There are many litmus tests to separate the Super Bowl contenders from the pretenders, but one of the more reliable methods focuses on teams that perform better than others in specific situations. The easiest way to measure this is through expected points added, which calculates how many points a team scores compared with an average team while running a play under the same circumstances — i.e. the same down, distance and field position. The higher the EPA, the more likely that team is to succeed.
Since 2002, when the NFL expanded to 32 franchises, the team ranked higher in expected points added per game at the end of the regular season won 61 percent of its playoff games, with the biggest advantage occurring in the divisional round (.671). Teams that ranked in the top 10 for both offensive and defensive expected points added during the regular season won 76 percent of their playoff games and went 6-2 in the Super Bowl. Those that ranked in the top five in either offensive or defensive expected points added won 74 percent of their postseason matchups and posted a 3-5 record in the championship game. Those that qualified in neither of those categories were 18-64, reaching the Super Bowl four times and going 0-4.
We can use these qualifications to home in on the teams best positioned to emerge from what appears to be a tightly packed field. And in the process we can eliminate the AFC’s top seed from our short list of contenders.
Neither the offensive nor defensive units for the Tennessee Titans crack the league’s top five in EPA, and their offensive EPA ranks 15th. While they certainly would benefit from the return of star running back Derrick Henry, history suggests the Titans lack the kind of elite production required to reach the Super Bowl. In that way, there are better values found elsewhere.
Here are the top contenders to reach Super Bowl 56, grouped from most to least likely.
The prime candidates (top-10 EPA on offense and defense)
NFC No. 2 seed: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Third in offensive EPA, seventh in defensive EPA
The ageless Tom Brady was one of the highest-rated and most valuable passers the regular season no matter what you use to measure performance, and he will be a tough opponent in the postseason, too. The defense was also up to the challenge as it allowed 1.5 points per drive during the regular season (second best) and stopped a league-high 26 percent of rushers at or behind the line of scrimmage.
AFC No. 3 seed: Buffalo Bills
Seventh in offensive EPA, first in defensive EPA
Buffalo was one of the best defensive teams all season, holding opponents to a league-best 1.5 points per drive and saving 10 points per game after factoring in the down, distance and field position of each play. The offense was also good, scoring 2.6 points per drive (fourth best) and 1.8 points per game more than expected.
NFC No. 3 seed: Dallas Cowboys
Sixth in offensive EPA, third in defensive EPA
Dak Prescott was the ninth-most-valuable passer per ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating. With him under center, the Cowboys scored 2.4 points per drive (eighth best) and had one of the highest red-zone rates in the NFL (63 percent, sixth).
Linebacker Micah Parsons is the favorite to win the Defensive Rookie of the Year award and was one of the highest-graded defensive players (veterans included) per Pro Football Focus. He has been credited with 84 tackles, including 13 sacks, and hasn’t allowed a touchdown in coverage all season over 284 snaps.
The next tier (top five in offensive or defensive EPA)
NFC No. 1 seed: Green Bay Packers
First in offensive EPA, 22nd in defensive EPA
The offense, led by MVP front-runner Aaron Rodgers, has been tough to stop. The Packers scored almost six more points per game than expected in the regular season, and Rodgers’s throws to wide receiver Davante Adams deserve credit for most of that. The duo scored nearly 75 more points than expected over 15 games, a total surpassed only by the Los Angeles Rams’ tandem of Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp.
AFC No. 2 seed: Kansas City Chiefs
Second in offensive EPA, 23rd in defensive EPA
Coach Andy Reid was searching for answers after a 3-4 start but then saw the Chiefs settle down and win eight in a row, vanquishing five playoff teams along the way. The defense had a massive turnaround, saving seven points per game after allowing nine more points per game than expected during the first seven weeks.
NFC No. 4 seed: Los Angeles Rams
Fifth in offensive EPA, 11th in defensive EPA
Coach Sean McVay has a historically good wide receiver in Kupp, who became the first player since 2005 to lead the NFL in catches (145), receiving yards (1,947) and receiving touchdowns (16). The defense is anchored by Aaron Donald, arguably the best defensive player of the past few seasons. Donald finished 2021 as Pro Football Focus’ highest-rated defensive lineman after tallying 12½ sacks and 84 total pressures.
AFC No. 6 seed: New England Patriots
11th in offensive EPA, fourth in defensive EPA
The Patriots sputtered at the start of the season but settled down and reeled off seven straight wins in Weeks 7 to 13, a streak that included victories over the Titans and Bills. The defense led the effort, saving seven points per game during the regular season. But their playoff chances are likely to hang on rookie quarterback Mac Jones, the 10th-best passer of 2021 per Pro Football Focus.
The rest of the field
History suggests the odds are stacked against these squads.
AFC No. 1 seed: Tennessee Titans
15th in offensive EPA, ninth in defensive EPA
AFC No. 4 seed: Cincinnati Bengals
13th in offensive EPA, 10th in defensive EPA
NFC No. 5 seed: Arizona Cardinals
12th in offensive EPA, sixth in defensive EPA
AFC No. 5 seed: Las Vegas Raiders
18th in offensive EPA, 29th in defensive EP
NFC No. 6 seed: San Francisco 49ers
Eighth in offensive EPA, 13th in defensive EPA
NFC No. 7 seed: Philadelphia Eagles
Ninth in offensive EPA, 18th in defensive EPA
AFC No. 7 seed: Pittsburgh Steelers
25th in offensive EPA, 14th in defensive EPA