Wild-Card Weekend is in the books. The league’s eight best (more or less) teams are three wins away from a championship. Which one is the most likely to hoist the Lombardi Trophy?
We simulated the postseason 10,000 times using player and team statistics adjusted for strength of schedule to determine the most likely Super Bowl winner. The Divisional Round kicks off with Falcons-Eagles so we will start in the NFC:
Before the playoffs started, the Rams were the likeliest team to emerge from the NFC, but an upset at home to the Falcons has changed the conference’s outlook. Minnesota, the No. 2 seed, now looks like the most complete team. The Vikings rank 5th in offense and 2nd in defense by DVOA. The main concern would be quarterback Case Keenum, but the veteran journeyman is playing the best football of his career – finishing the regular season second in total QBR. Minnesota has a 58.2% chance of making it to the conference title game and a 37.7% chance of advancing to the Super Bowl.
If it’s not the Vikings then the Saints, their opponent on Sunday, have the next best chance of representing the conference in the Super Bowl. New Orleans clearly has the best quarterback of the remaining NFC teams after a classic 376-yard and two touchdown performance from Drew Brees in a Wild Card win over Carolina. New Orleans is one of the most balanced teams when they have the ball, ranking 6th in passing and 1st in rushing efficiency. There is a 64.0% chance that the Vikings-Saints winner is the NFC representative in the Super Bowl.
Atlanta is the first No. 6 seed in our database (since 2003) that is favored over a No. 1 seed. That sounds impressive until you remember that Philadelphia is without starting quarterback Carson Wentz. The Falcons have won seven of their last nine games and according to the model, are slight favorites to beat the Eagles, whose offense has dropped from 28.3 points per game with Wentz to 15.7 points per game under Nick Foles.
- Eagles (49.6%) vs. Falcons (50.4%)
- Vikings (58.2%) vs. Saints (41.8%)
If you read the headlines, the sky is falling in Foxborough and this could be the last run for Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. But until the future Hall of Fame duo is actually out the door, the AFC goes through New England. Though the Patriots were off last weekend, the team’s chance of winning the AFC actually improved after the wild-card round. An easy matchup against the Titans (82.1% chance of winning) has increased the team’s probability of returning to the Super Bowl from 47.6% to 52.3%.
Antonio Brown is upgraded to probable for Sunday’s divisional matchup with the Jaguars. If he plays, the All-Pro receiver will have a difficult time against Jacksonville, which boasts the league’s top pass defense and has held No. 1 wide receivers to 42.0 yards per game (per Football Outsiders). Of course, the Steelers have other options on offense including Ben Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell. Jacksonville managed to beat Buffalo with Blake Bortles accumulating more rushing (88) than passing yards (87). Ten points won’t be enough to beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh.
- Patriots (82.1%) vs. Titans (17.9%)
- Steelers (54.8%) vs. Jaguars (45.2%)
New England enjoys the easiest path to the Super Bowl of any contender. The Pats are 13.5-point favorites on Saturday night versus the Titans and will have home-field advantage in the AFC title game. Brady & Co. should be favored over any remaining opponent, which plays into their NFL-best 29.5% chance of repeating.
The Patriots are the best team with the easiest path, what could go wrong? A lot, if you look no further than the simulations which give a 70.5% chance that any team other than New England is onstage with Roger Goodell at the end of the season. Minnesota (20.6%), New Orleans (12.8%), Pittsburgh (12.3%) and Jacksonville (10.6%) all have double-digit odds of winning the Super Bowl.
The next round of the playoffs starts Saturday, as underdogs went 4-0 against-the-spread and 2-2 straight-up in the wild-card round. Will we see more upsets or will it be a chalky weekend?
NFL Divisional Round
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Photo Courtesy of Philip G. Pavely – USA Today Sports