Why each AFC playoff team will win the Super Bowl, and why they won’t


Staff member

The road to the Super Bowl in Las Vegas begins Saturday of wild-card weekend, and even if it doesn’t seem like it, each team has a non-zero chance to win the Super Bowl. Yes, Steelers fans, your team can win the Super Bowl. It’s not impossible. Just unlikely.

As a tradition, I’m going to run through each team and touch on why I think they’ll win the Super Bowl or why they won’t. This is the AFC version. You can check out the NFC version here.

We’re going to take a data-driven look at what needs to go right and what needs to go wrong for each team to hit the jackpot in the desert in early February or to start creating their draft board in January.

Baltimore Ravens

Current Super Bowl odds, per The Athletic’s model: 25.1 percent

Why they’ll win the Super Bowl

Because they’re one of the two most balanced teams in the NFL. When adjusting for garbage time and taking away their Week 18 performance when they rested starters, including quarterback and MVP frontrunner Lamar Jackson, the Ravens rank fifth in EPA/play on offense and second in offensive success rate.

They also boast a top-12 EPA/dropback figure and are fifth in dropback success rate. They also just happen to have the league’s best or second-best rushing attack, depending on which metrics you prefer. But it doesn’t just stop on offense. Their defense ranks second in EPA/play and sixth in defensive success rate.

It’s tough to beat the Ravens through the air, as their defensive unit ranks second in EPA/dropback and dropback success rate. If you’re going to move the ball against this team, it’s easier to turn to your rushing attack. However, with how often the Ravens offense runs the ball, games start to shorten pretty quickly. If you find yourself trailing, comebacks become very difficult.

Why they won’t

Because they could give up a lot of yards on the ground, which keeps the ball out of Jackson’s hands. The Ravens rank 23rd in EPA/rush and 20th in rushing success rate. If you had to choose to have an elite pass defense or an elite rush defense, you’re picking the pass defense every time, but that doesn’t mean that a weak run defense can’t end your season.

All it could take for the Ravens to lose is a sub-par performance by Jackson and Co., and they could find themselves trailing with the opposing offense marching downfield on the ground — all while the clock is running out. Luckily for the Ravens, outside of the Bills, the AFC doesn’t boast the most efficient rushing offenses this year. Either way, if the Ravens go down, it wouldn’t shock me if it’s their inability to stop the run that’s the primary culprit.

Buffalo Bills

Current Super Bowl odds: 10.4 percent

Why they’ll win the Super Bowl

Because QB Josh Allen cuts down on the turnovers and the Bills offense becomes the league’s best. Despite having the third-highest interception rate among qualified quarterbacks this year, Allen still managed to rank fourth in EPA/dropback and dropback success rate. And that doesn’t factor in his ability as a runner.

One reason he ranked in the top four in the aforementioned metrics is that Allen has done a phenomenal job of avoiding sacks. If you look at sacks plus interceptions per dropback, Allen ranks second to only Patrick Mahomes at 6.5 percent. Remember, that’s with the third-highest rate of interceptions in the NFL. If Allen takes care of the ball, the Bills can win it all.

Why they won’t

Because their pass defense is susceptible to ceding easy yardage. The Bills rank 23rd in dropback success rate this year but ninth in EPA/dropback. Like most teams, they rely on sacks and turnovers. The Bills rank second in total EPA gained from turnovers on defense and sixth in sacks. If offenses figure out a way to get the ball out quickly and accurately, they can move the ball on this Bills defense and keep Allen on the sideline.

One other note: The Bills rank in the bottom six in EPA lost on special teams this year.

Kansas City Chiefs

Current Super Bowl odds: 5.7 percent

Why they’ll win the Super Bowl

Because Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce get back to being Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce. I try to avoid easy analysis like, “If Team X’s quarterback plays well, they’ll win the Super Bowl,” but for the 2023 Chiefs, something has been off. Whether it’s been drops by the pass catchers or not being on the same page or their offense being afraid to perform in front of Taylor Swift, things just aren’t going … all too well.

Still, at the end of the day, the Chiefs are going to have Mahomes behind center, and he’s going to have the option to throw the ball to the best receiving tight end in football. If Andy Reid can scheme up some easy access throws — and the wide receivers catch them — I think this offense morphs into what we were expecting entering the season and helps the Chiefs become the first back-to-back Super Bowl champions since the New England Patriots in 2003-2004.

Why they won’t

Because their run defense leaves a lot to be desired. Per rbsdm.com, the Chiefs rank 30th in EPA/rush and 13th in success rate. It seems they’re susceptible to big plays, but their defense only gives up explosive runs a little worse than league average.

The problem is the defense cannot get off the field on third downs against the run. The Chiefs give up a first down on 59 percent of rushes on third downs (29th in the league). The Chiefs defense has been quite good this year, but if it can’t get off the field against quality offenses, Kansas City’s streak of consecutive AFC Championship game appearances will end at five.

Houston Texans

Current Super Bowl odds: 1.8 percent

Why they’ll win the Super Bowl

Because Nico Collins continues to play like a top-five wide receiver. Quarterback C.J. Stroud gets a lot of praise for Houston’s revival, and rightfully so, but I’m not sure enough people understand what kind of numbers Collins is putting up this year. Among receivers who have run at least 10 routes/game in games they’ve played this year, he ranks third in EPA/route (behind Tyreek Hill and Brandon Aiyuk), second in yards/route (behind Hill) and sixth in first downs per route (behind Hill, Aiyuk, Justin Jefferson, Amon-Ra St. Brown and CeeDee Lamb). That’s some impressive company.

If Collins can duplicate his regular-season success in the postseason, combined with Stroud’s continued emergence, we could have the first rookie quarterback to win a Super Bowl.

Why they won’t

Because they get stuck running the ball too much. I know they like to set up shot plays by lulling teams to sleep with their early-down runs, but Stroud is different, and they need to unleash him. I’d be much more OK with running the ball as often as they do on early downs if they were efficient. But they’re not. In fact, they’re in the bottom 10 in the league when running on early downs; The Texans rank 23rd in EPA/rush, 24th in rushing success rate and 28th in first downs/rush. They’re essentially lighting early downs on fire. If they don’t break tendency, they’ll leave a lot to be desired with how Stroud has been playing.

Cleveland Browns

Current Super Bowl odds: 3.2 percent

Why they’ll win the Super Bowl

Because defense wins championships. As much as I talked up the Ravens defense, the Browns have been better. The Browns rank first in EPA/play, success rate, EPA/dropback and dropback success rate this season. They’re a little worse against the run (17th in EPA/rush and 12th in rushing success rate), but that’s not a weakness by any means.

There are some concerns about the defense traveling (14th in EPA/play, ninth in success rate ninth in dropback success rate on the road this season) but again, it’s not like they’re a bad defense with those metrics. This defense has put up some historic numbers, and we could be winding the clock back to the early 2000s if this Browns defense, led by Myles Garrett, can take Cleveland to the promised land.

Why they won’t

Because injuries eventually catch up to you. Deshaun Watson, Nick Chubb, starting offensive tackles, the list goes on and on. Eventually, you just don’t have the players to compete.

Joe Flacco has been a nice story, and the job Kevin Stefanski has done has been amazing, but this offense isn’t good. By EPA/dropback, Flacco ranks 29th out of 42 quarterbacks with at least 10 dropbacks per game this year. His dropback success rate is a more respectable 19th, but there just isn’t a big play threat in this offense. Flacco had one good game (against wild-card opponent Houston) but otherwise played very poorly.

Bad offenses don’t typically win in the postseason, and it’s hard to see the Browns succeeding unless Flacco has one more magical run up his sleeve.

Miami Dolphins

Current Super Bowl odds: 3.1 percent

Why they’ll win the Super Bowl

Because they have speed at the skill positions and a quarterback who knows how to get the ball to those players in space. Tua Tagovailoa ranks at the top of nearly every quarterback efficiency metric; Tyreek Hill delivered one of the better wide receiver seasons in NFL history; and De’Von Achane, when healthy, might be the most explosive running back in the league. And we haven’t even talked about Jaylen Waddle!

This offense has game-breaking speed at nearly every position and can flip the script of a game faster than any other team in the league. If their speed prevails, this team could outgun any opponent in the Super Bowl.

Why they won’t

Because their defensive line has been gutted over the last two weeks of the season. Bradley Chubb is out for the playoffs with a knee injury while a few others are banged up and questionable for the playoff run. This comes after Jaelan Phillips was lost for the season earlier in the year. If you’re not going to hold up in the trenches on the defensive side of the ball, life is going to be difficult.

But the more interesting question I have for the Dolphins is why this offense hasn’t performed against high-quality opponents this year. Against playoff teams, the Dolphins have averaged less than 18 points per game and are 1-5 in those contents, with their only win coming on a last-second field goal against the Cowboys. Good defenses have found a way to slow down this speedy offense multiple times this year.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Current Super Bowl odds: 0.7 percent

Why they’ll win the Super Bowl

Because Mason Rudolph continues his late breakout and utilizes the Steelers’ receivers. The small-sample-size caveat applies here, but Rudolph has an EPA/dropback number that would put him between Dak Prescott and Tagovailoa, along with a dropback success rate that would sandwich him between Justin Herbert and Matthew Stafford.

The Steelers’ offensive line play is average, but pass catchers Diontae Johnson, George Pickens and Pat Freiermuth create a lot of problems for defenses. Throw in a nice 1-2 punch from Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren out of the backfield, and you’re cooking with gas. If Rudolph can get the ball out and into the hands of his playmakers, maybe this Steelers offense can surprise.

Why they won’t

Because T.J. Watt is out for multiple weeks, and he’s the catalyst to their defense. The good news, if there is such a thing when you lose one of the league’s top edge rushers, is the Steelers are getting Minkah Fitzpatrick back in the secondary. But Watt is such a vital piece to their success. Without him, they’ll need Alex Highsmith, Cameron Heyward and Nick Herbig to step up.

History has shown us this Steelers defense struggles when Watt isn’t out there, and that’s likely going to be their undoing. Unless of course, they can take advantage of some lake-effect snow in Buffalo and spring an upset. Even then they’re a long shot.