In a multi-round, single-elimination tournament, winning is like winning a lottery. Per ESPN’s FPI, the team with the best chance of lifting the Vince Lombardi Trophy — the New Orleans Saints — have only a 30.5 percent chance of doing so; less than one-in-three. Each team is fatally flawed, and only one of 12 will avoid ending the season with a loss.
However, one will win the Super Bowl and it won’t completely be due to luck. The champs are the team that leverages their strengths the best over a three- to four-game period, and each of these teams have definitive strengths.
So for each team left standing, let’s look at the advantages that would lead to a title, no matter how unlikely said title may be. One again, we’ll use the SB Nation NFL data app for assistance.
1. The Kanas City Chiefs (12-4) offense is good at everything
Kansas City’s offense isn’t quite as dominant as it was before losing both running back Kareem Hunt and, temporarily, receiver Sammy Watkins. But the Chiefs are still absurdly well-rounded, ranking in the league’s top five in nearly every advanced (and not-as-advanced) statistical category and leading the league in points scored. They scored at least 26 points in every game and averaged 36 points per game against playoff teams.
They are going to get their points. You might, too, of course — playoff teams also averaged 36 PPG against them — but you’re going to have to. Even against a dominant Baltimore defense that confused Patrick Mahomes as well as anyone and made as many stops as you could possibly hope to make, the Chiefs still scored 27 points (24 in regulation) and averaged 5.3 yards per play. That was the floor.
This nearly perfect offense basically has one weakness: it can fall into third-and-longs pretty easily — over half of their third downs required seven or more yards to go (22nd in the league). But they countered that by a) producing the second-best third-and-long success rate in the league and b) generating 73 percent of their first downs before third down altogether.
2. The New England Patriots (11-5) are impossible to knock off-schedule
The Patriots are as reliably pass-centric as anyone in the league. Tom Brady has averaged at least 35 passes per game every year since 2006, and while his rate stats are a bit off of his 2016-17 late-career peak, they’re still superior to those of 2014, when the Patriots won the Super Bowl.
What’s funny is despite all this passing, New England’s offense fits the efficiency profile that you think you’d get from a run-first team. The Pats create and convert short third downs, they avoid passing downs, and they give opponents almost no chances to create takeaways with fumbles or passes into traffic. They are safe.
Offenses like the Chiefs’ and Chargers’ have more upside than New England’s, and lord knows the Patriots’ defense needs some work, but New England’s offense error-free offense makes it maybe the safest bet in the AFC. Again.
3. The Houston Texans (11-5) tilt the field until you fall over
Houston’s offense is the least reliable in the AFC; the Texans ranked just 21st in offensive DVOA heading into Week 17, fielding a run-first attack that was among the league’s least effective at running the ball.
Like Baltimore and Chicago, though, the Texans have an identity. They know exactly how they’re going to win games: by tilting the field and waiting. And they’re really good at it. They are the best field position team in the league, starting drives nearly six yards further up the field than their opponents (which results in 60-80 hidden yards over the course of a game), and they leverage you into third-and-longs in a millisecond. They have maybe the league’s best run defense, and they have J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney (25 combined sacks) to haunt your QB on said third-and-longs.
Despite their own offensive inefficiency, the Texans scored at least 17 points in every game and held opponents to 17 or fewer points seven times. In a league with increasingly proficient offenses, the defense-and-field-position recipe might not be quite as much of a slam-dunk as it once was. But it can still work.
4. Every drive against the Baltimore Ravens (10-6) feels like it starts with third-and-long
Baltimore and Houston played with extremely similar philosophies in 2018, and when Lamar Jackson took over at quarterback midway through the season, that meant the Ravens were superior to the Texans in two ways: they defend even better, and they can actually run the ball like they want to.
As efficient as the run game has become, though, defense is still the reason why Baltimore will win the Super Bowl if Baltimore indeed wins the Super Bowl. The Ravens are merciless. They are in the league’s top two in terms of both efficiency and explosiveness — they force three-and-outs without the sort of big-play risks other teams have to take — and, predictably, they constantly force third-and-longs.
Quarterbacks like Mahomes, Brady, and Los Angeles’ Philip Rivers (the Ravens’ next opponent) can still make plays when behind schedule, but they aren’t going to make nearly as many as they want. And unlike a lot of the league’s other good teams, they only need to get their point total into the 20s to have an excellent shot of coming away with a win — no matter the QB, they were 7-1 when scoring at least 24 points.
5. The Los Angeles Chargers (12-4) win blitz downs, no matter who has the ball
For the Chargers’ fatal flaw, I noted that they are prone to facing more blitz downs than their opponents, and considering they’ll likely be playing all of their playoff games on the road, that seems like something that will catch up to them.
It hasn’t yet, though. They may face more blitz downs than their opponents, but they convert them at a much higher rate (34 percent to 26 percent). And when they convert them, they’re not picking up eight yards on third-and-8 like their opponent is — they’re picking up 18. Maybe more.
This is a dangerous way of living, but there’s a reason why Los Angeles is 7-1 on the road this year. It’s absurd that a 12-4 team doesn’t get to play at home in the playoffs, but the Chargers are better equipped to overcome that than any team in recent memory.
6. The Indianapolis Colts (10-6) leverage the field and finish drives
An inefficient pass defense will likely spell doom for Indianapolis at some point pretty soon, but the Colts have developed a strong identity, and it’s why they won nine of 10 games to reach the playoffs at all.
What’s that identity? Well, like New England, it starts with an efficient passing game. The Colts are just 28th in rushing marginal efficiency, but they’re still brilliant at creating manageable third downs (in open play, they are fourth in average third-down distance and fifth in third-down success rate) because of Andrew Luck and a receiving corps that gets contributions from everywhere — receiver (T.Y. Hilton and Chester Rogers), tight end (Eric Ebron), and running back (Nyheim Hines).
The combination of offensive efficiency, strong run defense, and what was, per Football Outsiders, the third-best punting unit in the league, has resulted in a brilliant field position game for the Colts. And if you create shorter drives for yourself and finish your scoring opportunities well (and again, despite the poor run game, the Colts do that brilliantly), then you’re giving yourself a shot. And Indy has given itself a shot in every game since October 4.
1. Yeah, good luck getting the ball away from Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints (13-3)
The New Orleans defense can rush the passer and create turnover opportunities, but it’s still a weak link overall. But that only matters so much when you’ve got Brees. Heading into Week 17 (when Brees sat during a meaningless loss to the Panthers), New Orleans ranked in the top five in a majority of offensive categories, including some of the most important: third in marginal efficiency, second in points per scoring opportunity, fifth in expected turnovers (a measure derived from your total fumbles and passes defensed).
Like New England, New Orleans has a passing game that’s safer than most run games; unlike New England, the Saints also boast one of the best run games in the league — they were fifth in rushing efficiency and sixth in rushing explosiveness heading into the weekend. They can do whatever you can’t stop.
Against the Steelers, they also rebounded from what appeared to be a late-year funk. After averaging 37.2 points per game through 11 games, they averaged just 16.7 over their next three, looking listless in a 13-10 loss to Dallas and narrowly surviving Carolina, 12-9, in Week 15. But they posted 31 points and 6.1 yards per play against a Steeler team that will go down as one of the best to ever miss the playoffs, and now Brees will get another week of rest before facing either Dallas, Seattle, or Philadelphia. It would be a surprise if this offense wasn’t enough to get them to at least the conference title game.
2. The Los Angeles Rams’ (13-3) offense is untouchable in open play (and most of your plays are in open play)
I define open play as any snaps that take place between your 10 and your opponent’s 30. Situational play matters, obviously, but 75 percent of a game’s snaps take place in open play — the teams that are best there are probably the teams that are the best.
Los Angeles is potentially the best team in open play. The defense is decent there (10th in standard downs success rate, 12th in third down success rate), and the offense is untouchable.
The Rams have a potential turnovers issue — 19th in expected turnovers on offense, 21st on defense — and they’re not as efficient in the red zone as some other playoff teams. But they are unstoppable in that 60-yard range that constitutes open play. They’re probably going to create more scoring chances than you, and you’re probably going to struggle to overcome that, even if the Rams defense isn’t as dominant as you would think it should be.
3. The Chicago Bears’ (12-4) defense really is absurd
If Baltimore doesn’t have the best defense in the NFL, Chicago does. The Bears’ offense doesn’t produce many big plays and probably isn’t going to score much without a field position advantage, but the defense provides that advantage. It even scores sometimes, too!
The list above is longer than most because there were just too many categories to choose from. The Bears are first in defensive DVOA for the first time since 2012, and trying to score on Chicago is an exercise in caution:
- You have to create manageable third downs because they don’t give you easy first downs (second in percentage of first downs allowed coming on first or second down)
- You have to avoid blitz downs at all costs (second in blitz down success rate).
- When they give you a big play, you better take it all the way to the house — the closer you get to their end zone, the better they get (first in points allowed per scoring opportunity).
- Oh, and they’re the most likely team in the league to create a takeaway from one of your mistakes (first in expected turnovers).
The Bears’ offense isn’t going to beat you single-handedly by any means. It also won’t have to.
4. The Dallas Cowboys’ (10-6) defense does the important things right
Make a list in your head of the best defenses in the league. Chicago, Baltimore, and Houston will definitely be on there, as will non-playoff teams like Minnesota, Jacksonville, and Buffalo. It might take you a while to think of putting Dallas’ defense on that list, and that’s a mistake: the Cowboys have one of the sturdiest defenses in the playoffs.
Until Sunday’s strange and mostly meaningless Week 17 shootout with the Giants, Dallas hadn’t allowed more than 28 points in a game all year. Against playoff teams, they allowed just 19.8 points per game. Granted, they also only scored 16.3 points per game against playoff teams, but still.
They defend the run well (which should come in handy against wildcard opponent Seattle), they prevent big pass plays (which will get significantly tested against the Seahawks), and they’re excellent in the red zone (eighth in points allowed per scoring opportunities). They likely won’t get too far because of their inefficient offense, but they’re going to be a tough out.
5. The Seattle Seahawks (10-6) make all the big plays
Reaching the Super Bowl as a 5-seed will likely require three road wins, at least two of which will likely come as underdogs. It makes sense, then, that only three percent of No. 5-6 teams have reached the Super Bowl since No. 5 and 6 seeds came into existence.
To become a member of the Three Percent Club, you’re going to probably need to rely on some high-variability outcomes and hope for the best. The most high-variability outcome of all: big plays. HEY GUESSS WHAT: Seattle is really, really, really explosive on offense.
Granted, that’s about the Seahawks’ only strength. Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has installed a run-first offense that ranks just 23rd in marginal efficiency, and the high frequency of rushes means that when Russell Wilson is backing up to pass, it’s probably second- or third-and-long. He gets sacked a lot and runs for his life even more, but he also finds guys downfield at times, primarily the all-or-nothing David Moore (17.1 yards per catch with a 49 percent catch rate) or the all-or-all Tyler Lockett (16.9 yards per catch with an 81 percent damn catch rate).
The run game has picked up at least a little bit of steam in recent weeks, and Seattle’s scoring average increased from 23.5 points per game in the first eight contests to 31.3 in the last eight. Play-action is working, as is “Hey Russell, go run around for nine seconds and try to make something happen.” The Seahawks probably don’t have the juice to make a serious run, but they’re as dangerously volatile as a 5-seed can be.
6. Third downs against the Philadelphia Eagles (9-7) are third-and-longs
It’s really difficult to paint Philadelphia as a serious contender, but if you can get your defense off the field on third downs, you’re going to give yourself a chance in any game. In open-play situations, the Eagles create the longest third downs in the league, and they’re at least decent at capitalizing on them.
Granted, there are caveats. They don’t create enough third downs — in open play, they are 21st in the percentage of first downs opponents generate on first or second down, and they’re dead last in big-play rate allowed. This is their fatal flaw, and it’s severely enmeshed with their biggest strength.
That means you absolutely have to capitalize when you indeed find a third-and-long situation. But Philly has, and that’s a major reason why they won five of their last six games and squeezed into the playoffs. They were out-gained in two of those five wins, too — they’ll let you maneuver down the field, but they have been able to count on stopping before you get all the way into the end zone.