Way back before the start of the NFL season, we gave you five simple rules ‘Why Your Team (Most Likely) Isn’t Winning The Super Bowl This Year,’ and now we are back to lay out some more data from past years to give an idea which team might wind up in the Super Bowl and sporting the diamond-encrusted rings after this year’s playoff tournament.
We found some statistical trends that coincided with many teams that wound up with the NFL title. Some obvious stats were all over the map, as they didn’t seem to have much bearing on wins – rushing yards, sacks, third-down conversions, etc. But we did find some stats that did seem to correspond with playoff success.
We are now in the 58th year of the Super Bowl era, and the game has changed so much over the years that it’s virtually impossible for any one statistical metric to stand true for each of the past six decades. So, for the most part we basically looked at the “Tom Brady Era,” from his first season as a starter (2001) to now.
We’ll take a look at some metrics and how this year’s crop of playoff teams stacks up for each of them.
Since 2001, teams with first-round byes have reached the Super Bowl 33 of 44 times – a 75 percent rate. From the 2001 through the 2019 seasons, first-round byes were given to the top two seeds (out of six) in each conference. After the playoff field was expanded to seven in both the AFC and NFC conferences for the 2020-21 season, only the No. 1 seed received a bye.
When teams get a week off between the end of the regular season and their first playoff game, that gives injured and banged-up players extra time to heal up and recharge, and also gives coaches even more time to prepare for their next opponent.
This year’s byes: 49ers, Ravens
Since the 2001 season, 29 of 44 teams that reached the Super Bowl ranked in the top 10 in yards gained (passing and running), and every team since 2016 has been in the top 10 – that’s 14 in a row.
Among the top 10 in these playoffs: Ravens, Bills, Chiefs, Dolphins, 49ers, Cowboys, Lions
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Since the 2001 season, 14 of the 22 Super Bowl champions had either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed, and the average seed for all conference champions since then is 2.
This year’s top two seeds: 49ers, Ravens, Bills, Cowboys
Many times, a team will get hot just in time for the playoffs, whether it’s because offensive and defensive schemes finally begin to click, key players get healthy, or maybe team chemistry just hits a sweet spot.
Look at this year’s Bills. At one point, they were 6-6 and everyone was wondering what’s up with this team that is usually among the title contenders. Well, they’ve won five straight, captured the AFC East title and secured the No. 2 seed.
Or look at Tom Brady’s 2020 Buccaneers. They lost three of four to go to 7-5, then won their final four regular season games and then four more in the playoffs to win the ring.
Since the 2001 season, AFC and NFC conference champions were a combined 159-59 in regular season games in December and January. Only the 2012 Ravens (1-4), 2009 Saints (2-3) and 2006 Colts had losing records in those winter months. You can pretty much toss the Saints from this list, because even though they lost their final three games, they had already wrapped up the No. 1 seed and had nothing to play for. Drew Brees eventually led that team past Peyton Manning’s Colts for the Super Bowl title.
This year, the teams that didn’t have winning records in December and January include the Chiefs, Dolphins, Steelers and Eagles.
Records vs. Playoff Teams
You can get a glimpse of a team’s potential postseason success by noting how they’ve done against playoff teams during the regular season. This year’s Dolphins racked up a solid season but only beat one team with a winning record – the Cowboys.
Of the 20 conference champions over the past 10 years, only two teams – the 2021 Rams and 2020 Bucs – had losing records against teams in the regular season that eventually made the playoffs that year.
This year, the teams that had losing records against playoff teams include the Chiefs, Dolphins, Cowboys, Bucs and Rams.
The “NFL is a passing league” – how many times have you heard that on a game broadcast? – and it’s been that way for a long time. Thus, getting through the playoff gauntlet and ultimately winning the Super Bowl requires that a team has a signal-caller who can make quick and smart decisions with pass-rushers bearing down on him, and can do so in big moments on a pressure-packed stage.
That’s why, as we stated in our earlier piece, only four of the past 31 Super Bowls have been won by a QB who will not be in the Hall of Fame. The other winners either have already been inducted or certainly will be, such as Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger.
Let’s look at this year’s crop. Of the 14 starting QBs in the playoffs, these guys would be in the conversation for being in the Hall someday:
- Patrick Mahomes (Chiefs)
- Lamar Jackson (Ravens)
- Josh Allen (Bills)
- Matthew Stafford (Rams)
These guys have been solid QBs this season but Canton seems unlikely at this point:
- Dak Prescott (Cowboys)
- Jalen Hurts (Eagles)
- Jordan Love (Packers)
- Joe Flacco (Ravens)
- Tua Tagovailoa (Dolphins)
- Mason Rudolph (Steelers)
- Jared Goff (Lions)
- Baker Mayfield (Bucs)
Too early to tell on these two:
- Brock Purdy (49ers)
- C.J. Stroud (Texans)
As we also mentioned in our earlier article, no rookie QB has reached the Super Bowl, so that counts out Stroud. There hasn’t been a repeat champion since 2005, so that could count out the Chiefs. Only five of 57 Super Bowl winners were under .500 in the previous season, so if you give any weight to that, these playoff teams won’t be under the confetti in Las Vegas: Browns, Texans, Rams and Packers. And the final intangible is that only three Super Bowl runners up won it in the following season, which nearly rules out the Eagles this year.
Let’s not discount playoff experience, however, which can override a lot of other factors. These are the playoff records of this year’s QBs:
- Mahomes 11-3
- Flacco 10-5
- Stafford 4-3
- Purdy 2-1
- Allen 4-4
- Goff 3-3
- Hurts 2-2
- Mayfield 1-1
- Jackson 1-3
- Prescott 2-4
If we give merit to the trends of all these metrics, these teams check off the most boxes:
- Ravens (first-round bye, top 10 offense, high seeding, winning record in Dec-Jan, winning record against playoff teams, potential Hall of Fame QB)
- Bills (everything above except first-round bye)
- 49ers (everything above except potential HOF QB, but Purdy has had a great season)
All that said, it all depends on how much weight you give to certain factors. How bad is it to have a losing record against playoff teams? Can you ride a not-great QB to the Super Bowl, like SF did with Jimmy G in 2020? Can you collapse after Thanksgiving and then flip the switch during playoff time, like Philly is hoping?
We’re not going out a limb to say that the Ravens and 49ers seem to be on a trajectory toward a rematch in Super Bowl LVIII. John Harbaugh and Kyle Shanahan are two of the NFL’s best coaches, with two Super Bowl trips between them (Ravens won it in 2013), and their teams have been the best this season.
But to make this interesting, we are throwing in a couple of other possibilities:
The Bills line up with all the metrics we’ve discussed, plus they have the 9th-best defense (in yards allowed) in the NFL and they’ve won five in a row with a great QB (Allen) at the helm.
The Browns have the No. 1-ranked defense in the league and have emerged from the brutal AFC North after having lost their star QB (Nick Chubb) and QB (Deshaun Watson). And they have a QB in Flacco who has won 10 playoff games and a Super Bowl.
The Rams. People kind of forget it’s been only two years since they won the ring behind Stafford. Head coach Sean McVay is only in his seventh year as a head coach but has already been to two Super Bowls.
So, to sum up:
Favorites to win Super Bowl 58: Ravens, 49ers
A great chance to win it: Bills
Darkhorses: Browns, Rams
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