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Ranking the easiest paths to the Super Bowl - Bill Barnwell


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    Bill BarnwellESPN Staff Writer

Quarterback injuries and mismatches conspired to deliver an uneventful, noncompetitive wild-card weekend.

Although the Giants made it more of a game against the Packers than the 38-13 final score might indicate, they were undone by the end of the third quarter. The Lions were the only losing team with even a 20 percent chance of pulling out a win entering the fourth quarter, according to ESPN's win expectancy charts.

Wild-card weekend wasn't the least competitive round we've ever seen, but it wasn't far off, either. It was the first opening playoff round since 2001 -- and just the third since the AFL-NFL merger (excluding the bizarre playoff structure of the 1982 strike season) -- to see all four games decided by 10 or more points. You have to go back to the divisional round in 1990 to find a postseason weekend with four favorites winning by 10 or more points.

Games should be more competitive in the divisional round and beyond. There's only one game (Texans-Patriots) with a significant underdog, and in a year in which there are no great teams, the conference championships and Super Bowl will likely consist of relatively closely matched opponents. Seven of the remaining playoff teams rank in the top nine in DVOA, with the 29th-ranked Texans as the significant outlier. And hey, if Houston rides its defense to an unexpected Super Bowl appearance, it'll be playing at home.

In a bracket of relatively equal teams, scheduling is incredibly important. Last year at this time, I noted how the field was similarly of equal strength and suggested the team with the easiest path to the Super Bowl was the Broncos, in part thanks to the injuries suffered by Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisbergerin the wild-card round. Given how that semi-prediction seemed to work out reasonably well, now seems like a good time to take a look at the 2016 postseason and figure out who has the easiest path to Houston over the next two weeks while touching on the weekend of football we just saw.

I'll include each team's chances of winning the Super Bowl per ESPN's Football Power Index. Let's begin with the toughest schedule, which should hardly be a surprise ...


8. Houston Texans

Divisional round: at New England
Conference championship: at Kansas City or Pittsburgh
FPI estimate of Super Bowl odds: 1.0 percent

The Texans basically played the sort of game you would have expected against a Raiders team starting third-string quarterback Connor Cook on Saturday. Their one team strength -- pass defense -- made an impact, holding the painfully overmatched Cook to 161 passing yards and three interceptions on 45 dropbacks. They were a mess on special teams, with Tyler Ervin muffing two punt returns and having a touchdown wiped out by a special-teams penalty. (Houston recovered all three of the competitive fumbles in this game.) Their running game was mostly useless, with Lamar Miller carrying the ball 31 times for a mere 73 yards, the second-fewest rushing yards in a playoff game since the merger for a player with 30 rushes or more. The Texans struggled to close out a game that should have been theirs by virtue of being unable to run in the second half.

The one positive: A Brock Osweiler-led passing attack looked better than it has most weeks this season. Osweiler posted a positively rosy 80.7 QBR while going 14-of-25 for 168 yards with a touchdown pass, mixing in a few above-average throws with a couple of uncatchable deeper throws. Osweiler appeared at least passingly familiar with the presence of DeAndre Hopkins, a positive. It helped that the offensive line did a good job against Khalil Mack and the Raiders' pass rush, which did not sack or even knock down Osweiler all night.

Jadeveon Clowney and the Texans' defense had a huge impact against Oakland, and they will have to against New England as well. Tim Warner/Getty Images

Is this a new step in Osweiler's development? Possibly. It's also worth noting that the Texans hardly needed to throw at any point in this game, given that they took an early lead and never looked back. Osweiler probably will not look as good in a game in which the Texans are behind and need to throw to catch up. The Texans are listed as 16-point underdogs in New England, which would be the third-largest spread for a postseason game since 1978. Nine teams have been underdogs by two touchdowns or more in a playoff game over that stretch, with just one winning: the Patriots over the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI.

Even if the Texans upset the Patriots, they would be locked out of hosting the conference championship game based on the current seeds remaining. Houston would be the first team to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium if it advanced past the Chiefs or Steelers in the conference championship game, but I would suspect even that would offer less of a home-field advantage than a typical playoff contest, as most Super Bowl seats often go to people who aren't fans of one of the teams involved in the game.


7. Green Bay Packers

Divisional round: at Dallas
Conference championship: at Atlanta or Seattle
FPI estimate of Super Bowl odds: 5.9 percent

The Packers closed Lambeau Field for the season on Sunday with their 25-point win over the Giants. It would be fair to say the score didn't reflect how close the game was, especially during the first half. The Giants grossly outplayed a scorching-hot Packers team during that stretch, stifling Aaron Rodgers by dropping deep into zones and breaking up passes, only to let themselves down with drops and poor execution on offense. The Packers nearly threw themselves out of three points when Rodgers found Jared Cook in the middle of the field with no timeouts and six seconds to go for a catch that would have resulted in the clock running out, but Cook dropped the pass. On the next play, despite sage advice from somebody who obviously knew what he was talking about, Rodgers chucked up a Hail Mary to Randall Cobb to put the Packers up 14-6 at halftime.

A rare moment of aggressiveness from Mike McCarthy nearly cost the Packers when Ty Montgomery was stuffed on a fourth-and-1 try and the Giants scored on a bomb to Tavarres King two plays later, but with the score 14-13, Rodgers took over. With Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie missing on defense and an overmatched Trevin Wade in his place in the slot, Rodgers beat up on a gassed Giants defense. Steve Spagnuolo's unit did not sack or hit Rodgers once after that fourth-down stop as the MVP candidate went 12-of-18 for 186 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.

It was even more impressive to see Rodgers doing all that without Jordy Nelson, who was carted away from the sideline with a rib injury in the first half and did not return. Nelson's in-season improvement was a huge driver in Rodgers' stunning run to end the season, and Rodgers is a different player with his star wideout on the field. Nelson stretches the field, both as a target and a decoy, as we can see from Rodgers' numbers over the past five seasons with and without Nelson on the field:

With Jordy Vs. Without Jordy
with Nelson 1155 1733 66.6% 13934 8.0 117 23 108.1 77.3
without Nelson 498 811 61.4% 5527 6.8 48 11 95.7 63.7

The Packers were already going to be underdogs against the Cowboys, but if Nelson can't play, their chances are even worse. While the toughest out in the NFL is the Patriots, the Cowboys and Falcons (Green Bay's likeliest opponent in the NFC Championship Game) were second and third in the league in DVOA this season. The Packers have also been significantly worse at defense on the road in 2016; they're 14th in the league at home but a lowly 28th on the road, allowing eight more points per game away from Lambeau. It's always foolish to count Rodgers out, and if he gets hot, there's no telling what he's capable of doing, but he might not have enough of a supporting cast to make it to Houston.


6. Pittsburgh Steelers

Divisional round: at Kansas City
Conference championship: vs. Houston or at New England
FPI estimate of Super Bowl odds: 5.3 percent

Do you think the Steelers will be rooting for Brock Osweiler on Saturday night? The Steelers are capable of beating any team in football when they have their offense going, but they have more to gain from an upset than anybody else, given that they would be comfortable favorites at home against the Texans and underdogs if they have to go to Foxborough to play the Patriots.

It would be unfair to use this season's earlier loss to New England as the basis for judging the Steelers given that Landry Jones was starting at quarterback for them back in Week 7, but there's at least a chance we could see Jones depending on how Big Ben responds to his latest injury (though he insists he'll be fine).

Nobody doubts Roethlisberger's toughness in fighting through injuries, but he has struggled while playing hurt in the postseason in the past. He was game during last year's divisional round, throwing for 339 yards on 37 attempts during a 23-16 loss to the Broncos while playing through a shoulder injury, but a high ankle sprain cost him against the same Broncos in 2011.

Ben Roethlisberger could be facing another pain-management issue against Kansas City. Steve Mitchell/USA Today Sports

That season, Roethlisberger suffered the dreaded ankle injury in Week 14 against the Browns and rushed back to try to play the 49ers the following Monday, only to toss three picks. He then sat out a week and delivered a mediocre effort against the Browns in Week 17 before his frustratingly middling performance against Tim Tebow's Broncos in the wild-card round, throwing for 289 yards with an interception and a fumble. Roethlisberger understandably had trouble planting his leg and routinely sailed his passes as a result.

Even if Roethlisberger has only a minor ankle injury and is able to play, the Steelers will be in a tough spot. They're slight underdogs to the Chiefs, but even if they get past Kansas City, Mike Tomlin's team is a bad matchup against the Patriots. New England takes away big gains, allowing a league-low five plays of 40 yards or more from scrimmage this season. The Patriots are also generally very good in the red zone on offense, and Pittsburgh has been able to keep its defense afloat in 2016 by playing some of the best red zone defense in football.


5. Kansas City Chiefs

Divisional round: vs. Steelers
Conference championship: at Patriots or vs. Texans
FPI estimate of Super Bowl odds: 8.3 percent

The Chiefs have their own injury to be worried about. Justin Houston came back from ACL surgery and looked like his usual self, taking over games at times and posting four sacks in five contests. It may have been a case of too much too soon, given that Houston was forced to sit out the final two games of the year with swelling in that surgically repaired knee. The bye gave Houston an extra week of rest, and the Chiefs expect him to play, but there are no guarantees he'll be available or suit up for meaningful snaps.

The Kansas City pass rush has been an entirely different animal with Houston around this season. With him, the Chiefs have generated a 5.7 percent sack rate and pressured the opposing quarterback 34.4 percent of the time, which would be the second-highest rate in football. Without him, Kansas City's sack rate falls to 3.9 percent and it gets pressure on 24.3 percent of dropbacks, which would tie the 49ers in 28th place.

The highs and lows of the Chiefs over the past few years revolve around the Patriots and that pass rush. Houston was at the forefront of a dominant victory over the Pats on Monday Night Football in September 2014, one in which the pass rush overwhelmed a porous New England offensive line and prevented Tom Brady from doing much of anything. With Houston missing in the playoffs last season, though, the Chiefs decided to go blitz-happy in a desperate attempt to stop Brady on third downs with limited returns. Brady went 6-of-8 on third down in the first half, and the Pats built a comfortable lead in a 27-20 win that only looked closer because the Chiefs scored a touchdown with 1:18 left in the game. As slight favorites over the Steelers, they finish narrowly ahead of Pittsburgh in fifth.


4. Seattle Seahawks

Divisional round: at Falcons
Conference championship: vs. Packers or at Cowboys
FPI estimate of Super Bowl odds: 5.1 percent

There are only memorable playoff rematches left for the Seahawks. They lost a classic to the Falcons in Atlanta during the 2012 postseason, beat the Packers in an even more memorable comeback win during the 2014 NFC Championship Game, and squeaked out a 21-20 thriller over the Cowboys at home during the 2006 postseason thanks to a botched hold by breakout star Tony Romo in his first season as a starter. Even on the other side of the bracket, Super Bowl rematches against the Patriots and Steelers loom as possibilities. Only the Chiefs and Texans would be new to Seattle fans.

For one night, the 2016 Seahawks looked a lot like their old selves. It came against an overmatched Lions team in the friendly confines of the Pacific Northwest, of course, but the Seahawks held the Detroit offense to two long field goals and were stunningly able to run the ball like the Seahawks of old. Thomas Rawls carried 27 times for 161 yards against Detroit's 23rd-ranked run defense, often finding huge creases behind a much-maligned offensive line. The promising thing for Seahawks fans is that the Atlanta run defense isn't any better. The Falcons finished the year 29th in rush defense DVOA, and were simply tested less often because most teams were behind and needed to throw to catch up against Matt Ryan & Co.

The last time Seattle faced Atlanta, Russell Wilson was essentially unable to run. That's not the case now. Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

There is one piece of evidence suggesting the Seahawks might struggle to run the ball, though: Week 6, when these two teams faced off in Seattle and a Christine Michael-led attack generated just 72 yards on 27 rushing attempts, albeit with three touchdowns. That was also during a period when Russell Wilson was essentially immobile, though, which unquestionably hurt the Seattle rushing attack.

That first encounter was a tale of two halves in several ways. The Seahawks were up 17-3 at halftime in a game that would have been stopped and called a TKO if referees had the opportunity; they peppered Ryan and knocked him down 11 times in 17 first-half dropbacks. After the break, the Falcons made hay on offense by splitting their running backs and tight ends outside and occupying Richard Sherman on the edge while moving Julio Jones into the slot, where he feasted on inferior coverage men and blown assignments. Michael Bennett also suffered a knee injury, which sapped the Seattle pass rush, and the Falcons scored touchdowns on three straight drives to take a 24-17 lead.

Seattle made it back by making adjustments. Sherman began to shadow Jones more frequently, even if it meant moving into the slot. They moved away from the run and went back to a heavy passing attack, mixing in a flea-flicker, with some success. They nearly blew the game on special teams, with Steven Hauschka missing a 29-yard field goal and seeing his game-tying extra-point attempt blocked, but they caught a break when Jones dropped a perfectly thrown slant into the hands of Earl Thomas for a pick at midfield. Hauschka kicked the winning 44-yard field goal seven plays later, although the Seahawks had to get away with pass interference on a fourth-down throw to Jones to seal the victory.

That was a different Seahawks defense, in both good and bad ways. Seattle was without Frank Clark and Kam Chancellor and lost Bennett halfway through the game. The Seahawks also had a healthy Thomas, which allowed them to stay in their base defense. The fascinating question for Pete Carroll is how he approaches this game without Thomas, knowing how the Seahawks adjusted and started to move Sherman around during the fourth quarter in Week 6. Do they have Sherman shadow Jones around the field all game, even if it means coming out of their Cover 3 look? Or is stability more important than the ideal matchup?


3. Atlanta Falcons

Divisional round: vs. Seahawks
Conference championship: vs. Packers or at Cowboys
FPI estimate of Super Bowl odds: 18.9 percent

If you read the previous section in which I mentioned that the Falcons had the fourth-worst run defense in the NFL, you can probably guess that I would be worried about how Atlanta might hold up against Ezekiel Elliott in a possible NFC Championship Game matchup. The Falcons were able to mostly neutralize David Johnson (13 carries for 58 yards) when they faced the Cardinals in Week 12, but that was only when he served as a runner. As a receiver, Johnson did some damage, catching eight passes for 103 yards and a touchdown. The Cowboys are far less likely to abandon the run, however.

As currently constructed, the Falcons pose a difficult matchup for the post-Thomas Seahawks, given they have the league's best passing attack against a defense that has been significantly worse without Thomas in the lineup. The Falcons won't be able to do anything if they pass-protect the way they did in the first half of their previous meeting against the Seahawks, but that seems to be an aberration given how they performed over the rest of the season.

They may also be a tougher matchup on defense for Seattle than it seems. The Seahawks have enjoyed newfound success focusing on throwing the ball downfield this year, especially since their win over the Bills in Week 9. Wilson is third in QBR and tied for second in completions on throws of 16-plus yards since that game, but the Falcons are relatively better against deeper throws. They are 12th in the league in defensive DVOA against deep passes and 26th against shorter throws. Dan Quinn's unit has also surprisingly been better since losing star corner Desmond Trufant (torn pectoral muscle); the Falcons have posted a 100.1 opposing passer rating with Trufant on the field this year, but just 84.0 without Trufant. Atlanta would also project well in a likely shootout at home with the Packers.


2. Dallas Cowboys

Divisional round: vs. Packers
Conference championship: vs. Falcons or Seahawks
FPI estimate of Super Bowl odds: 15.5 percent

The Cowboys gashed what had appeared to be a very good run defense when they faced the Packers in Week 6, running the ball 33 times for 191 yards. The Green Bay run defense faded the rest of the way and finished 14th in DVOA. Interestingly enough, it was actually better while Clay Matthews was out of the lineup; with Matthews on the field, the Packers allowed an average of 4.6 yards per carry and first downs on 25.3 percent of opposing runs, while those figures fell to 3.7 yards per attempt and an 18.2 percent first-down rate with Matthews on the sideline. The anemic Giants rushing attack generated 70 yards on 17 carries against the Packers on Sunday.

How will Dak Prescott respond to playoff pressure? We're about to find out. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Building around its running game, it would seem Dallas would prefer to play Atlanta in the conference championship, given that subpar Falcons rush defense. Seattle finished the season second in the league in rush defense DVOA and held an admittedly poor Lions rushing attack to 49 yards on 14 carries Saturday night. It would be naive to count the Cowboys out against any rush defense, but in two games against the third-ranked Giants run D this year, Elliott ran for an ordinary 158 yards on 44 carries.

On the other hand, Dallas finished 19th in pass defense DVOA and mostly avoided the league's great passing attacks. The best pass offense it faced in 2016 was fifth-ranked Washington, and Kirk Cousins posted a 103.6 passer rating while averaging 8.2 yards per attempt. Roethlisberger threw for 408 yards and three touchdowns in his start against Dallas. Ryan would likely be able to move the ball on the Cowboys.

You could make a case that the weakness in the Cowboys' pass defense is against tight ends, where they ranked 30th in DVOA and allowed 75.5 passing yards per game, second most in the league. Given how Jimmy Graham is a more threatening receiver than Austin Hooper or Levine Toilolo, Seattle might be a more difficult matchup than it seems. With Atlanta playing like a much better team than Seattle over the course of the season by advanced metrics, though, the Cowboys would probably prefer to host the Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game.


1. New England Patriots

Divisional round: vs. Texans
Conference championship: vs. Chiefs or Steelers
FPI estimate of Super Bowl odds: 40.1 percent

The Patriots have the easiest path to Houston because they're guaranteed a game against Houston. Even though the Texans looked impressive enough in beating the Raiders on Saturday, keep in mind that mediocre teams that have made their way into the postseason and won in the wild-card round often get stomped in the following round. After going 8-8 in 2011 and beating Pittsburgh in the wild-card round, Tebow's Broncos lost by 35 points in New England the following week. The 2010 Beastquake Seahawks fell behind 28-0 in Chicago before losing 35-24. The 2014 Panthers beat a Ryan Lindley-led Cardinals team at home and subsequently lost by two touchdowns in Seattle.

Since 1990, underdogs of 14 points or more (as the Texans will likely be this weekend) are 20-179, a winning percentage of 10 percent. FPI gives the Texans a 11.1 percent chance of victory when the three other underdogs in the divisional round have no lower than a 27.1 percent shot. There are no layups in the playoffs, but the Texans are an open jumper. That's an enormous scheduling advantage they have over the Cowboys, and while the Patriots will have a tough matchup regardless of who wins the Chiefs-Steelers matchup, they will get to play them in Foxborough. This is precisely why teams care so much about finishing with the top seed at the end of the regular season, and it's why the Patriots are favored to make their seventh trip to the Super Bowl under Bill Belichick.


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