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After Wild-Card Weekend, There Is No Super Bowl Favorite

Last year, we went into the playoffs with a pretty good idea of the Super Bowl favorites. This year, not so much. According to our Elo ratings, no team entered the 2015-16 postseason with better than a 20 percent shot at the Lombardi Trophy. (As a point of historical comparison, Elo’s No. 1 regular-season team wins the Super Bowl at a 34 percent clip.) And none of last weekend’s games changed that — if anything, the Super Bowl picture is even more chaotic now.

Why is all this happening? In part, blame a weird disagreement between seeding and team strength. Basically, each conference’s lowest-seeded teams — i.e., the road teams in wild-card weekend — are among its most powerful, which left weaker teams with home games and even, in a few cases, bye weeks. That’s a recipe for more parity across the playoff landscape.

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The trend toward parity was borne out in last weekend’s results and will continue into this weekend. All four road teams won for the first time in modern wild-card history, and in each case the winner was the stronger team according to Elo. Consequently, all of Elo’s current top eight are still alive, but upside-down seeding continues to keep the playoffs wide open, as the higher-rated team will be at home in only a quarter of this weekend’s games.

Winners and losers of the wild-card round
CHANGE IN PROBABILITY OF WINNING …
TEAM CONF Δ ELO DIVISIONAL ROUND CONF CHAMP SUPER BOWL SB ODDS
Carolina NFC -6% -4% -2% 18%
Arizona NFC -3 -2 -1 16
Kansas City AFC 26 20 13 6 14
Denver AFC 0 -2 -1 14
Seattle NFC 6 18 8 4 13
New England AFC -8 -3 -2 11
Pittsburgh AFC 13 24 8 4 8
Green Bay NFC 27 16 7 4 7
Houston AFC -26 -12 -4 -1
Washington NFC -27 -11 -3 -1
Minnesota NFC -6 -15 -6 -3
Cincinnati AFC -13 -24 -11 -5

Bold indicates that a team is still active in the playoffs

Source: ESPN

The weekend’s two biggest gainers in Super Bowl win probability, for instance, were the Kansas City Chiefs and the Seattle Seahawks, who also happen to be the top two teams in football according to Elo. But both will be underdogs in the divisional round because they’ll be on the road. Conversely, the Super Bowl odds for the top two seeds in each conference went down, because the possibility that they’d have to face one of the scary lower seeds turned into a certainty.

As a result, all of the remaining teams in the championship hunt saw their Super Bowl chances become more compressed over wild-card weekend. That’s bad news for the bye teams but good for us as football fans, because this is one of the most evenly matched sets of divisional-round games ever.

Read more: The Biggest Surprises Of Wild-Card Weekend

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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