2018 NFL Power Rankings: Conference Championships Edition
The upside of a completely chalky division weekend is a championship weekend that features four of the best teams in the league.
On the NFC side of things, the top two teams in our nERD power rankings will meet for the right to go to the Super Bowl, while the AFC Championship features the fifth- and sixth-ranked teams. For those unfamiliar, nERD measures how many points above or below average a team is.
Kansas City is the lowest-rated team remaining, due to a defense that ranks 28th in the league in opponent-adjusted Net Expected Points (NEP) but less than 1.4 nERD actually separate the Chiefs from the Rams.
Here is how the playoff field breaks down, followed by a few more notes about the final four teams.
|Rank||Team||nERD||Rec.||Super Bowl Odds||Off. NEP Rank||Def. NEP Rank||Change|
|1||Los Angeles Rams||9.12||14-3||23.2%||2||15||0|
|2||New Orleans Saints||8.37||14-3||26.8%||3||12||1|
|5||New England Patriots||7.92||12-5||24.1%||4||10||0|
|6||Kansas City Chiefs||7.74||13-4||25.8%||1||28||1|
Los Angeles Rams
While the Rams' scoring margin of +8 suggests a relatively close game, in terms of moving the ball and stopping the opposition from doing the same, it was a dominant performance over the Cowboys.
Los Angeles out-gained the Cowboys by 151 yards and had a +12.7% Net Success Rate, the best Success Rate margin of the weekend (Success Rate measures the percentage of plays that yield positive NEP).
Dallas' defense posted the 10th-lowest Rushing Success Rate during the regular season, but it was no match for the league's most efficient rushing offense, which posted a 51.4% Success Rate in the regular season and a 60.4% mark on Saturday. C.J. Anderson ran for 123 yards and a pair of scores on 23 carries, while Todd Gurley added 115 yards and a touchdown on 15 rushes.
Through the air, Jared Goff posted a solid -- if unspectacular -- 48.2% Success Rate, while the Cowboys offense as a whole was held to a rate of 44.1% (the league average is 45.4%).
The game was as close as it was, due in large part to the Rams' struggles in the red zone, as they averaged just 4.0 points per red zone trip; they had two touchdowns and two field goals apiece.
While red zone performance tends to be inconsistent, this has been an areas of concern for the Rams this year. They were 16th in points per red zone trip in the regular season (4.95), per Football Outsiders. Fortunately for them, while Dallas' defense was 8th in points per red zone trip, New Orleans' is only 22nd here.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints' offensive strengths are well known, as New Orleans owns an attack that ranks second in both Success Rate and opponent-adjusted NEP per play (behind the Rams and Chiefs, respectively).
Things are more mixed on the defensive end. Run defense has been their strength, as only three teams have allowed fewer NEP per rush. The Saints own an above-average Success Rate on rushes and have excelled at clamping down on big runs -- they have allowed only 10 or more yards on 8.4% of opponents' rushes, the third-best mark in the league.
Through the air, it has been a different story. The Saints defense ranks 26th in Passing Success Rate and 27th in yards per completion (12.0), suggesting they've had trouble both in terms of efficiency and explosiveness.
They have excelled at getting to opposing quarterbacks though and are tied for fifth in sack rate. The Saints also tied for the sixth-highest turnover rate on pass plays, which had less to do with a below average 2.1% interception rate than their four fumble recoveries on sacks (only six teams had more).
These turnovers helped the Saints tie for 15th in opponent-adjusted Passing NEP per dropback and 15th in overall Defensive NEP during the regular season. Turnovers are highly valuable plays but are not predictive of future events, meaning we should put more stock into their sub-par Success Rate and yards per pass marks.
New England Patriots
In their 41-28 win over the Chargers, which was not nearly as close as the final score suggests, the Patriots gave a typically strong performance on offense but were even better on the other side of the ball.
New England posted a 48.2% Success Rate, which was actually identical to their rate in the regular season that ranked eighth in the NFL. The Chargers ranked one spot ahead of them with a mark of 48.3% but was held to 37.1% on Sunday.
The Patriots actually now have the top remaining defense in the playoffs by NEP, but their means of success in the regular season differed from that of last Sunday.
In the regular season, the Pats allowed opponents to move the ball on them at a solid clip, as they ranked 15th in Success Rate on defense (45.2%) and 20th in yards allowed per play (5.7). Despite this, they still managed to tie for ninth in opponent-adjusted NEP allowed per play by forcing a high rate of turnovers. Only three teams forced more turnovers per possession than New England, but as mentioned, this is not predictive.
In recent seasons, the Patriots have also excelled in terms of third-down and red zone defense, but were around average in both regards this season. This means their success on defense is almost solely turnover related, so if they cannot force them on Sunday, they will be in trouble against a Chiefs team that has moved the ball about as well as anyone this season.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs have made it this far mostly in spite of their defense, but they excelled there against the Colts last week.
Kansas City held a scolding hot Indianapolis offense to a 38.6% Success Rate, which was almost 11% lower than their regular season average (for added context, the Jets were 31st in the league with a mark of 38.1%). This was also 12.0% better than the Chiefs defense's regular season average, which was last in the NFL.
Their previous best game, in terms of Success Rate allowed, came against the Cardinals, who had a Success Rate more than 5% higher than the Colts did on Sunday (and one that was about 5% higher than Arizona's seasonal mark).
It would be silly to read too much into one game when we have a much larger sample telling us the Chiefs' defense is poor. However, Sunday's game is a good blueprint for how they can have success stopping opponents. Kansas City's biggest weakness is an abhorrent run defense, which is allowing 5.0 yards per carry and a 53.3% Success Rate (31st and 32nd in the league, respectively).
Its strengths are a pass rush that has the league's eighth-best sack rate and, obviously, the third-highest scoring offense in NFL history. These two factors work well together, as the offense forces opponents to play from behind, which puts the pass rush in a situation to thrive. This also has the added effect of preventing the opposition from from taking full advantage of Kansas City's weak run defense as it chases the game.
No one will ever confuse the 2018 Chiefs defense with the 2000 Ravens, but its strengths and weaknesses combine well with their prolific offense.