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 NFC 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) San Francisco 49ers
Win NFC: 27.8 percent
Win Super Bowl: 16.3 percent
Strength: Passing offense since the Emmanuel Sanders trade.
I measure a wide receiver's impact both by what happens when he is the passing target ("on ball") and how he changes the opportunities for other pass catchers and ball carriers, depending on the play call, to earn first downs and touchdowns ("off ball"). Sanders' on-ball impact was most obvious in San Francisco's 48-46 Week 14 win over the Saints (nine targets, seven catches, 157 yards, touchdown), but one of the best ways to observe his off-ball impact is through rookie Deebo Samuel. In addition to acclimating to the pro game as the season went on, Samuel benefitted from Sanders drawing more focused coverage from opposing defenses, earning 75 or more yards in four games after Sanders joined the team (he had five such games total).
Area of concern: Decreased pass-rush pressure in recent games.
In Weeks 1-8, the Niners' front pressured opposing quarterbacks on 33.6 percent of dropbacks (the second-highest rate in the NFL during this span, per Next Gen Stats). In Weeks 9-17, this rate dropped to 21.7 percent (26th). There is a balance between strategic use of pressure and inability to effectively implement it, and some of this is a factor of game script. However, over the same weeks San Francisco allowed a 40-point passer rating increase, going from 58.0 in Weeks 1-8 (second-lowest, per NGS) to 98.8 (27th). The Niners gave up five passing touchdowns in the first eight weeks of the season ... and 18 in the final nine.
2) Green Bay Packers
Win NFC: 23.1 percent
Win Super Bowl: 14.9 percent
Strength: Defensive line.
During the regular season, the Packers pressured opposing passers on 33 percent of dropbacks, tops in the NFL according to Next Gen Stats. OLB Za'Darius Smith led the league with 71 quarterback pressures and NT Kenny Clark added 49 (14th overall). With 15 sacks and 24 quarterback hits on third-and-6-plus, the Packers have allowed just a 59.7 passer rating (third-lowest, per NGS), meaning their pressure has helped stop drives in key passing situations.
Area of concern: Passing inconsistency, especially on third down.
On third down this season, Aaron Rodgers' 87.5 passer rating ranks 18th among qualified QBs, and two of his four interceptions have come on third-and-6-plus. These numbers go beyond Rodgers' individual performance. In certain games, pressure -- resulting from poor O-line play -- has been the culprit. In other situations -- specifically, when Davante Adams was out due to injury -- Green Bay's receivers were unable to create separation or hang on to balls through the catch. Green Bay will have to string together strategic and efficient passing games to make it to Miami.
3) New Orleans Saints
Win NFC: 23.2 percent
Win Super Bowl: 15.0 percent
Strength: An aerial attack that's peaking at the right time.
Wait, how does the No. 3 seed (with no bye) have better odds of reaching and winning the Super Bowl than the No. 2 seed? One big advantage is the offensive efficiency New Orleans has displayed on early downs through the air. In Weeks 11-16, Drew Brees completed 75.9 percent of his passes for 19 TDs and a 125.9 passer rating. With the league's highest win-share receiver (at a whopping 3.5 games, which is more than a game greater than the next-closest receiver), the on- and off-ball impact Michael Thomas confers -- along with Drew Brees, who ranks in the top seven overall in win shares this season himself -- helps create great odds for earning first downs and touchdowns, ultimately driving wins.
Area of concern: What's the true impact of Sheldon Rankins and Marcus Davenport going on injured reserve?
Week 14 was the last game with both players on defense. In Weeks 1-14, the Saints were able to pressure opposing quarterbacks on 29.3 percent of plays (seventh-best, according to Next Gen Stats). Over the past three weeks, that number has dipped to 23.7 percent (18th). However, this takes more context to understand, as two of those games were blowouts (New Orleans beat the Colts 34-7 in Week 15 and the Panthers 42-10 in Week 17), while the other one was a 10-point win for the Saints.
4) Philadelphia Eagles
Win NFC: 5.2 percent
Win Super Bowl: 1.1 percent
Strength: Creative, efficient offense despite injuries.
Since Week 14, Pro Football Focus counts 31 screen-pass attempts by the Eagles' offense (most in NFL). During the current four-game win streak, Wentz has completed 28 of 31 screen passes for 237 yards. The next-closest team over this time period is the Cardinals with 178 yards. With Miles Sanders and Boston Scott in the backfield and Dallas Goedert taking a big step forward this season (especially when Zach Ertz has been banged up), the Eagles are strategically game planning, and it's paying off.
Area of concern: Slow starts.
With a patchwork offense -- which just took another hit, as exceptional guard Brandon Brooks (shoulder) landed on IR -- getting off to a slow start projects to be especially punishing against playoff-caliber teams. Wentz has only thrown three touchdown passes in the first quarter this season (tied for 22nd). In just 13 games during his dynamic 2017 campaign, Wentz threw 10 first-quarter touchdowns. While we've seen the Eagles QB improve as games evolve, it's a much more difficult path to earning wins against stiffer competition. For context, Wentz has an 88.6 passer rating in the first half (24th, per Sportradar), but that figure increases to 97.4 (11th) after the break. And he's been especially efficient in third quarter, when he peaks with a 110.9 (seventh).
5) Seattle Seahawks
Win NFC: 10.3 percent
Win Super Bowl: 2.4 percent
Strength: Russell Wilson overcoming his pressure-friendly O-line.
With left tackle Duane Brown banged up and the backfield extremely depleted, Wilson's ability to produce has driven the third-highest win share in my model for any player this season (4.7 games). Next Gen Stats shows that Wilson's 104 passing attempts from outside the tackle box are tied with Deshaun Watson for the most in the NFL. Wilson has also completed 81 passes on the run (with a moving base), tops in the league.
Area of concern: Inconsistent defensive pressure.
Jadeveon Clowney led the Seahawks with 33 QB pressures this season, the second-fewest for any team leader (per NGS). With Clowney banged up, it's worth looking at Seattle's splits with the edge rusher on and off the field. With Clowney, Next Gen Stats shows that Seattle's defense pressures quarterbacks at a rate of 24.6 percent, with a 4.8 percent sack rate. Without him? Those figures drop to 17.5 and 3.9. In a wild-card game against the also-banged-up Eagles, whichever defense is able to generate the most effective pressure will be a big factor in deciding the winner.
6) Minnesota Vikings
Win NFC: 9.7 percent
Win Super Bowl: 2.3 percent
Strength: Run game leading to play-action efficiency.
On early downs (first and second), Dalvin Cook's 5.6 scrimmage yards per touch ranks fourth among running backs, per Sportradar. Stability in the run game helps drive better play-action results and allows a team to overcome O-line flaws. Per Pro Football Focus, Kirk Cousins is tied with Lamar Jackson at 14 touchdown passes off play-action. Overall, Cousins ranks fourth in the NFL with a 129.2 passer rating on play-action passes.
Area of concern: Corner play.
Former first-team All-Pro Xavier Rhodes has struggled mightily in coverage this season, allowing the highest completion percentage (84.3) and third-highest passer rating (127.8) among the 87 corners with at least 50 targets (per PFF). In Sunday's game, Saints WR Michael Thomas projects to be the kind of problem that a shutdown corner would really help with.