Commentary

Five teams with the best chance to take down Pats

Originally Published: September 7, 2017
By ESPN Analytics | ESPN.com

Tom Brady Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsIs it possible for the 2017 season to end with an image like this?

At first glance, the New England Patriots' 28.5 percent chance to win Super Bowl LII (+250), per the current odds from the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook, might not sound that crazy. That's until you realize that no NFL team has been that heavily favored since 2007 ... when the Patriots were a similar +250 favorite. ESPN's Football Power Index thinks Vegas is actually lowballing New England, as FPI gives the Patriots a 32.4 percent chance to win it all.

Those are pretty strong odds, though we all know things can change in a hurry in a league in which parity still reigns supreme and for a team whose fortunes hinge largely on a certain 40-year-old quarterback. Also, fans of the New York Giants can probably recall for you how things ended up for that anointed 2007 New England squad. In the NFL, you'd be advised to use the word "lock" at your own risk. Should the Pats falter, here are five candidates ESPN's Analytics/Stats & Info teams say could be poised to seize the Lombardi Trophy.

If you'd like to skip forward to a specific team, click the links below:

Raiders | Falcons | Seahawks  | Steelers | Packers 

Oakland Raiders

Current FPI rank: 7

Darren McCollester/Getty ImagesKeeping Derek Carr clean would be the key to the Raiders dethroning the Patriots.

Unlike most of the other teams on this list, the key to the Raiders' chances of toppling New England is not their quarterback -- it's their offensive line.

For as much publicity as Derek Carr got for his development last season, QBR still didn't think he was elite. Progress was made, yes, but Carr finished last season as the 16th-ranked quarterback in the all-encompassing quarterback efficiency stat -- a far cry from top performers such as Tom Brady and Matt Ryan.

At the same time, the Raiders' aerial attack was the best part of their team last season, as they recorded the eighth-highest rate of expected points added per play (EPA/P) on passing plays during the 15 games of the season when Carr played. So based on that difference in rank (and with the knowledge that runs by Carr were not a value add) we can infer Carr was getting a fair amount of help from his teammates.

QBR doesn't tell us specifically who, other than the quarterback, is deserving of the rest of the credit. But there are some pretty strong clues that suggest the big guys up front are responsible for much of the prowess of Oakland's offense.

The Raiders' offensive line controlled the line on 51 percent of dropbacks, fourth-highest in the league, for example. And Raiders quarterbacks were under duress, hit or sacked on just 18.5 percent of dropbacks last season, second-best in the NFL. It's worth noting that Carr's receivers did their fair share too, averaging the eighth-most yards after catch per completion in 2016.

In 2017, there's no reason to believe the Raiders' offensive line shouldn't fuel the team's success again. Four of the five starters along the line are returning, though they may see a downgrade at right tackle where former Giants backup Marshall Newhouse will replace the combination of Austin Howard and Menelik Watson.

FPI thinks the Raiders' offense is more than three points above average -- sixth-best in the league -- heading into the season, though it still lags far behind the Patriots' offense. Defensively, Khalil Mack may be an exceptional pass-rusher, but he isn't enough. Oakland was solid at getting after the quarterback -- pressuring quarterbacks on 27.2 percent of dropbacks, 12th-most -- but that didn't translate to much success defensively. The Raiders ranked 21st in EPA/P last season on pass plays last year, 23rd in EPA/P on all plays and 19th in defensive FPI (-0.9). In fact, the Raiders' defense has finished every season with a negative defensive FPI since 2008, as far back as the index goes. But this season could be different: Their preseason defensive FPI, at least for now, is slightly above average (+0.2).

Before the Raiders can really think about toppling New England, they will face a stiff challenge from within their own division. Oakland has a virtually identical overall FPI (+3.4) to Kansas City, and the model's projections give the Chiefs the slight edge (37.5 percent to 33.7 percent) to win the AFC West. However, the playoffs may have room for both of them, as the Raiders' overall chance to make the playoffs is 55.4 percent.

But back to the dethroning the Patriots. To be frank, the Raiders are the longest shot on this list of teams to pull off the feat. Could they? Certainly. FPI gives Oakland a 7.3 percent chance to make it to the Super Bowl. That might not sound good -- and it isn't -- but when the Patriots have more than a 50-50 shot to be the AFC champion, there isn't that much of the pie left to the distribute to the other teams in the conference. -- Seth Walder


Atlanta Falcons

Current FPI rank: 6

Matt Ryan and Tom BradyKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCan Matt Ryan and the Falcons break the long-standing Super Bowl runner-up curse?

It's on T-shirts, tattoos and internet memes. The New England Patriots even have the number of diamonds in their Super Bowl rings.

28-3.

It's the reality for the Atlanta Falcons after they were on the wrong side of the third-largest comeback in NFL postseason history, let alone the Super Bowl.

No team since the Bills from 1991 to 1993 has reached the Super Bowl the year after losing it. The 1971 Cowboys and 1972 Dolphins are the only ones to win it all the year after losing the Super Bowl. The '72 Dolphins had to be perfect, literally.

Atlanta has new defensive and offensive coordinators in Marquand Manuel and Steve Sarkisian, respectively. Neither has held those roles in the NFL before. The Falcons are the fifth team in the past 25 years to play in the Super Bowl and return neither of their coordinators.

Even with coordinator changes, ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI) projects the Falcons to win 9.2 games and gives them a 38 percent chance to win the NFC South, which is the highest in the division, but the second-lowest of any current FPI division favorites.

Atlanta should have no issues on offense challenging New England. FPI says the Falcons' offense is 4.1 points better than an average NFL team, which trails only the Packers for tops in the NFC. That offense finished with the fourth-highest single-season offensive efficiency in the 11 seasons of data and remains virtually unchanged in 2017.

It certainly doesn't hurt having MVP Matt Ryan, who posted the highest single-season Total QBR in five years at 83.3. It also doesn't hurt having the top two players in scrimmage yards over the past two seasons in Julio Jones (3,280) and Devonta Freeman (3,175). Freeman has 619 touches in that span, most in the NFL.

The Falcons did finish 22nd in the NFL in defensive efficiency last season, and this year they rank 22nd in defensive FPI, costing their team 0.7 defensive points over an average NFL team. Atlanta and Green Bay have the largest negative disparity from defensive to offensive FPI in preseason rankings at -4.8.

Atlanta did bring in Dontari Poe from Kansas City, and he should mix well with a unit that has Vic Beasley, who became the first in team history to lead the NFL in sacks with 15.5. Beasley accounted for 46 percent of the Falcons' sacks, the highest percentage in the NFL. Second-year players such as LB Deion Jones and Keanu Neal and 2017 first-round pick Takkarist McKinley should help a unit that was 23rd in defensive expected points added on pass plays last season.

The Falcons are FPI favorites in 14 of their 16 games. One of the two games in which they are not favorites is Week 7 on the road against the Patriots.

FPI gives roughly a 6 percent chance of a Falcons-Patriots rematch in Super Bowl LII, the third-likeliest Super Bowl behind Patriots-Seahawks (11 percent) and Patriots-Packers (9 percent).

If you need any reminder of whether the Falcons can dethrone the champs, they were just the eighth team -- and first in the postseason -- to take a 25-point lead against a Tom Brady-Bill Belichick-led Patriots team. -- Vince Masi


Seattle Seahawks

Current FPI rank: 4

Russell WilsonAP Photo/David GoldmanBeating the Patriots in February would mean Russell Wilson exorcising his Super Bowl XLIX demon.

Who better to dethrone the Patriots than the team that was a single yard away from defeating New England in Super Bowl XLIX a few seasons ago?

For an NFC team there is only one definitive path to dethroning New England, and that is meeting the Patriots in Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis and emerging victorious. This is where Seattle may have the biggest edge over the other NFC contenders, as no other NFC contender has a path as easy as the Seahawks.

The Seahawks own the second-easiest schedule of all the NFC teams and the fifth-easiest schedule overall. They are currently FPI favorites in 14 of their 16 contests, with road games at the Packers this Sunday and at the Cowboys in Week 16 being the exceptions.

Seattle is the largest division favorite in the NFC in the latest FPI projections, winning the NFC West in nearly 70 percent of simulations (Green Bay is next-closest division favorite at just under 58 percent) and is projected to be the top seed in the NFC just over 22 percent of the time (again, Green Bay is next-closest coming in at just under 18 percent). FPI may see Green Bay as a slightly stronger team heading into the season, holding an FPI rating of 5.0 to Seattle's 4.8 (roughly how many points each team is better than an average NFL team), but Green Bay must navigate the 13th-hardest schedule, compared to Seattle's 28th-hardest.

Even if Seattle should lose Week 1 in Green Bay, the Seahawks would still be in a strong position due to their schedule. According to FPI's simulations, Seattle would still have about a 14 percent chance of winning the top seed in the division and an 18 percent chance of making it to Minneapolis. If they pull the minor upset, however, the Seahawks would have a 36 percent chance of winning home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and a 28 percent chance of making the Super Bowl.

FPI has a Seahawks-Patriots Super Bowl matchup as the most likely of any potential pairing, occurring in nearly 11 percent of simulations. In those simulations in which those teams face off, Seattle is victorious 39 percent of the time, which may not sound too impressive, but it is the second-highest of any of the Patriots' potential Super Bowl foes.

The Seahawks are projected to be strong in all three phases of the game, with their offense (FPI-ranked seventh), defense (seventh) and special teams (fifth) units all ranking within the top seven in the league. No other NFC team is ranked within the top 10 in each. -- Hank Gargiulo


Pittsburgh Steelers

Current FPI rank: 3

Brady & RoethlisbergerMatthew J. Lee/Getty ImagesTom Brady has owned the Steelers on the big stage. Can Big Ben finally break through?

Since Brady's first season as a starter in 2001, there have been only three quarterbacks to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl multiple times, accounting for 14 out of 16 years: Brady (seven times), Peyton Manning (four times) and Roethlisberger (three times). With Manning out of the picture and a fully loaded and healthy roster, the Steelers and Roethlisberger just might have the right credentials for taking down the Patriots.

FPI projects Pittsburgh as the NFL's second-best team, behind only the Patriots. The Steelers have a 61.3 percent chance to win the AFC North, while other AFC division favorites other than the Patriots are given closer to 40 percent or less. As clear favorites in their division (with a projection of 10.2 wins -- two more wins than rival Baltimore), Pittsburgh has an inside track for a first-round bye in the playoffs and a meeting with New England in the AFC Championship Game.

Belichick's well-known tactic of neutralizing an opponent's biggest threat may not work as well as it did in last season's AFC Championship Game, when top-target Antonio Brown was held to 77 yards and no scores. In addition to one of the league's best receivers (Brown) and one of the league's best backs in Le'Veon Bell, speedy receiver Martavis Bryant returns from a year-long suspension. Belichick would theoretically have to pick his poison in such a matchup. FPI expects the Steelers' offense to be among the league's elite units at 4.1 points per game above average.

Although the Steelers' defense isn't what it was in the team's three Super Bowl appearances of the Roethlisberger era, it should be significantly improved since the unceremonious exit at the hands of the Patriots in the 2016 postseason. Last season's Steelers defense was depleted by injury, missing pass-rushers such as defensive ends Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, plus linebackers Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree, all of whom return healthy to start 2017. Rookie linebacker T.J. Watt, who ranked third overall in our 2017 rookie projections based on combine metrics, should also make an impact. Pittsburgh's secondary was also upgraded, highlighted by the recent addition of free agent veteran Joe Haden, but still remains the team's weak spot. Overall, FPI expects the Steelers' defense to improve nearly a point per game compared to last season.

One overlooked factor in favor of the Steelers is that the schedule sets up very favorably for them. They will face their two toughest opponents, New England and Green Bay, at home, and they will face Indianapolis without starting quarterback Andrew Luck in Week 1. They will travel the fewest miles of any NFL team (one-fifth the mileage of the Raiders, who will travel the farthest), and will have no short road weeks all season.

The Patriots are still the team to beat, but the Steelers are who I'd put my money on as the team to beat them. -- Brian Burke


Green Bay Packers

Current FPI rank: 2

RodgersAP Photo/Michael DwyerCould the Packers break the Pats' hearts in Minneapolis?

Who's going to beat the Patriots in a Super Bowl? ESPN's Football Power Index says the best bet to unseat the Patriots in a possible Super Bowl matchup is a team that has done it already.

No, not the Giants (and definitely not the Bears). The Green Bay Packers have the best chance of any contender of unseating the defending champs in a Super Bowl, with 40 percent of simulations ending in a Packer win should the teams meet in Super Bowl LII.

ESPN's Football Power Index rates Green Bay as 4.8 points better than an average team on a neutral field, a figure that trails only the Patriots (8.8), Steelers (4.9) and Seahawks (4.9). New England and Green Bay don't meet in the regular season. What would a Super Bowl XXXI redux look like?

Any chance the Packers have begins under center. Over the past three years, Aaron Rodgers' play has been worth 109 points above what a replacement quarterback would provide. Only Drew Brees (+111 QB PAR) has been more valuable to his team in that span.

He's the engine that drives a Packers offense that FPI rates as the NFC's best, contributing 4.8 points above an average offense on a neutral field. Green Bay's +4.8 offensive rating trails only the Patriots (6.4), and beating New England starts with that unit performing to its potential.

The Packers have surrounded Rodgers with plenty of capable receivers, and using them all is their best bet at creating mismatches. Green Bay scored 47 of the team's 51 offensive touchdowns with at least three wide receivers on the field last year. The Packers also ran a league-high 416 plays with at least four wide receivers last season.

This is the best way to create a problem for the Patriots' defense. Taking away a team's top option is Belichick's priority -- just look at their playoff run. Julio Jones had four receptions in the Super Bowl, Antonio Brown had 77 yards in an AFC Championship Game that required 47 Ben Roethlisberger pass attempts, and DeAndre Hopkins managed only 65 yards in the AFC divisional round.

But taking away Jordy Nelson is only part of the problem. Over the past 3 years, Green Bay is 11-5 when Nelson is the team's leading receiver and 21-11 when he isn't. Davante Adams had 997 receiving yards and 12 TDs last year, and Randall Cobb had 1,287 yards and 12 TDs in 2014. The wealth of options is a major reason why Green Bay led the NFL with +160.0 expected points added from plays with at least three wideouts.

New England made a big splash by signing Stephon Gilmore in free agency and holding on to Malcolm Butler as he plays out the last year of his contract, but that's a lot of matchups that have to break New England's way. Plus, no one knows the impact Martellus Bennett can have better than the Patriots, who relied heavily on Bennett with Rob Gronkowski sidelined for much of last year.

The only thing scarier than Aaron Rodgers throwing to that group is him having the time to do it. This matchup is the most significant Green Bay advantage -- the Packers' offensive line controlled the line of scrimmage on 50 percent of pass plays last season, eighth-best in the league. New England's pass rush -- a unit that included Chris Long, Rob Ninkovich and Jabaal Sheard, none of whom are with the Patriots anymore -- ranked 28th in the same metric. With New England's release of defensive end Kony Ealy, the roster of pass-rushers looks perilously thin behind Trey Flowers -- the only remaining Patriot who rushed the passer on at least 75 third-down snaps last year.

Even with all that, let's assume New England has some success pressuring Rodgers. That's good, right? After all, it's a basic assumption of football that a quarterback under pressure will play worse than when he has time.

Leaguewide, this is true. The NFL average QBR for a pressured quarterback last year was 31. But Aaron Rodgers put up a 72 Total QBR under pressure last season, third-best by any quarterback over the past five years. Rodgers can beat you by the script, but he thrives just as much without one. The more time Rodgers has, the more likely one of his capable weapons beats his coverage.

The biggest problem for the Packers is the same one as the rest of New England's opponents -- how do you slow Brady's offense? Considering FPI rates the Packers' defense as a below-average unit (18th), there's not much of a data blueprint for Green Bay to succeed there.

But what's promising here for cheeseheads is the rare ability the offense has to match New England punch-for-punch on the scoreboard. Imagine how fun this would be next February in Minnesota -- Rodgers vs. Brady, last one with the ball wins. -- John Parolin

For more from ESPN Analytics, visit the ESPN Analytics Index

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