Barnwell: Ranking the clearest paths to Super Bowl LII from 8-1

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Getting to the Super Bowl can be as much about which teams you avoid as it is how you play. This weekend’s wild-card winners are unquestionably happy to move on to the divisional round, but the respective roads facing each of them aren’t equal. The Saints, who won the NFC South over the Falcons during the regular season, will travel to Minnesota as underdogs. Atlanta, meanwhile, is the first 6-seed in history to be favored against a 1-seed when it faces a Carson Wentz-less Philadelphia on Saturday.

After a wild-card round with two surprising upsets, a back-and-forth shootout in New Orleans, and a playoff game straight out of 1977 in Jacksonville, let’s plot out each team’s path to the Super Bowl and figure out who has the most generous route to Minneapolis for Super Bowl LII.

I’ll include each team’s chances of winning the Super Bowl, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index, as well as one result that would make their lives much easier. Over the past two years, our top-ranked team in 2015 (Denver) and 2016 (New England) were able to make it to the big game. Our No. 1 pick will need to do something no team has ever done before to keep that up for the 2017 postseason.


Divisional round: at New England
Conference championship: at Jacksonville or Pittsburgh
FPI chances to win Super Bowl LII: 0.7 percent

The Titans are the worst team left in the bracket, although their 18th-placed finish in DVOA gives them a much better playoff floor than the Texans (29th) and Lions (27th) had a year ago. You can’t help but wonder if they would have beaten the Chiefs on Saturday night if a strip-sack of Marcus Mariota hadn’t been bizarrely stopped by what Jeff Triplette referred to as forward progress, but in a game with at least a half-dozen mistakes from the officiating crew, Triplette’s bumbling invoked Hanlon’s razor: never attribute to malice what could more easily be explained by incompetence.

There is a reason to think that the Titans, as currently constructed, could be better than the inconsistent unit we saw tiptoe through the regular season because of one player: Derrick Henry. With DeMarco Murray sidelined, Mike Mularkey has been forced to turn to the former Heisman Trophy winner as his feature back, and Henry delivered. He gashed the Chiefs for 191 yards from scrimmage on 25 touches and put the game away with runs of 10 and 22 yards on Tennessee’s final possession.

Fans have been clamoring for the second-year back to get a bigger role, and with good reason. The Titans are a fundamentally better offense with Henry as a feature back, with Henry offering both more consistency and big-play ability. Football Outsiders tracks a statistic for running backs called success rate, which measures how frequently a running back keeps his team on schedule by gaining a prescribed amount of yardage on each down. Henry’s 48 percent success rate is 15th in the league. Murray, at 39 percent, was 43rd among 47 backs.

The passing game also has been more productive with Henry around. With the former Alabama star on the field this season, Mariota & Co. have posted a 105.3 passer rating and averaged 8.1 yards per throw. With Murray instead in the backfield, though, the passing game has been brutal, averaging 6.3 yards per attempt with a passer rating of just 65.1. Mariota’s sack rate has been slightly higher with Henry on the field, but he has thrown one interception on 128 pass attempts with Henry and 16 on 323 throws with Murray.

Henry gashed a Chiefs run defense that ranked dead last in DVOA on Saturday. If that seems like a one-off, consider that he’ll be facing a Patriots run defense that wasn’t much better in the regular season; Matt Patricia’s unit was 30th in rushing defense DVOA, just four-tenths of a percentage point ahead of Kansas City. If the Titans can somehow carry a lead or keep the Pats game close into the fourth quarter, it would hardly be a surprise to see Henry breaking off steady chunks of yardage.

Of course, as 13-point underdogs, the Titans are unlikely to be all that close deep into the second half against the top seed in the AFC. Even if they somehow pull off an upset and beat New England, Tennessee would still be on the road, facing either the Steelers or Jaguars. Tennessee has beaten Jacksonville twice this season, but when the best-case scenario is a trip to play the best defense in football, they’re not going to be thrilled about their chances. Tennessee also would be a comfortable underdog against any of the remaining NFC teams in the Super Bowl, barring an Eagles win combined with a season-ending injury to Nick Foles. The Titans are in with a fighting chance, but they have the toughest slate of any remaining team.

What would help: Jacksonville upsetting Pittsburgh. There’s no truth to the old adage about teams struggling to beat their opponents three times in one season, as the Saints proved on Sunday by beating the Panthers and taking teams with a 2-0 record over one opponent to a 12-5 mark since 1990 when they play those same foes a third time in the postseason. The Titans match up well with a Jaguars team whose primary weakness is stopping the run.

Divisional round: at Pittsburgh
Conference championship: vs. Tennessee or at New England
FPI chances to win Super Bowl LII: 4.4 percent

The Jags won their first playoff game since 2007 by overcoming the Bills in what might be charitably defined as a defensive struggle. Both defenses played well, but neither team’s quarterback or offensive coordinator came to play, producing the lowest-scoring wild-card game in league history.

The differences were minute. Tyrod Taylor had a contested pass tipped in the air and intercepted, while Blake Bortles had a pair of interceptions dropped by Buffalo’s defense, in part because playmaking safety Micah Hyde was out of the lineup. When the Bills made it to the 1-yard line, an offensive pass interference call on Kelvin Benjamin pushed Buffalo back to the 11-yard line and kept it from running the football any further. Jacksonville’s trip to the 1 ended with a shocking fourth-and-goal play-action call, as Bortles nearly slipped in his dropback before hitting backup tight end Ben Koyack for the game’s only touchdown.

The Jags fear no team, and they’re not about to start with the Steelers, given that Jalen Ramsey & Co. beat down Pittsburgh in a 30-9 shellacking earlier this season. At the same time, though, that score overstates the difference between the two teams. The Jaguars scored on a pair of interception returns, which marks the only game in which the Steelers have allowed a defensive touchdown on a fumble or interception return since Week 3 of the 2013 season. (For context, the last defender to score against the Steelers was Julius Peppers, who was still on the Bears.) A 90-yard touchdown from Leonard Fournette in garbage time — the Steelers had an 0.1 percent chance of winning before the run — added to the scoreline and yardage totals, but didn’t really impact the game.

In addition, if you’re rooting for the Jaguars, you have to be concerned that this is the same quarterback:

Split 1 is Blake Bortles from Weeks 13-15, and as you might suspect, Split 2 is Bortles during the three ensuing weeks. It was clear that Jaguars offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett had no confidence in Bortles as the game went along on Sunday — the Bills sold out against the run, and Bortles and Hackett had little response. Bortles could have thrown at least two interceptions and showed little touch with his throws, often placing passes to open receivers in places where they were near-impossible receptions.

Bortles eventually found some success as a scrambler and with the read-option, racking up a career-high 88 rushing yards and picking up six of Jacksonville’s nine rushing first downs along the way, but the Steelers will be ready. They’ll have a week to prepare for Bortles as a runner, while the Bills had to adapt on the fly (and didn’t). Pittsburgh also allowed only one quarterback to top 20 rushing yards in a game this season, and that was DeShone Kizer in a meaningless Week 17 game against the Browns.

Chances are that the Jaguars will have to navigate the one-two punch of winning at Pittsburgh and New England, which might very well be the two best teams in football. They could still host the AFC Championship Game with a Titans upset, but even that would pit them against a Tennessee team that won both of its games against Jacksonville in 2017. Jacksonville has a defense capable of shutting down any team on its day, but with Bortles barely keeping his head above water, it seems like a matter of time before the quarterback sinks the Jaguars.

What would help: Tennessee upsetting New England. A home game against the Titans is a totally different proposition from a trip to Foxborough with the AFC title on the line. Lesser quarterbacks than Bortles have won there — Mark Sanchez comes to mind — but I shouldn’t need to explain this one.

Divisional round: vs. Falcons
Conference championship: vs. Saints or Vikings
FPI chances to win Super Bowl LII: 19.5 percent

It’s fair to say that the Football Power Index is overestimating Philly’s chances with Wentz on injured reserve, but remember that home-field advantage is very valuable. The initial difference between Foles and Wentz on the Vegas line amounted to four points, although I suspect it has gone up to six or even seven given how Foles has played over the past month. Consider that the shorthand for home-field advantage in Vegas (borne out by my research) amounts to 2.5 to three points, making the value of playing a game at home as opposed to on the road between five and six points.

Foles isn’t going to be Wentz, but the comparison is irrelevant at this point. If he can just be the guy from Week 15, when he threw for 237 yards and four touchdowns against the Giants, the Eagles should be OK. It’s hardly out of the question Foles shows up and looks better with a week of extra practice time against the Falcons, who ranked 19th in pass defense DVOA this season. The Giants were 20th. The Eagles still have a great defense, and there’s a decent chance they’ll be at home facing Case Keenum in the NFC Championship Game.

And yet, unlike the five teams ahead of them on this list, I can’t put the Eagles any higher because they aren’t going to be favored in a game the rest of the way. Foles & Co. will be underdogs against any non-Titans team in the Super Bowl and would likely be a double-digit underdog against the Patriots or Steelers. Teams have managed to pull this off before — the 1990 Giants won a Super Bowl with Jeff Hostetler entering the lineup in December — but the odds are against the Eagles.

What would help: The Titans beating the Patriots. This will be a popular request from our playoff teams, but given that the Eagles are likely to be modest underdogs throughout the NFC playoffs, eliminating a top seed from the AFC takes away one of the power teams who would represent a possible Super Bowl blowout scenario.

Divisional round: at Vikings
Conference championship: vs. Falcons or at Eagles
FPI chances to win Super Bowl LII: 7.3 percent

After we spent all season reveling in how the Saints turned into a team who won with their running game and defense overnight, the Saints won in the wild-card round by throwing the ball all over the field. On a day in which the Panthers generated 413 yards of offense and held the Saints’ rushing attack to 41 yards on 22 carries, it took a vintage 376-yard, two-touchdown performance from Drew Brees to get New Orleans the 31 points they needed to advance past Carolina on Sunday night.

The Saints’ defense held up in the red zone to force field goals and then came up with a pair of critical pass rushes to force Cam Newton into an intentional grounding call before a season-ending fourth-and-23 sack with 11 seconds to go. It spared us what would have been two controversial conversations. One, as ESPN’s Kevin Seifert discussed, was why Newton was able to come into the game without heading into the locker room as part of what the Panthers said was a concussion evaluation.

The other was an aggressive-yet-unsurprising decision from Sean Payton to go for it on fourth-and-2 from the Carolina 47-yard line with a five-point lead just after the two-minute warning. You can understand the logic behind the call. A conversion would have ended the game, while a stuff would have given the Panthers the ball back at midfield with two minutes to go. In reality, Mike Adams came down with an interception that ended up costing the Panthers 16 yards of field position.

The Saints would have forfeited 30-40 yards of field position with a failed conversion (and ended up giving away about 25 yards even after Carolina intercepted Brees’ attempt), but the field position doesn’t matter all that much up five. Most defenses are happy to give up those yards and play safe coverage, as the Saints were before the Panthers made it to the edge of the red zone. Those plays would have cost Carolina time, and there’s always a chance that Dennis Allen’s defense might have shut down Carolina before hitting midfield, but I had no issue with turning the ball over to Brees and asking him to win the game by finding a 2-yard completion. (ESPN’s win probability model disagreed with me, but I believe the numbers would be much more favorable accounting for Brees and the Saints’ offense as the ones going for it.)

Now, the Saints have to travel to play the Vikings, whose only real weakness might be at kicker. Cameron Jordan should give Keenum trouble, but the Saints will likely miss guard Andrus Peat, who was carted off the field with a leg injury during Sunday’s win. If the New Orleans running game slips even a tiny bit, Brees could be spending most of his day in third-and-long against a team that allowed a league-low 25.2 percent conversion rate on third downs this season.

The Saints would then play either a home game against the Falcons or travel to face the Eagles. I’m not sure which would be a better matchup for the Saints, given that they would likely be 3-4 point favorites in either game. They have a roughly similar slate to Atlanta, but I suspect a neutral team would rather play the Wentz-less Eagles and Saints than the Vikings and Falcons.

What would help: Tennessee upsetting New England. With a roughly similar outlook awaiting the Saints if they were to make it to the NFC Championship Game, the best-case scenario for them would be if the top seed in the AFC went packing. I’m sure the Saints would love a Jags upset too, but any NFC team would prefer to face the Titans in the Super Bowl over the three other possible contestants.

Divisional round: at Eagles
Conference championship: at Saints or Vikings
FPI chances to win Super Bowl LII: 4.4 percent

The 2016 Falcons offense carried them in the postseason, where their defense got hot, their pass rush came to life, and Dan Quinn’s team torched everyone until running out of gas in the second half against New England. If you want to believe that the Falcons can repeat the feat this year, Saturday’s upset win over the Rams was straight out of the 2016 playoff playbook.

The Falcons shut down the Rams at what they did better than anybody else in 2017: get yardage after the catch. Sean McVay’s team produced an average of 6.6 YAC per reception this season, which topped the league and was the fifth-best mark of the past decade. The Rams dropped below 4 YAC per catch in just one game with Jared Goff in 2017, and that came against the Jaguars and their all-world pass defense.

Led by a pair of enormous open-field tackles from Brian Poole, the Falcons managed to hold Los Angeles to an average of just 2.6 YAC on their 24 catches Saturday night. It was their best job all season of limiting teams after the catch, and of the 520 NFL defensive performances from this NFL season, Atlanta delivered the 24th-fewest YAC in any game of the campaign. They held Todd Gurley –who still haunts Titans players in their sleep two weeks after he ran through them like a stomach flu — to 10 receiving yards on 10 targets. They hassled Goff into mistakes and forced him from his perch in the pocket. Falcons defenders knocked away 10 of Goff’s 21 incompletions.

You can fault McVay for getting away from the running game, given that the Rams ended up with 48 pass attempts and just 14 Gurley rushing attempts, but the Falcons’ secondary delivered a masterful performance against the league’s top-scoring offense. The Atlanta offense wasn’t as impressive, with Matt Ryan spending much of the game under siege from Aaron Donald, but a pair of long Matt Bryant field goals and two short fields set up by Rams turnovers on punts tided over the Falcons before a late touchdown drive gave them some breathing room.

Now, the Falcons get to face what looks like an inviting 1-seed in the Eagles, who have a total question mark at quarterback with Foles. Philadelphia’s quarterback averaged just 5.1 yards per attempt and posted a Total QBR of just 28.1 over his three starts in December, placing him behind Mitchell Trubisky and DeShone Kizer for 29th in the league. The Philadelphia running game also has gone into the tank since he arrived, as the Eagles ranked fourth in wins added with their running game through Week 14 and subsequently fell to 28th in Weeks 15-17.

Given how much the offensive line struggled against a stout Rams front, it’s easy to imagine Fletcher Cox & Co. giving Ryan hell on Saturday. The Falcons will need to respond in kind. Last season’s sack leader Vic Beasley has gone quiet this season and had just one sack or knockdown during the second half of the campaign, although he added a coverage sack by being the first to touch Goff after a slip Saturday night. Adrian Clayborn racked up just 1.5 sacks in six games after destroying backup Cowboys left tackle Chaz Green on national television. Can he do the same against Eagles fill-in Halapoulivaati Vaitai?

The Falcons don’t have a path to any home games as the sixth seed, which isn’t ideal. Getting to play the Eagles as a favorite, though, is an unprecedented treat for a sixth seed. They probably would prefer to play the Saints, with whom they split the season series, as opposed to the Vikings, but the Falcons should be competitive in either matchup. The Rams might have been the most prohibitive favorite Julio Jones & Co. face this postseason.

What would help: Jacksonville upsetting Pittsburgh. I am willing to bet that the Falcons would like to get revenge for their Super Bowl loss (and subsequent regular-season defeat) at the hands of the Patriots, so taking out New England’s toughest rival just makes it more likely Atlanta gets the rematch they want.

Divisional round: vs. Jaguars
Conference championship: vs. Titans or at Patriots
FPI chances to win Super Bowl LII: 13.3 percent

Likewise, while it’s a much tougher matchup than a would-be rematch against Tennessee, you have to imagine that the Steelers are excited to try to exact some revenge from the Jaguars. It’s still unclear whether Pittsburgh will be getting something resembling the real Antonio Brown for the postseason, but the Steelers scored 34 points on the Texans in Week 16 without Brown in the lineup and should be able to rely on a heavy dosage of Le’Veon Bell, who has had two weeks to rest after a 406-touch regular season.

If chalk holds, Pittsburgh’s narrow loss to the Patriots in December would send Mike Tomlin’s team to New England for the AFC Championship Game. The Steelers have gone 0-5 against Tom Brady in Massachusetts, and they would be underdogs on the occasion of their sixth trip too. Foxborough isn’t exactly a fortress, as Mark Sanchez and Joe Flacco can tell you, but the Steelers would much rather be spending January in Pittsburgh, where they were only slight underdogs to the Patriots in Week 15. One tiny movement of the football on the goal line in December might very well be the difference in Pittsburgh’s season.

What would help: Tennessee upsetting New England. Getting to the Super Bowl without having to beat the AFC East champs would be nice.

Divisional round: vs. Titans
Conference championship: vs. Jaguars or Steelers
FPI chances to win Super Bowl LII: 31.7 percent

Tennessee’s win on Saturday night must have been a welcome sight to the Patriots. It eliminated the Chiefs, who have beaten the Patriots twice in the regular season in recent years, including a Week 1 victory in Foxborough this season. The upset victory also ensured that the Patriots would host one of the two weakest teams in this bracket during the divisional round, matching them up with either the Bills or Titans. Tennessee is listed as a 13-point underdog on Saturday night, which doesn’t bode well for its chances.

The Pats also will have home-field advantage for the AFC Championship Game, which will help. Their 70.2 percent shot of playing the Steelers in that game makes it a little less exciting, but the Pats were favored to win in Pittsburgh by 2.5 points, which implies that they would be expected to win by more than a touchdown at home barring any new injuries. A healthy Antonio Brown might have been enough to swing the regular-season matchup Pittsburgh’s way, but the Steelers would need a massive effort to upset the Patriots at home and make it to the Super Bowl.

New England would presumably also be favored in the Super Bowl against any NFC team … with possibly one exception. It’s just enough to push the Patriots down to second place.

What would help: Jacksonville upsetting Pittsburgh. While Jacksonville’s defense could clamp down on the Patriots, you have to imagine that Belichick would happily take his chances trying to stop Blake Bortles as opposed to Ben Roethlisberger. Heck, at this point, he might prefer to face Bortles over Landry Jones.

Divisional round: vs. Saints
Conference championship: vs. Falcons or at Eagles
FPI chances to win Super Bowl LII: 18.8 percent

Despite making it to the postseason as the 2-seed, the Vikings should be favored throughout the remainder of the NFC postseason. They’ll either be at home against the Falcons or on the road at the Foles-led Eagles, and if the Falcons are road favorites in Philadelphia, the Vikings will be treated in a similar fashion. Minnesota is laying 3.5 points at home against New Orleans this week in a game FPI projects them to win 68.1 percent of the time; the Vikings will almost surely be larger favorites in the NFC Championship Game if they win on Sunday.

Super Bowl LII then becomes a fascinating proposition to project, in part because we have no prior evidence to use as a basis for analysis. The Vikings would be the first team in league history to play in the Super Bowl at their home stadium, which raises all kinds of questions. Would they be allowed to use the same hype cues, including their ubiquitous third-down horn? With the AFC representative designated as the “home” team for this Super Bowl, would the Vikings be kicked out of their own locker room and forced to dress in the visitors locker room instead?

It’s difficult to figure out what home-field advantage for the Vikings would actually mean in a Super Bowl. We don’t know what the crowd would be like, given that so much of the Super Bowl audience consists of corporate sponsors and fans of other teams. Vikings fans would have access to just 22.5 percent of Super Bowl tickets, although they could obviously buy more on the secondary market. It’s also true that most neutral fans would likely root for an underdog Vikings team against the Patriots, although the same wouldn’t necessarily be true for other opponents.

We also don’t necessarily have a great grasp on what actually constitutes home-field advantage, which makes it difficult to gauge. Studies suggest most of home-field advantage is driven by referee bias favoring the home team, which is in turn likely caused by the crowd. If 77.5 percent of the crowd isn’t rooting its hearts out for the Vikings, is Mike Zimmer’s club as likely to get those close calls as they would be in a typical home game?

Under any circumstances, it’s pretty clear that the Vikings would be better off in a Super Bowl at home than they would be, say, in Miami or New Orleans. One sportsbook suggested that the Vikings would be favored against every AFC opponent in a possible Super Bowl matchup, although I’d be skeptical that the Patriots wouldn’t actually end up as favorites by kickoff. Even if we treat the home-field advantage as being worth half its typical value, playing in Minnesota as opposed to on a neutral field is worth 4-5 points to the Vikings as opposed to any other NFC team.

In a typical year, the Vikings might not be especially compelling as a 2-seed. They would be underdogs against an Eagles team with Wentz in the NFC Championship Game. The Patriots and Steelers would both be favored to win over a Keenum-led offense on a neutral field. In this endlessly bizarre 2017 campaign, though, everything is breaking right for the Vikings. They just need to hold up their end of the bargain to become the first team in league history to play a home Super Bowl.

What would help: Tennessee upsetting New England. The only game in which the Vikings are likely to be underdogs from here on out would be in the Super Bowl against the Patriots. Eliminating Brady & Co. would be a franchise-altering win for the Titans, but it also would do wonders for the Vikings’ chances of winning their first Super Bowl in franchise history.



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