This weekend, the NFL will whittle its playoff field from eight teams to four.
In this space, I’m going to cut it all the way down to one and name the Super Bowl LII winner.
To inform my predictions, I analyzed 30 years of Football Outsiders data on team strength. If I’m right, I’ll take all the credit. If I’m wrong, I’ll blame it on football randomness.
Football Outsiders measures team strength using a statistic it calls Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, or DVOA. DVOA takes every play and compares a team’s success on that play with the league average. It is adjusted for situation and opponent. It’s expressed as a percentage, where a positive percentage indicates an above-average performance and a negative percentage indicates a below-average performance. So if a team has a DVOA of 10 percent, that means it played 10 percent above the league average. (When separating DVOA by offense and defense, the best offenses have a positive rating and the best defenses have a negative rating.)
Will the Patriots repeat? Will the Steelers win their seventh Super Bowl? Will the Jaguars, Titans, Eagles, Vikings or Falcons win their first?
Let’s find out.
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We remember the 2007 Giants for their upset of the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. That’s a remarkable feat in itself, but it’s even more impressive when you consider that they had the lowest DVOA of any Super Bowl winner in the past 30 years. Their 1.9 percent DVOA ranked 14th. Teams with an efficiency rating that low generally don’t make the playoffs, let alone win a Super Bowl.
Nine of the 12 teams in this season’s playoffs finished the regular season with a DVOA of at least 2 percent. The Bills (-9.8) didn’t, and they’re already gone. The Titans (-5.6) and Falcons (1.5) are next.
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The Jaguars defense is the best in football. It held opponents to league lows in yards per drive (22.9), points per drive (1.3), completion percentage (55.9) and passer rating (66.0). It also had the second-most sacks (55) and takeaways (33).
As for the offense, well, it’s kind of like a Nicolas Cage movie. No one wants to see it.
The Jaguars have done their best to keep it from view, particularly quarterback Blake Bortles. This season, they’ve rushed the ball more often than any other team.
That formula worked against their AFC South rivals and the Bills, who technically play in the AFC East but truly belong in the AFC South. Hey, if the NFL’s cartographers can say that Indianapolis is in the South, they can do the same to Buffalo.
For Jacksonville to get to the Super Bowl, however, Bortles will have to be more than a game manager, as Greg Cosell said during an appearance this week on the NFL Films Podcast.
“You can’t hide your quarterback in the NFL playoffs,” he said. “That doesn’t mean he needs to drop back 45 times, but you can’t hide him. He’s going to need to make some throws in difficult situations when the defense has the tactical advantage.”
Teams have overcome their offenses to win a Super Bowl before, but they’ve needed a historically great defense to do it. The 2015 Broncos (-25.8 percent DVOA) did it, as did the 2008 Steelers (-29.0), the 2002 Buccaneers (-31.8) and the 2000 Ravens (-23.8). As good as the Jaguars defense is (-16.1), it’s not nearly as dominant.
It was fun while it lasted, Jacksonville. Actually, it wasn’t. But on to the next cut, which would be a shocker had I not spoiled it in the headline ...
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By just about every conceivable measure, the Patriots are the favorites to win the Super Bowl. ESPN gives them a 32 percent chance. FiveThirtyEight gives them a 34 percent chance. Football Outsiders gives them a 29 percent chance.
It’s assumed that they’ll squash the Titans and then beat the Steelers because they always beat the Steelers in the playoffs (3-0 in the Belichick and Brady era).
Their 13-3 record, however, has masked a potentially fatal flaw: their defense. Their defense is fine, you say? On the surface, it seems so. They allowed the sixth-fewest points per drive (1.7).
They also allowed the most yards per drive (35.3). The Bucs, by the way, allowed the second most.
So how could the Patriots allow that many yards and so few points? This is usually when someone uses the “bend-but-don’t-break” cliche to describe their defense. While New England statistically has one of the better red zone defenses, there’s a deeper reason for its success: field position. To score against the Patriots, offenses have to string together longer drives.
The playoffs, though, feature offenses that can do that. The Patriots offense led the league in yards per drive. The three next-best offenses? The Falcons, Saints and Steelers. The Vikings finished eighth, and the Eagles finished 11th.
By DVOA, New England’s offense is the NFL’s most efficient and the defense is the second-least efficient. No team in the past 30 years has been that lopsided and reached the Super Bowl. The closest comps are the 2011 Patriots and the 2016 Falcons, and they both lost.
Beat it, Patriots.
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Now it gets tricky. Outside of the Steelers, the Eagles, Vikings and Saints are the most balanced teams left in the playoffs. There’s no clear favorite here.
Let’s start with the Eagles, underdogs at home against the Falcons on Saturday. No Carson Wentz, so they’re finished, right? Not so fast. Their defense is among the best; it ranks in the top five in yards per drive (27.5), points per drive (1.5), turnovers per drive (0.159) and three-and-outs per drive (0.286). They’re stingy against the run, allowing a league-low 79.2 yards a game. The team they don’t want to face in the NFC championship? The Vikings. They’re every bit as good defensively.
One more reason to like Philadelphia: Teams rarely come out of nowhere to win the Super Bowl. The Eagles ranked fifth in DVOA last season, but the Vikings ranked 20th and the Saints ranked 21st.
Teams improve like Minnesota and New Orleans all the time and reach the Super Bowl. They just don’t win it. Only two teams in the past 30 years ranked in the bottom half in DVOA and then won the Super Bowl the next season — the 1999 Rams and the 2001 Patriots.
The Saints fit that out-of-nowhere profile a bit more than the Vikings, however. New Orleans has been a below-average team for the past three seasons. As for Minnesota, its defense has improved every season since coach Mike Zimmer arrived in 2014. Its offense has improved, too, except for last season, when quarterback Teddy Bridgewater suffered a gruesome knee injury in August and coordinator Norv Turner abruptly resigned after seven games.
You’re out, Saints.
If the NFC comes down to the Eagles and Vikings, I give the edge to the Vikings. They’re not having to game plan around a quarterback they don’t trust. Both defenses will generate pressure, and Case Keenum has handled it well all season. His 78.5 quarterback rating was the eighth best. Nick Foles’ 23.8 rating was the worst.
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That means Super Bowl LII will be … the Steelers vs. the Vikings, a rematch of Super Bowl IX.
You could argue this one either way. Super Bowl experience matters. This would be Ben Roethlisberger’s fourth and Keenum’s first. Active quarterbacks who have played in a Super Bowl are 35-19 in the playoffs against quarterbacks who have not.
Defense matters, too, and that’s where Minnesota has the slight advantage. Over the past 30 years, the team with the better defense has won 58 percent of the time.
My prediction: The Vikings will party like the 1999 Rams and become the first team to win a Super Bowl on its home field.
Disagree? Share your picks in the comments section below.
Contact Thomas Bassinger at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @tometrics.