Unveiling our 2023 NFL season projections: Predicting top teams, Super Bowl favorites

The defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs are the No. 1 team in ESPN’s Football Power Index rankings for the 2023 NFL season. But interestingly, the model actually views the Philadelphia Eagles — who lost to the Chiefs in the title game last season — as the Super Bowl favorite. It’s a result of the vast difference in quality between the NFL’s two conferences: The AFC is loaded with talent, while the NFC appears to have only a few contenders, paving the way for Philly.

For the uninitiated, the Football Power Index — commonly referred to as the FPI — is our rating and projection model for NFL teams. In the preseason, the model’s predictive ratings are based substantially on win totals from Caesars Sportsbook and strength of schedule, along with factors such as past team performance and returning starters. We use team ratings to simulate the season thousands of times, creating our projections, which update every day during the season. Game predictions are also informed by factors such as travel, rest differential and changes at starting quarterback.

Let’s take a closer look at the initial 2023 ratings, including storylines emerging from these numbers.

Jump to:
Ratings | Super Bowl | Tight divisions
Schedule strength | Surprises | Draft order

Chiefs at No. 1 overall

Who else, really, could be No. 1? Offense is more stable year-to-year than defense, and the Chiefs led the league in expected points added per play last season by a wide margin. They are also returning their two most important ingredients in Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid. Offensively, they are just too good, and that alone is enough to put the Super Bowl champs back atop the league to begin this coming season.

After Kansas City, the pattern holds — the Buffalo Bills and Eagles were the two next-best teams in offensive EPA per play last season, and they rank Nos. 2 and 3 here, respectively. (The Detroit Lions, who ranked fourth in the category, are 11th in FPI because of a much weaker defense and perhaps less confidence in Jared Goff repeating his excellent 2022 campaign.)

The Cincinnati Bengals are fourth in FPI rating, as they return their key offensive triumvirate of Joe Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins. Cincy has also added Orlando Brown Jr. at left tackle to shore up its biggest weakness. Rounding out the top five are the San Francisco 49ers. Despite a lack of clarity at quarterback with Brock Purdy recovering from elbow surgery, their roster and Kyle Shanahan’s offensive playcalling are strong enough to justify a high rating.

Eagles to the Super Bowl?

The median AFC playoff team in our simulations is roughly 2.4 points per game better than the median NFC playoff team. That’s a big reason Philadelphia leads Kansas City in Super Bowl chances, 14% to 13%. The Chiefs also face quite the gauntlet of a schedule in the regular season — second toughest in the league, according to FPI — which dampens their projections despite being the best team in football by almost a full point. The 49ers, Bills and Bengals round out the top five, while the Dallas Cowboys are the only other team above 5% (7%).

That the Eagles are the favorites at just 14% is an indication that this season is a little more wide open than most. FPI has made preseason predictions going back to 2015, and 14% is the second lowest for a favorite we’ve had in that time period. The 2016 Packers were just 12% favorites (lowest), while the 2017 Patriots were at 32%, the strongest by a massive margin. (We’ve altered the model a few times in that period, so it’s not a direct apples-to-apples comparison.)

Tight races in NFC South, NFC North and AFC East

Three divisions emerged from the projections as especially close. The woebegone NFC South might not have a ton going for it in 2023 — every team ranks 22nd or worse in the FPI — but it is very much up for grabs. The New Orleans Saints, with new quarterback Derek Carr at the helm, are the projected winners but at just 42% — the shortest favorites in any division. The Atlanta Falcons (29%), Carolina Panthers (22%) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9%) follow, each with at least a feasible path to the division title. But every NFC South team has a mean projected win total under nine.

Over in the NFC North, the Lions are 43% favorites. Although the Minnesota Vikings won the division last season with 13 wins, and the Lions missed the playoffs with nine, there’s evidence that Detroit was — and is — the better team. It had a higher points differential (plus-26) than Minnesota (minus-3) a year ago, and the Lions ranked fourth in EPA per play on offense (Minnesota was 15th). The Vikings have a 29% shot at the division, with the Chicago Bears (16%) and Green Bay Packers (12%) lurking behind.

The AFC East is also tight, but for a more compelling reason. The entire division ranks in the top half of the FPI’s rankings. Buffalo, which boasts the second-highest FPI rating in the league, has only a 44% shot to win the division because the New York Jets (25%) and Miami Dolphins (22%) pose legitimate threats. Because of the strength of the division, the New England Patriots have just an 8% chance to win despite being the 16th-best team in the league in the model’s view.

Here come the Jets!

It’s amazing what Aaron Rodgers (and a strong defense) can do for a team. The Jets are sixth in the ratings and have a win total of 9.5 (but it is shaded toward the over and comes despite a difficult schedule). They ranked fifth in EPA per play on defense last season but 29th on offense. Obviously, the expectation is that things will change substantially with a Hall of Fame quarterback.

Now, the high rating doesn’t mean the Jets’ projections are all that strong. We’re talking about a team with a 25% chance to win the division and a 4% shot at winning the Super Bowl. That’s the schedule, strength of the division and conference talking. The Jets can simultaneously be a good team and have a tough road to success, which is what the FPI is suggesting. Still, I didn’t think New York was a lock to be ahead of the Dolphins, and it’s a good sign for the Jets that the numbers fell that way.

This is the FPI’s ninth season making preseason projections, and it is the first time the Jets have even a 1% chance to win the Super Bowl — let alone 4% — entering the season.

Patriots face the NFL’s toughest schedule

Everyone knows measuring strength of schedule by the previous season’s win percentage is deeply flawed. The Bengals are certainly a more formidable opponent than the Vikings, for example, even though Minnesota won more games last year. Using the FPI, we can get much closer to a true measure of schedule strength because it’s looking at opponents based on their forecasted strength. And when it runs the numbers, there’s one team that sticks out with the toughest schedule: the Patriots.

It probably shouldn’t be much of a surprise, as the other three teams in the AFC East all sit in the top nine of the FPI and the Patriots must face them all twice. Plus, New England squares off against both participants in last year’s Super Bowl.

At the other end of the spectrum are the Saints, who have the easiest slate in the NFL. New Orleans gets the benefit of playing in the weak NFC South and doesn’t face a single team in the FPI’s top 10 the entire season.

Is Sean Payton the Broncos’ savior?

Fresh off an utterly disappointing 2022 campaign that resulted in a not-even-one-and-done for Nathaniel Hackett, the Denver Broncos‘ FPI rating looks … surprisingly optimistic? Russell Wilson is still at quarterback, but Payton is in as the new coach, and according to the model, the Broncos could be quite respectable in 2023. Denver ranks 13th in FPI, is projected for 8.4 wins and, despite playing in the AFC, is getting a 34% chance to reach the playoffs.

But it’s not just Payton. There’s a lot of talent on the Broncos. The defense ranked eighth in EPA per play last season, and Wilson was top-10 in QBR just two years ago. Plus, the team has an awfully strong receiving group — Jerry Jeudy‘s receiver tracking metrics suggest he broke out more than his 972 receiving yards last season might indicate — and added to an already strong offensive line this offseason. The big concern remains Wilson, but if he can figure it out, there’s quite a bit to like in Denver.

FPI buying new eras for Lions, Jaguars

On the heels of strong 2022 campaigns, the FPI is in on the hype around the Lions (No. 11) and Jacksonville Jaguars (No. 12). For the Lions, the news is even better. As the fourth-best team in the weak NFC, Detroit has a 65% chance to reach the playoffs and a 4% shot to win the Super Bowl — seventh highest among all teams. The Jaguars’ projections aren’t much worse because they play in a weak division, which actually gives them a slightly higher chance to reach the playoffs (67%) and still a 3% shot to win the Super Bowl.

Both teams have shown proven success on offense with their current quarterbacks, as both ranked in the top 10 in EPA per play last season. Goff ranked fifth in QBR last season for Detroit, while Trevor Lawrence ranked 15th (but was burdened with a poor offensive line and a weak wide receiver room that has since added Calvin Ridley).

Cardinals’ inside track to No. 1 draft pick

Even without the trade with the Texans, who selected Will Anderson Jr., the Arizona Cardinals would have been the favorites to land the No. 1 pick in the 2024 draft, according to the FPI. The Cardinals’ own selection has an 18% chance to be the No. 1 pick. But right behind them are the Houston Texans at 13%. The Cardinals own Houston’s pick, thanks to the Texans’ draft-day move up to No. 3 to draft Anderson. In other words, before playing a down this year, the Cardinals have a 31% shot at the No. 1 selection in 2024. Those two picks have a 57% and 46% chance to be in the top five, respectively, as well.

It’s not a shock to see Arizona as the team most likely to have the fewest wins. With Kyler Murray‘s health status up in the air, the team seems likely to start Colt McCoy at quarterback and has holes on the roster.

The Buccaneers, Indianapolis Colts and Los Angeles Rams — yes, the Rams actually control their own first-round pick next year — are the three next most likely teams to earn that No. 1 selection.

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