In the NFL, wins and losses are a good gauge of how well a team has played. Most people consider the Baltimore Ravens the best team in the NFL and they have the best record in the NFL at 14-2. However, because of scheduling, injuries, teams peaking at the right time and a variety of factors, a win-loss record is not everything. For example, the Tennessee Titans had a 2-3 record before their starting quarterback Marcus Mariota was benched for journeyman Ryan Tannehill. Pro Football Focus’s highest-rated quarterback for the 2019 season was not Lamar Jackson or even Russell Wilson. It was Tannehill. He led the Titans to a 7-4 finish which was good enough for the sixth seed in the AFC. I cannot believe I am writing this, but could you imagine the Titans winning the division if Tannehill had started the whole year?
That is why I will use FiveThirtyEight’s “Elo with Top QB” when sorting why each playoff team will go on to win the Super Bowl. Elo is set up so if you are at 1500, you are the average NFL team. A team with an Elo of 1500 is probably going to be in the playoffs. A team with an Elo of 1600 is going to be a Super Bowl contender and an Elo of 1700 means there is a high chance this team goes to the championship game. If you subtract the Elo of the higher team minus the Elo of the lower team and divide by 25 you will get the estimated point spread if the game is on a neutral field. (New England’s 1635 – Tennessee’s 1580)/25 = 2.2 + 3 for home-field advantage gives us a fair point spread of about 5.0 for that game.
If we are lucky, we might get to see Lamar Jackson vs. Russell Wilson or Drew Brees. If we are even luckier, we will see the Minnesota Vikings – who have an 0-4 Super Bowl record – play the Buffalo Bills – who also have a 0-4 Super Bowl record. My prediction for that game is primetime Kirk Cousins throws every single ball so far out of bounds that they just have to cancel the game and it results in a tie, thus each team moves to 0-4-1 in Super Bowl history.
1. Baltimore Ravens (Elo: 1795)
Lamar Jackson. Action Jackson. Samuel L. Jackson. Whatever nickname you want to use, Jackson is the reason this team is the odds-on favorite to win the Super Bowl. Using Expected Points Average or EPA (a value given per play on a range of -3 to 7 in which a player adds to the likeliness of their team scoring and how many points they’re expected to score from the down, distance, and yardage), Jackson had the best EPA in the entire league at 103.7 (with the next closest being Mahomes at 97.3). The Ravens stumbled off to a 2-2 start and have been blazing hot with 12 wins in a row entering the playoffs. They will have home-field advantage for all of the AFC, which is important considering they have beaten the Patriots, Texans, and 49ers in Baltimore.
In Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) – a system that breaks down every single play and compares a team’s performance to the league average based on situation in order to determine value over average – the Ravens have the best offense and the fourth best defense in the NFL. With metrics like that, they are head-and-shoulders above each and every team in the NFL. John Harbaugh has put together a team that is the seventh best team in DVOA history. His brother Jim has put together a team that is seventh best in their conference. If the favorites win, they are looking at a game against the Bills/Texans and then the Chiefs.
2. New Orleans Saints (Elo: 1710)
Picture this if you are the New Orleans Saints: You lose the NFC Championship game because of a pass interference call not being able to be reviewed, you argue for a rule change, it happens and you just need the Seahawks to knock off the 49ers to get a bye and when you need that rule to come into play the most as the Seahawks are driving and about to score, the review never happens and the 49ers win making New Orleans play four games to win the Super Bowl. This chart made by Ben Baldwin truly shows how hard it is for a team off a bye to make their conference championship game:
However, if any team could do it, it is the Saints. Their Elo of 1710 is unprecedented for a team that has never earned a bye. They have caught fire at the end of the season putting up 32 points per game for the last half of the season that included double-digit wins over the Buccaneers, Falcons, Colts, Titans and Panthers – and their only loss in that stretch being because George Kittle turned into the Incredible Hulk and carried four defenders on the way to victory in a crazy shootout against the 49ers. The Saints have the best wide receiver in the NFL who leads the league with an insane catch rate of 80% and accumulated 1,725 receiving yards during the regular season. Drew Brees was third in the league for QBR and is hungrily looking to continue his magical season and get revenge for the way last year ended. It is no wonder Louisiana’s governor said: “It is an easier state to govern when the Saints and LSU are winning.”
3. Kansas City Chiefs (Elo: 1704)
Andy Reid’s defense let up 37 points to New England last year in the AFC Conference Championship. Over the offseason, he straightened his mustache and – more importantly – straightened his defense. Kansas City’s 2019 offense is almost as good as last season’s as Mahomes has the second-best EPA in the league and the offense has the third best DVOA (behind the Ravens and Saints, respectively). It is the defense making strides that has led to them having the 14th best DVOA in the league. A top-half defense can only let the faucet drip and not flood as the offense puts up 25+ points in any playoff game. Kansas City ended the season hot with a six-game winning streak that included going into New England and only letting up 16 points as they held on for the win. Thanks to Fitzmagic, Kansas City will probably get another shot at New England at home and off a bye. Kansas City has a chance to call Tom Brady old and give us the AFCCG that all of America wants: Mahomes vs. Jackson.
4. San Francisco 49ers (Elo: 1643)
If you or a loved one has been a 49er fan this season, please look into blood pressure medication. The 49ers cruised in their first 8 games, winning by an average of 16 points per game. Then they lost on a last-second field goal to the Seahawks, lost to the Ravens on another last-second field goal, beat the Saints on another last-second field goal, lost to the Falcons by an inch on the goal line and beat the Seahawks by an inch on the goal line. Phew. After all that, they finished 13-3 with the first seed and home-field advantage through the entire NFC playoffs. The 49ers have perhaps the best offensive player in the league in George Kittle. He has a PFF grade of 95.0 with 621 yards after catch – which topped all pass-catchers in both categories. The 49ers have the seventh-best offense on DVOA and the second-best defense. Although they did stumble a bit down the stretch, having the No. 1 seed and beating the Seahawks on the road shows this team is battle-tested and ready for any challenge that comes their way. They have wins over the Seahawks, Saints, and Packers and will have to get through at least one of those teams to make the Super Bowl. They did lose on the road in Baltimore in a game that could have gone either way. Kyle Shanahan has been one of the best at scheming in the NFL this year, and will have his team ready off the bye for any team that comes into San Francisco.
5. New England Patriots (Elo: 1635)
“This will be the year the Patriots dynasty ends.” How many times has that been uttered only for Tom Brady and Bill Belichick to put it all together in January and make it to another Super Bowl? Sure, the Patriots finished the regular season 2-3 and, sure, they do not have a bye and will have to play on the road twice to get to the Super Bowl. But then again, they are the New England Patriots. They won their division by beating the playoff-bound Bills twice. Their defense is the best rated on DVOA and let up a crazy 14 PPG in the regular season. Brady has not played his best football yet, but the Patriots’ offense is still rated as 11th on DVOA. Players like Julian Edelman (1,117 receiving yards) and James White (908 total yards) have carried this New England offense. In the first half of the season, the Patriots ranked 25th in pass block win rate (how often a team sustains all of its pass blocks for at least 2.5 seconds). In the second half, they ranked eight in PBWR. With a stout defense, the Patriots are a deep-threat player like Antonio Brown or Josh Gordon away from being the best team in the NFL. Hmm, if only they had someone like that. Also, there is no team in the AFC playoffs that has a better home record than away record. By getting the No. 3 seed and having to go on the road twice, Belichick is once again playing 4D chess while everyone else is playing checkers.
6. Green Bay Packers (Elo: 1625)
Aaron Rodgers is not what he used to be. He still has superhero tendencies but is not going to be Superman all the time. Luckily for the 2019 Packers, they do not need him to be great all the time, but just when he is called upon. Green Bay has a great offensive line that is fourth in adjusted line yards (yards per carry that also takes into account down, distance, situation, and opponent). This translates to the Packers having a top five run-blocking offensive line and a top ten pass-blocking offensive line. The Packers took advantage of their relatively easy schedule and went 12-4 clinching a bye and at least one home playoff game. The Packers are above average in both offensive DVOA at 8th and defensive DVOA at 15th. The Packers have only lost road playoff games in cross-country trips and have won five in a row entering the playoffs. With a bye, they are looking at a week for Rodgers to rest his arm and get ready to make a final push and what might be his last Super Bowl.
7. Minnesota Vikings (Elo: 1594)
Speaking of the Minnesota Vikings, let me be the first to say this: Kirk Cousins’ prime-time record of 0-8 is something to laugh at, but does not hold much weight. Nevertheless, Cousins will be leading the Vikings into New Orleans with the whole country watching this Sunday. The Vikings are top ten in both offensive DVOA and defensive DVOA. With the fifth-highest PFF grade, the Vikings are one of the most talented teams in the playoffs. There are playmakers on both sides of the ball in Dalvin Cook, Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen on the offense and Anthony Harris, Eric Kendricks and Harrison Smith on defense. The Vikings were 1-4 against playoff teams but with this much talent, they can put it all together at any time and be very dangerous in the playoffs if Cousins catches fire.
8. Tennessee Titans (Elo: 1580)
This article has now become the breeding grounds for the Ryan Tannehill fan club. Who leads the NFL in Yards per Completion at 13.6? Ryan Timothy Tannehill. How about the leader of Adjusted Net Yards Per Pass Attempt (ANY/A)? Ryan Tannehill. Who are the only two quarterbacks with a completion percentage above 70% and a touchdown percentage above 7%? Future first-ballot Hall of Famer Drew Brees and (future Hall-of-Famer?) Ryan Tannehill. Tannehill has been given the fifth most amount of time to throw by his offensive line and has made the most of it. His Average Air Yards to Sticks (the number of yards thrown past the first-down line) is second in the NFL at 0.6. Tannehill is throwing deep and making the most of it – as he also leads the NFL in Completion Percentage Above Expectation at 8.1%. Another chart made by Ben Baldwin shows how good he truly has been:
On top of this, the Titans have a defense that is 15th in DVOA and the NFL’s rushing title winner in Derrick Henry. They are a scary team and with New England’s over-aggressive coverage being exposed the past couple weeks, there will be few people surprised if the Titans go into Foxborough and walk away with a win. If Tannehill ends the Patriots dynasty, there should be a statue made in every city with a football team in America.
9. Philadelphia Eagles (Elo: 1575)
The Eagles have gotten a lot of hate for being in the worst division in the NFL and having to play with practice squad players on offense but as you can see here, Elo-wise they are not the worst team in the playoffs and will even have a home playoff game against the Seahawks. As long as Carson Wentz is playing for this team, they will be relevant. Their offensive DVOA is 14th and defensive DVOA is 12th. The organization has shown they can overcome injuries and still make a run as they are playing a Seahawks team that is also banged up and if they win. The Eagles lead the NFL in variance. One week they are playing like they could beat anybody and the next week they lose to someone like the Dolphins. Who loses to the Dolphins, right Tom Brady?
10. Houston Texans (Elo: 1549)
The Texans basically got a bye as they got to rest their starters during Week 17. Their leader, Deshaun Watson, was PFF’s seventh-best quarterback during the regular season. The Texans are second behind the Eagles in variability. At their best, they have drubbed the Patriots and beaten the Titans in Tennessee. They only lost twice in the second half of the season With Will Fuller, the Texans are averaging 296.8 passing yards per game, per ESPN Stats & Information. That’s nearly cut in half without him on the field: 158.3 passing yards per game. He is the key to this offense. The Texans won their division and are rested getting a Bills team that was 1-4 against playoff teams during the regular season. If Deshaun Watson puts it all together, the Texans will be hard to stop.
11. Seattle Seahawks (Elo: 1522)
The Seattle Seahawks are not a great football team. They are an average football team that relies on Russell Wilson playing with his hair on fire. When Wilson is playing his best, the Seahawks can beat anyone. Wilson has carried them to an offensive DVOA of 5th, but their defensive DVOA of 18th is scary. Nevertheless, Carroll has done this before and he knows how to make the Super Bowl. Using Ben Baldwin’s work again:
- The Ravens go for fourth downs (when they should) three times as often as the Seahawks.
- The Ravens have a man in motion at snap four times as often as the Seahawks.
- The Ravens use play-action 22% more often than the Seahawks.
- The Ravens put their quarterback in a position to succeed. The Seahawks do the opposite.
The crazy thing is the Seahawks are 7-1 on the road. As the fifth-seed team in the NFC, they will probably have to play three road games to get to the Super Bowl. Also, with Marshawn Lynch back, this Seahawks team will have a newfound energy. With a win in Philly, the Seahawks will likely be traveling back to San Francisco – where they already have a win over the 49ers this year.
12. Buffalo Bills (Elo: 1518)
The Bills have one of the best defenses in the NFL – as DVOA lists them as with the sixth-best defense. Josh Allen has shown spurts of greatness with the offense, but they are ranked as the 22nd best offense. The Bills are 6-2 on the road and playing the Texans (in Houston), who are an average 5-3 at home. The Texans are also 3-3 against playoff teams. The Bills coverage rating of 90.5 by PFF is good for fourth in the entire league. Players like Micah Hyde, Tre’Davious White, and Trent Murphy are stars on defense and leading the charge. In fact, Tre’Davious White was the only cornerback since 2006 to lead the NFL in interceptions without giving up a touchdown. The Bills are built for an outdoor, soggy and wet playoff football. If they can get past the dome in Houston, they are looking at probably playing outdoor in Baltimore and either outdoor in New England or outdoor in Kansas City. This is the time to shut down on defense and run the ball without many mistakes on offense.