2023 NFL simulation: 285 game predictions, including playoffs - ESPN

UniqueThis 76 September 4, 2023

To forecast the 2023 NFL season, ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI) simulates the season 20,000 times. That produces our projections, which are filled with probabilities, like the 14% chance the Eagles win the Super Bowl or the 43% chance the Lions win the NFC North.

But life happens only once.

So for today and today only, we're talking in certainties as we dive into the crystal ball of a single simulation -- simulation No. 3,818 -- to unveil the NFL season before it takes place. In a single sim, almost anything can happen. Then again, the same is true in real life, as the idea of the Vikings winning 13 games or the Broncos falling flat on their faces to five wins in 2022 might have seemed laughable at this time last year.

In simulation No. 3,818, ESPN's FPI played out every game of the 2023 campaign, producing winners and losers, surprise collapses and an exciting race to the Super Bowl. We applied a little creative license to the details, but the results are all from the model. Here's the 2023 NFL season, before it happens (maybe), including scores from each playoff game:

Disaster in Dallas

Remember after last season when coach Mike McCarthy kicked then-offensive coordinator Kellen Moore out the door and took over the playcalling? It didn't work out too well in this simulation.

The Cowboys found themselves on the losing end of a New York double feature, falling to the Giants and Jets to open the season before pulling out a 16-10 win over the Cardinals in Week 3. Perhaps barely beating the Cardinals was the most obvious indicator of what was to come, as Dallas stumbled to then lose to the Patriots, 49ers and Chargers to begin the season 1-5.

Things only got worse. After a modest recovery to pull to 3-6 through Week 10, the Cowboys slid again and all long shot hopes of a late playoff run were dashed. Maybe the new additions didn't click? The Cowboys' 2020 season was derailed by a Dak Prescott injury, and it's not out of the question for things to go off the rails if another key injury happened. Whatever it was, Dallas underperformed, and after a 30-13 loss to the Bills in Week 15, it's very easily to see Cowboys team owner Jerry Jones firing McCarthy with defensive coordinator Dan Quinn taking over as the interim coach.

The good news for him and the Cowboys? They have the No. 2 overall pick in the 2024 draft -- though the Week 3 win over the Cardinals cost Dallas the top pick.

Panthers, Commanders reach postseason with first-time starters

The Bryce Young era started off with a bang, as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 draft led a game-winning drive to lift the Panthers over the Falcons 23-20 in Week 1. A few weeks later the Panthers were 2-2 in a wide-open NFC South, as the Saints and Falcons were 0-4 flops and the Baker Mayfield-led Buccaneers led the division. Young, coach Frank Reich and a strong Panthers defense ultimately ended up winning the division with relative ease at 10-6-1, 2½ games up on the Bucs.

The Commanders' path to the playoffs required a late-season surge after a slow start. Following a 19-7 Week 1 win over the Cardinals, Washington lost three straight, and went 4-6 through 10 weeks and 6-7 through 13. Despite calls from the Commanders' fan base to turn the ball over to quarterback Jacoby Brissett, coach Ron Rivera held firm with Sam Howell under center. It paid off after the Week 14 bye, as Howell led Washington to three wins in its final four games to finish with a 9-8 record and nab the No. 7 seed over the Giants via tiebreaker.

Titans reclaim AFC South title

What, you thought Trevor Lawrence and the Jaguars were going to rule the division forever? Titans coach Mike Vrabel didn't.

The Jaguars' offensive line woes sunk a team that, on paper, should have won the soft AFC South. Instead, the title went to the Titans, who seemingly have overperformed every year since Vrabel was hired as coach in 2018. Wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins showed he had one year of almost-prime output left, and with a spicy defense, the Titans kept the rest of the division in check.

Not only did Tennessee win the division, but it won a playoff game, too, beating the Dolphins in Nashville to advance to the divisional round before the Ravens finally knocked the Titans out.

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Jets take AFC East from Bills, but Buffalo gets last laugh

The Aaron Rodgers experiment in New York? It started out great. Remember the gauntlet of a schedule the Jets open with: games against the Bills, Cowboys, Patriots, Chiefs, Broncos and Eagles? The Rodgers-led Jets went 5-1 in that stretch and were the talk of the league. At that point, the Jets had the best record in the AFC -- even better than the Chiefs -- and a Super Bowl was on the minds of Gang Green.

But Rodgers and the Jets cooled off, and through Week 16, the Jets and Bills were both 9-6 with the Dolphins lurking one game back. Buffalo stumbled against the Patriots in Week 17, while the Jets took care of business against the Browns and Patriots in the final two weeks to not only qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2010 but also win their first AFC East title in 21 years.

By winning the division, the Jets earned the right to host a playoff game, but they didn't rid themselves of the Bills, who they met in the opening round. Buffalo stepped up when it mattered most, as rejuvenated pass-rusher Von Miller pestered Rodgers all night and quarterback Josh Allen returned to the postseason Allen of old in a decisive 30-17 win that cut the Jets' Super Bowl dreams short.

Surprise, it's the Vikings (again!)

In 2022, the Vikings shocked the league by going 13-4. No one quite bought it due to their negative point differential, especially after losing 31-24 to the Giants at home in the wild-card round. But despite tepid expectations, the Vikings went out and won the NFC North again.

They had two fewer wins this time but won the No. 1 seed in the NFC. Turns out the combination of quarterback Kirk Cousins, wide receiver Justin Jefferson and coach Kevin O'Connell are on to something -- especially with breakout rookie wideout Jordan Addison added in. Plus, the defense took a step forward under new defensive coordinator Brian Flores.

After earning the bye, the Vikings carried their success into the postseason, beating the Seahawks 23-16 in the divisional round. The unexpected run ended with a 38-31 loss to the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game, but the Vikings put themselves back on the map as a contender.

Lions end playoff drought

It wasn't quite the same as the Jets' playoff drought, but entering this season, the Lions hadn't been to the playoffs since 2016. And they hadn't won a playoff game since 1991. Despite that, the Lions entered 2023 with plenty of hype after finishing fourth in EPA per play on offense in 2022 under coordinator Ben Johnson.

Quarterback Jared Goff, wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown and an improved (but still not great) defense largely delivered. And after a slow start following his return from a six-game suspension for violating the league's gambling policy, wide receiver Jameson Williams turned on the jets down the stretch to enter 2024 as a scorching-hot fantasy football target. There was just one unexpected problem for Detroit: the Vikings.

Even though the Lions finished 11-6 (their best record since 2014), they lost out on the NFC North title and home-field advantage in the playoffs because of the division winning percentage tiebreaker. That put Detroit on the road to try to end its playoff win drought against the mighty 49ers. The Lions simply couldn't create enough offense against Nick Bosa, Javon Hargrave and the ferocious 49ers defense, losing 23-10.

Caleb Williams, Arizona Cardinal?

For the Cardinals, this was mission accomplished. In a year when Kyler Murray was returning from a torn ACL in his right knee, the team lost its way to the No. 1 overall pick, edging the Cowboys on a tiebreaker thanks to its Week 3 head-to-head loss. A question immediately arose: Will the Cardinals select Williams or Drake Maye with the first overall pick and deal Murray, perhaps gaining a third first-round selection in the 2024 draft (they already own the Texans' pick)?

We didn't project the actual draft, but it's easy to see the Cardinals dealing Murray and selecting Williams first, starting over with a QB on a fresh rookie contract and increased draft resources to back him.

Chiefs roll to 13 wins

In one of the least surprising developments in sim No. 3,818, the Chiefs were good again. Really good. In fact, the Chiefs hit 13 wins in a season in which no other team even reached 12, and Patrick Mahomes repeated as the NFL MVP after leading the league's most efficient offense.

After the Chiefs earned the No. 1 seed in the AFC and the Bills beat the Jets in the playoffs, the two AFC titans met in the divisional round for a third playoff showdown between Allen and Mahomes. The Chiefs prevailed yet again, this time in a 39-17 thrashing that saw Mahomes looking every bit like the MVP.

But it all ended in the AFC Championship Game, as the Chiefs fell to the Ravens 24-20 thanks to a Baltimore defense that came on late in the season and a Lamar Jackson game-winning touchdown drive. Thirteen wins and an AFC Championship Game appearance is nice, but at this point in the Chiefs' dynasty, success is measured in Lombardi Trophies -- and the Chiefs came up short in this simulation.

Bengals, Ravens battle it out for AFC North before postseason showdown

In Week 2, the Ravens took an early edge in the division race by winning an 18-12 defensive struggle against the Bengals that dropped Cincy to 0-2. By Week 8, the Bengals had fought back, taking a half-game lead over Baltimore. But that's when Jackson really got hot and engineered a four-game winning streak -- including a 19-17 victory over the Bengals -- reminding us of the Jackson who was once league MVP.

In the end, the Bengals couldn't catch them. The Ravens won the division as an 11-win No. 3 seed, while the Bengals finished one game back as the No. 6 seed. The rivals squared off a third time in the playoffs, with the result mirroring the first two. Jackson flourished and the Ravens sacked Joe Burrow five times in a 31-19 defeat to send Cincinnati home.

Here's how the first three rounds of the postseason played out:

Wild-card round:

(AFC) No. 2 Titans defeated No. 7 Dolphins 32-25 (AFC) No. 3 Ravens defeated No. 6 Bengals 31-19 (AFC) No. 5 Bills defeated No. 4 Jets 30-17 (NFC) No. 2 Eagles defeated No. 7 Commanders 29-20 (NFC) No. 6 Seahawks defeated No. 3 Panthers 38-7

(NFC) No. 4 49ers defeated No. 5 Lions 23-10