NFL Playoff Picks: Who Will Win it All?

In my statistical rankings piece for this week, I wrote this about the Indianapolis Colts:

“As for the Colts, they’re balanced: #10 in defense, #12 in offense. I love that Indy’s run game has come along as of late, but my issue with them is that they’re really not elite at any one thing in particular. They’re good-not-great in most every category, but I think you need to be great at something in order to win a Super Bowl. And that’s what leads to this question: do the most complete teams win the Super Bowl every year? Just because I value completeness with these rankings doesn’t mean the most complete teams are locks to go to the Super Bowl.”

So what’s the secret formula? The Saints are my best statistical team in the league because they’re ranked #4 on defense and #5 on offense, but is that actually the formula for winning a Super Bowl? The Bucs are #6 in offense and #6 in defense in my statistical rankings, but is that good enough in either to win it all?

You can make the case that you’d rather your team be elite on either offense or defense, because it’s better be elite at something than merely good (or even very good) at two things.

For instance, would you rather have the #1 offense and a suspect, mediocre defense, or would you rather have the #5 offense and the #5 defense?

If you go to the extremes, I think I’d rather have a team like the Titans, who are top-5 on offense and bottom-5 on defense, than a team that is 16th in offense and 16th in defense. I think I’d rather be elite in one category and bad in the other than be average in both. Average doesn’t win Super Bowls.

It’s the “jack of all trades, master of none” dilemma. Do you want to be well-rounded, or specialized?

I mean, yeah, obviously you’d prefer to have the best offense and the best defense in the league, but that generally never happens. The league is just too competitive and has too much parity due to the salary cap, free agency, other teams making adjustments & catching up to you, etc.

Often, it feels like Super Bowl teams are elite in one category (offense or defense) while getting just enough production in the other category to win games. Last year, the Chiefs were seen as the elite offense while the 49ers were the elite defense. But then again, the 49ers also had a really good offense. And the Chiefs’ defense really started coming around late in the season.

Both teams ranked the top-5 in scoring offense last year. And in scoring defense, Kansas City actually ranked #7 in the league in 2019 while the 49ers ranked #8.

In 2018, the Patriots were the #4 scoring offense and the #7 scoring defense, while the Rams were the #2 scoring offense and the #20 scoring defense.

A couple recent Super Bowl matchups have been “top defense vs. top offense” ordeals. You had 2016 with the Patriots vs. the Falcons. Then you had 2013 with the Seahawks vs. the Broncos.

It should be obvious that you want to be as good as possible on both sides of the ball. But since we know that’s generally not possible in the modern era, let’s try to figure out–generally–where you have to be in terms of offense and defense in order to be a realistic Super Bowl contender.

Since 2000, the average Super Bowl team has ranked 6.9 (out of 32) in points scored, and 8.4 in points against. If we narrow it down further to Super Bowl offenses since 2010, the average offense is 6th in the league. The average defense is ranked 9th. So since 2010, as expected, offensive teams are more favored.

The lowest-ranked scoring offenses to make a Super Bowl since 2000: the 2008 Steelers (20th), the 2015 Broncos (19th) and the 2002 Bucs (18th). In order to compensate for the lack of offensive production, those teams boasted the #1, #4 and #1 scoring defenses respectively. So if you’re going to be below-average on offense, you best be historically elite on defense. Interestingly, those three teams all won the Super Bowl.

Since 2016, the lowest-ranked scoring offense to make a Super Bowl was the 2019 Chiefs, who ranked 5th.

The lowest-ranked scoring defenses to make Super Bowls since 2000: the 2008 Cardinals (28th), the 2016 Falcons (27th), the 2011 Giants (25th), the 2006 Colts (23rd), the 2013 Broncos (22nd), the 2018 Rams (20th) and the 2009 Saints (20th). Those teams’ scoring offenses ranked 4th, 1st, 9th, 2nd, 1st, 2nd, and 1st respectively. You’re seeing these teams with poor defenses compensate heavily by having elite offenses.

A caveat to keep in mind when looking at these teams’ points for/against stats is that the #1 team in the league in one season does not necessarily equate to the #1 team in the league in another season. For example, in 2013, the #1 scoring offense was the Broncos, who scored an incredible 606 points that season, which averages out to nearly 38 points per game. But the following season, 2014, the Packers were the highest scoring team in the league and they only put up 486 points (30.4 per game). This is why I included the totals along with the ranks in the tables.

The gap between 1 and 2 also matters: in 2014 when the Packers were the highest scoring offense in the league with 486 points, the Broncos came in at #2 with 482 points. So 1 and 2 were very, very close. But in 2013, when the Broncos scored 606 points, the #2 scoring offense was the Bears, who scored 445. So in 2014, the gap between 1 and 2 was 4 points. But in 2013, the gap between 1 and 2 was 161 points. So this is something to keep in mind.

In general, though, we should expect the Super Bowl winner to be ranked in the top 10 in both scoring offense and scoring defense.

So which teams would make the cut this season?

The top 10 scoring offenses this year are as follows (total points scored in parentheses):

  1. Packers (509)
  2. Bills (501)
  3. Bucs (492)
  4. Titans (491)
  5. Saints (482)
  6. Chiefs (473)
  7. Ravens (468)
  8. Seahawks (459)
  9. Colts (451)
  10. Raiders (434)

The Raiders are the only team in the top 10 scoring offenses that didn’t make the playoffs, so obviously they’re eliminated from consideration.

Now let’s look at the top 10 scoring defenses. I’m going to put the teams that were also top-10 scoring offenses in bold:

  1. Rams (296)
  2. Ravens (303)
  3. Steelers (312)
  4. Washington (329)
  5. Saints (337)
  6. Dolphins (338)
  7. Patriots (353)
  8. Bucs (355)
  9. Giants (357)
  10. Chiefs & Colts (T-362)

So now we’re left with the Ravens, Saints, Bucs, Chiefs and Colts as the only teams in the league that ranked in the top 10 in both scoring offense and defense. Again, just because a team is not ranked in the top-10 in both categories does not mean they cannot win a Super Bowl. There are plenty of examples to the contrary. Just because you’re not one of those five teams doesn’t mean you can’t make the Super Bowl.

Here’s where the other playoff teams this season rank in terms of points scored and against:

  • Packers: #1 scoring offense, #13 scoring defense (369 pts–only 7 behind the Chiefs who rank #10)
  • Bills: #2 scoring offense, #16 scoring defense (375 pts)
  • Seahawks: #8 scoring offense, #15 scoring defense (371 pts)
  • Rams: #22 scoring offense (372 pts), #1 scoring defense
  • Steelers: #12 scoring offense (416 pts), #3 scoring defense
  • Titans: #4 scoring offense, #24 scoring defense (439 pts)
  • Browns: #14 scoring offense (408 pts), #21 scoring defense (419 pts)
  • Bears: #23 scoring offense (372 pts), #14 scoring defense (370 pts)
  • Washington: #25 scoring offense (325 pts), #4 scoring defense (329 pts)

Even though the Packers and Bills each rank outside the top-10 in scoring defense, I don’t see that as precluding them from making the Super Bowl.

A few more interesting stats of note:

  • 7 times since 2000 has the #1 scoring offense made the Super Bowl. Those teams are 1-6.
  • The 15 highest-scoring Super Bowl teams since 2000 are a combined 4-11.
  • 8 times since 2000 has the #1 scoring defense made the Super Bowl. Those teams are 6-2.
  • The 15 best defenses in terms of points-allowed to make the Super Bowl since 2000 are 9-6 combined.
  • The top 10 teams in terms of overall point differential (points scored minus points allowed) to make the Super Bowl since 2000 are a combined 3-7.
  • The top 5 teams in terms of overall point differential to make the Super Bowl since 2000 are a combined 1-4. That list is the 2007 Patriots (+315), the 2001 Rams (+230), the 2013 Broncos (+207), the 2015 Panthers (+192), and the 2016 Patriots (+191). Only the 2016 Patriots won the Super Bowl.
  • The average number of points scored for a Super Bowl team since 2000 is 429.
  • The average number of points allowed for a Super Bowl team is 295.
  • The 2011 Giants are the only team since 2000 to make a Super Bowl despite having a negative regular season point differential. They were outscored by 6 points that year, yet still were able to win the whole thing.
  • To my knowledge, only two teams in league history have been #1 in scoring offense and #1 in scoring defense: the 1972 Dolphins and the 1996 Packers. No team since those Packers has done it. But there have been a few teams that came close: the 2016 Patriots were #1 in scoring defense and #3 in scoring offense. The 2007 Patriots were #1 in scoring offense and #4 in scoring defense. The 2006 Bears were #2 in scoring offense and #3 in scoring defense.

So what does all this data mean? Who’s going to the Super Bowl?

I’ve got to admit: the more I’ve learned here the less it feels like I know. How do you explain the 2011 Giants winning the Super Bowl with a negative point differential, and the 2007 Patriots losing the Super Bowl with the best point differential in NFL history? There’s so much here that doesn’t make sense.

I guess what I’d say is that statistics only serve as a starting point for evaluating teams. There’s so much other stuff that goes into the equation: team chemistry, leadership, whether a team is hot or cold, injuries, weather conditions, coaching, gameplans, and execution. Every team has a weakness, even the greatest teams; the question is whether their opponents can exploit that weakness.

One thing I’d also keep in mind is the cold weather in the NFC, as the Packers have the #1 overall seed and home field advantage. The Saints and Bucs are both warm-weather teams and if they have to go up north to Lambeau, it could present some problems and possibly knock them off their games. The cold weather in Lambeau is a major x-factor.

So who is going to win the Super Bowl? Here’s my bracket:

I’ll admit it: I don’t really love my picks. But I didn’t want to go with all chalk. Having a Chiefs-Packers Super Bowl would be boring.

So I took the Ravens to upset the Chiefs. I know, I know: Lamar is 0-2 in the playoffs and they laid an egg last year when they were the best team in the league. So this could obviously blow up in my face.

But the Ravens are the top rushing offense in the league and they play good defense. That might just be the correct formula to beat the Chiefs. If the Ravens can run all over that mediocre Chiefs run defense and keep the ball away from Mahomes, they’ve got a real shot. Another part of it is that the Chiefs just haven’t looked great in their past few games. They were either phoning it in for the regular season or they really are falling apart. I’m going to gamble that it’s the latter–that they won’t be able to flip the switch once they take the field again, and that the Ravens are going to take them out.

I don’t know if I fully believe it’s going to happen, but hey, you never know. The Ravens are scorching hot right now. But if they go down 14-0 to Kansas City, they’re in major trouble.

I’ve got the Steelers beating the Browns because basically the entire Browns coaching staff is out for the playoff game due to Covid. That really sucks, and it’s a major bummer that the Browns are getting screwed by Covid in their first playoff appearance in 18 years.

I’ve also got the Bills taking out the Colts in the first round. It’s a home game for Buffalo, they’re on fire lately, and I just don’t think the Colts will be able to score enough points to keep up. However, that Colts run game with Jonathan Taylor is really coming around lately and if Indy is going to win the game, they will have to rely heavily on him to keep the ball away from Josh Allen. Still, I don’t think it’ll be enough.

In the next round, I’ve got the Bills taking down the Steelers in Buffalo once again. Pittsburgh just seems like a team that has run out of gas, while Buffalo is firing on all cylinders. This sets up a Ravens vs. Bills AFC Championship Game, and I’m taking the Bills.

On the NFC side, I’ve got the Saints handling the Bears. I think the Bucs will have some trouble with Washington but should be able to get ‘er done. And the hardest game to pick for me was the Seahawks-Rams game, but I went with Seattle because of all the injuries and uncertainty for the Rams right now, plus the fact that the Seahawks are at home. I wanted to pick the Rams because I think their defense is phenomenal, but my gut was telling me to go Seahawks.

I want to see the Bucs go to the Super Bowl, but I don’t think they’ll be able to win in Lambeau. Brady has plenty of experience playing in the cold, but I don’t know if the rest of the team will be able to. I think the Packers will avenge that ugly 38-10 loss to the Bucs from earlier in the season by taking advantage of the Bucs’ suspect secondary. So I’ve got the Packers, although I would not be surprised at all to see the GOAT win that game. After all, Tampa has already beaten Green Bay once this year. But then again, it’s hard to beat a team twice in one season. Both teams are red-hot right now.

Down in New Orleans, I think the Saints will be too much for the Seahawks. But in the NFC Championship game, I just can’t see the Saints going into Lambeau and winning. The Saints just do not strike me as a team that will do well in the cold. So I have the Packers in the Super Bowl against the Bills, and in that game I think the Packers get it done. They have a better running game, a more experienced, all-time great QB playing arguably the greatest season of his career, and a defense that I believe is just good enough to give Rodgers the help he needs to win a Super Bowl.

The reason Aaron Rodgers doesn’t have more Super Bowls is because the Packers’ defense has been gashed so many times in the playoffs. Last year the 49ers ran all over them in the NFC Championship game to win 37-20. In 2016, the Falcons blew them away 44-21. In 2015, the Packers’ defense let Larry Fitzgerald run wild and the Cardinals were able to win the game. In the 2014 NFC Championship, the Packers choked away a 19-7 lead in the final two minutes of the game, and it all hinged on that bobbled onside kick by the Green Bay special teams. Then there were two straight years where Colin Kaepernick just ran all over them.

I still don’t know if this year’s Packer defense is good enough to get it done. But I do know the Packers have home field advantage and that it is so valuable this time of year. The Packers have not lost in the playoffs at Lambeau since 2013. They haven’t had the #1 seed in the NFC since 2011, so it’s a big deal that they have it this year. Their biggest competition in the NFC, fortunately, are two warm-weather teams that will have a lot of trouble coming up to Lambeau and winning. So I have the Packers coming out of the NFC and winning the Super Bowl over the upstart Bills.

However, I would not be surprised if the Bills win that Super Bowl game. It’ll be at a neutral site with warm Florida weather, and Josh Allen is a special player. I just don’t know if I’m fully a believer in the Bills yet.

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