By Eric Eager and George Chahrouri
The NFL playoffs are a great experience, combining the single-elimination aspect of March Madness with a condensed number of berths to help ensure later rounds aren’t diluted by bad teams that get hot. Every team has a path to Miami and the Lombardi Trophy.
We’re going to prepare for the month-long journey in a couple of ways: a little hard math to anchor us in reason, and a little bit of data-driven opinion on the key or the downfall for each team. We’ve simulated the NFL playoffs 20,000 times, leveraging machine learning (powered by AWS) to give the percent chances of each team standing on the podium on Feb. 3. Percentages imply out of 100, so if a team has a 3 percent chance to win the Super Bowl, think of that as winning the Super Bowl three times if the playoffs were played 100 times.
Here are the playoff teams ranked from most likely to win the Super Bowl to least.
Chance to win: 26.1 percent
The reason they win: Where do we start?
Lamar Jackson is the league MVP. Greg Roman has been the second-best offensive play-caller in the league. The defense has improved since the midseason acquisitions of Marcus Peters and L.J. Fort. The offensive line has the most wins above replacement (WAR) of any group in the NFL, with Ronnie Stanley allowing the fewest pressures in the PFF era for a tackle. To put a cherry on top, kicker Justin Tucker is the only player at his position who is statistically significantly better than a replacement player, meaning when the offense (rarely) gets bogged down in opponents’ territory, there will still likely be points.
If the Ravens can get ahead of the opposition and make their opponents play on their heels for all four quarters, they will be almost impossible to beat.
What holds them back: Meager wide receiver corps
If the Ravens get in a position where they have to throw on almost every down, their wide receiver corps after Marquise Brown and his 0.2 WAR is scarce. Thus, if a team such as Kansas City repeats its Week 3 feat of getting ahead early, it might be tougher for the Ravens than it usually is.
Chance to win: 19 percent
The reason they win: The best quarterback/play-caller duo in the league
Andy Reid is the best offensive play-caller in the NFL and has been for the better part of the PFF era (since 2006). Only New England has more adjusted wins since 2013, and since Patrick Mahomes became the Chiefs quarterback, the Chiefs are the only team that has won more than 70 percent of their games if we treat one-score games as ties. Translation: The Chiefs win a lot comfortably, and their losses are mostly close, which bodes well for the playoffs.
Mahomes, after a slow start, has shown why he’s the most talented quarterback in the NFL, generating a perfect passer rating on throws traveling more than 20 yards in the air the last three weeks of the season. He’s a top-10 player at his position in terms of limiting negative plays. Weapons like Tyreek Hill and Damien Williams, as well as offensive line lynchpin Eric Fisher, are healthy going into the bye, so look out.
What holds them back: Defense
The Chiefs faced the league’s seventh-toughest schedule of opposing offenses and produced the league’s 16th-best yards per play allowed after finishing last season ranked 24th. This is the type of improvement that Chiefs fans were hoping for in the offseason.
With Juan Thornhill (ACL) out, and defensive performance being unstable in general, be careful putting a lot of stock in K.C.’s improved defense, especially against offenses like Houston, Tennessee and Baltimore. Each of these teams had substantial success running against the Chiefs in 2019 — with an average of 206.7 rushing yards against in those three games — and they each have the quarterback to put up points.
Chance to win: 15.2 percent
The reason they win: The road and the offense
The obvious reason the 49ers might win it all is the defense, but that neglects the simple truth that defensive performance is far less predictable than offensive performance.
The San Francisco offense is no joke. It starts with George Kittle, who is the best tight end in the NFL and might be the hardest player to tackle in the league, since he leads his position in yards after the catch per reception and broken tackles. Since trading for Emmanuel Sanders and giving quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo a true No. 1 receiver, the 49ers rank fifth in expected points added (EPA) per pass play — which measures how much the average pass play improves the offense’s chance of scoring — and fourth in yards per pass play. Kyle Shanahan uses the play-action fake at the fifth-highest rate and still has his team averaging 9.1 yards per play-action pass, which ranks third. Garoppolo doesn’t need to be a superhero for this offense to score 30 points, he simply needs to continue the play that earned him the seventh-best raw PFF grade per dropback since Week 11.
While a good offense will travel, the 49ers' win in Seattle in Week 17 more than tripled their chances to make the Super Bowl, as it ensured home-field advantage. They will either face the Seahawks or Eagles at home in the divisional round, while the Packers are likely to battle the Saints. Whoever wins will have to travel across the country as an underdog. The road to Miami could not be set up better for the 49ers.
What holds them back: Trusting the defense too much
What’s wrong with trusting your defense? Let’s go back to the Falcons game, where the 49ers decided to trust their defense and kick a long field goal on fourth-and-1 at the 25-yard line instead of having faith in the offense to gain a yard and end the game. Shanahan was uber-conservative on fourth-and-short last season, but this season he didn’t hesitate to go for it against the Ravens and the Saints, almost winning the game in Baltimore and securing the win in New Orleans.
The 49ers are likely to be favorites throughout the NFC playoffs, but Shanahan will need to make decisions like he did as an underdog on the road.
Chance to win: 11.4 percent
The reason they win: We get the old Aaron Rodgers back
Aaron Rodgers reminds me of Kanye West — almost universally loved in the not-too-distant past with a new M.O. that has polarized fans. While some of us listen to early 2010s Kanye and watch film of 2011 Rodgers, we may ask which is more likely to return to us in 2020.
The good news for the Packers and football is that there is a better chance we get vintage Rodgers for three games. From 2010-2016, no quarterback earned a better raw PFF grade per dropback than Rodgers, who boasted a 114.7 passer rating from a clean pocket to rank first during that stretch.
Rodgers isn’t hurt, and he gets to play at home after a week off. If there is any magic left, this would be the time to see it.
What holds them back: The current Rodgers
This season, Rodgers has been below-average in yards per attempt, despite playing behind sensational pass protection, while making negatively graded throws at an above-average rate. The Packers won 13 games despite averaging 6.1 yards per pass play (16th in the NFL), ahead of offensive behemoths Philadelphia, Buffalo and New England among playoff teams. This version of Aaron Rodgers is not winning a Super Bowl.
Chance to win: 10.7 percent
The reason they win: They have the most superstars
The Saints are the most well-rounded and star-studded team in the playoffs. Drew Brees, Michael Thomas (maybe the best season by a wide receiver ever) Alvin Kamara, Cameron Jordan, and Demario Davis all could be the best player at their position in any given game. There is also head coach Sean Payton, who deserves the same veneration that Bill Belichick and Andy Reid get with regularity.
New Orleans went undefeated with Teddy Bridgewater as a starter thanks to brilliant defensive play and an offensive game plan that perfectly leveraged player strengths without exposing weaknesses. Since Brees returned in Week 8, the Saints rank third in expected points added per play. And they also have a coach who is not shy about letting his offense steal a possession on fourth down. If all their stars play to their capability, the Saints make a strong case as the best team in the NFL.
What holds them back: The road
It’s hard to imagine a team that was more hard done these past two postseasons than the Saints. After having a Super Bowl berth ripped from their hands by the worst missed call in NFL history in last year’s NFC championship game, the Saints lost out on a bye to a Packers team that didn’t spend a single second leading the Detroit Lions on Sunday.
The last team to make the Super Bowl after having to play on wild-card weekend was the Ravens in 2012. Brees is one of the last guys you want to bet against, but not getting a week of rest and then having to play in Green Bay and in San Francisco would keep many teams from celebrating in Miami.
Chance to win: 6.7 percent
The reason they win: Bill Belichick and defense
The best coach in league history has been the best defensive play-caller this season, even after adjusting for players and opponents. The Patriots' defense has generated the most wins above replacement of any remaining playoff team, due in large part to a stacked and varied secondary led by Stephon Gilmore.
Yes, it’s very difficult to win with defense when offenses are playoff-caliber, but the Patriots generate turnovers (they were the third-best team at doing so in 2019), which offers hope. They likely need to score points or create an inordinate amount of short fields for a playoff run to be imminent this January.
What holds them back: The offense
Tom Brady has played relatively well, all things considered, having generated a little under two wins above replacement. However, the rest of the skill positions have been a nightmare. Since being acquired from Atlanta for a second-round pick, Mohamed Sanu has averaged less than 1 yard per route run and only 8 yards per catch. The tight end group doesn’t have anyone with over 0.8 yards per route run. Unless Julian Edelman and James White can turn back time, it’s going to be difficult for the Patriots to score enough points to win four games and repeat as champs.
Chance to win: 2.5 percent
The reason they win: The underdog magic
The Eagles are the lone home underdog playing in the wild-card round, which calls to mind the Super Bowl run they made two years ago. The big difference is the 2017 team had Nick Foles and a first-round bye, not to mention a very strong coverage unit.
This season, the Eagles have allowed 11 passing touchdowns on throws 20-plus yards downfield (fifth-most) and rank 22nd in yards per pass play allowed without pressure. Carson Wentz has weathered a litany of injuries around him, and he possesses the ability to play at a high enough level to lead the Eagles on a run.
What holds them back: The offense can’t generate big plays
The Eagles are devoid of offensive playmakers on the outside, and it shows. Only Philadelphia and Buffalo made the playoffs with below-average expected points per pass play. Wentz’s most lethal deep threat is rookie running back Miles Sanders, and he’s averaging 6.8 yards per pass attempt to his wide receivers, which is dead last in the NFL this season.
It’s hard to imagine any team winning on the road without big plays, and the Eagles figure to struggle more than any other playoff team in this regard.
Chance to win: 2.3 percent
The reason they win: Cousins gets amnesia
From Week 5 through the end of the season, Kirk Cousins earned the fourth-highest raw PFF grade per dropback and had the best passer rating from a clean pocket (124.9). But Cousins also went 1-4 against teams that made the playoffs, with the lone win coming against the Eagles way back in Week 6 at home.
For the Vikings to win it all, they will need Cousins to completely forget that he has never elevated his teammates to the elite levels needed to win a title. It starts with going on the road to New Orleans. If Cousins and the Vikings can overcome adversity and beat the Saints on the road, then they can beat anybody.
What holds them back: The coverage
The Vikings’ defense has been their calling card for the entire Mike Zimmer era, and its one of the reasons the team went all-in on Cousins; pair an above-average quarterback with a great defense, and you should be competing for Super Bowls.
The issue is that Cousins has been average, and that defense is simply hard to sustain. The Vikings still have some studs on their first two levels, but their coverage unit has been middling. This season, the Vikings are allowing a 99.7 passer rating to quarterbacks throwing from a clean pocket (16th). Xavier Rhodes has allowed nearly 80 percent of throws into his coverage to be completed, and the Vikings' highest-graded cornerback, Trae Waynes, ranks 68th at the position.
It’s going to be hard to compete in New Orleans or anywhere else without some ability to slow down the quick passing game.
Chance to win: 2.2 percent
The reason they win: The MVP returns
For the record, this is not an anti-Lamar statement. Russell Wilson put the Seahawks on his back for most of the season, but hasn’t maintained his otherworldly play down the stretch.
From Weeks 1-9, Wilson earned the best raw PFF grade per dropback by a country mile — he made a big-time throw (PFF’s highest level of throw grade) on 8.7 percent of his dropbacks, which was more than double the league average. Since Week 10, Wilson ranks third in grade and big-time throw frequency, but the drop-off is significant and goes to show how important his superb play was to the Seahawks, who lost three of their last four games.
What holds them back: The rest of the team is below average
Even Marshawn Lynch can’t save this supporting cast. We’ll start with the offensive line, which continues to struggle mightily. With Duane Brown hurt, the Seahawks' line doesn’t have a player who has graded in the top 20 at their position. That’s a problem for Wilson, who holds onto the ball longer than the league average and endures the third-highest rates this season in pressure (40 percent) and quick pressure (2.5 seconds or less, 27 percent).
The defense is also well below average, allowing 5.5 yards per play (27th) and pressuring the quarterback less than every team except the Miami Dolphins. The result is that Wilson often has to play from behind. Only the Eagles, who are the beneficiary of a weak division, have run more offensive plays when losing than the Seahawks.
Chance to win: 1.9 percent
The reason they win: Watson-Nuk combo
The combination of DeAndre “Nuk” Hopkins and Deshaun Watson is one of the best in the game, and while Hopkins did not pace his position in any category in 2019, he was still a very efficient player, averaging about 2 yards per every route run.
But the reason they will win is because of their secondary offensive players. Will Fuller, if healthy, presents a challenge to defenses, with the Texans averaging over a yard per play more when he’s on the field. Kenny Stills has been a good addition too, catching over 75 percent of his targets and yielding over a 125 passer rating when thrown to.
Watson has been one of the more inconsistent quarterbacks in the game, with highs that are as good as anyone's but lows that make you scratch your head. After last season’s playoff dud at home against the Colts, you have to think we’ll see the stud Watson come Saturday against the Bills.
What holds them back: Bill O'Brien
The pressure in this game is going to be squarely on the shoulders of Bill O’Brien, who has won only one playoff game in his tenure as the Texans' head coach, and that was a game started by Oakland’s Connor Cook. O’Brien has been a middle-of-the-pack play-caller the past two seasons despite having Watson, Hopkins and others. He has been more aggressive on fourth-down decisions recently, which is encouraging.
Another key question: How will the recent acquisitions of Stills, Laremy Tunsil, Gareon Conley and Vernon Hargreaves perform at home against a Bills team that is built in a more sustainable manner?
Chance to win: 1 percent
The reason they win: The organization
In the playoffs for the second time in three seasons, general manager Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott have built a team in a very intelligent way. In addition to stockpiling the offense with talent, the Bills’ defense is a top-five unit in terms of yards per play allowed overall and a top-three unit against the pass, despite having a pass rush that ranks only 14th in our grades.
Against the Texans, it will be important for every player in their secondary to perform, as Houston is a top-six group in terms of generating value from the wide receiver position and it has a generational talent at quarterback in Deshaun Watson. While defense doesn’t really win championships anymore, it can win games, and that’s why we are giving the Bills a decent shot to win (37.8 percent) and advance to the divisional round.
What holds them back: Josh Allen
Allen leads all NFL quarterbacks in percentage of negatively graded throws. He has limited turnover worthy plays (just 4.01 percent of his dropbacks), but there’s a lack of accuracy in that passing game that the Bills have to actively (and so far successfully) account for.
Luckily for Buffalo, it plays the worst defense in the playoffs in Houston. If Houston is on its A-game offensively Saturday, it will be very interesting to see if Allen can match Watson throw for throw.
Chance to win: 0.9 percent
The reason they win: Ryan Tannehill
Tannehill has been every bit the quarterback that the Dolphins thought they were getting when they selected him in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft. He’s leading the league in percentage of positively graded throws, and he’s been the second-best quarterback in the league at avoiding negatively graded throws. Tannehill has averaged a whopping 13.5 yards per play-action passing attempt, while the Titans have deployed him on such plays 29.9% of the time, compared to the 33.7% share they ran for Marcus Mariota.
When Tannehill has been pressured this season, he’s earned a passer rating of 98.4, second only to Drew Brees, while his 122.8 mark when kept clean leads the NFL.
What holds them back: Ryan Tannehill
Tannehill was the Titans' backup quarterback going into the season for a reason. While he was solid at times for the Miami Dolphins, he bottomed out with a 45.3 overall grade in 2018 and has been brilliant this season in ways that are unstable (e.g. play-action passing and under pressure).
The Patriots take away what their opponent does best as a rule of thumb, so look for them to contain Tannehill in the pocket on play-action bootlegs while taking advantage of the fact that he’s third in the league in percentage of pressured dropbacks that result in sacks (31 perent).
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