2020 NFL season projections: Chances to make Super Bowl, win division, land top draft spot, more

BySeth Walder ESPN logo
Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The Kansas City Chiefs are still on top.

Several long months after defeating the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl, Kansas City enters the 2020 NFL season as both the best team in the league and the Super Bowl favorite, according to ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI).

FPI is our prediction model for the NFL. Preseason ratings are based on each team's Las Vegas win total; last season's performance on offense, defense and special teams; the number of returning starters; coaching staff changes; and starting and backup quarterbacks. FPI produces team rankings and season projections, which we're unveiling for the 2020 season for the first time here. Here are some of the bigger takeaways from our 20,000 FPI season simulations -- and jump to the bottom to see the full listing of FPI rankings for all 32 teams.

Super Bowl favorites | New AFC East champ?

Strength of schedule | A new playoff format

2021 NFL draft projections

Four chalky favorites, but then a surprise

Buoyed by what FPI considers to be easily the best offense in football, the Chiefs are more than a touchdown better than an average NFL team and more than a point better than the second-best team in the league, the Baltimore Ravens. That strong rating fueled the Chiefs to a 21% chance to win the Super Bowl, which makes them the second-largest preseason favorite since we began projections in 2015, behind only the 2017 New England Patriots (32%). The Chiefs were our preseason favorite last season too, with a 15% chance to win it all.

None of that is a shock. After quarterback Patrick Mahomes put in another strong season and led the Chiefs to the Lombardi trophy last season, Kansas City's offense is as sure a bet to be elite as you can have in the NFL. Because offense is more predictable from year to year relative to defense, the model has confidence that the Chiefs will be one of the best teams -- if not the best team -- in the league this season.

Offense predictability is also why the Ravens -- not the 49ers -- are FPI's second-best team in the NFL and second-most-likely team to win the Super Bowl (17%). Simply put, Baltimore has a better offense than San Francisco. But while the Ravens have a far superior defense to the Chiefs, it's not enough to make up for Kansas City's advantage on offense.

Though FPI thinks the 49ers are the third-best team and the best NFC franchise, the New Orleans Saints (fourth in FPI rating) are actually the third-most-likely team to win the Super Bowl at 13%, with San Francisco coming in at 12%. Why? New Orleans faces a slightly easier schedule than the 49ers and is a tad more likely to win the NFC South (59%) than the Niners are to win the NFC West (53%). The Saints are our narrow NFC favorites in what could be quarterback Drew Brees' last ride.

Not super surprising so far, right? Those four teams are widely expected to be contenders after their respective successes last season. And indeed, there is a large drop-off between the four teams with a double-digit-percent shot at winning Super Bowl LV and the rest of the pack. But when we do look down at the No. 5 spot in both FPI's ratings and chance to win the Super Bowl, we see ... the Dallas Cowboys.

Dallas finished 8-8 last season, failed to reach the playoffs and fired longtime coach Jason Garrett, replacing him with former Packers coach Mike McCarthy. So why the love for the Cowboys all of a sudden? Well, FPI actually always loved them.

Despite the mediocre .500 record, the Cowboys finished the 2019 season as FPI's seventh-ranked team. That was fueled almost exclusively by the team's offense, which finished third in efficiency, while the defense was merely average. The Cowboys didn't win enough, but they were good enough.

As mentioned, offense is more consistent year to year. So with many of the key ingredients back -- including quarterback Dak Prescott, wide receiver Amari Cooper and offensive linemen Tyron Smith, La'el Collins and Zack Martin -- there's every reason to be bullish on the Dallas offense. And it's a big reason to be bullish on the Cowboys overall. McCarthy might bring a pass-heavier approach, and while it is not represented in the model, it supports the notion even more. Dallas has a 5% chance to win the Super Bowl and a 48% chance to win the NFC East. In fact, its divisional chances might be even higher if the Philadelphia Eagles weren't directly behind Dallas in FPI's rankings at No. 6 overall (Philadelphia has a 44.7% chance to take the NFC East).

Tom Brady's new team leapfrogs his old one

The buzz around the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Patriots feels noticeably different this offseason. And yet, FPI doesn't see much of a difference between these two teams. Though FPI does have Tampa Bay as the better of the two franchises entering 2020, the Bucs and Pats are back-to-back in the model's rankings at No. 8 and No. 9.

That translates into a slight advantage for the Bucs in terms of chance to reach the playoffs. Tampa Bay has a 63% chance to reach the postseason, while FPI projects a 60% chance for New England. In other words, Brady's departure has hurt FPI's view of the Patriots, who finished last year fourth in its rankings, but the model has hardly written off Bill Belichick & Co. yet.

What about a seventh ring for Brady? Tampa Bay has a 4% chance to win the Super Bowl, and the Patriots have a 3% chance. Though the Bucs are legitimate contenders, these are the worst preseason projections a Brady-led team has had since ESPN started doing them in 2015.

The Buffalo Bills are AFC East favorites?

Technically, yes. But barely.

Here's how close the margin is: Buffalo has a 41.0% chance to win the division while the Patriots are all the way down at ... 40.9%. This division is a toss-up for the first time since we discovered fire.

The Bills rank one spot behind the Patriots in FPI's rankings but have a slightly easier schedule. For their non-common opponents, the Patriots play the Ravens and Houston Texans, while the Bills play the Pittsburgh Steelers and Tennessee Titans.

Buffalo is one of four divisional favorites that did not win its division in 2019. The others are the Cowboys in the NFC East (48%), Indianapolis Colts in the AFC South (40%) and Minnesota Vikings in the NFC North (38%).

Broncos, Colts face schedule extremes

One area in which FPI is particularly helpful is its ability to calculate strength of schedule. SOS is often calculated by using last year's win-loss record, but that is a faulty measure. It fails to capture the fact that teams can be of different quality than their record suggests, given offseason player movement and the various effects of home-field advantage and rest differential. Sometimes SOS is computed by comparing the Vegas win totals of every team's opponent, but this too is a faulty measure. Consider the Chiefs' opponents: Their Vegas win totals factor in that they have to play the Chiefs, a more difficult than average game. The effect is that it makes the Chiefs' schedule look easier than it is.

Though FPI is heavily reliant on preseason win totals, it teases out team ratings and therefore can calculate schedule strength without really running into any of those problems. And it says the Denver Broncos have the toughest schedule in the league, while the Colts have the easiest. The Broncos have five games against top-10 FPI teams: two against the Chiefs, one against the Bucs, one on the road at the Patriots and one against the Saints. The Colts have only one such game, at home against the Ravens in Week 9.

A new playoff format

The addition of a seventh playoff team in each conference has changed the structure of the postseason. An initial reaction to the league's decision to increase the playoff field was that it made the No. 1 seed too powerful. But is that actually true? To test the effect of the seventh seed, we simulated the 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 seasons based on preseason ratings with both the old six-team format and the new seven-team format. What we found was somewhat surprising.

The No. 1 seed's chances to reach the Super Bowl changed by a negligible amount from the old format to the new. The No. 2 seed, unsurprisingly, saw its chances drop significantly -- down almost 11 percentage points -- given that it has to play an extra game. But then, interestingly, the No. 3 seed became more likely to reach the Super Bowl (by 3 percentage points), as did the No. 4 seed (by 2%), No. 5 seed (by 1%) and No. 6 seed (by about 0.5%). The new No. 7 seed had a 4% chance to reach the Super Bowl.

But to be fair, those sims were based on the actual teams in each of these seasons. So it could be affected by the range of team strengths in those seasons. To test further, we ran additional sims in two additional scenarios: one in which each seed had a set level of team strength, and one in which all seeds were given the same team strength (before home-field advantage). But the same pattern emerged, though the No. 1 seed became slightly more likely to reach the Super Bowl under a 7-team format, and the No. 6 seed became slightly less likely to make the big game.

So what's going on here? Though the No. 1 seed has a relatively much better position than the No. 2 seed, its path to the Super Bowl remains the same. With the new playoff format, the biggest changes are that it has the potential to face a No. 7 seed in the divisional round and that it is less likely to face the No. 2 seed in the conference championship. But based on our simulations, this amounts to either a negligible or small advantage.

The No. 3 seed's increased chance to reach the Super Bowl is interesting but explainable. No matter what, the No. 3 seed ends up in a better scenario in the divisional round than it had before. Either it faces a No. 2 seed who no longer had the advantage of a bye, or it faces a lesser opponent and earns home-field advantage. There's a similar story for the Nos. 4 and 5 seeds, as each is also less likely to play against the No. 1 seed than it was before, just to a lesser extent because they are not guaranteed a better position than they would have had before.

So to sum up: The No. 1 seed is much more likely than any other team to reach the Super Bowl, but its actual chances have barely increased over the old system. Instead, increased chances for the lower seeds -- especially the No. 3 seed and the new No. 7 seed -- come at the expense of the No. 2 seed.

Lucky No. 7

Speaking of those new seventh seeds, who does FPI predict they will be in 2020? No team is more likely to earn a No. 7 seed than the Cleveland Browns, who hold a 10% chance that they land precisely in that slot. The Steelers, Seattle Seahawks and Los Angeles Rams -- all also in the 10% chance range -- are in close succession after Cleveland. One-third of the time in our simulations, the seventh seed came from a division with another wild-card team.

A seventh playoff team in the conference also opens up the possibility that all four teams in a division could reach the postseason. And in 2% of our simulations, that actually happened. By far the most likely division for that to happen is the NFC West, which achieved the result in 214 out of 20,000 simulations. The AFC North and AFC West are tied as the next-most-likely divisions to pull it off, and the NFC East is the least likely to do it.

Is Trevor Lawrence destined for Jacksonville?

The Jacksonville Jaguars are rolling the dice on Gardner Minshew II under center, and FPI is not optimistic about it. The upside for Jacksonville? It is the most likely team to land the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NFL draft, with a 23% chance. The Washington Redskins, who just selected No. 2 in April, are the next highest with a 13% shot.

But even if the Jags don't land the top pick, there's a very good chance they'll still land a top pick. There's an 85% chance that Jacksonville, which is projected by FPI to win a league-low 4.9 games this season, is in the top 10 of next year's draft.

Of course, there's no guarantee that Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence will be the No. 1 pick, either. Twelve months ago we assumed Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa would be the first pick in the 2020 draft. And 12 months before that we assumed USC's Sam Darnold would go first in the 2018 class. Time will tell!

Football Power Index's full 2020 season rankings

1. Kansas City Chiefs

Projected wins: 11.2

Chance to reach playoffs: 94%

2. Baltimore Ravens

Projected wins: 11.0

Chance to reach playoffs: 92%

3. San Francisco 49ers

Projected wins: 10.2

Chance to reach playoffs: 81%

4. New Orleans Saints

Projected wins: 10.2

Chance to reach playoffs: 83%

5. Dallas Cowboys

Projected wins: 9.3

Chance to reach playoffs: 69%

6. Philadelphia Eagles

Projected wins: 9.1

Chance to reach playoffs: 66%

7. Seattle Seahawks

Projected wins: 8.9

Chance to reach playoffs: 58%

8. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Projected wins: 9.1

Chance to reach playoffs: 63%

9. New England Patriots

Projected wins: 8.6

Chance to reach playoffs: 60%

10. Buffalo Bills

Projected wins: 8.6

Chance to reach playoffs: 60%

11. Los Angeles Rams

Projected wins: 8.3

Chance to reach playoffs: 45%

12. Pittsburgh Steelers

Projected wins: 8.8

Chance to reach playoffs: 58%

13. Minnesota Vikings

Projected wins: 8.6

Chance to reach playoffs: 54%

14. Indianapolis Colts

Projected wins: 8.6

Chance to reach playoffs: 58%

15. Green Bay Packers

Projected wins: 8.1

Chance to reach playoffs: 43%

16. Tennessee Titans

Projected wins: 8.4

Chance to reach playoffs: 55%

17. Denver Broncos

Projected wins: 7.4

Chance to reach playoffs: 32%

18. Atlanta Falcons

Projected wins: 7.5

Chance to reach playoffs: 31%

19. Cleveland Browns

Projected wins: 8.2

Chance to reach playoffs: 46%

20. Los Angeles Chargers

Projected wins: 7.7

Chance to reach playoffs: 35%

21. Chicago Bears

Projected wins: 8.0

Chance to reach playoffs: 41%

22. Arizona Cardinals

Projected wins: 7.3

Chance to reach playoffs: 25%

23. Las Vegas Raiders

Projected wins: 6.9

Chance to reach playoffs: 24%

24. Houston Texans

Projected wins: 7.6

Chance to reach playoffs: 38%

25. New York Jets

Projected wins: 6.8

Chance to reach playoffs: 24%

26. New York Giants

Projected wins: 6.1

Chance to reach playoffs: 12%

27. Miami Dolphins

Projected wins: 6.2

Chance to reach playoffs: 14%

28. Detroit Lions

Projected wins: 6.6

Chance to reach playoffs: 17%

29. Carolina Panthers

Projected wins: 5.6

Chance to reach playoffs: 7%

30. Cincinnati Bengals

Projected wins: 5.6

Chance to reach playoffs: 8%

31. Washington Redskins

Projected wins: 5.5

Chance to reach playoffs: 6%

32. Jacksonville Jaguars

Projected wins: 4.9

Chance to reach playoffs: 4%

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