Simulating the 2021 NFL season: Projecting 285 games, biggest storylines and a Super Bowl winner

Heading into the 2021 NFL season, ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI) simulated the entire 285-game slate 20,000 times to create our projections. Having a sample size that large allows us to have the most accurate projections possible, which is, of course, what we want most of the time. But today, we're only focused on one of them: Simulation No. 13,330.

Combined, those 20,000 simulations -- which, in the preseason, use expected starting quarterbacks, past performance, returning starters and projected win totals to generate a strength rating for every team -- give us a good idea of what we think will happen, but nothing ever goes to plan. Surprises happen every year, and every team can win on any given Sunday. So we're running from the safe haven of our projections and looking at just one of the simulations.

We played out every single game of that simulation to give us one plausible outcome for the 2021 season. That means projected winners and losers for every regular-season game, potential division-race storylines, surprise contenders and a look at how the 13 playoff games might play out. From it all, we get a drought-ending Super Bowl LVI winner and a top-five draft order for 2022 that comes with a bit of a shocker.

Will it all happen this way? It could. But again, this is just one single simulation. To put some context on the results, we applied some creative license, detailing potential breakout stars, quarterback controversies and more. Let's dive in, with 12 big takeaways from how it all went down.

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Final standings | Super Bowl

Jags' hot start yields ... a playoff berth?!?

Jacksonville Jaguars rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence kicked off his NFL career in a way that resembled his college career: winning. Coach Urban Meyer's team took advantage of a soft schedule out of the gate, beating Houston, Denver and Arizona to start the season before dropping a game to the Bengals. Then it rebounded with its best win of the group, a 31-14 victory over Tennessee. A 4-1 start is nothing to sneer at, no matter the opponents.

And even though the Jaguars cooled off after their quick start -- Jacksonville went 3-5 over its next eight games -- their early-season work got the job done. Lawrence's solid rookie year was bolstered by an immediate connection with receiver Laviska Shenault Jr., who recorded 90 receptions, helping earn Jacksonville a 9-8 record and a wild-card berth in the AFC.

And the Jaguars' story didn't end there: They went on to win a playoff game, too. More on that later, but not a bad start for the Lawrence-Meyer duo in Jacksonville.

Justin Fields to the (eventual) rescue

Are the Chicago Bears making a mistake starting the season with Andy Dalton at quarterback? Well, in Simulation No. 13,330, they did.

Chicago started the season ugly, going 1-3 before pulling the plug on Dalton and inserting Fields. Initially, the move didn't look like it made much of a difference. Fields dropped his debut against the Raiders and then had brutal back-to-back games against the Packers and Buccaneers, taking a combined 11 sacks and guiding the offense to just 10 total points in the pair of losses. Sitting at 1-6, Chicago fans began turning their eyes to 2022. And then the version of Fields that Ohio State fans have enjoyed over the past few years emerged, and the winds shifted at Soldier Field.

First, it was a surprise win at home against the 49ers. Then came a road victory at Heinz Field against the Steelers. Next was an upset over Lamar Jackson and the Ravens, followed by a brushing aside of the Lions. And the Bears weren't done just yet.

Entering Week 18, the 7-9 Bears headed to Minneapolis to take on the 8-8 Vikings, with both teams still in the running for a wild-card spot. It was receiver Darnell Mooney (two touchdowns) and safety Eddie Jackson (one interception off Vikings QB Kirk Cousins) who stole the show, and in the end, the Bears won 20-16, pulling off an incredible season turnaround that yielded a playoff berth despite a sub-.500 record. But a playoff berth is a playoff berth.

Seahawks fall apart

Coach Pete Carroll and new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron tried it all. They tried to "let Russ cook." They tried to run the ball. They tried everything in between. It didn't matter. The Seattle Seahawks couldn't recapture the magic of their early 2020 offense, while a questionable pass rush and a lacking secondary betrayed them on defense.

In this simulation, Seattle started the year with a loss ... then another loss ... and then another. By midseason, the team was the shock of the league, staring at an 0-8 record. Six of those losses were by one score, though the Seahawks were pummeled in Week 6 by the Steelers in a 29-point loss. As the season passed its midway point, no other team stood winless.

Seattle lost again in Week 10 to drop to 0-9, ensuring a losing season for the first time since 2011, before finally getting a 26-20 win in Week 11 against Arizona. The ball started bouncing the Seahawks' way down the stretch, and Seattle ultimately closed the book on the season at 5-12. But it wasn't enough to avoid major shakeup on the coaching staff and the roster.

Panthers earn the No. 1 overall pick

There was a moment, early in the season, when it looked like the Sam Darnold experiment was going to work out and that offensive coordinator Joe Brady had fixed the mess that Adam Gase (Darnold's former coach in New York) had made. The Carolina Panthers opened the season 4-1, first beating Darnold's old Jets team in Week 1 and then going on to earn wins against the Saints, Texans and Eagles (with a loss to the Cowboys). But those opponents were not that tough, and the 4-1 record was a mirage.

Coach Matt Rhule's team would win just one more game the rest of the way (against the Falcons) and end the season at 5-12 and in a dramatic five-way tie for the NFL's worst record. Carolina needed to lose in its final week to win the strength-of-schedule tiebreaker and earn the No. 1 overall pick -- and it did, as the Bucs beat Carolina 33-7.

Darnold is under contract with the Panthers through the 2022 season, but Carolina would likely be taking serious looks at Spencer Rattler, Sam Howell and the rest of the 2022 class' top QBs come next April if things play out like this.

Here are the rest of the teams picking in the top five, all of which finished at 5-12:

2. New York Giants
3. New York Jets (via Seattle Seahawks)
4. New York Jets
5. Houston Texans

Lost season in Baltimore

As it turned out, the league did figure out quarterback Lamar Jackson. Or at least it figured out Jackson when he is without any receiving weapons and his starting running back J.K. Dobbins. The injury woes that plagued the Baltimore Ravens' receiving corps in the preseason continued all through the year, as the team scuffled to a 2-5 start and couldn't recover to save the season.

A 7-10 lost season means GM Eric DeCosta enters the 2022 offseason with the same mission he had entering this past one: Get Jackson more receiving weapons, and keep them healthy.

Epic closing stretch from Jameis Winston pushes Saints into postseason

Through 12 weeks of the season, the New Orleans Saints sat at 5-6 and in third place in the NFC South. There were rumbles of quarterback controversy, as some fans wondered if coach Sean Payton should make the switch to Taysom Hill for the stretch run. Eight NFC teams had a better record than New Orleans at that point.

But Payton stuck by Winston -- and it paid off. The interceptions that plagued Winston both in Tampa Bay and during the early half of the season dissipated -- though they never left entirely, let's be real -- and Winston's downfield throwing to a healthy Michael Thomas set the New Orleans offense alight. The result? A six-game winning streak to close the season, including an epic 48-37 victory over Tom Brady and the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay. The Saints would make the playoffs at 11-6 in their first year since Drew Brees retired.

The Buccaneers still won the division, but the Saints went into the wild-card round as a road favorite and won their first matchup, beating the Cowboys.

Late push from Cowboys wins them the NFC East

Through Week 13, it appeared as though Washington would win the NFC East. The Dallas Cowboys scuffled to a 6-6 start, while Washington had a two-game lead at 8-4.

But in Week 14, the tide turned as Dallas beat Washington in Landover, 27-20, then took care of business in East Rutherford a week later with a 17-10 win over the Giants. The Cowboys headed home and beat Washington for the second time in three weeks in a 38-10 rout before finishing off the four-game win streak with a 27-24 win over the Cardinals, sealing the division. Washington, for its part, closed out the year with six straight losses.

But as mentioned above, Dallas' comeback and playoff berth yielded no postseason success, as it lost 24-16 at home to the Saints.

Colts dominate in the regular season, stumble in postseason

The Carson Wentz rebound experiment? Oh yeah, it happened. And then some. This was Wentz and Frank Reich -- who would win Coach of the Year -- doing work like it was 2017 again. The Indianapolis Colts ripped off wins in their first six games and won nine of its first 10 overall.

But it wasn't only Wentz who impressed; the defense shined bright for most of the year, too. Indy held five different opponents -- the Titans, Ravens, Jets, Jaguars and Raiders -- to single-digit points. Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner was a driving force for the unit, recording a career-high 14 sacks. Indy's defense allowed just 17.3 points per game during the regular season, No. 1 in the NFL and slightly better than the Buccaneers, Browns and Rams. The Colts ultimately went 13-4 and won the AFC South.

Here's a quick look at how the final regular-season standings played out for all 32 teams:

But a shocker awaited Indy in the playoffs. The Colts tied for the best record in the NFL but lost out on the No. 1 overall seed via a tiebreaker, meaning they'd host division-rival Jacksonville in the wild-card round as a double-digit favorite. Indianapolis had previously shut out the Jags in Week 10. But Trevor Lawrence gave Indianapolis a preview of what the years to come might look like, downing the Colts 23-17. (The Jaguars would lose the following week to the Bills, 31-14.)

Trey Lance sparks 49ers into divisional round

Jimmy Garoppolo hung on to the starting QB job for longer than you might have thought, as the San Francisco 49ers played well for most of the season. That is, until a three-game losing streak to the Vikings, Seahawks and Bengals from Weeks 12 to 14. San Francisco scored just 14 points in each of the latter two games, and coach Kyle Shanahan decided to make a change.

He went with Lance full-time, and the switch paid dividends instantly. The 49ers rattled off four-straight wins to close the season, finished at 12-5 and easily won an NFC West division that turned out to be less competitive than most figured in the preseason. The Niners' 27.7 points scored per game during the regular season were second to only the Bills' average (30.9).

Lance narrowly outdueled his draft classmate Justin Fields in the wild-card round, winning 20-17. But the 49ers ran into a juggernaut in Green Bay, the NFC North champs. Packers running back Aaron Jones caught two touchdowns in a 28-23 win for Green Bay.

Browns best Chiefs in postseason

The Cleveland Browns lived up to the hype. They didn't go all the way, but they delivered a successful season and a knockout punch to the best team in football. Cleveland took advantage of a soft start to their schedule, winning six straight games between Weeks 2 and 7 against the Texans, Bears, Vikings, Chargers, Cardinals and Broncos. The Browns finished 12-5, with QB Baker Mayfield having his best season yet as a pro and finishing fifth in QBR. Plus, a rejuvenated Odell Beckham Jr. led the team in receiving.

It was that Mayfield-OBJ connection that drove a 35-30 barn-burner victory over the Steelers in the wild-card round, but it was the rebuilt defense that earned the surprising 20-12 victory over the Chiefs in the divisional round and punched the Browns' ticket to the AFC Championship Game. Cornerback Greedy Williams hauled in a big interception off Patrick Mahomes, and edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney forced a crucial fumble. Kansas City, for what it's worth, went 11-6 and won the AFC West, just like we all expected.

The Browns' story, ultimately, ended in defeat. Facing the AFC's No. 1-seeded Bills, the offense crumbled trying to keep up with Josh Allen, as Mayfield threw two picks in a 27-13 loss. Buffalo was off to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1993.

Green Bay knocks out defending champs

It was not a given that Aaron Rodgers' 2020 MVP campaign would translate to another stellar season, but it did. The Packers finished 11-6 and ended up exactly where they were last year: facing Tom Brady in the NFC Championship Game. Only this time, Rodgers outdueled Brady and the NFC's No. 1-ranked Buccaneers.

Rodgers threw four touchdown passes -- two to receiver Davante Adams, and two to tight end Robert Tonyan -- as Green Bay beat the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay, 39-26. The win put Rodgers back in the Super Bowl with a chance to earn another ring. Here's a quick snapshot of how the first three rounds of the playoffs played out:

Wild-card round:
(AFC) No. 7 Jaguars defeat No. 2 Colts, 23-17
(AFC) No. 3 Browns defeat No. 6 Steelers, 35-30
(AFC) No. 4 Chiefs defeat No. 5 Dolphins, 27-24
(NFC) No. 2 49ers defeat No. 7 Bears, 20-17
(NFC) No. 3 Packers defeat No. 6 Rams, 33-31
(NFC) No. 5 Saints defeat No. 4 Cowboys, 26-14

Divisional round:
(AFC) No. 1 Bills defeat No. 7 Jaguars, 31-14
(AFC) No. 3 Browns defeat No. 4 Chiefs, 20-12
(NFC) No. 1 Buccaneers defeat No. 5 Saints, 28-24
(NFC) No. 3 Packers defeat No. 2 49ers, 28-23

Conference championships:
(AFC) No. 1 Bills defeat No. 3 Browns, 27-13
(NFC) No. 3 Packers defeat No. 1 Buccaneers, 39-26

Bills win Super Bowl LVI

They did it! The Buffalo Bills won their first-ever Super Bowl, capping an incredible season in which they looked like serious contenders from beginning to end. Buffalo finished 13-4 in the regular season, and QB Josh Allen beat out Patrick Mahomes for the league's MVP award.

Buffalo lost a crazy 45-42 game to the Patriots in Week 13 (Patriots QB Mac Jones' future is bright!) and then never lost again. In the Super Bowl, Allen opened the game with a touchdown to receiver Stefon Diggs, and running back Devin Singletary ran for two more scores. Cornerback Tre'Davious White jumped an interception with four minutes left in the fourth quarter to seal the deal. Final score: 27-17.

But the most important stat of all? Buffalo-area grocery stores sold out of every folding table in stock, as fans descended on the Orchard Park parking lot the night of the victory, even in the dead of Western New York winter.

Will the Bills win it all in real life? Well, we can't guarantee that. According to our 20,000 FPI simulations, they have a 9.4% chance of taking home the Lombardi Trophy, the third-best odds in the NFL behind the Chiefs (19.2%) and Buccaneers (14.1%). But no matter what, Buffalo will always have Simulation No. 13,330.