On Sunday, the New England Patriots will make their 12th AFC Championship Game appearance under Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, and the legendary coach/QB combo will be gunning for a record eighth Super Bowl appearance together against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Cut through all the drama, the speculation about Brady getting old and questions about the Pats’ defense, and it has been a pretty vintage championship-caliber season in Foxborough: another year, another seemingly effortless trip to the Super Bowl.
They’ve had a little help, though. According to our Elo ratings, which estimate a team’s strength at any given moment, the Pats will have faced the easiest pair of opponents of any conference title-game participant with a first-round bye since 1990 (when the NFL established its current playoff structure). Given who they’ve played, it would have been much more surprising for New England to not make the Super Bowl than to return to it for a third time in four seasons.
For one thing, the AFC was exceptionally weak this year. In inter-conference play during the regular season, NFC teams went 41-23 against their AFC counterparts, which was the second-best record for one conference against the other in a season since 1990. (Only the 2004 season, in which the AFC went 44-20 against the NFC, saw a wider split.) As a result, the AFC playoff field contained only two teams with more than 10 regular-season wins, as opposed to five in the NFC. That meant a path was already forming for the top-seeded Pats to sail through to another Super Bowl.
Then a few key upsets boosted New England’s advantage. First, the Tennessee Titans toppled the Kansas City Chiefs in the wild-card game, setting up a huge divisional-round mismatch at Gillette Stadium. According to Elo, the Pats were favored by 12, since Tennessee rated at 1499 — below the league average rating of 1505 — even after knocking off K.C. That made it the third-most lopsided divisional matchup since 1990, trailing only the Pats vs. the Tim Tebow Broncos in the 2011 season and Minnesota vs. Arizona in 1998. The Titans hung with the Pats for about a quarter, but New England eventually dropped 35 unanswered points on Tennessee and rolled to victory.
The next day, another upset further cleared the way for New England. The Jaguars went into Heinz Field and took a quick 28-7 lead over the stunned Pittsburgh Steelers, then hung on for a 45-42 win. Elo had only given the Jags a 24 percent chance of winning — even lower than Tennessee’s chances at Kansas City — and it still only ranks Jacksonville as the 12th-best team in football, below five teams that were knocked out of the playoffs and three that didn’t even make it to the playoffs.
Just like that, the two AFC teams Elo thought had the best chance of beating the Pats going into the playoffs — the Chiefs and the Steelers — were gone, and in their place were a below-average team and another that doesn’t rate much higher. According to Elo, New England is a 10-point favorite to beat Jacksonville, with an 81 percent chance of winning the Lamar Hunt Trophy yet again.
If we multiply together the Patriots’ pregame odds of beating the Titans (85 percent) with that of the Jaguars (81 percent), we could say they had a staggering 69 percent chance of making the Super Bowl before they ever played a game. (This is assuming we’d somehow know that both of their opponents would pull off the upsets they did.) That’s easily the best number for any conference title-game participant since 1990.
Of course, some of that is also because the Patriots are a very good team; they went into the playoffs with the sixth-best Elo of any Pats season since the Brady Era began in 2001. We shouldn’t penalize them for being so darned good that they created some of their own easy path. There’s an easy fix for this, though. We can swap out the Patriots’ Elo ratings for a generic rating of 1646, which represents the average for all conference title-game teams since 1990, and then recalculate the odds of reaching the Super Bowl against the opponents a team faced.
For our generic NFL “final four” team, that requires multiplying together a 77 percent chance against the Titans and a 71 percent chance against the Jaguars, which gives a 55 percent Super Bowl probability. In other words, that number represents the relative ease of any good team making it through the Pats’ specific path to the Super Bowl — and it’s the easiest of any championship-game entrant since 1990.
The Patriots’ Super Bowl cakewalk
The teams with the easiest roads to the Super Bowl, based on how their opponents would have fared against a generic conference finalist 1990-2017
Generic Team’s Chances
Game No. 1
Game No. 2
Super Bowl %
Note that the Pats’ situation this year — with several upsets leading to easier-than-expected playoff matchups — is a pretty common thread across all of these smooth-sailing runs from the past. Being lucky enough to face a low-seeded opponent in one or both conference playoff games is a major advantage, and it’s no coincidence that eight of the nine teams below New England on the list above went on to represent their conference in the Super Bowl.
In these topsy-turvy AFC playoffs, that’s not exactly guaranteed for the Pats, despite their seemingly straightforward path to Minneapolis. Jacksonville was one of the most inconsistent teams in football this season, so it’s difficult to predict which version of the Jags will show up Sunday. If it’s the one that torched the Steelers for 45 points last weekend, New England’s relatively unimpressive defense could be in real trouble.
But the odds are that Brady, Belichick and company will punch that return ticket to the Super Bowl. And if they do, they can be thankful that one of the softest playoff red carpets ever was rolled out in front of them.
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