The best part about projecting playoff games 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 things one step further by adding an increased emphasis on outcomes in Weeks 11-16 (and 17, where applicable). Don't worry -- Weeks 1-10 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 (reflecting, say, an improving defense, or the ability of a rookie quarterback to adjust to NFL game speed) or negative (like with regard to offenses whose new plays are countered by adapting defensive strategies, or teams that lose key players to injury). The attributes of current playoff teams are compared with the historical data to create the projections below.
Before we get to that, though, some housekeeping. Assessing and understanding the performance of my models is key to sustaining and improving their accuracy every season. So let's take a quick look back: Ahead of the 2019 regular season, my model projected the Saints and Patriots to meet in Miami for Super Bowl LIV, which no longer projects to be the most likely scenario (it's now the fifth-most-likely pairing). Two highlights from my preseason predictions: that the Ravens would be a boom-or-bust team (and that tight end Mark Andrews would be their leading pass catcher), and that two teams from the NFC West and North would make the playoffs (with Green Bay having the highest ceiling in the NFC North). A low-light: predicting that the Browns and Chargers would earn wild-card berths.
Overall, my regular-season model (169-86-1) culminated in a pre-Week 17 projection that got all of the playoff teams -- and 10 of their 12 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 more information, and I'm constantly updating it to reflect the most current trends, situations, matchups and strategies.
Back to the playoffs at hand. I ran my playoff model 2,200,000 times (200,000 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 squad, providing an area that projects as a strength and another that projects as a potential vulnerability. Teams are listed in order of the seed they hold, from No. 1 to No. 6.
1) Baltimore Ravens
Win AFC: 40.8 percent
Win Super Bowl: 20.1 percent
Strength: Efficient defensive pressure.
I'm not ignoring Lamar Jackson, but this highly efficient offense is complemented by a pass defense that makes it nearly impossible for opponents to earn the points necessary to catch up to Jackson and Co. When the Ravens have pressured opposing quarterbacks this season, they've allowed a league-low 36.7 passer rating (per Next Gen Stats) and a league-low completion percentage of 33, with three touchdowns and five interceptions. Between the pressure up front and the back limiting space for pass-catchers to work with, Baltimore held opposing offenses to a 28.4 percent third-down conversion rate in Weeks 11-16, which was the second best in the NFL over that time period.
Area of concern: Can they adjust if they have to play from behind?
Given the generally high caliber of competition in the playoffs, it's reasonable to expect the Ravens will have to catch up to an opponent at some point. The wrinkle is, that's not something they had to do much of -- so we don't really know how they'll respond. During the regular season, the Ravens averaged 8 points per game in the first quarter on offense and allowed an average of just 1.9 on defense. Baltimore is 14-0 when tied or ahead at the half, meaning both of the Ravens' losses came when they were trailing early in games. In wins, they've rushed an average of 38.2 times per game (on 58.2 percent of snaps), while in losses, they only rushed 30.5 times per game (on 42.1 percent of snaps). If they fall behind early, the advantage they get from being multiple on offense lessens, and they become more predictable (that is, forced to lean on the pass) for opposing defenses.
2) Kansas City Chiefs
Win AFC: 26.3 percent
Win Super Bowl: 16.4 percent
Strength: Run game.
The Chiefs had the highest third-down conversion percentage in the NFL between Weeks 11-17 (51.4 percent), and during that period, they rushed on 44.8 percent of plays, up from Weeks 1-9, when they kept it on the ground for only 35.1 percent of plays. Digging deeper, it was not long runs but rather strategic carries that drove their efficiency, as 73 percent of third-down runs resulted in a first down (the most in the NFL), a figure that was nearly 10 percent better than the next closest team (the Lions, at 63.3 percent). Patrick Mahomes and the passing attack are fierce, but the ability to pick up first downs on the ground can get the offense through tight spots and keep defenses on their toes.
Area of concern: Defensive reliability.
In Weeks 11-17, the Chiefs were extremely efficient at defending against passes of 10-plus air yards, holding opposing passers to a 22.6 passer rating (lowest) and 5.9 yards per attempt (lowest by 2 yards), with two touchdowns to eight interceptions (best -- all stats per NGS). This helped drive the league's best scoring defense (allowing 11.5 points per game) in the last seven weeks of the season. I bring this up here because rookie safety Juan Thornhill was just lost for the rest of the season with a torn ACL, and his absence at a crucial position could be a source of inefficiency. Furthermore, the Chiefs exhibited a concerning lack of consistency against the run. In Weeks 1-10, Kansas City allowed 5.14 yards per rush (third most) and 3.8 rushes of 10-plus yards per game (in Weeks 11-17, this figure decreased to 3.0 per game). They also allowed 12 rushing touchdowns in the beginning of the season (1.2 per game) and only two -- total -- in Weeks 11-17.
3) New England Patriots
Win AFC: 15.4 percent
Win Super Bowl: 8.2 percent
Strength: Passing (and rushing!) defense.
The Pats led the NFL with a 40.8 passer rating allowed on pass attempts of 10-plus air yards, per Next Gen Stats. The next closest team? The Bills, who allowed a 60.8 passer rating. New England's dominance against opposing aerial attacks might not be surprising for the second-ranked pass defense in the NFL in 2019. But it's also interesting to note that rushing against New England has gotten less efficient. Teams ran on 36.6 percent of plays in Weeks 1-10 (4.72 average, five rushing TDs allowed) and 40.8 percent of plays (3.61 average, 2 rushing TDs allowed) in Weeks 11-17.
Area of concern: Passing offense ... especially under pressure.
Next Gen Stats show that Tom Brady has only completed 45.4 percent of his pass attempts of 10-plus air yards (22nd among QBs with 75-plus such attempts), while he has a passer rating of 81.9 on throws outside the numbers (25th in the NFL among QBs with 75-plus such attempts). This is due partly to his receivers dropping 34 passes (second-most, per Pro Football Focus) and partly to the fact that his targets are averaging less separation at the time the ball is released compared to the past three seasons (a decrease of 2-foot-3 in separation). Under pressure, Brady has the 23rd-lowest completion percentage (37.4) among those with 75-plus such attempts, which is a decrease of almost 15 percentage points from his 2016-18 average of 52.1 percent (per NGS). Another factor in these lowered numbers? Play design has not featured as many successful, higher probability options on first down (e.g., shorter passes and efficient rushes) as it has in years past, leading to a decrease in average yards per play on first downs of a full yard (from 6.3 in 2018 to 5.3 this year).
4) Houston Texans
Win AFC: 8.6 percent
Win Super Bowl: 1.6 percent
Strength: Quick-strike offense.
Next Gen Stats shows that Deshaun Watson completed 78.1 percent of quick passes (passes thrown in under 2.5 seconds), the third highest rate among those with 100-plus such pass attempts. Creative use of running backs and tight ends to create short gains has helped offset the impact of an O-line that has allowed 49 sacks (eighth-most). This strength can also be seen in DeAndre Hopkins' 62 receptions on throws of less than 10 air yards (second most, per NGS). One thing to watch: second down, where the Texans used passes extremely efficiently in Weeks 11-17. They averaged 4.51 (30th) in yards per play on first down but 5.77 yards per play on second down (fifth most), passing on 61.6 percent of second-down plays.
Area of concern: Run defense, especially outside the tackles.
Overall, the Texans have allowed the sixth highest yard-per-rush mark (4.81), which ballooned to second-most (5.36) over Weeks 11-17. NGS shows that Houston has been especially vulnerable outside the tackles, where the Texans allowed 5.7 yards per rush (second-worst). To make it through the AFC, it's likely any team will have to best the Ravens ... and Lamar Jackson averages 8.0 yards per rush outside the tackle (most in the NFL for any position among those with 50-plus such carries).
5) Buffalo Bills
Win AFC: 4.4 percent
Win Super Bowl: 0.9 percent
Strength: Pass defense.
The Bills are the only team in the NFL to not allow a deep pass to be caught for a touchdown. On attempts of 20-plus air yards, the Bills had the league's best regular-season passer rating allowed (23.4), while only the Ravens allowed a lower passer rating when pressuring the quarterback than the Bills did (45.0). Part of the reason for this is elite corner play (on the part of Pro Bowler Tre'Davious White) but also the impact of safeties and linebacker Matt Milano in coverage, which combined to create horrible passing opportunities for opposing QBs.
Area of concern: Over-reliance on Josh Allen's legs.
Excluding Week 17, the Bills were 1-3 when quarterback Josh Allen had six or fewer rushing attempts and 9-2 when Allen rushed seven or more times. Context matters a lot here, as these aren't necessarily designed runs, but the ability to leverage Allen's mobility impacts the ability to earn first downs. In wins, the Bills earned almost four more first downs per game, helping them score 10.3 more points per game (23.5 in wins versus 13.2 in losses). Thus, the Bills' offense goes as Josh Allen goes, dependent on both his mobility and the ability to mesh his scrambling with the field-stretching capabilities of puzzle pieces like receiver John Brown. If Allen can be bottled up, the Bills will be in trouble.
6) Tennessee Titans
Win AFC: 4.5 percent
Win Super Bowl: 0.8 percent
Strength: Run and pass balance creating play-action efficiency.
Over Weeks 9-17, the Titans averaged 6.11 yards per rush and called for the run on 50.3 percent of plays (highest in the NFL). On first and second down combined, they not only had the highest rushing average (6.35) but also the highest yards-per-play mark (7.73), with a 123.0 passer rating. Per PFF, Ryan Tannehill led the NFL with a 143.3 passer rating on play-action passes this season. The more interesting part of this is that the Titansalso notched the highest per-attempt average (13.5) on play-action. It's easier to have "better" stats using shorter (and higher-probability) passes, but it's even more efficient to have such a balanced approach, which forces defenses to constantly account for both the ground and air attack -- leading to more first downs, touchdowns and wins.
Area of concern: Inconsistent pass defense, especially on the back end.
The Titans' secondary definitely suffered from injuries this season, and their ability to generate pressure overall was lessened. NGS shows that the Titans applied pressure on 25.5 percent of opposing quarterback dropbacks (18th) in 2019. When they did use the blitz, they pressured opposing QBs at the fourth-highest rate (35.9 percent) -- but the back end didn't hold up its end of the bargain, allowing a 114.5 passer rating when blitzing (30th), along with 11 touchdowns against one interception.