On average anyway
Every year pundits take a crack at predicting how tough of a schedule [insert team name here] has in store for them. Last year your favorite pundit (pretty please) entered the fray. Let’s give it a go another time—but with one other layer of data to work from. Consider this a two-part series as we examine both sides of the ball for the opponents of the Buffalo Bills.
I’ll take a look at the upcoming opponents in two ways: an analytics-based model and some educated guessing. That second thing doesn’t need explaining so let’s stick to the first. With two key metrics (points scored and yards per play) we take the 2020 ranking of every opponent and create an average.
Like most predictions of this nature, it’s definitely flawed in that we’re using last year’s ranks to predict this year, which…isn’t perfect. Also note we’re using ranking as we only care about relative standings in comparison with the rest of the league. That means 16.5 is a “perfectly average” schedule, with lower numbers meaning stronger offenses.
The Analytics Model
To illustrate the concept, I submit the below data set. The Bills’ opponents had the following ranks when it came to points scored:
12 15 25 18 6 4 15 30 32 9 5 27 3 24 27 16 32
You might notice that there are two each of 15, 27, and 32. Those are the division opponents that factor in twice. The average ranking comes out to 17.6, which breaks out to a little bit worse than average.
Last year’s prediction was an average of 17.4, so it could be expected that the Bills’ defense will square off relatively equal in terms competition this year as compared with the 2020 season.
As an aside, I did circle back to see if there was any validity to the exercise. Last year’s prediction of 17.4 compares to last year’s reality of 18.2, which is pretty close.
Yards per play
When it comes to yards per play, last year the model predicted opponents with an average rank of 21.3, which is frankly astounding (the reality was 18.8). Why is that astounding? As noted last year, in the NFL every team faced 13 of the league’s 32 teams. That’s 41 percent, which should be a large enough sample to make most scores hover close to the average.
The 2021 Bills are projected to be facing an average opponent rank of 17.9, which is a decent jump back to the expected. Putting the analytics model together, the suggestion is that the Bills should face teams that are better at moving the ball than last year, but not any better at putting points on the board.
Note: This year team’s will face off against 14 teams , or 44 percent of the league, which should serve to further drive rankings toward the average. (Remember, Washington was added to the Bills’ schedule when the season expanded to 17 games beginning with the 2021 season.)
The reason to include this is to adjust for the major issue that is—we’re going off of last year’s ranks. Change should certainly be expected. In the division, the Miami Dolphins were mediocre, the New England Patriots were flirting with bad, and the New York Jets were ranked dead last in both metrics seen above.
For the Dolphins’ offense, a lot will rest on the arm of Tua Tagovailoa. Buffalo faced off against Ryan Fitzpatrick in their first matchup, which was their stronger outing. It’s possible the Dolphins improve with another year in the same system but I’m not counting on a major shift.
The Patriots (for now) appear to be riding with Cam Newton. I’ve enjoyed watching the man’s career but I don’t see him returning to MVP-caliber play. New England may also attempt to shift the playbook to eventually get Mac Jones onto the field. That would likely be a poor fit for Newton. The alternative is to try and work two playbooks with one team, which also isn’t great. If Jones does see game action, I wouldn’t dream of predicting improvement over their 2020 ranks.
Yell at me in the comments because I do think the Jets will improve. This is primarily because it takes a special kind of bad to be ranked 32 two years running. With a clean coaching slate and precisely zero proven quarterbacks on the roster, I don’t think it will be a BIG jump. And yes, I won’t rule out the possibility of them sticking around 32.
The rest of the AFC opponents
The Bills will face the Tennessee Titans, Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs again this year. The Titans arguably had the strongest overall offense based on the metrics above, ranked number four in both. Ryan Tannehill’s resurgence (emergence?) seems to be legit and they added Julio Jones. They don’t have much room to improve, but it’d foolish to expect regression. The Steelers on the other hand saw signs of Big Ben’s decline and…decided to roll one more year with him—with essentially no backup plan. They were average last year and I’d wager they fall off a little bit more. As long as Patrick Mahomes is upright and in red and yellow, Kansas City is a problem. There could be a slight decline with a mass exodus of offensive linemen—or an improvement with the players they added along the line.
Last year’s tilts with the Las Vegas Raiders, Los Angeles Chargers, and Denver Broncos is replaced with games against the Indianapolis Colts, Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars. The Raiders led the way in last year’s trio with the Chargers and Broncos firmly in the “uninspiring” category. The Colts adding Carson Wentz could make them even more dangerous than last year if Wentz rekindles magic with head coach Frank Reich. The Jagulars will roll out rookie Trevor Lawrence or Gardner Minshew II. That’s likely a wash. Doug Marrone being ousted for Urban Meyer could be the bigger change, but the safer bet is on some growing pains. The Texans meanwhile are a question mark. If Deshaun Watson plays, consider this lineup stronger than last year’s. I like Tyrod Taylor but he’s no Watson. If Watson doesn’t play, the group of Houston/Indy/Jax is maybe a slight improvement over last year’s Vegas/Bolts/Horsies lineup.
Last season the Bills faced the NFC West, which, for the most part, was mostly meh. Only the Seattle Seahawks were above average, with the (injury/COVID-19-ravaged) San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams on the lower end of average. No one was terrible though.
This year the defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers top the list. It’s possible Tom Brady will finally turn to dust but betting on it has not exactly been a good wager. Using last year’s ranking like the model above does, the New Orleans Saints should be an elite opponent. Nothing against Taysom Hill or Jameis Winston, but they ain’t Drew Brees. This top-end opponent likely won’t be one in 2021.
The Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers meanwhile look to be mediocre on paper, roughly equaling the 49ers and Rams. Matt Ryan can play and it’s likely Dan Quinn was holding him back. The loss of Julio Jones might balance that out, but the Falcons might be a team on the rise. Carolina is banking on the Jets having mishandled Sam Darnold—which honestly is hard to argue against.
You can add in Washington too, who might show improvement from their cellar status last year—but also represents a 2020 playoff team. Overall the NFC opponents look to be a tougher slate of offenses than last season.
The two models agree with each other that the Bills will have a tougher schedule of offenses to face this season. On the analytics side, scoring output was similarly ranked both years. But the ability for opponent offenses to move the ball looks to be a decent clip better this season. On the educated-guess side of things, the Bills’ toughest opponents last year are on the schedule again with no reason to think a significant decline is on the way. A few new opponents look to be stronger than 2020’s list.