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Current NFL resumes tell a futures tale

By Steve Makinen  () 

(To view the charts that accompany this report, subscribe to Point Spread Weekly)

The NFL season is 14 games in and, knock on wood, it sure looks like we are on schedule to finish the season as planned. As usual, after 14 games for each team, we know quite a bit about every one — strengths, weaknesses and their prospects for the postseason. Is everything what it seems, though?

The league added a team to the playoff mix in each conference this season, meaning we will have 14 playoff teams, not 12. Does an additional playoff team from each conference hurt the top seeds’ chances to make a deep postseason run? Theoretically, yes, but in all likelihood, no. I’m going to run through a list of qualifiers from past years that detail a team’s worthiness of winning playoff games and making a title run. You will see that the true list of contenders is short again this season, and placing futures wagers on the others is essentially throwing your money away.

The key thing to start with is teams’ performance levels against opponents with a winning record.

Quality of wins

The ability to beat other good teams is paramount for postseason success. Over the last seven years, 25 of the 28 teams that advanced to the semifinals in either conference had at least a .500 record against teams with a regular-season record of 8-8 or better. 

The three teams that posted a losing record against teams .500 or better and advanced to the conference championship games were the 2014 Colts, ’18 Chiefs and ’19 Titans. Strangely, the Chiefs were only 3-3 against such teams in the 2019 regular season en route to their Super Bowl title.

Let’s take a look at the current chart of the 2020 teams still in the playoff hunt after 14 games. Of course, these numbers can and will change over the next couple of weeks, but they can be telling.

There are only eight teams that have a .500 or better record against teams 7-7 or better. They are:

BUFFALO 5-3

GREEN BAY 2-2

INDIANAPOLIS 4-3

KANSAS CITY 6-1

LOS ANGELES RAMS 4-2

NEW ORLEANS 3-3

PITTSBURGH 4-1

TENNESSEE 4-3

Noticeably absent are teams such as Baltimore, Seattle and Tampa Bay. The Packers and Saints are dangerously close to falling off the list as well, and, for the sake of their playoff worthiness, need to finish the season strong.

Against-the-spread success versus quality opponents is another strong gauge of a team’s ability to win in the postseason. Of the 28 final four teams on the first chart, 23 were at least .500 ATS against these quality opponents. These are the 2020 contenders that are at least even against the spread versus teams .500 or better:

BALTIMORE 4-3 ATS

BUFFALO 5-3 ATS

GREEN BAY 2-2 ATS

INDIANAPOLIS 4-3 ATS

KANSAS CITY 3-3 ATS

LOS ANGELES RAMS 4-2 ATS

LAS VEGAS 4-3 ATS

MIAMI 4-1 ATS

MINNESOTA 4-4 ATS

NEW YORK GIANTS 4-3 ATS

PITTSBURGH 3-2 ATS

TENNESSEE 4-3 ATS

Interestingly, five new teams make this list and the Saints fall off. Also note that the Dolphins’ 4-1 ATS mark against quality teams is the best in the NFL. Arizona is just 1-4 ATS in this scenario to go along with a 2-3 SU mark.

The respect that teams receive from oddsmakers is also relevant, as 25 of the 28 final four teams over the last seven years had an average point spread of being favored over quality opponents in the regular season. These are the 2020 teams that meet that criteria:

BALTIMORE -1.8

BUFFALO -0.4

GREEN BAY -1.6

INDIANAPOLIS -1.8

KANSAS CITY -4.1

LOS ANGELES RAMS -1.5

NEW ORLEANS -2.4

PITTSBURGH -1.3

SEATTLE -2.3

TAMPA BAY -0.6

The final indicator in terms of performance against quality teams is the point differential in such games. Again, 25 of the 28 final four qualifiers outscored their quality opposition in regular-season games. For 2020, here are the teams that have done that:

PITTSBURGH + 6.4

NEW ORLEANS + 4.9

TENNESSEE + 4.6

KANSAS CITY + 4.4

LOS ANGELES RAMS + 3.3

BALTIMORE + 3.2

INDIANAPOLIS + 0.4

If you’re looking to narrow your potential Super Bowl champion list even further, consider that EVERY ONE of the last seven Lombardi Trophy winners had at least a .500 SU and ATS record against quality opponents.

Significance of Strength Ratings

Comparing the successful teams of the last seven years by my Strength Ratings can also prove fruitful. Looking back after 14 games in each of those seasons, in terms of my Power Ratings, no team with a rating of less than 26 ever went on to play for a conference championship. Furthermore, none of the 14 Super Bowl qualifiers had a rating of less than 28 at this point in the season. Here are the teams with ratings of 26 or higher. Note the cutoff of 28 as well:

CLEVELAND 26

ARIZONA 26.5

TENNESSEE 27.5

LOS ANGELES RAMS 27.5

INDIANAPOLIS 27.5

SEATTLE 27.5

NEW ORLEANS 28

GREEN BAY 28.5

TAMPA BAY 29

BUFFALO 29

BALTIMORE 29.5

KANSAS CITY 32.5

In terms of my Effective Strength Ratings, none of the 28 final four teams had a rating lower than + 2.2 after 14 games. Of the Super Bowl combatants, + 4 was the lowest. Here are the 2020 Effective Strength Ratings through Monday’s game:

BALTIMORE + 9.5

KANSAS CITY + 8.2

NEW ORLEANS + 6.9

GREEN BAY + 6

TAMPA BAY + 6

MIAMI + 5.3

PITTSBURGH + 5.3

BUFFALO + 5.2

LOS ANGELES RAMS + 5

SEATTLE + 4.7

TENNESSEE + 4.1

INDIANAPOLIS + 4

ARIZONA + 3.5

This is a pretty expansive list in 2020. Naturally some teams could fall off in the final two weeks, but this does little to refine our search for the ultimate title winner. My Effective Yardage Rankings prove to be more definitive, however, as several pretenders are removed. In the last seven years, 25 of the 28 final four teams had positive Effective Yardage indicators. In general, however, we’re typically looking for a figure of + 0.2 per play or higher. These are the 2020 teams that meet that criteria:

LOS ANGELES RAMS + 0.98

KANSAS CITY + 0.71

BALTIMORE + 0.51

NEW ORLEANS + 0.5

TAMPA BAY + 0.5

BUFFALO + 0.46

ARIZONA + 0.38

MINNESOTA + 0.38

SEATTLE + 0.34

TENNESSEE + 0.33

GREEN BAY + 0.31

This strength indicator really speaks to the Rams’ chances, if they can minimize turnovers and avoid a difficult seeding spot. Noticeably absent are the Steelers, whose recent struggles probably have dropped them off any title contender lists anyway.

The final strength indicator is my Bettors’ Ratings, and they essentially quantify the betting market’s perception of a team. The overwhelming majority of the last 28 final four qualifiers had a Bettors’ Rating of at least -3.4, meaning they would be considered a 3.4-point favorite in a neutral environment against an average team. This year there are eight teams that fit the bill:

NEW ORLEANS -7.9

KANSAS CITY -7.4

LOS ANGELES RAMS -5.5

PITTSBURGH -5.1

BALTIMORE -5

TAMPA BAY -4.7

SEATTLE -4.3

GREEN BAY -4

Summary

Of course, there are so many other factors that one might consider in projecting an eventual Super Bowl champion, not limited to recent play, projected seeding and talent at the all-important quarterback position. With all of this considered, my top picks in each conference at this point are:

AFC: 1. Kansas City 2. Buffalo 3. Tennessee

NFC: 1. Green Bay 2. Los Angeles Rams 3. New Orleans

Enjoy the final two weeks of the regular season. Much is still on the line.

 

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