Ranking Super Bowl contenders

Jim Harbaugh

Clichés have to start somewhere.

Don't turn the ball over. Get seven instead of three in the red zone. Establish the run. Get the defense off the field on third down. All of those maxims, though worn and tired, aren't wrong.

Limiting (and forcing) turnovers is an effective way to win in the postseason. Only one team since 2001 (2007 Giants) has won a Super Bowl with a negative turnover margin.

Maximizing points in the red zone does matter. The past nine Super Bowl-winning teams were in the top half of the league in offensive red zone efficiency.

If these clichés add up to producing the magic formula to win a Super Bowl, which of the four remaining teams checks the most boxes on the ingredient list? Is there one that stands out among the rest?

We ranked the four remaining NFL teams in 14 total statistical categories and examined why each will or won't win the Super Bowl. The exercise revealed one team that stands above the rest.

How are these determined?

The rankings factor in red-zone efficiency, turnovers, takeaways, third-down conversion percentage, Total QBR and rushing success rate for each team's offense and defense.

Additionally, thanks to Dean Oliver's work on pass-protection metrics, we can look at two more categories for each team: How well their four-man pass rush can control the line of scrimmage and how effectively their offensive line controls the line when pass blocking.

Six categories for both the offense and the defense, plus special teams expected points added (EPA) and penalties per game make 14 categories total.


1. San Francisco 49ers (Average rank 2.36)

Why they won't lose: Balance is the name of the game. The 49ers rank first or second among the remaining teams in 10 of the 14 categories (Seattle is second-most with seven). San Francisco is a top-six team in the league in turnovers, takeaways, Total QBR and Total QBR allowed. Add in a fifth-ranked special teams unit, and there simply aren't any more facets of the game to let them down.

San Francisco's red-zone defensive prowess was on full display last weekend, as the 49ers held the Panthers without a touchdown on eight plays inside the 10-yard line. San Francisco's red zone offense grades out as the worst among contenders, but even in that rating there's reason for optimism. Their "fourth-of-four" translates to 15th in the league (still top half), and their 25.4 points per game average since Michael Crabtree's Week 13 return ranks a respectable 11th in the league.

How they could lose: San Francisco relies heavily on the running game, averaging 31.6 rushes per game this season. A team that can match up well in rush defense could give San Francisco problems, especially considering their tendency for quantity over quality of rushes (17th in rush success rate).

The 49ers' defense has allowed 3.9 yards per rush this year, still a good average but not the brick wall it was in years past. If an opponent can slow San Francisco's running game while establishing their own (20th in rush success rate allowed), that could be enough -- particularly if the 49ers' red-zone offense can't finish drives.


2. Seattle Seahawks (Average rank 2.43)

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