A step back for the Packers? Improvement for the Falcons? Barnwell’s six against-the-grain NFL predictions for 2021

Predicting football results is a tricky thing, as is predicting the occurrence of any outcome involving humans. There are too many factors involved and too many choices that can be made by opposing teams or players, to say nothing of the might of the NFL’s powerful PR machine. Yet, every year, our friends at “Football Outsiders” take a swing at it anyway, with their annual “Offseason Prospectus” publication (available, of course, for FREE). It’s a laudable effort, and the results can be pretty entertaining.

Welcome to the Asia Week Guide! As the NCAA football season draws to a close, we turn our attention to the NFL, where the Packers are likely to repeat as the conference champions, the Falcons seem poised to challenge the Patriots for the Super Bowl crown, and the Bills and Cardinals might add a second Lombardi trophy to their respective cases.

The best prediction anyone can make about the NFL is that things will never stay the same. In a 16-game season – now 17 – we’re always going to exaggerate what we’ve seen in a small sample size. Too often we turn it into new advice or a foundation for the team to work on. History often teaches us that this is not the case.

Let’s use some of the moments we’ve seen in 2020, and the historical data that accompanies those ideas, to refute the conventional wisdom about teams entering this season. I’m talking about six teams, starting with one of the most potent offenses in football last season, and why it may be difficult to stay at that level in 2021:

Go to the command and ask questions:
Will the Dolphins have a regression on defense?
Will the Falcons miss Julio Jones?
Could the Eagles be better than we think?
Will the Packers offense be as successful?
Do the Texans have a fighting chance?
Can uncontrollable factors make San Fran stronger?

Packers won’t be as dynamic on offense in 2021

From 2018 to 2019, Aaron Rodgers and company continued to function by avoiding mistakes, even though the offense was not as explosive as in previous seasons. The Packers have only swallowed the ball 15 times in 2018 and 13 times in 2019, which ranks second in the NFL for those two campaigns. Rodgers has grabbed just six rebounds in the past two years, seemingly trading some risk for consistent, solid success.

In 2020, Rodgers did not compromise at all. Green Bay’s offense continued to defend the Rock, as they delivered the ball 11 times this season, which is the most in football. Rodgers threw more interceptions, but considering he only threw four in 2019 and five in 2020, the Packers haven’t suffered much. Including the two playoff games, they have given up two or more goals in four games and have a 1-3 record, with just a four-point win over the short-handed Jaguars. If they didn’t get the ball at least twice, it was 13-1 in their favor.

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The Packers had something great in 2018 and 2019, and again in 2020. No real difference. But what was different was the way they operated within the most valuable space on the field. In 2018, they used 61.7 percent of their red zone entries for touchdowns, which ranks 13th in the league. The following year, when Matt Lafleur became coach, that percentage rose to 64%, the eighth-most in football.

Last season, the Packers drove 80% of their drives past the 20-yard line for touchdowns. Success rates in the red zone don’t usually start at number 8. ESPN has red zone data from the 2001 season, and no other offensive team converted 80 percent of its red zone possession into touchdowns until the Packers last year. Given that the overall efficiency of the offense is higher today than it was before 2001, there’s a good chance the Packers were the best red zone offense in NFL history in 2020.

Will they be able to keep up? History shows that even the best teams struggle to get into the red zone as often as the Packers did in 2020. Since 2001, only 5% of a team’s red zone conversion in a given year can be explained by its performance inside the 20-yard line in the previous year. Twelve teams had a red zone success rate over 70% between 2001-19, and that number dropped to 55.5% the following season.

The only team to score more than 70 percent of its touchdowns in the 2019-20 season is the Titans, which could be the difference for the Packers. While 12 teams scored over 70% from 2001 to 2019, last season alone six different teams scored over 70% of their touchdowns in the red zone. The Packers, Titans (75%), Browns (73.6%), Seahawks (73.2%), Saints (72.1%) and Vikings (71.2%) all scored less than 20 points, which is not usually the case. Four of those six teams use the same offensive style as Kubiak/Shanahan, and the Seahawks will join them in 2021 when former Rams assistant Shane Waldron becomes offensive coordinator.

If this is a one-year rebound, we can expect the Packers (and the rest of the teams) to be back to the level of the rest of the league by 2021. But if 2020 is any indication for the entire league, Green Bay might not lose as much as one would expect from an average offense.

Falcons won’t miss Julio Jones as much as you think

Every NFL team would be better off with Jones on the team, including his former employers. The Falcons traded their old star receiver to the Titans for financial aid, and history shows that Matt Ryan will feel the consequences. Since Jones entered the league in 2011, Ryan has achieved a QBR of 72.5 with the former Alabama star on the field and 63.2 without him. Let’s not pretend the Falcons will be the best version of themselves in 2021 by replacing Olamide Zaccheus with a future Hall of Fame member.

But even with Jones gone, the Falcons will likely improve in 2021. Jones’ absence and another major factor I’ll discuss later may lower their ceiling, but in the recent past few teams have had better luck (or worse timing) than Atlanta in 2020. This is a team where expectations to win have gone out the window.

Let’s use ESPN’s expected earnings model to show how strange the 2020 season has been for the Falcons. I’ll start with the most devastating losses. They lost two games where their expected win rate was 99%. No other team has lost more than one game, and only one team (the 2016 Chargers) has lost two of those games in one season in the past seven seasons. Like a cruel memory:

  • In Week 2, the Falcons outscored the Cowboys 20-0 in the first quarter and led by as many as nine points when Dallas scored a touchdown with 3:09 left in the fourth quarter, mesmerized Atlanta defenders with a lateral kick, then completed a pass to C.D. Lamb, who scored from 46 yards out to win the game.
  • Atlanta had a 99 percent chance to win, led by as many as 16 points in the fourth quarter, and the Bears were in a fourth-and-eight situation at the halfway line. Chicago converted and scored three consecutive touchdowns before Ryan’s interception ended the game.

The Cowboys recovered a lateral kick late in the game against the Falcons, which allowed them to come back and win. Photo: Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY Sports

Push it a little further. In 2020, the Falcons lost four games with an expected winning percentage of at least 90%. The only other team that managed to do that was the Chargers. No other team has lost more than two such games, and only two other teams (2013 Bucs and 2015 Giants) have lost that many in the last decade. Add these two to the ledger:

  • The Falcons led 22-16 in Week 7 when Todd Gurley tried to hang on at the 1-yard line and fell into the end zone. With 57 seconds on the clock and no timeouts, the Lions drove 75 yards in eight plays (including three spikes) and scored the winning touchdown with zero points on the clock.
  • In Week 15, against the eventual Super Bowl champion Bucks, Atlanta led 24-7 midway through the third quarter. Tampa Bay scored 17 unanswered points to tie the game, and although Yungho Ku’s field goal gave Atlanta a lead in the fourth quarter, Antonio Brown’s 46-yard run put the game back in the Bucks’ hands.

Develop it further. In 2020, the Falcons lost six games in which the expected winning percentage for one snap or another was at least 80%. No other team has lost more than four such games, and no other team has reached that mark since the 2017 Colts. The Falcons have lost games where they had at least an 80% chance of winning against the Chargers and Chiefs.

You have the idea. Atlanta almost won a lot of games, and then lost them. I know it’s tempting to throw the 2020 Falcons into the big bucket with the Super Bowl LI loss against the Patriots and write it off as Falcons behavior, but that’s not really fair. Between 2017 and 2019, they haven’t lost a single game with a 99% chance of winning. In that time they have lost three games with a 90% win expectancy, which is average. By comparison, the Chiefs have lost five times in the same period. Atlanta has lost four games with an 80% chance of winning, while the Colts have lost 12 games in that span. Losing the Super Bowl was a catastrophic disappointment, but it didn’t lead to a pattern in 2020.

The Falcons, almost by accident, should be better at finishing games in 2021. Some of the (well-deserved) scapegoats for those disastrous losses, like Gurley and coach Dan Quinn, are no longer with the team. Former Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith will lead the offense, but an even more important asset could be veteran defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who will be tasked with developing an inexperienced and unpredictable secondary.

The loss of Jones will be painful, but the timing could be even more painful for Atlanta’s ceiling. They will only have seven true home games, fewer than any other team. A 17-game schedule gives each AFC team nine home games, and the Falcons are the only NFC team to sacrifice a home game for one in London this season. They should be able to improve on last season’s numbers (4-12), but it might be harder than expected to get the nine or 10 wins needed to compete for a playoff spot.

TheEagles should be better offensively than theEagles.

Your recent memories of the Eagles’ offense are probably not the most pleasant. In the final game of the 2020 regular season, Nate Sudfeld and the Philadelphia offense, which needed to score a touchdown in 56 seconds to win, covered 18 yards in seven plays. Philadelphia’s season, and with it Doug Pederson’s tenure as coach, was over. The Eagles have traded Carson Wentz, Elshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson and Jason Peters and want to say goodbye to Zach Ertz before the season starts. Under new coach Nick Sirianni, the offensive system is being reorganized.

Jeremy Fowler interviewed more than 50 coaches, executives, scouts and players to create the top 10 rankings for 2021:

– Edge | Interior DL | LB
– CB | Safety | OT | Interior OL
– QB | RB | WR | TE

There is something about the Eagles’ offense in 2020 that could improve in 2021, if only by sheer luck. It’s almost impossible to imagine the offensive line being as tired as it was last season. Let’s take a quick look at how Philadelphia’s plans played out last year:

  • Right guard Brandon Brooks, who has made three consecutive Pro Bowls, tore his Achilles tendon in July and missed the entire season. The Eagles signed Peters, who returned to the team and took Brooks’ place at fullback.
  • Andre Dillard, a sophomore left guard selected by the team in the first round in 2019, tore his biceps in August. He also missed the entire campaign. Peters was transferred to his old position as left back to replace Dillard.
  • Peters played three games before injuring his toe, forcing him to the injury reserve. Then it took four and a half games before he was disqualified again.
  • Left back Isaac Seumalo injured his knee in Week 2 against the Rams and missed seven games before returning for the final seven games of the season.
  • right guard Lane Johnson, who was also selected to three consecutive Pro Bowls, was treated for COVID-19 in the summer and injured his ankle before the season began. The former fourth-round pick sat on the bench for several games and sprained his medial collateral ligament before undergoing ankle surgery. He missed nine games and could only play in three all year. At the time of surgery, Johnson told reporters that the inside of his ankle had collapsed.
  • center fielder Jason Kelce has started all 16 games and allowed just five hits this season.

The Eagles expected their starting five (and after signing Peters) to take on the bulk of the duties on the front line. Instead, they got 16 near-safe games from Kelce and about 13 full games from the other five players combined. Other teams have dealt with serious injuries on the offensive line, including archrival Philadelphia in Dallas, but that’s about the worst thing that can happen to a team in a season. Overall, the Eagles were the second-most injured team in the league, according to Football Outsiders’ adjusted game loss measure.

What happens next is still uncertain, but I suspect the Eagles won’t be as injury-prone in 2021, especially on the offensive line. Many retired players had persistent injury problems and/or were at the end of their careers. Some of the remaining players also have injury histories, but Philadelphia will likely field an above-average offensive line in 2021. Given that the team ranks last in the NFL in adjusted sack rate (31st), a healthier line could do wonders for Jalen Hart’s effectiveness as a second-year pass rusher.

TheDolphins may have a harder time defending the.

Brian Flores gets credit for being the difference maker for the Dolphins. After starting 0-7, which looked like the beginning of a long rebuild, Flores’ team went 15-10 in Miami. The young talent that makes up this core pleases many, and if quarterback Tua Tagovailoa emerges in his second season, the team could compete with the Bills for a spot in the AFC East standings.

But I’m a little worried that the defense will be as impressive as it was in 2020. The Dolphins invested heavily in the defense last season, then fired some of their free agents, selling Shaq Lawson to the Texans and firing Kyle Van Noy for one year and $51 million after his four-year contract expired. Miami’s defense has improved from 32nd in DVOA to 11th in 2020, but there are some elements of that improvement that they will struggle to maintain.

Start with the frequency of the sections. Last season, the Dolphins intercepted 3.3 percent of their opponents’ passes, third best in football behind the Patriots and Steelers. New England and Pittsburgh were also leaders in 2019, but both took a step back in 2020 after having more interceptions the year before. The Dolphins went from 2.4% in 2019 to 3.3% last season, and history tells us that the chances are slim that teams will have interceptions above the league average every year.

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Jeff Saturday reacts to the fact that Tua Tagovailoa threw five interceptions during the Dolphins’ minicamp.

To be fair, they have invested a lot in their second team, and their best defender is a real hawk. Xavien Howard had perhaps the most impressive interception season in league history a year ago, considering he threw 2.5% of all interceptions in the league. His skills are undeniable, but he has a significant injury history and is currently unhappy with the organization. Byron Jones, Miami’s other star quarterback, has thrown just four interceptions in his first six pro seasons. If Howard doesn’t return to his historic numbers in 2021, the Dolphins will have a hard time maintaining this level of interceptions.

Another distinguishing feature is the predominance of the third phase. Flores’ defense allowed opponents to make just 31.2 percent of third downs. Not only is he the best in the league, he’s not even close: The second-ranked Ravens are nearly three percentage points behind with 34 percent. No football team left the field better than the Dolphins.

This is generally a non-reproducible skill. If you can’t handle the first and second downs, you shouldn’t become the best defense in the league after that. The Dolphins have been inconsistent from team to team; they ranked 29th in EPA defense on first down, eighth on second down, and led the NFL on third down. Their personnel may be better suited for the passing game than the first-and-10, but that’s not enough to explain the difference between the fourth worst and best defenses in the league.

Only 2.1% of a team’s performance on third tests can be attributed to its performance on third tests in the previous season, indicating that the team that excelled on third tests one year is not much more likely than other teams to dominate on third tests the following season. If the Dolphins take a step back on the defensive side of the ball in 2021, it will likely be because those two factors are nowhere near the numbers they put up in 2020.

Texans not as desperate as they seem (on defense)

On the other end of the spectrum, the Texans have performed as little as possible in 2020. By any standard you can find, they’ve been a disaster on defense. Anthony Weaver’s squad was 27th in points scored, 30th in points per drive and 30th in DVOA. A number of quarterbacks who played against a 4-12 Texans team last season would have a better passer rating than Patrick Mahomes in 2020, and that’s in a year where Houston faced starters like Brandon Allen, Jake Luton and Mitchell Trubisky. Opponents completed 69.7 percent of their passes against the Texans, averaging 8.0 yards per attempt and scored 30 touchdowns against just three rebounds.

This is the last topic I want to start with. Three interceptions for the entire defense is not an NFL record, but it’s close. You may recall that the 2018 49ers intercepted just two passes all season, as we reported on this page before the 2019 campaign began. Add to that six recovered fumbles, and the Texans have the second fewest interceptions in NFL history with nine. They’re back behind the 2018 49ers, who had seven. In 2019, the Niners intercepted Jameis Winston three times in Week 1, finished the year with 12 interceptions, and eventually reached the Super Bowl.

I don’t want to spoil the 2021 season for you, but let me tell you this: The Texans are not going to the Super Bowl. They are also unlikely to have three interceptions again. Even bad teams have too many potential interception opportunities to end a season with three interceptions in a row. Houston’s roster includes quarterbacks like Sam Darnold, Cam Newton and Zach Wilson, not to mention the likelihood of running into a backup quarterback or two at the end of the year.

To be fair, the Texans lost their main defender this season with the departure of J.J. Watt, but general manager Nick Caserio has certainly added some much-needed depth to the team this season. Houston has contracted more than a dozen veterans to play on defense, including current starters Jordan Jenkins, Terrence Mitchell and Christian Kirksey. They acquired Shaq Lawson and already had some useful players in Justin Reed and Whitney Mercilus. The Texans won’t be a great defense, but at least Lovie Smith’s team will be forced to throw more interceptions this season.

49ers will get a boost in 2021 from an uncontrollable factor

It was a lost 2020 season for the 49ers, who lost key players Jimmy Garoppolo, Nick Bosa and George Kittle for much of the year. Hopes for a Super Bowl in 2021, of course, depend on the health of key players. First-round rookie Trey Lance could replace Garoppolo as quarterback, but there’s no one on the team who can replace Kittle or Bosu. Injuries aren’t entirely random – some players are more injury-prone than others – but the Niners can’t control whether a player like Bosa stays healthy in a given season.

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There are many other elements of the game that teams generally do not or cannot directly control. Two of them are expected to be the best for the Niners in 2021. The first is the possibility of defensive touchdowns. While Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard have used multiple times, the 49ers have given the ball away 31 times, the second most in football. That would be bad enough, but they also allowed teams to score four defensive touchdowns, including two in one game against Washington. The offense can defend the ball, but there is no indication that they are particularly good at stopping or allowing long rebounds. Next season, the Niners should intercept the ball less often, meaning they should allow fewer touchdowns on offense.

Opponents’ kickers also had a great season against the 49ers in 2020. They were 33 out of 37 overall; their 89.2% conversion rate was the sixth best in the league. In 2020, opponents’ kickers generated 12.8 EPAs against the 49ers, the third-highest number of any team, behind only the Broncos (who are playing their best game) and the Vikings (who are cursed with anything that kicks). The Broncos are more susceptible to big play situations because of where they live, but most defenses won’t affect opponents’ kickers for years. The 49ers need to celebrate more missed field goals in 2021.

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