By Brian Burke
It's opening week and time to start making predictions. Last season was a rare one in the NFL: The teams that made -- and then survived -- the playoffs were the truly best teams.
Most years, thanks to the nature of league parity, a short 16-game season, and a single-elimination playoff tournament, some very good teams won't make the playoffs and some merely-good teams can make a deep run. Often there's a 2011 Giants or 2012 Ravens to crash the party, but not last year. The Seahawks were the best, and the Broncos were second best. The 49ers were right behind, and so on.
This past offseason didn't feature much in the way of game-changing personnel moves, so until we have a few real games under our belts, our best guess at what 2014 will look like is going to resemble 2013 quite a bit.
I use a regression model to predict win probabilities for each game, and the games are in order of my model's "confidence" in each game. To keep me in check we'll have Sports on Earth's Will Leitch going against my projections.
Note: The Machine's score predictions are Burke's own estimates when factoring in the win probability, which is based on a logistic regression model of projected core team efficiency statistics. For more on Burke's model, click here.
JAGUARS: 9 (13%)
EAGLES 24 (87%)
VEGAS: Eagles (-10.5)
The Jaguars appear to be making the right moves but likely have too deep of a talent hole to dig out of to make big strides in a single season. The Eagles offense will come back down to Earth but still give them the edge in the NFC East and an easy win here.
The projections, along with many humans, think the Eagles offense is coming back to earth this season. I think it's just getting warmed up.
BILLS 13 (26%)
BEARS 27 (74%)
VEGAS: Bears (-7)
Despite losing linebacker Kiko Alonso to a torn ACL, the strength of the Bills is still their defense and their 5.3 net yards per attempt allowed. QB E.J. Manuel's 4.2 adjusted yards per attempt ranked 33rd last season, so he'll need to make a big jump, and stay healthy, for Buffalo to be a contender. The Bears solidified a defense that allowed 5.4 yards per carry, so expect them to fight for a wild card.
Jay Cutler: Stealth MVP candidate! Do you realize he's already the Bears' all-time passing yardage leader?
COLTS 17 (26%)
BRONCOS 35 (74%)
VEGAS: Denver (-8)
Despite their breakdown in the Super Bowl, the Broncos' offense will be a juggernaut again, even with Wes Welker suspended for four games. (And their defense looks to be a notch better.) The Colts might be the best team in the AFC South but probably not good enough to topple the conference champs on the road.
The AFC South is so bad, and the rest of the schedule so soft, it's legitimately possible the Colts might not lose another game after this one until they play the Broncos in the playoffs.
BROWNS 10 (30%)
STEELERS 23 (70%)
VEGAS: Steelers (-7)
With all the attention on Johnny Manziel, it's easy to overlook the Browns' excellent defense -- seventh in rush efficiency and third in pass efficiency last season. But the rejuvenated Steelers defense will have the better day against a Josh Gordon-less Cleveland offense.
Can we just get Manziel out there already? I'm yawning even typing "Brian Hoyer."
RAIDERS 3 (31%)
JETS 24 (69%)
VEGAS: Jets (-5.5)
Not sure what to expect from Derek Carr starting for Oakland? Start with this: lots of sacks and turnovers. Logically, Oakland would prefer to run, but the Jets excel at stopping the run and led the league last season with 3.4 yards per carry.
So this one is going to be thrilling.
GIANTS 13 (37%)
LIONS 23 (63%)
VEGAS: Lions (-6)
The biggest question mark in the league might be Eli Manning's league-worst 4.8 percent interception rate from a year ago. The Giants' defense is better than the surface-stats suggest because of all the short fields the offense created. If its new offense can solve the turnover problem, New York can jump back into contention, but the Stafford-to-Johnson connection is enough to mark the Lions as favorites on Monday night.
Eli Manning having two Super Bowl wins and a Super Bowl MVP is basically the NFL equivalent of Pat Borders doing the same thing in the World Series, isn't it?
TITANS 7 (38%)
CHIEFS 16 (62%)
VEGAS: Chiefs (-3)
The numbers suggest a steep regression for K.C. They feasted on turnover luck and on special teams, two of the least consistent aspects of team play. Still, they'll have an edge on a very average Titans team plus home field.
The Chiefs have a tough early schedule before it eases in the second half, so they better win these while they can, great googly moogly.
PATRIOTS 30 (62%)
DOLPHINS 17 (38%)
VEGAS: Patriots (-5)
Players come and players go in New England, but the Patriots' sneakily efficient running scheme makes them an AFC favorite every season. Miami needs to improve its 5.5 net passing yards per attempt from 2013.
I think Tom Brady might win the MVP this year. It feels like he's got one more left in him. Maybe that'll FINALLY get people talking about him!
49ers 31 (61%)
COWBOYS 20 (39%)
VEGAS: 49ers (-4.5)
Last season the San Francisco and Dallas offenses were statistically identical, but their defenses were polar opposities. The 49ers allowed 5.8 yards per play passing and 3.9 rushing, while Dallas allowed 7.0 passing and 4.7 rushing.
Arkansas is (probably) the worst team in the SEC, and the Cowboys are a year or two away from being the worst team in the NFC. If Jerry Jones cheers for your team, beware.
WASHINGTON 14 (40%)
TEXANS 20 (60%)
VEGAS: Texans (-3)
The numbers suggest the Texans will bounce back this season. The things that hurt them last year are the things that don't tend to persist from year to year. For example, they had a league worst -20 turnover differential, partially due to recovering just four fumbles. Washington still has too many holes on defense to expect much improvement from the 30 points allowed per game last season.
I know everyone, including the computer, thinks the Texans are turning right around this year ... but isn't it possible their QB situation is actually worse than last year?
PANTHERS 17 (60%)
BUCCANEERS 10 (40%)
VEGAS: Buccaneers (-2)
We'll get to see whether Josh McCown's incomprehensible effectiveness from 2013 can continue. He put up 0.33 'Expected Points Added' per play last season -- in other words, for every drop back, his play added a third of a point to the Bucs' net point differential. But Carolina is likely better on both sides of the ball in this one.
Unlike sportswriters, the projections never scold Cam Newton. (When he retires, Cam Newton is going to become a NBC analyst just so he can finally be alone in a room with Peter King.)
CHARGERS 20 (42% win probability)
CARDINALS 27 (58% win probability)
VEGAS: Cardinals (-3)
It will be hard for Rivers to repeat his 2013 performance, but just as hard for the Chargers' defense to be as bad as it was. The Cardinals' defense lost some talent in the off-season, but should still be strong. If Carson Palmer can cut down on a terrible 3.6 percent interception rate, Arizona can be a wildcard threat. These are two fairly even teams, and home field makes the difference.
Now that Arizona has a (semi-)indoor stadium -- and thus can be protected against 105-degree early September heat -- it doesn't have to start the season with two games on the road like it did in the Sun Devil Stadium days. It's nice not starting every season in an immediate hole. Also: No way you're staying up for this game, which kicks off at 10:20 p.m. ET on Monday night.
BENGALS 16 (46%)
RAVENS 17 (54%)
VEGAS: Ravens (-1)
The AFC North looks like a pick 'em among these two and Pittsburgh, but the broad competence of Cincy in both the run and pass on both sides of the ball give them the inside track. The Ravens need to drastically improve their running game, a league-worst 3.1 yards per carry in 2013, and Flacco needs to bounce back from a career-worst 3.6 percent interception rate for Baltimore to compete.
Baltimore's another team I'm down on, plus Ray Rice makes it super fun to root against them. (Gonna have to wait a couple weeks to boo him though.)
SAINTS 34 (52%)
FALCONS 24 (48%)
VEGAS: Saints (-3)
Atlanta is one of the exceptions to the "just like last year" rule I mentioned in the intro. A freakishly severe batch of injuries ruined the season for a perennial contender, and they will be much better. Expect more of the same from the Saints offense, and provided their defense can come close to its 5.5 net yards per pass attempt from last season, New Orleans will be making noises in January.
I picked the Falcons to be awful this year, so I think Burke's model giving them a 48 percent chance to win against a terrific Saints team is a bit crazy. Bulldogs are good though.
VIKINGS 24 (51%)
RAMS 23 (49%)
VEGAS: Rams (-3)
This game is fuzzy due to the uncertainty at quarterback for the Rams. Pick your poison. The back-handed good news for St. Louis fans is that Sam Bradford never put up solid numbers anyway, so any drop-off at QB won't be that big.
Why isn't Teddy Bridgewater starting? Also: It feels like the computer must have had some faith in Sam Bradford. How else would the Vikings be favored on the road against anyone?
Brian Burke is a former Navy fighter pilot and tactics expert. He is the founder Advanced Football Analytics, the site that made modern football analysis a reality.