On Monday, ESPN published its first look at their Football Power Index (FPI) for 2021. In the preseason, it uses “expected starting quarterbacks, past performance, returning starters and projected win totals to generate a strength rating for every team.”
The Kansas City Chiefs top all NFL teams with a total FPI of 6.6. That combines a figure of 5.9 for offense (1st), 0.8 for defense (11th) and 0.0 for special teams (17th).
Using this metric, ESPN simulated the 2021 season 20,000 times to create a probability for each team to make the playoffs, win their division, advance to the divisional, conference and championship rounds — and of course, win Super Bowl LVI, which will be played at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California on February 13.
Unsurprisingly, the Chiefs win the championship in 19.2% of these simulations, They reach the championship game 31.2% of the time, make the AFC championship in 49.0% of the simulations and win the AFC West in 72.1% of them. Those percentages all lead the league.
FPI figures the Chiefs will finish the newly-expanded 17-game season with an 11.5-5.5 record — that is, 12-5 or 11-6 — which also tops the league.
The Chiefs’ most likely opponent? The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who top the NFC with a 26.8% chance to make the championship game. But based on FPI, Kansas City will face tough competition within their own conference. Three other AFC franchises — the Buffalo Bills, Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns — fill out the top 5 teams. The Chiefs will play all three of them in the first five weeks of the season.
Just as he did a year ago, ESPN’s Seth Walder picked one of the 20,000 season simulations to highlight. Before last season, he chose No. 3869, in which the Chiefs would best the Dallas Cowboys 42-17 in Super Bowl LV. This year, he picked No. 13,330. In this particular narrative, the Chiefs finish the regular season with an 11-6 record (and the AFC’s fourth seed) before falling to the Browns 20-12 in the Divisional round. But the Bills defeat Cleveland in the AFC Championship, following that by earning their first-ever Lombardi trophy with a 27-17 victory over the Green Bay Packers.
While this outcome certainly isn’t impossible, the way this particular season plays out for Kansas City seems unlikely. In No. 13,330, the Chiefs open the season 5-0, defeating the Browns, Ravens and Bills (along with the Los Angeles Chargers and Philadelphia Eagles) and are 7-2 after Week 9. A loss to the Packers in Week 9 could easily happen, but would the Chiefs drop a game to the Washington Football Team, Tennessee Titans or New York Giants in that four-game stretch? Or would they lose half of the remaining eight games — which at this moment, looks like the easiest part of their schedule?
If the Chiefs begin the season 5-0 with an all-new offensive line (including three rookies) against three of the AFC’s top teams, wouldn’t they have a real shot at the 20-0 season that quarterback Patrick Mahomes has stated as his goal? Almost the only way it seems like the team could finish the season 6-6 — and lose in the postseason to a team they defeated in Week 1 — is if it suffers a string of catastrophic injuries in the early weeks of the season.
As we learned in 2020, something like that is always possible. But right now, it’s too depressing to think about.