NFL Playoff Predictions
The NFL has never been shy about self-promotion.
After a year where you could not escape hype about the league’s ‘biggest season ever,’ attention turns to the playoffs and ‘Super Wild Card Weekend.’
Given the incredible end to the regular season and some of the matchups across the three days of wild-card round action, it’s tough to blame the NFL for going into PR overdrive.
Two AFC East foes are gearing up for their third meeting in likely arctic conditions while the league got a dream draw when a pair of the league’s pre-eminent franchises were pitted against each other for the first time in the postseason since the 1994 campaign.
But no trophies are won in January, with the wild-card round the first step on a winding road that will end on Feb. 13 in Los Angeles.
So which teams have the best odds of lining up for the first kick in front of the flashbulbs at SoFi Stadium? Our rest-of-season – or, in this case, postseason – projection can answer that question.
It projects every future game to give a predicted win percentage for each team across its remaining games. Rather than being a simulator of future games, the projections are calculated by looking at each team’s quarterback and QB EVE – performance in terms of yards added in expected passing situations – as well as team values for pass protection/pass rush, skill position players/coverage defenders and run blocking/run defense.
For the postseason, the projection has been used to calculate each team’s odds of winning a home game against every postseason team (shown here below), with those predictions then used to forecast each franchise’s chances of reaching and winning the Super Bowl. (We realize that certain matchups couldn’t occur, like an AFC team hosting an NFC club for example.)
What will happen this weekend and down the road? Here are the projections for the six wild-card matchups and how the Super Bowl odds stack up heading into a weekend that will need to go some way to live up to the drama of Week 18.
Calling the Wild Card Round
If the projections prove prescient, the first day of Super Wild Card Weekend will be a thriller.
The Las Vegas Raiders surged into the playoffs and confirmed their return to the postseason in a game for the ages against the Los Angeles Chargers.
They visit the Cincinnati Bengals in the first round, and that game looks to be another that will test the blood pressure. The Bengals are given a 51.8% chance of prevailing, the smallest probability of any AFC team hosting a playoff game this weekend.
It would be no surprise to see that game turn into a shootout given it features two of the league’s premier quarterbacks in well-thrown percentage this season. Bengals star Joe Burrow ended the regular season having delivered an accurate well-thrown ball on 86.5% of pass attempts, the best ratio in the NFL for quarterbacks with at least 200 throws. Carr (82.1%) was third.
An aerial battle in Buffalo looks unlikely with temperatures not expected to get out of the single digits the entire day as the Bills host the New England Patriots.
The Patriots may therefore hope for a repeat of their Week 13 encounter when they won 14-10 with Mac Jones throwing only three passes, though the projection has the Bills as favorites with a win probability of 56.6%, which indicates it could be a little close for comfort for Josh Allen and Co.
Arguably the highlight of the weekend comes on Sunday when the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys renew their historic rivalry in Texas.
The Cowboys are slight favorites with a 54.2% win probability, their hopes of justifying that status resting on the offense’s ability to prove its explosion in Week 18 was not just a product of playing Philadelphia’s backups and the defense’s success in slowing down a loaded offense that finished the regular season first in yards per play (6.11) led by a wide receiver in Deebo Samuel tied for second in burn yards per route (3.7) among wideouts with at least 100 targets.
Yet the game that precedes the blockbuster in Dallas is forecast to be even tighter, the banged-up defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers given just a 51.4% chance of knocking off the Philadelphia Eagles. That is in stark contrast to the other second seed-seven seed matchup on Sunday, in which the Kansas City Chiefs have a win probability of 87.6% against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Despite the Arizona Cardinals prevailing in Los Angeles way back in Week 4, the Rams have a 71.7% chance of winning the first Monday wild-card matchup, reflecting the projection’s confidence in the latter NFC West club.
As the four seed, Los Angeles would head to Green Bay for the divisional round with the Cowboys visiting the Buccaneers in a repeat of the season curtain-raiser. There would be a rematch of last season’s conference title game in the AFC between the Bills and Chiefs, while the Tennessee Titans could start preparing for a home game with the Bengals.
Will Brady & Co. Repeat?
The Chiefs’ position as the heaviest favorites for Round 1 is reflective of how the projection views their hopes of returning to and winning the Super Bowl.
Indeed, talk of the Chiefs’ demise that dominated much of the first half of the season appears to have been greatly exaggerated. With a 47.5% chance to reach the Super Bowl and a 25.4% chance to win it, the Chiefs look primed to re-establish themselves as the dominant power in the NFL.
Should they do so, the projection suggests they will achieve the feat versus the team that calls SoFi Stadium home. It is the Rams, rather than the Packers, who boast the best odds to come out of the NFC, the projection giving them a 27.5% chance to play a home Super Bowl and a 19.1% shot of replicating the Buccaneers in winning the title on home turf. With 6.5% odds of winning the Lombardi again, Tom Brady will again have to defy expectations for Tampa to successfully defend the trophy.
Green Bay’s (11.5% chance to win the Super Bowl) position behind the Rams suggests the Packers will again fail to take advantage of a first-round bye having come up short in the NFC championship game in each of the last two seasons.
There’s no doubt the projection sees the NFC as the stronger conference and that is hammered home by every NFC team except the Cardinals (2.3%) having a higher chance to win the Super Bowl than the second-ranked AFC team, the Bills (4.8%).
Undoubtedly the biggest surprise is that the Eagles have the sixth-best odds to lift the Lombardi Trophy at 5.9%. The projection has them favored in any potential matchup with the Cardinals and every AFC team aside from the Chiefs.
The Eagles arguably underperformed at 9-8 as they finished the year sixth in EVE, below only the Buccaneers, Niners and Rams in the NFC, but their Pennsylvania neighbors the Steelers, by contrast, are not expected to pose any sort of a threat, Pittsburgh given just a 0.30% chance of winning the Super Bowl having finished 25th in EVE.
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Data modeling by Kyle Cunningham-Rhoads. Design by Matt Sisneros.