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NFL playoff ATS picks and easiest, hardest paths to the Super Bowl

The NFL’s regular season has come to a close and it is now time to shift our focus to the playoffs. The first item on our to-do list is figuring out which team has the easiest path to Super Bowl LIII, to be played in Atlanta. Sure, each team theoretically has a chance to be the NFL’s champion, but with first-round byes and home-field advantage tilting the odds, not all paths are created equal. And AFC favorites should be particularly fearful.

To help figure out who should reach the Super Bowl, consider our league-projection formula, which helps determine how often one team should beat another based on its actual and projected win rates. That gives us true-talent win rates for every team — helpful for judging strength of schedule.

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For example, the No. 1 seed in the NFC, the 2018 New Orleans Saints, should win 76 percent of their games played based on their 2018 performance. That helps makes their path out of the conference to Super Bowl LIII look easy. After all, they don’t have to play themselves and the average true-talent win rates of their potential opponents in the NFC totals just .602, meaning the Saints are up against playoff opponents who have shown to be slightly better than an 9-7 team on a neutral field. The No. 2 seed in the NFC, the Los Angeles Rams, have to navigate against opponents with an average true-talent win rate of .617 and the No. 3 seed Chicago Bears need to deal with opponents who should produce a win rate of .635 based on their performance in 2018 alone.

This also gives us a way to assess the savviest ATS picks for Wild-card Weekend, which you’ll find below. Or you can click here to skip on down to that section. But first, let’s look at the roads to the Super Bowl for all playoff teams.

On the whole, things appear likely to proceed according to seed in the NFC.

The AFC isn’t so orderly and it has the Los Angeles Chargers to thank.

The Chargers scored 2.5 points per drive in 2018, the fourth-most after the Chiefs, Saints and Rams, and allowed 1.9 points per drive, a below-average rate. When those are adjusted for strength of schedule, Los Angeles is the second-most efficient team this year, per Football Outsiders. But here’s the kicker: the Chargers are the No. 5 seed in the AFC. A win against the Baltimore Ravens during the first-round of the playoffs means they could face the Chiefs in Kansas City in the second round, giving the Chiefs a more difficult road to the AFC championship game than if they played any of the other potential AFC playoff opponents.

Because of this, the Houston Texans have the easiest path to the Super Bowl based solely on strength of schedule. They host the Indianapolis Colts in the first round and, if victorious (67 percent chance), would play the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium in Round 2. Normally going through Foxboro is a postseason death knell but this Patriots team isn’t as dominant as those we have seen in the past. For example, quarterback Tom Brady is the seventh-most valuable passer of 2018 per ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating (he was third in 2017 and second in 2016) plus the offense has scored four points per game more than expected this season after adjusting for the down, distance and field position of each play, the 13th best mark for the team since 2000, the first year Bill Belichick assumed coaching responsibilities. That’s offset slightly by the defense (three points saved per game, sixth-best in Belichick era) but it still gives the Texans a fighting chance in this second-round matchup.

The Chiefs have the second-easiest path followed by the Chargers and Patriots, leaving the Colts and Baltimore Ravens to round out the field.

Talent is one thing, home-field advantage and the benefit of a bye week is another. As a result, the Saints have a league-high 22 percent chance to win Super Bowl LIII, followed by the Chiefs (18 percent), Rams (14 percent) and Patriots (11 percent). But as you can see, the Chargers are not far behind (8 percent), with better chances to become champions than division winners like the Bears, Ravens, Cowboys and Texans.

ATS picks for Wild-card Weekend

Philadelphia Eagles at Chicago Bears (-6)

Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET

Pick: Chicago Bears -6

The Bears defense was close to being a brick wall in 2018. Chicago was the first team since 2006 to record both 50 sacks and 25 interceptions, plus allowed a league low 1.4 points per drive (league average was 2.0) with the fifth-best red zone defense (50 percent), forcing opponents three-and-out more than a third of the time (36 percent, fifth best). It was so good opponents scored almost 10 points fewer per game than expected based on the down, distance and field position of each play against. No other defense came close per data from TruMedia.

Outside linebacker Khalil Mack is one of the league’s premier pass rushers (69 pressures with six forced fumbles) but Akiem Hicks is no slouch, either, producing 51 pressures with 44 stops at or behind the line of scrimmage during the regular season. Those two are tough assignments for a Philadelphia offensive line that ranked 17th in adjusted sack rate (7 percent), sacks per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance and opponent.

Seattle Seahawks at Dallas Cowboys (-1.5)

Pick: Seattle Seahawks +1.5

No team tallied more rushing yards than Seattle, who ended the regular season with 160 rushing yards per game. Chris Carson ended the season with 1,151 yards and nine touchdowns and two of the team’s other running backs, Mike Davis and Rashaad Penny, each tallied 400 rushing yards or more in 2018. Quarterback Russell Wilson wasn’t too far behind with 376 rushing yards.

Wilson was productive with his arm, too. The four-time Pro Bowler finished with a career-high 35 passing touchdowns and a career-low seven interceptions this season, making him the 11th most valuable passer of 2018 per ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating.

Dallas has a formidable one-two punch in quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott, but after adjusting their regular-season performance for strength of schedule the Cowboys are the 24th best offense this year, per Football Outsiders. The Seahawks, by comparison, finished at No. 9.

Indianapolis Colts at Houston Texans (-1.5)

Pick: Houston Texans -1.5

In the latest matchup between these two teams, Andrew Luck and receiver T.Y. Hilton connected on nine of 12 passes for 199 yards, the longest a 60-yard strike in the second quarter. However, since that game, Houston’s top corners, Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson, haven’t given up much yardage to receivers. Joseph has yielded 49 yards and no touchdowns on 11 targets over the last three weeks for a passer rating against of 73.7 and Jackson has allowed 73 yards and no touchdowns on 12 targets (76.0 passer rating against). Plus, Hilton has been dealing with an ankle injury for weeks now and last caught a touchdown pass in Week 11.

In addition, expect Houston to again dial up the pressure on Luck, much like they did in Week 14. In that matchup, the Texans pressured Luck on 15 of his 45 drop backs, reducing his effectiveness significantly on those throws. For example, in a clean pocket Luck completed 23 of 30 passes (77 percent) for 286 yards and two touchdowns that game, resulting in a 127.9 passer rating. On throws with pass pressure his completion rate dropped to 36 percent (4 for 11) with no touchdowns and an interception, culminating in a woeful passer rating of 37.3; for context, an interception results in a passer rating of 39.6.

Luck’s overall passer rating dropped from 108.0 to 73.4 under pressure during the regular season.

Los Angeles Chargers at Baltimore Ravens (-2.5)

Pick: Los Angeles Chargers +2.5

The Ravens pummeled the Chargers 22-10 in Week 16, setting the stage for this week’s playoff matchup. Part of the problem for the Chargers offense was an inability to convert for first downs or touchdowns: against Baltimore, Los Angeles failed a season-high 44 percent of the time. But that could be considered an anomaly considering the Chargers failed to convert a down series just 34 percent of the time against all other opponents in 2018.

Plus, Los Angeles is much better than its playoff seeding suggests. It was the third-best team in 2018 per Football Outsiders Defense-adjusted Value Over Average metric and their quarterback, Philip Rivers, was the seventh-most valuable passer this season per ESPN. Baltimore is also overachieving -- they rank No. 6 per Football Outsiders -- but with inferior quarterback play; Lamar Jackson ranks 31st out of 33 qualified passers per ESPN. And it should be noted one of Jackson’s best attributes, his ability to run the ball effectively, is somewhat mitigated by a Chargers defense that didn’t allow a single rushing touchdown to a quarterback in 2018.

And lastly, if Jackson does decide to take his chances through the air, the Chargers' secondary was one of the best this season. Cornerbacks Desmond King II and Casey Hayward Jr. plus safety Derwin James, helped the team hold opposing quarterbacks to a 89.1 passer rating against (ninth best) during the regular season.

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