’s offense should be able to pick up where they left off last season.
The real question here is whether Allen’s 2020 season was a fluke and if he’ll regress this season as teams defend him differently. The offensive line does have question marks, and it appears we’ll see improvement from teams elsewhere in the division.
Nonetheless, if Allen can continue his form from last season, this team may be able to avoid regressing one season after over-performing their Pythagorean Expectation.
- 2020 Record: 13-3-0
- Expected W-L: 10.9-5.1
- Point Differential: +140
I was looking to fade the Green Bay Packers heading into this season.
The 2020 Packers had a dream season.
They finished 13-3 behind Aaron Rodgers’ MVP season, during which he threw for 4,299 yards and 48 touchdowns with a 121.5 passer rating and 84.4 mark in QBR. They had the league’s top scoring offense at 31.8 points per game while ranking first in offensive DVOA, EPA/play and success rate. As great as Rodgers was last year, it’s asking a lot for a quarterback to have another season in which he throws 48 touchdowns to just five interceptions.
While many people believed that the Packers would be prime regression candidates in 2020, the offense improved enough in Year 2 of Matt LaFleur to overcome lowered expectations for a team that finished 2019 with a Pythagorean Expectation of just 9.7 wins. For the second year straight, this team over-performed its Pythagorean Expectation, winning 13 games while having the point differential of only a 10.9-win team.
One of the biggest issues facing the Packers is on the offensive line.
They’ll start the season without left tackle David Bakhtiari, who tore his ACL at the end of last season. They also recently lost center Corey Linsley through free agency. These losses are especially tough considering their slate of opponents feature Khalil Mack (twice), T.J. Watt, Nick Bosa, Myles Garrett, Chase Young, Chandler Jones and J.J. Watt.
After losing their starting center and with their star left tackle down, this team will have to avoid any offensive line injuries to overcome a defense that was just 17th in DVOA. The Packers defense also ranked 20th in total success rate — they’ve struggled to stop the run much of the past few seasons, and outside of Jaire Alexander, they don’t have another reliable corner. Overall, if they experience any regression on offense or Rodgers shows signs of his age at 37, the Packers will take the step back they were predicted to make last season.
Of course, one of the biggest reasons for their success over the past two seasons is their dominance over the NFC North: They’ve gone 11-1 with their only loss coming at the hands of the Vikings in Week 8 of 2020 in a game that high winds impacted the deep passing game. Other than the Patriots for a significant portion of their dynasty and the Chiefs over the past three seasons, there aren’t many teams that have had this level of success in their division.
One of the best ways to make it into the playoffs is to dominate your division, and the Packers have an edge over the rest of the NFC in this regard — the NFC West appears to be the best division in football, the NFC South is improving, and the NFC East is so weak that teams just beat up on each other.
Outside of the Vikings, I’m not sure if this division has gotten much better as the Bears and Lions still appear to be free wins for the Packers, which may give them the opportunity of landing the No. 1 seed and the NFC’s playoff bye for the second consecutive year. The Packers will have a tougher schedule with games against Kansas City, Seattle, Baltimore and San Francisco, but this still feels like a team that will challenge for a Super Bowl.
I previously liked the under on the Packers’ win total, but with this potentially being Rodgers’ last dance in Green Bay, I’ll sit this one out.
- 2020 Record: 12-4-0
- Expected W-L: 10.0-6.0
- Point Differential: +88
The Seahawks over-performed their point differential by two games last year and while the Pythagorean Expectation tells us this isn’t sustainable, it’s clear that having a quarterback like Russell Wilson allows the Seahawks to overcome just about anything as 18 of their 23 wins the last three seasons have been decided by on score.
Based on the way Wilson played during the first half of last season, it appeared that he was headed for an MVP campaign. And provided that Pete Carroll continues to allow Wilson to cook, it’s clear he can carry this team to the playoffs.
There are questions regarding this defense, and they’ll go from facing a bottom-five schedule of offenses to a top-10 schedule of offenses. Given their lack of pass rush, things will depend on the offense and the cohesion between Wilson and new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron. With weapons like D.K. Metcalf, Tyler Lockett and second-round rookie D’Wayne Eskridge, Seattle’s offense has more than enough to challenge for the division.
I’m not seeing much of an edge here on the Seahawks’ win total or full-season props, but if this team is going to go anywhere, it’s because Wilson had a solid season.
I’ll take a flier on Russell Wilson to win MVP.
Bet: Russell Wilson to win MVP (+2200) at BetMGM
- 2020 Record: 11-5-0
- Expected W-L: 9.1-6.9
- Point Differential: +52
The Titans were a team I’ve been looking to fade this entire offseason.
Other than over-performing their point differential by nearly 2 games, the Titans were 7-2 in one-score games and 4-0 in games that were decided by three or fewer points. They were primarily reliant on their offense, and while they were second in EPA/play and third in Success Rate, they were also historically great in the red zone where they had 74.2% conversion percentage.
The Titans also have the misfortunate of losing offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, who moved on to become the head coach of the Falcons. In addition, we can expect regression from Derrick Henry, who became only the eighth NFL running back to rush for 2,000 yards in a season and more than 370 carries, the threshold for which we see NFL backs have a decline in production the following season.
With this team having the sixth-best injury luck, they’ll need to maintain their offensive dominance given their struggles on defense where they were 28th in EPA/play and 27th in success rate. With the Titans losing Malcolm Butler and Kenny Vaccaro, there’s not a lot to be excited about in the secondary. And while the Titans did pick up Bud Dupree from the Steelers in free agency, he’s coming off an ACL injury.
As a whole, this is a team that should take a step back. But in a bad AFC South, they have a chance at winning this division again. If I had to play something, I’d lean towards taking the Titans to win the division at -110.
Lean: Titans to win AFC South (-110) at FanDuel