NFL Super Bowl Power Rankings

Separating the favorites from the long shots

Seth Dunlap
December 31, 2018 - 7:52 pm

The NFL playoffs are finally (suddenly?) here with the first wild card playoff games set to kickoff this Saturday.  While the NFL regular season can be, at times, difficult to predict and handicap, the playoffs are a different story.

Professional football's postseason has become fairly predictable.   Number one seeds have accounted for nine of the last 10 Super Bowl participants, and those top seeds have won each of the past five titles.  Furthermore, the top-two seeds in each conference have accounted for 15 of the past 20 conference championship entrants, and road teams have never won a conference title game during that pan.  That means only five times in the past five seasons has there even been an upset in the divisional round of the playoffs. 

It's pretty hard to get more top-heavy playoff results than that.

Does this mean you should throw your life savings at a Saints vs. Chiefs matchup in the Super Bowl?  Not necessarily.  New Orleans and Kansas City haven't been the same dominant football teams the past few months that they were early in the season. 

The Saints are barely averaging over 20 points per game since the Dallas game and have become increasingly reliant on their defense and special teams.  Luckily for them both of those units are among the best in the league.  

Kansas City jettisoned star running back Kareem Hunt in early December amid domestic violence allegations.  That was undoubtedly the morally right thing to do, but from a football perspective the Chiefs haven't been the same offensive juggernaut since that point.  They were held under their season scoring average three times after releasing Hunt, and lost to both the Chargers and Seahawks -- the only playoff contenders on their schedule this month.  

The smart money may indeed be on a #1 vs. #1 matchup in February yet again, but there's probably a few surprises in store.  Here's a look at who you could expect to challenge the favorites, and other teams that probably will not.  We'll be using the current Super Bowl consensus odds from Vegas Insider, and DVOA ratings from Football Outsiders.

If you're wondering what the heck DVOA is, a great explanation can be found here.  It's one of the most predictive analytical metrics of playoff success recently in the NFL.


NFL Super Bowl Power Rankings

1.  New Orleans Saints (13-3)

  • Super Bowl odds:  5/2 (#1)
  • Offensive DVOA:  15.9% (#4)
  • Defensive DVOA:  -3.1 % (#11)
  • Seth says:  Super Bowl Favorite.  Even with the offense's recent struggles, this is still the most complete team in the NFL.  They have a MVP candidate, and future Hall of Famer, at quarterback and young stars littered across the roster.   They'll also be playing in the Superdome, one of the more formidable home field advantages in the league, before a possible trip to familiar confines in Atlanta in February.

2.  Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)

  • Super Bowl odds:  8/2 (#2)
  • Offensive DVOA:  34.2% (#1)
  • Defensive DVOA:  6.8 % (#26)
  • Seth says:  AFC Favorite.  Yes, Andy Reid has had some notable playoff struggles.  Yes, the Chiefs haven't won a home playoff game since the Clinton administration -- his first term.  That doesn't mean you shouldn't view the Chiefs as the best team in a diminished AFC conference.  They are, but they're closer to the pack than the Saints are in the NFC.   They would probably prefer to avoid a rematch with the Chargers, who won at Arrowhead just a few weeks ago.

3.  New England Patriots (11-5)

  • Super Bowl odds:  6/1 (#4)
  • Offensive DVOA:  14.5% (#5)
  • Defensive DVOA:  0.4% (#16)
  • Seth says:  Contender.  The Patriots won 11 games, won their 10th consecutive division title, and cruised to a first-round bye in the AFC playoffs. Yet most people see this as a "down season" for New England.  That shows you just how dominant this franchise has been in the Brady/Belichick era.  They are the only team in the NFL to go undefeated at home this season, and they're certainly capable of winning a road game in Kansas City.  

4.  Los Angeles Rams (13-3)

  • Super Bowl odds:  5/1 (#3)
  • Offensive DVOA:  24.6% (#2)
  • Defensive DVOA:  0.8% (#19)
  • Seth says:  Contender, but something isn't right.  Quarterback Jared Goff looks like he's regressing, and has thrown six interceptions and committed 8 fumbles in the past six games.  The Rams offense as a whole looks much more pedestrian with a banged up Todd Gurley.   They're still the preeminent challenger to the Saints in the NFC, but don't expect them to roll over the Bears, Cowboys, or Seahawks in their divisional game.

5.  Chicago Bears (12-4)

  • Super Bowl odds:  8/1 (#5)
  • Offensive DVOA:  -3.4% (#20)
  • Defensive DVOA:  -25.6% (#1)
  • Seth says: Contender.   Football Outsiders ranks the Bears defense as not only the NFL's best this season, but the best the league has seen since Denver's championship defense in 2015, and the fourth-best defense this decade.   That kind of defensive dominance, even in an offensively oriented league in 2018, can win a championship.  The question for Chicago becomes can Mitch Trubisky can rise to the occasion in the playoffs and join Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady, and Kurt Warner as second-year quarterbacks to win a Super Bowl.

6.  Los Angeles Chargers (12-4)

  • Super Bowl odds:  16/1 (#7)
  • Offensive DVOA:  20.8% (#3)
  • Defensive DVOA:  -4.7% (#8)
  • Seth says: Contender.   The Chargers are the only playoff team to be top-eight in both offensive and defensive DVOA, and were unquestionably the second best team in the AFC this season.  Unfortunately, they played in the AFC West with Kansas City and had to settle for a wild card berth and a likely stretch of road playoff games in their path to a possible Super Bowl.  These Chargers can navigate that field, but they'll first have to get by a Ravens team that dominated them just two weeks ago.  Win that game and those Super Bowl odds are likely to go way up in Vegas.

7.  Seattle Seahawks (10-6)

  • Super Bowl odds:  25/1 (T#8)
  • Offensive DVOA:  8.8% (#9)
  • Defensive DVOA:  -0.2% (#14)
  • Seth says: Long shot.  This is certainly a team nobody should want to play right now.  The Seahawks won six of their past seven games and bring in tow that Pete Carroll-Russell Wilson championship pedigree.  They're also playing old school, run-first football which can traditionally travel well in the playoffs.  Seattle is probably another year or two away from true title contention, but it shouldn't shock anybody to see Seattle in another NFC championship game.

8.  Baltimore Ravens (10-6)

  • Super Bowl odds:  14/1 (#6)
  • Offensive DVOA:  -0.9% (#15)
  • Defensive DVOA:  -13.1% (#3)
  • Seth says: Contending long shot?  It's incredibly hard to get a proper feel for this Ravens team, which is running the most unique run-heavy offense in the NFL since rookie Lamar Jackson took over at quarterback.  Defenses are still figuring out how to defend that offense, which certainly could give Baltimore's opponents problems in the playoffs.  Vegas and DVOA are relatively bullish on the Ravens, but are we really sure Jackson is going to beat Philip Rivers then possibly the trifecta of Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees on his way to a Super Bowl?

9.  Dallas Cowboys (10-6)

  • Super Bowl odds:  25/1 (T#8)
  • Offensive DVOA:  -6.5% (#24)
  • Defensive DVOA:  -3.5% (#9)
  • Seth says: Long shot.  I'm not sure if you can win a Super Bowl in this league with an offense as relatively inept as the Cowboys have.  Even the Bears have more explosive play potential (and a better DVOA) than Dallas.  Also, don't get enamored with the headlines that call this Dallas defense "great".  They're good.  They're not great.  Typical Cowboys media-fed hype that doesn't match reality. The low scoring slugfests the Cowboys are usually in is equally a product of their ball-control offense.   It's unlikely this team can go to New Orleans or Los Angeles, or both, and win playoff games.  Oh, and they have to beat Seattle first, a task they failed at earlier in the season.

10.  Houston Texans (11-5)

  • Super Bowl odds:  25/1 (T#8)
  • Offensive DVOA:  -3.6% (#21)
  • Defensive DVOA:  -7.1% (#7)
  • Seth says:  Long shot.  Cue the Texans fans to my Twitter inbox, but don't be fooled by this team's record.  There's a reason why Vegas has installed them as 25/1 long shots.  They became the first NFL team in the modern era to play all 16 games against opponents with non-winning records.   Those 11 wins were as much a product of their schedule as it was their talent level.  They might not even make it past Andrew Luck and in the Colts in their first game.

11.  Indianapolis Colts (10-6)

  • Super Bowl odds:  25/1 (T#8)
  • Offensive DVOA:  -8.2% (#10)
  • Defensive DVOA:  -3.4% (#10)
  • Seth says:  Long shot, but watch out.  The Colts are quietly building one of the most dangerous young rosters in football and are probably about to enter an extended Super Bowl window for Andrew Luck & co, if they're not already in it.  They're top-10 in both offensive and defensive DVOA, something only the Chargers can also say.   They have a relatively favorable matchup against the Texans in the opening round, but trips to Arrowhead or Foxboro would be much more daunting.   Still, would anybody be surprised if we see Luck vs. Brady in another AFC championship game?

12.  Philadelphia Eagles

  • Super Bowl odds:  25/1 (T#8)
  • Offensive DVOA:  -0.3% (#16)
  • Defensive DVOA:  0.0% (#15)
  • Seth says:  Familiar long shot.  Cue the dog masks!  The Eagles once again enter the playoffs bearing the underdog mantle, and its Nick Foles who has a chance to write the ultimate made-for-Hollywood script yet again.  If Foles somehow brings Philadelphia another championship -- and yes, that's a big if -- it will undoubtedly go down as one of the greatest American sports story of our lifetimes.
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