Game Theory

Super Bowl contenders or pretenders? Classifying NFL's eight division leaders

A quarter of the way through the 2020 NFL regular season, each team's identity is starting to come into focus ... kinda.

Now, it's always fair to question the importance of league standings after just four weeks of action. Conclusive takes in early October often look foolish by late December. That said, given the unprecedented nature of this COVID-19-impacted campaign, it's worth exploring this unique season on its own terms.

So far, teams have scored 30-plus points in a game 52 times. That's a staggering figure. Not only is it the highest number through four weeks in any season since the 1970 merger, but it's the highest number by a whopping 16 occurrences! The next-closest season is 2013, when teams hit the 30-point mark 36 times over the first four weeks. And don't forget, we're even missing a game this season, with the postponement of Steelers-Titans.

Long story short: It appears defenses are suffering the worst consequences of minimal offseason activity and zero preseason games.

It's fair to assume defensive efficiency will start to pick up across the league as we get further into the season -- which could level the playing field and bring more normalcy to gameplay -- but exactly when is a pretty significant unknown. Which speaks to the larger theme of the 2020 campaign: navigating the unknown. Thus, it's probable that the teams which got off to a fast start, banking wins over the first month of play, have a significant advantage in terms of making the expanded, 14-team postseason.

To honor that new format, we're reframing the contender and pretender designations from past editions a bit. Now, contenders aren't just those teams which forecast to make the playoffs, but rather teams that project to advance to at least the Divisional Round. Winning one playoff game or being the one team from each conference to earn a bye is now the new threshold for being a CONTENDER -- anything less than that now equals PRETENDER status.

Relying on situational data with a proven relationship to past success -- data which has been adapted as much as possible to reflect this season's unique trends -- I've used my model's predictive lens to help separate the current division leaders into our new framework for contenders and pretenders.

NOTE: The teams are ordered below from strongest contender (Chiefs) to weakest pretender (Eagles).

STRONG CONTENDERS

Kansas City Chiefs
Kansas City Chiefs
AFC West · 4-0

With their Week 3 win in Baltimore, the Chiefs put themselves in the driver's seat to earn the AFC's only bye. Now, the defending champs haven't been dominant. In fact, they didn't score a single first-quarter point in Week 1 or Week 2. Still, historical models show that playing from a diversity of point differentials (ahead, tied and behind) early in the season, but ultimately winning all of those games, is about 33 percent more correlated with at least one postseason win. Talking to coaches about what the cause of this could be, they generally came to two conclusions: 1) These teams are better at making in-game adjustments; and 2) they are taking more real-time reps in higher-pressure situations. That's the kind of stuff that significantly impacts postseason matchups.

Green Bay Packers
Green Bay Packers
NFC North · 4-0

As of Week 4, even with Davante Adams and Allen Lazard dealing with injuries, Aaron Rodgers, Aaron Jones and Co. have Green Bay set up with the best odds of earning the coveted NFC playoff bye. However, the Packers remain a step below the Chiefs, the current favorites for the AFC's top seed. Why is this? Well, let's start with a few negative indicators on defense. On first down, Green Bay allows the second-most yards per play (7.9, only the Dolphins allow more) and the most yards per rush (5.9). Allowing efficient first downs, especially on the ground, creates difficult conditions to overcome a point deficit (due to fewer offensive drives/allowing other teams to be ball-control offenses). Meanwhile, Rodgers is off to a hell of a start, completing 70.5 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns (against zero interceptions) and a 128.4 passer rating. A big reason for this: Green Bay's keeping the 36-year-old signal-caller quite clean. My computer vision measures that Rodgers has been under pressure on the third-fewest percentage of dropbacks in the NFL. He's only been sacked three times, tied for fewest among qualifying passers. But with a depleted receiving corps, what if Rodgers starts having more trouble finding open receivers? The data here suggests that, if Rodgers were to experience more pressure, completions would decrease and giveaway opportunities would increase. At the moment, Green Bay is the only team that has yet to commit a turnover. That's obviously unsustainable. A regression should be forthcoming in that area.

Buffalo Bills
Buffalo Bills
AFC East · 4-0

Josh Allen's immense improvement (+12.1 completion percentage and +37.4 passer rating from 2019) in Brian Daboll's architecture, Buffalo's continuity and high-level results from the O-line, along with the addition of Stefon Diggs, have resulted in the third-year quarterback boasting a sparkling touchdown-to-interception ratio (12:1) and the second-highest yards-per-attempt rate (9.0) in the NFL. This offense also ranks third in big plays (passes of 20-plus yards + runs of 10-plus yards), another metric of success that, if the trend holds, will be a big factor for the Bills beyond the regular season.

CONTENDERS

Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh Steelers
AFC North · 3-0

The Steelers are kind of the opposite of most teams on this list, as their defense has created a major advantage in the early goings of this season. The stifling unit has contributed a higher win share contribution than Pittsburgh's offense. The Steelers have generated the most disruptive pressure (coming within a 5-foot halo of a quarterback in his field of vision when he has the ball) in the league, and they rank second with 15 sacks despite having a game postponed. Pittsburgh also boasts the highest disruption percentage on first down by a healthy 1.5 percent (23.3 vs. Washington's 21.8) and is tied for the league lead with seven first-down sacks (again, with one less game played than 30 other teams).

Seattle Seahawks
Seattle Seahawks
NFC West · 4-0

Russell Wilson keeps the Seahawks above the pretender line, but it's closer than you might think. Russ is cooking to the tune of the highest win share in the NFL (1.1 games so far), a race which forecasts to be a neck-and-neck battle between Wilson and Aaron Rodgers from here through the end of the season. But Wilson's defense -- specifically, unit's lackluster pass rush -- is a potential problem. Currently, the 'Hawks rank 27th in disruptive pressure. Seattle also ranks dead last in total defense and passing defense, and 30th in third-down D.

Tennessee Titans
Tennessee Titans
AFC South · 3-0

With only three games of data, the Titans are seven percent less clear than other teams. Their defense flags as a potential area of concern. However, like Kansas City, Tennessee's offensive versatility and ability to overcome deficiencies in other phases of the game project for stronger later-season results. The Titans' defense currently ranks 30th in disruptive pressure (coming within a 5-foot halo of a quarterback in his field of vision when he has the ball). According to my model, that ranking projects to increase to about 16th over the course of the season. That might not sound great at first blush, but additional context is required. The way the Titans use their multiple-front looks rarely results in a top disruption percentage, but it leverages the back and front of the defense together, allowing the unit to generate turnovers and be efficient. Tennessee's D must improve quickly in two areas, though, in order to solidify their contender status: red-zone defense (31st) and rushing defense (dead last in yards per carry). The Titans' offensive personnel and their health are optimized to be a ball-control monster (like last season), but if their defense doesn't improve, this is incongruent with their highest probability strategy on offense.

PRETENDERS

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
NFC South · 3-1

Before you start cursing my name and disparaging my model, allow me to explain a bit. First, remaining-schedule win probabilities are factored in to help determine most likely playoff seeding. Then the predictors simulate the postseason, which factors in all potential matchups/opponents. As of now, I do not have the Buccaneers favored to win the division, with the Saints holding a narrow advantage in the percentages of 48.3 to 46.4. We'll all get a better sense of the Bucs' postseason potential when they play the Packers (Week 6), Rams (Week 11) and Chiefs (Week 12), not to mention the rematch vs. the Saints (Week 9). In this Thursday's matchup with the Bears, one of the questions raised in my data will likely start to become clearer, and that is whether or not the offense can stop giving the ball away. Tampa has six turnovers, tied for ninth-most. Tom Brady's adjustment to this offense, with its unique architecture and these specific surrounding castmates, was always going to occur on a learning curve. However, ball security has typically been a big strength for Brady, so we'll soon see if the Bucs are getting over that curve or if mounting injuries will prolong it. The other concerning flag is on defense. Let's be clear: Over the first four games, this defense has been extremely stout, ranking fourth in total D, third in sacks and second in takeaways. Still, there are some indicators that stopping the pass could be an issues against playoff-caliber teams. On third down, the Bucs are allowing a 122.1 passer rating (fourth-highest). Also, Next Gen Stats shows that Todd Bowles' unit has blitzed on the second highest percentage of dropbacks (42.0) since 2019. The results have largely been positive, but rookie Justin Herbert shredded Tampa's blitzing last week (6-for-8, 122 yards, two TDs). Could this continue to be a problem going forward?

Philadelphia Eagles
Philadelphia Eagles
NFC East · 1-2-1

Philadelphia's tied with Dallas for the most giveaways in the NFL (nine). Interestingly, all four NFC East teams have at least eight, which doesn't really factor into the Eagles' ability to win a Wild Card Weekend game, but does help contextualize why the Eagles are easily the biggest pretender on this list. It's no secret that the NFC East is having a down season and likely to only contribute one team to the playoffs. But at 1-2-1 and playing a first-place schedule, the Eagles miss the playoffs in 59.1 percent of my simulations. (I do 100,000 per remaining game.) In my model, the Eagles win the division in just 35.5 percent of simulations, while the Cowboys earn a berth 46.5 percent of the time. Philly's depleted offensive line -- which increases turnover odds and certainly doesn't help this scattershot version of Carson Wentz -- is a big problem.

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter @cfrelund.

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