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)

Why they won't win: What has happened to Russell Wilson lately? Seattle's second-year signal-caller hasn't posted a Total QBR above 50 since Week 13. The entire offense has gone vanilla -- they aren't turning the ball over (fourth in the league, second among contenders), but they also aren't making plays. The Seahawks are fourth of four in third-down conversion percentage and Total QBR, plus Seattle's pass-blocking is the third worst in the entire league and worst of the remaining teams.

Seattle's "Legion of Boom" secondary has earned its share of flags as well. No team is more penalized than Seattle, and recent comments from coaches and players around the league could put their physical style of play under scrutiny. Only the Rams (47) gave opponents more first downs via penalty than Seattle (43).

How they could win: Have you seen that defense play? Seattle leads the league in Total QBR allowed (29.5), takeaways (39, or 2.4 per game) and line-of-scrimmage control with a four-man rush (55 percent of pass plays). Those numbers are ridiculous. Seattle's average quarterback opponent would have ranked between Brandon Weeden (24.7) and Terrelle Pryor (30.5) in Total QBR this season, and turned the ball over as much as Eli Manning and Matt Cassel combined.

They are only second-best in the league in defensive red-zone efficiency, holding opposing offenses without a touchdown on 39.5 percent of red-zone possessions. Still, it makes sense that Wilson's only goal would be to not turn the ball over, as this defense has been making enough impact plays all season to carry the team.


3. Denver Broncos (Average rank 2.50)

Why they won't win: Denver can't protect the ball (or take it away from anyone else). The Broncos are the only contender not in the top half of the league in turnovers, with Peyton Manning the prime culprit. Surprisingly it's not Manning's passing (19 quarterbacks had more interceptions, though no one had more attempts), but his fumbles that are the issue. Manning fumbled the ball 10 times this season, behind only Matthew Stafford and Robert Griffin III.

Denver also doesn't force impact plays on defense at all. They have the second-worst standard pass rush in the league and the worst defensive red-zone efficiency and takeaway total of the contenders. Von Miller will be watching the rest of the postseason, and the Broncos found out Monday that Chris Harris (torn ACL) will be joining him. Both quarterbacks in Sunday's AFC Championship Game should have all day to throw, but both NFC contenders' pass rushes are strong.

How they could win: Peyton Manning. His pass protection is eighth in the league (and best among contenders), but given that Manning's average pass takes a league-low 2.88 seconds to get off he's easier to protect than most. Manning is also why Denver leads the league in offensive red-zone efficiency, third-down percentage and Total QBR.

The three teams with the Broncos are volume rushing teams, with each ranked in the top nine in rushing attempts. But Denver's rush defense is far better equipped than its secondary, posting an EPA success on 64.6 percent of opposing rushing attempts (eighth in NFL). When defensive tackle Terrance Knighton is on the field (as he was for 32 snaps last weekend), the Broncos allow only 3.3 yards per rush. That number would lead the league as a stand-alone total.


4. New England Patriots (Average rank 2.71)

Why they won't win: The defense, plain and simple. Among the remaining teams, New England has the worst defensive third-down percentage, Total QBR allowed, rushing success rate allowed and four-man pass rush. In fact, the Patriots' four-man pass rush isn't just the worst of the four -- it's the worst in the league, controlling the line of scrimmage on 40 percent of pass plays (50 is average).

If Vince Wilfork and/or Tommy Kelly were healthy, this would be a different discussion. However, undrafted rookies can take you only so far, and New England's defensive tackle position is manned by three ( Sealver Siliga, Chris Jones and Joe Vellano). With Jamie Collins' emergence at linebacker and the return of key cogs from injured reserve, this unit could be very interesting -- next year.

How they could win: The Patriots had the best rushing success rate of the four, improving the team's expected points added on 42.2 percent of rushes (third best in NFL). If LeGarrette Blount is for real (and his 431 yards in the past three games suggests he is), moving the ball on the ground, maximizing red-zone possessions and playing opportunistic defense (10th in NFL in takeaways) has worked in Foxborough before. Bill Belichick's teams won't beat themselves (second in both penalties and special teams EPA), and New England is always a tough out with Tom Brady behind center.

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