Of course, the top two seeds rarely meet in the Super Bowl. The Colts-Saints matchup was the first one since 1993-94, when the Bills and Cowboys faced off. Right now, it looks like a stretch envisioning either team falling at home, though the postseason's one-and-done format certainly helps. Taking a closer look at these efficiency statistics, let's evaluate how far above the field the Broncos and Seahawks really stand.
The AFC Challengers
Best Matchup: The New England Patriots would be pretty clear winners of this category if it weren't for Rob Gronkowski's season-ending injury. As it stands, the Pats might not have enough healthy bodies to give them this spot, though we'll have more on them below.
The AFC is extraordinarily weak this year, but the Cincinnati Bengals are actually a sneaky bet to give the Broncos a challenge. The Bengals are the only AFC contender besides Denver with a top-10 run and pass offense, if we exclude the Chargers. Some would scoff at the notion of Andy Dalton taking down Peyton Manning, but a few things work in Cincy's advantage.
First, the Bengals now own head-to-head wins over the Pats and Colts, giving them the inside-track on the two seed if they end up tied with both or either. Cincinnati is one game behind New England, but the Patriots have a pair of road games against Miami and Baltimore upcoming. If the Bengals can win out (they still have a road game against Pittsburgh and a Week 17 home game against the Ravens), they may very well end up with a first-round bye.
Moreover, it helps that the Bengals are a wildly high-variance team, as we can see by their weekly offensive and defensive EPA. In a one-game sample size, an underdog stands better odds if they're a team capable of catching fire rather than a consistently above-average squad:
The offensive fluctuations are a bit opponent-dependent, as the Bengals have had just two positive EPA performances against defenses in the top-half of efficiency. Of course, the Broncos themselves are only the 19th-ranked defense, and one with somewhat tenuous depth. Cincinnati would stand little chance in even a three-game series, but they might be the team most likely to catch fire and pull off a stunning upset, a la the 2012 Ravens.
Worst Matchup: Speaking of Baltimore, the Ravens appear ill-equipped to potentially duplicate their upset of a year ago. As a potential sixth seed, Baltimore may very well end up playing Denver in the divisional round again, if they can spring an upset of the third seed.
However, Baltimore possesses the sixth-worst pass offense this season, to complement their infamously poor running game. In last year's upset, the Ravens scored five touchdowns: a 59-yard pass, a 39-yard interception return, a 32-yard pass, a 1-yard run and a famous 70-yard pass. Big plays were essential to the victory.
This season, there's little to suggest that Joe Flacco could pull of similar magic. Per Pro-Football-Reference, the Ravens have completed just 38 passes of 20 or more yards, a mark which ranks 21st in the league. Last year, Baltimore hit 62 such plays, fifth-most in the league.
The Ravens defense is still capable, but a matchup against the Broncos might go something like the first Denver-Kansas City game. The Chiefs defense held the fort for most of the night, but Kansas City's offense was incapable of exploiting the Broncos defense when given the opportunity. Thus, the Ravens' ceiling probably stops at the second week of January.
Honorable Mention: The Patriots are a weird team—everyone acknowledges New England as a contender, but no one knows what to expect. That's mostly injury-based: Besides Gronk, the Patriots no longer have Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Sebastian Vollmer or Tommy Kelly for the year.
One thing is fairly clear—New England's defense cannot hope to contain Denver. That is where the injuries have hit hardest. Besides the aforementioned front seven injuries, secondary members Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, Steve Gregory and Kyle Arrington are battling through various maladies. Since Week 9, only the Chargers and Cowboys have fared worse defensively:
The Patriots best opportunity would be to win situational matchups, like third down and the red zone. But even that has gone downhill; since Week 9, New England has the second-worst third-down defense (50 percent) and opponents have scored touchdowns on 77.8 percent of red-zone possessions the last three games.
New England's offense should be better than it was in the first seven weeks without Gronkowski, with Shane Vereen and Danny Amendola healthy this time. The consistency of rookie receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins has also noticeable improved, though both were sidelined this week with injuries. The Pats might be able to beat Denver again, but it will take nearly flawless execution.
The NFC Challengers
Best Matchup: There's really no such thing as a team that matches up "well" with the Seahawks. Seattle has an elite pass defense (even if Brandon Browner is suspended), a top-three passing game, a top-five running game, and a run defense that is "only" above average.
If we pinpoint the run defense as a potential weakness, then that points to the Philadelphia Eagles as perhaps the best matchup. Given their win over the Lions and Dallas' loss to the Bears, the Eagles now have the inside track on the third seed. If Philly wins their home game, that would likely send them to New Orleans instead, so the Eagles may not even get a chance at the Seahawks.
Still, there are components besides the running game that would bode favorably for the Eagles. There's a perception that the Philly defense is still terrible, but that hasn't really been true for about a while. The Eagles have played eight games since Week 6, and in that time frame, they've established themselves in some fairly lofty company:
The offensive numbers would be even better if not for a 10-points-in-two-games stretch against the Cowboys and Giants, which was included in the sample. The defense is mostly hovering around average, but as you can see, they have not had a truly poor performance since Week 4 against Denver:
Average should keep the Eagles in the game, as the Philadelphia offense has performed well regardless of opponent or location. Nick Foles has a microscopic 0.5 percent interception rate in 218 throws, with his first interception coming last week against Detroit. That's especially impressive when coupled with his 7.7 adjusted yards per attempt average, which still leads the league after descending from some lofty heights.
There's some parallels between a potential Philly-Seattle game and last year's Baltimore-Denver matchup I keep coming back to. I mentioned earlier how Baltimore was a prolific deep-passing team in 2012, but it's also worth noting that the Broncos only conceded 39 passes of 20 or more yards, the fifth-stingiest mark. This season, the Seahawks have given up a league-low 26 "big" pass plays, and the Eagles have hit a league-high 64 of them. If Philly won that clash, they could pull a similar upset.
Worst Matchup: The Detroit Lions are equipped with a similarly explosive passing game as the Eagles, but without the complementary run game. A Calvin Johnson-Richard Sherman matchup would be delicious from a fan's perspective, but a team with the capability to limit Megatron spells big trouble for the Lions.
What's most concerning is Detroit's recent decline in pass defense. The Lions remain one of the league's toughest run defense, with the second-best defensive run success rate, but the past two months have unveiled a disturbing trend through the air:
After just two subpar pass defense performances in the first six weeks, Detroit has fallen below the ledger in five of their past seven games. One of those positive performances came against the Matt Flynn-led Packers. The stinker against the 31st-ranked Bucs passing game is particularly alarming.
Shutting down Marshawn Lynch does not mean much if the Lions cannot stymie Russell Wilson at all, something that might be a legitimate concern at this point. Detroit's tremendous passing game is highly unlikely to carry them to victory, and the Lions simply have too many holes elsewhere to compensate against Seattle's multifaceted behemoth.
Honorable Mention: Despite what the lopsided Monday night matchup indicated, the Saints might still be the best bet to upset the Seahawks, as New Orleans is one of the few teams with a similar all-around capacity. In many ways, the Saints and Seahawks are similar teams, though New Orleans is just a tad worse at nearly everything.
I already talked about the Saints' alarming home-road splits last week, something not even Drew Brees is immune to, so I won't expound on that too much again. On paper, New Orleans should hold its own, and it's worth noting that the Saints' home dominance likely means they'll find themselves in the NFC Championship game if they can hold onto the second seed.
It helps that Brees has the second-lowest interception percentage of quarterbacks with at least 250 throws, trailing only Alex Smith (Josh McCown and Nick Foles have better rates in smaller samples). The Seahawks pick off passes at a 3.9 percent rate, second-best in the league. But if the Saints are something resembling Seahawks Lite, it's not easy to envision New Orleans beating the real Seahawks, even if they're the team most likely to get a shot.
- It's probably time to take the Miami Dolphins a little more seriously in the race for the sixth seed. The Dolphins have hovered around the middle of these rankings all year, but their escape against Pittsburgh may be the win that vaults them over the top. At 7-6, the Fins are tied with the Ravens and must finish ahead of Baltimore due to a head-to-head loss, but Miami gets the scheduling edge: vs NE, @BUF, vs NYJ while the Ravens face @DET, vs. NE and @CIN.
- There's been a lot of speculation that the Houston Texans may become next year's Kansas City Chiefs, the putrid team that rebounds into a contender. It's true that the Texans have had lousy luck—a 2-8 record in one-score games, the 23rd-ranked fumble recovery percentage, and an overall Pythagorean win expectation of about four wins so far. But even all that overlooks one convenient truth: the Chiefs upgraded from atrocious quarterback play to roughly average play with Alex Smith. Regression to the mean will help, but even if the Texans draft Teddy Bridgewater first overall, the rookie may not provide enough improvement to vault Houston into the playoffs.
- Break up the Bucs and Jaguars! After both teams started 0-8, Tampa Bay and Jacksonville have combined to go 8-2 since. Both still sit among the dregs of the league, but Tampa in particular has some promising foundation pieces on defense moving forward. The Jags are still mostly a bare cupboard apart from Paul Posluszny and Sen'Derrick Marks, but Gus Bradley looks like the right hire after three coaches in two years.
Just three more weeks. If only the NBA regular season flew by as quickly. Here are the rankings through Week 14:
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