After trying to project Week 17 rest-versus-reps strategies for teams that had already clinched playoff spots -- which I complain about having to do but secretly love -- it's finally time to switch over to January football.
I did project before the season that the Saints and Chiefs would meet in the Super Bowl (Really! You can check it out HERE) and the nerdy math coder in me thinks it's pretty cool that they both earned No. 1 seeds. Overall, my regular-season model (record of 167-87-2 in game picks) culminated in a pre-Week 17 projection that got the playoff teams and their respective seeds correct. Things certainly don't always go as my math predicts, but the point I am trying to make here is that my model adapts and learns as it's fed with more information and I'm constantly updating it to reflect the most current trends, situations, matchups and strategies.
Now, the best part of the playoffs is that teams have to win to advance, meaning each club should maximize all 60 minutes of play in every game. My 15-season historical playoff model is like my regular-season model in that it factors in the observed characteristics, trends, play-calling and matchup results of teams in each game. However, the playoff model takes it one step further by adding increased emphasis on outcomes in Weeks 12-16. Don't worry -- Weeks 1-11 are still included, but I have found that putting greater weight on recent play significantly improves the accuracy of the model. As teams' units work together over the course of the season, they evolve and their efficiency and effectiveness can change. This can be positive (often for improving defenses or a rookie quarterback adjusting to NFL game speed) or negative (like for offenses when defensive strategies catch up to their new plays or for teams that lose key players to injury). The attributes of current playoff teams are compared with the historical data to create the projections.
I ran my playoff model 220,000 times (20K times per remaining game) and here are the results for each AFC team's chance to win the conference title and the Super Bowl. I also added a note for each team on an area where they have a predictive flag for being strong, and where they might be vulnerable. Teams are listed in order of the seed they hold, from No. 1 to No. 6.
1) Kansas City Chiefs
Win AFC: 31.1 percent.
Win Super Bowl: 16.2 percent.
Strength: Pass rush.
I could just write "Patrick Mahomes" here and I think you'd get it, but another important factor for the Chiefs is their ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks. They have three players with at least nine sacks: Justin Houston (9), Dee Ford (13) and Chris Jones (15.5), and their excellent pass rush doesn't get the shine it deserves. Considering Kansas City's offense has averaged 32.2 points per game over its last five games and 35.3 for the season, it makes sense that the Chiefs' defense, which has largely been playing with a lead, has seen teams throw against it 61.7 percent of the time (tied for eighth-most). Thus, an efficient pass rush is a huge key to the Chiefs advancing.
Area of concern: A full season of game tape on Patrick Mahomes now exists.
It's easy to point out that the Chiefs' defense gives up the most first downs in the league (26.2 per game) and then talk about the leaky middle-of-the-field pass defense or rushing vulnerability. However, a bigger concern might be that defensive coaches now have 17 games (16 this season and one from 2017) of film on Mahomes. I'm taking nothing away from his talent -- he does have strong indicators that his trajectory could be among the upper level of the elite, but the chances for him (and Andy Reid's play-calling) to sneak up on a defense diminishes with every snap he takes. The more film teams have, the harder it could be for Mahomes and Co. to keep scoring at such a high rate. Mahomes is just the second player in NFL history to throw for 5,000 yards and 50 TDs in a season, which is even more impressive considering some of his wide receivers have been banged up and he lost his RB1 a month ago. But if defenses start to do a better job of limiting the team's ability to move the ball -- and, as I mentioned, the Chiefs' scoring average did tail off a little late in the year -- it could be problematic, given the inefficiency of the Kansas City defense.
2) New England Patriots
Win AFC: 25.5 percent.
Win Super Bowl: 13.5 percent.
Strength: Run blocking and early-down consistency.
The Pats have averaged the second-most first downs on early downs per game (15.6 on first and second down combined) over the past five contests, which is almost identical to their full-season average of 15.5. This consistency reflects their efficiency and balance on offense -- defenses have been forced to respect the threat of the run and pass on every down. The run blocking has paved the way for the Pats to lead the league in rushing touchdowns on third down (7), and they also have the most total touchdowns (19) on third down.
Area of concern: Run defense on first down.
Most offensive coaches will say earning 4 yards on first down is considered a success. So, with that being the case, offenses have had a great deal of success running against New England on first down of late -- the Pats' defense has allowed a league-high 7.2 yards per rush on first down over their past five games. This is up from 4.3 in Games 1-11 (15th in the NFL). In Weeks 12-16 last season, the Pats averaged 4.1 rushing yards allowed on first down, and the number was 3.5 over the same span in 2016. The ability for opponents to control the clock and/or set up more difficult second and third downs for the Pats' defense is a crucial factor since it could also limit the Tom Brady-led offense's opportunities to score.
3) Houston Texans
Win AFC: 12.4 percent.
Win Super Bowl: 5.0 percent.
Strength: Stopping the run.
The Texans allowed a league-low 3.4 yards per rush and eight rushing TDs (third-fewest) during the regular season. In fact, they gave up just 2.6 yards per carry over their last five games (also tops in the league). They'll face the Colts on Saturday, who ranked sixth in the league in rushing attempts and tied for second in rushing TDs over the past three weeks, so Houston's run stopping will be a big key to maximizing the overall impact of its elite front on defense.
Area of concern: Depth at wide receiver.
The Texans have the lowest third-down conversion rate among playoff teams (37 percent for the season and 34.3 percent over their past five games), and Deshaun Watson was sacked a league-high 62 times this season (tied for the most by a QB who's advanced to the playoffs in the Super Bowl era). I could point to their O-line as a weakness, especially in pass protection, but the offense's small turnover number (16, tied for third-fewest) is an impressive feat -- it shows how well Watson has adapted and how their scheme has accounted for a subpar unit up front. However, at this point in the season, and with that leaky O-line, having receivers Will Fuller and Demaryius Thomas on injured reserve could be tough to overcome. Houston's DeAndre Hopkins is one of the best wide receivers -- if not the best receiver -- in the NFL, but it puts the Texans at a disadvantage to head into the playoffs with their next-most-targeted wide receiver being a 21-year-old who hasn't played since Week 12 due to a hamstring injury (Keke Coutee) and three of the five receivers on the roster being rookies.
4) Baltimore Ravens
Win AFC: 13.2 percent.
Win Super Bowl: 6.9 percent.
Strength: Defensive efficiency.
The Ravens have the fifth-best third-down percentage allowed (32.2) and the second-best rushing average allowed (3.4 yards per rush) over their past five games. They've also allowed the third-fewest yards per drive this season (26.3) and the second-fewest points per drive (1.62). Pretty much the only area where the Ravens' defense isn't among the top units of the league is in takeaways (they have 17, which is tied for 22nd).
Area of concern: Passing consistency.
Don't get me wrong -- an efficient run game is a huge predictor of success, and we've seen the Ravens capitalize on their surging ground attack in the past five games. They've averaged 219.6 rushing yards, 44 rushes (62.5 percent of their plays) and more than 35 minutes of possession over that span -- all tops in the NFL. The problem is, when you add context to the passing situations in Games 12-16 that resulted in their 56.2 percent completion percentage (31st in the league) and 88.4 passer rating (17th), they don't forecast well should the Ravens find themselves needing to rely on the pass to pull off a come-from-behind win.
5) Los Angeles Chargers
Win AFC: 9.3 percent.
Win Super Bowl: 4.9 percent.
Strength: Depth at wide receiver and efficiency.
I created a metric earlier this season that measured the impact of wide receivers in terms of how they help their teams earn first downs and touchdowns. This measures when they're targeted and how they draw coverages/influence defenses when they aren't targeted. The Chargers' receiving corps -- led by Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and Tyrell Williams -- has the highest total value over the past five games and it ranks fifth for the season. Allen ranks fourth-highest among all receivers.
Area of concern: Between-the-tackles pressures allowed.
The Chargers' O-line, and especially the interior, has been inconsistent against quick pass rushers. Interior pressures have limited Philip Rivers' ability to continue drives, as L.A.'s guards have allowed the 10th-highest disruptive pressure rate this season. The Week 16 loss to the Ravens -- who they'll face again on Sunday -- was a good example of this problem, as Rivers was pressured on a season-high 43.9 percent of his dropbacks. Fortunately for the Chargers, Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler are expected to play Sunday (Ekeler missed the Ravens game last month), and Rivers' ability to connect with the aforementioned receiving corps increases as the team limits obvious passing downs. The road to the Super Bowl is paved with excellent pass rushers, and a quality running game can help keep them at bay.
6) Indianapolis Colts
Win AFC: 8.5 percent.
Win Super Bowl: 4.0 percent.
Strength: Offensive efficiency.
The Colts' O-line was a huge factor in their midseason turnaround that ultimately led to their playoff berth. Since Week 5, the Colts have allowed the fewest sacks of any team, going five straight games -- and, at one point, 239 consecutive pass attempts -- without allowing even one. They also finished the season with the league's best third-down conversion percentage (48.6 percent), which helps tell part of the team's overall efficiency story. Projecting the Colts' regular-season success in these areas into the playoffs, they boast a big advantage using play-action, especially on first down.
Area of concern: Pass defense.
On its face, allowing 202.4 passing yards per game during the Colts' final five games (ranking 15th) seems about the same as their season average of 237.8 (ranking 16th), but this is where context matters. They rank 29th in first downs allowed from passes and 31st in defensive completion percentage allowed (70.8). Games against run-focused offenses (and a shutout of the Cowboys) deflated their overall averages and kind of mask the weakness. To put this in perspective, Eli Manning threw for 309 yards against the Colts in a Week 16 game in which Odell Beckham Jr. didn't play.