Things change rapidly in the NFL. A team that was bad one season is sometimes much better the next season or vice versa. But dramatic, year-to-year changes actually happen less often now than they used to. From 1999 to 2008, a dozen different teams turned things around and went 11-5 or better after a season in which they were 5-11 or worse. Since 2009, only three teams have done the same thing.
The decline of parity is reflected in this first round of Football Outsiders' 2017 team projections. Eleven of the 12 teams that would make the playoffs based on mean projections are teams that made the playoffs in one of the past two seasons. Nevertheless, there will be some new blood in contention and, in particular, a new city. Both the Los Angeles Rams and the Los Angeles Chargers rank seventh in their respective conferences in this initial forecast, meaning there's a good chance one of the two teams will give Los Angeles playoff football for the first time since 1993.
Our projection system starts with Football Outsiders' Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) ratings for the past three seasons, although last year's ratings end up about six times as important as either 2014 or 2015. (You'll find last year's final ratings here.) Offensive projections also incorporate a separate projection for the starting quarterback done independent of the team. After that, we account for general regression trends and incorporate a number of other variables that measure everything from turnover ratios to personnel and coaching changes on both sides of the ball.
Each team has a forecasted record but also, for those of you wanting more detail, a more exact "mean projected wins" number. We also list strength of schedule based on average projected DVOA of next season's 16 opponents, ranked from the hardest (Dallas is No. 1) to the easiest (New England).
When considering these numbers, remember that this is not the final, official Football Outsiders forecast for 2017. Numbers will change over the next few months because of personnel moves, including the NFL draft. We also might work on improvements to our forecast system, and that would alter our 2017 projections.
Also note that stat projections naturally consider a wide range of possibilities. There's a lot of randomness in the NFL: Player development is difficult to predict; injuries have a huge impact; and even the better team on an individual day might not win because of the arbitrary bounce of a fumble or a tipped pass. A team projected to go 7-9 could realistically end up anywhere between 3-13 and 11-5. Taking the average of so many possibilities, all teams end up grouped more toward 8-8, with very few teams listed with double-digit wins or losses.
We've tweaked the results slightly to get a more realistic spread of win-loss records, but nonetheless, the numbers published below don't mean that we expect the 2017 season to end with no team below 5-11.
Here are the results:
1. New England Patriots: 13-3 (13.2 mean wins; strength of schedule: 32)
2. Buffalo Bills: 7-9 (6.9 mean wins; SOS: 23)
3. Miami Dolphins: 6-10 (6.3 mean wins; SOS: 18)
4. New York Jets: 6-10 (6.3 mean wins; SOS: 25)
If you're sick of seeing the Patriots at the top of the AFC year after year, I have some bad news for you: New England has a top-five projection in all three phases of the game. On top of that, we also project the Patriots with the easiest schedule in the NFL for 2017. We're forecasting decline for many of their out-of-division opponents, including Atlanta, Denver and Kansas City. Meanwhile, the rest of the AFC East comes in under .500, although this initial Dolphins projection seems a bit over-pessimistic. The Dolphins' 10-6 record last season was built on an easy schedule, but Miami wasn't a bad team that lucked into a playoff spot, just an average one. On the other hand, the offensive projection is driven by the quarterback, and Ryan Tannehill has finished 24th and 27th in QBR over the past two seasons.