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Is Chiefs-Rams A Super Bowl Preview? Meh, Probably Not.

There’s a new team atop FiveThirtyEight’s NFL Elo rankings this week, and it’s the one we discussed in this space last time around — the red-hot New Orleans Saints. Fresh off an impressive victory over the Los Angeles Rams, New Orleans turned around and walloped the Bengals 51-14 in Cincinnati. Based on how they’ve been playing recently, there’s no team more deserving of the No. 1 slot than Dem Saints.

However, New Orleans is also the fourth different team to hold the top spot in Elo so far this year, joining the Patriots, Eagles and Chiefs. That’s tied for the most handoffs of the No. 1 spot through Week 10 of a season since 2002 (when five separate teams held No. 1 to that point in the schedule). So we still don’t have a great sense of who exactly will be meeting up in Atlanta in February. In fact, there’s still a decent chance it might just be the two teams that are scheduled this week for an epic Monday Night Football clash — the Chiefs and Rams.

Both teams sport 9-1 records, and they have similar strengths and weaknesses. According to Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System (SRS) metric, the Chiefs rank second in the league on offense and 19th on defense; the Rams rank third in offense and 14th on defense. K.C. is led by a couple of 23-year-olds: quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who leads the NFL in passing yards, and running back Kareem Hunt, who ranks fourth in rushing. L.A.’s pair are both 24: QB Jared Goff (second in passing yards) and RB Todd Gurley (first in rushing).

A nationally televised matchup between two exciting, young, star-studded teams in opposite conferences is sure to have a Super Bowl feel to it. And our model does give the Chiefs the AFC’s best odds of winning the Super Bowl, while considering the Rams to be the NFC’s second-most likely winner (behind New Orleans). But it also bears remembering that prospective “Super Bowl previews” on the midseason calendar usually don’t predict the actual Super Bowl very well (though they do often come close).

To gather a sample of similarly huge AFC-NFC showdowns from seasons past, I filtered our database of games for ones that:

  • Happened in Week 5 of a season or later (to give Elo time to “catch up” with how good each team is).
  • Featured two Top 5 NFL teams at the moment of the game, according to Elo.
  • Matched up teams from opposite conferences.

Going back to the start of the current NFL playoff format in 1990, there have been 36 regular-season games that could have been considered Super Bowl previews, according to the rules laid out above. Of those, only two — Bills-Giants in December 1990 and 49ers-Chargers in December 1994 — ended up actually foreshadowing the Super Bowl to come. (The Giants flipped their regular-season loss on its head, while the 49ers obliterated the Chargers both times.)

There have been plenty more regular-season games where the eventual Super Bowl combatants met months beforehand — think Patriots-Rams in 2001 or Giants-Patriots in 2007. But few were hyping those as potential Super Bowl previews at the time (even if coaches had their occasional premonitions about meeting up in the postseason). And on the flip side, when it comes to games highlighted for their Super Bowl potential, the exact matchup often finds a way to get derailed over the remainder of the season.

Of those 36 regular-season matchups in our data-set, 23 did contain at least one of the eventual conference champions — so the odds aren’t bad that either K.C. or L.A. will make their way to Atlanta on Feb. 3.

A brief history of regular-season “Super Bowl previews”

NFL games after Week 4 in which both teams ranked among the Top 5 in FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings and were in opposite conferences, since 1990

Source: pro-Football-Reference.com

Three of the last four midseason Super Bowl previews featured 50 percent of the eventual Super Bowl matchup: New England and Atlanta played at foggy Foxboro in Week 7 last season (itself a Super Bowl rematch), and the Patriots later went to the Super Bowl. Seattle and New England reprised their own earlier Super Bowl matchup in Week 10 of 2016, and the Pats also went to that season’s Super Bowl. And in 2015, the Broncos used a Week 8 win over the Packers as a stepping-stone along their Super Bowl path. The exception in that stretch was Arizona-Cincinnati in Week 11 of 2015 — which sounds like an absurd potential Super Bowl, except that both teams were a combined 15-3 going into the contest, long before an injury to Andy Dalton ruined Cincy’s season.

But if one team tends to emerge from these kinds of games on a championship path, the other usually stalls out well before the Super Bowl. Here’s a breakdown of how often each team in our sample of games ends up making each round of the playoffs, depending on how much playoff success they had:

One of these teams might be special. The other, not so much

How each team in a midseason “Super Bowl preview” game fared, on average, by the level it reached in the playoffs.

Share of teams reaching round
Team that had … Wild Card Divisional Conf. Champ Super Bowl
More playoff success 100% 97% 75% 58%
Less playoff success 78 56 19 6

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

In the grand scope of the NFL universe, having slightly better than a coin-flip’s odds to make the divisional round of the playoffs isn’t too bad an outcome. But for a pair of teams coming into a midseason game with Super Bowl aspirations, it is striking how rare it is for both to ultimately make significant playoff runs. Instead, one usually is left behind along the road to the championship. And, in case you were wondering, the winner of the Super Bowl preview advanced deeper into the postseason just 60 percent of the time, so it’s tough to say which team will be which, regardless of who wins the “preview.”

Either way, this Rams-Chiefs game will treat the fans to some points. The over-under on the game is 63½ pointsone of the highest point totals in NFL history. And according to our matchup quality metric (determined by the harmonic mean of the teams’ Elo ratings in each game), this is also the best game of the entire NFL season so far. The only factor holding this particular Super Bowl preview back might be game importance — i.e., how likely it is to swing either team’s odds of making the playoffs. Both teams have all but clinched playoff spots, so K.C.-L.A. drops to sixth place among Week 11 games once we account for a mix of matchup importance and quality:

The best matchups of Week 11

Week 11 games by ranking of average Elo ratings (using the harmonic mean) plus ranking of total potential swing for the two teams’ playoff chances, according to FiveThirtyEight’s NFL predictions

Playoff % Playoff %
Team A Current Avg. Chg* Team B Current Avg. Chg* Total Change Game Quality
MIN 62.9% ±17.5 CHI 70.1% ±17.0 34.5 1565
PHI 26.4 9.2 NO 98.5 1.6 10.8 1634
DAL 25.5 12.5 ATL 21.7 11.3 23.8 1535
CIN 34.2 17.2 BAL 24.4 13.2 30.4 1511
GB 23.1 13.0 SEA 29.1 12.7 25.6 1515
KC 99.9 0.1 LAR >99.9 <0.1 0.1 1661
PIT 92.3 5.8 JAX 2.5 2.3 8.0 1547
CAR 70.8 13.9 DET 3.6 3.4 17.2 1525
TEN 62.5 17.7 IND 11.8 9.8 27.5 1506
WSH 66.4 12.9 HOU 70.1 10.1 22.9 1507
LAC 91.9 5.8 DEN 1.4 1.7 7.5 1519
TB 1.7 1.5 NYG 0.2 0.1 1.6 1398
ARI 0.1 0.1 OAK <0.1 <0.1 0.1 1354

Game quality is the harmonic mean of the Elo ratings for the two teams in a given matchup.

*Average change is weighted by the likelihood of a win or loss. (Ties are excluded.)

Source: ESPN

But even if it won’t change the playoff race or give us a sneak peek at Super Bowl LIII, the Rams and Chiefs’ tilt should be fun. And once it’s over, we can look ahead to Week 16’s Saints-Steelers battle for yet another potential Super Bowl preview … that probably won’t contain both conference champs, either.

FiveThirtyEight vs. the readers

You can check out FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings in our NFL prediction interactive, which simulates the rest of the season 100,000 times, to track how likely each team is to make the playoffs and win the Super Bowl. On top of that, you can also pick against the Elo algorithm in our prediction game. You’ll be playing for bragging rights, and the chance to climb up our giant leaderboard.

Using data from the game, here are the games in which Elo made its best — and worst — predictions against the reader picks last week:

Elo’s dumbest (and smartest) picks of Week 10

Average difference between points won by readers and by Elo in Week 10 matchups in FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction game

OUR PREDICTION (ELO) READERS’ PREDICTION
PICK WIN PROB. PICK WIN PROB. Result READERS’ NET PTS
SF 67% SF 62% NYG 27, SF 23 +4.7
GB 61 GB 69 GB 31, MIA 12 +3.9
TB 54 WSH 51 WSH 16, TB 3 +3.8
NO 64 NO 71 NO 51, CIN 14 +2.6
LAC 76 LAC 82 LAC 20, OAK 6 +1.2
LAR 69 LAR 74 LAR 36, SEA 31 +1.1
ATL 78 ATL 76 CLE 28, ATL 16 +0.8
CHI 65 CHI 67 CHI 34, DET 22 -0.1
KC 88 KC 93 KC 26, ARI 14 -0.1
PHI 74 PHI 73 DAL 27, PHI 20 -0.5
NYJ 63 NYJ 64 BUF 41, NYJ 10 -2.9
IND 56 IND 52 IND 29, JAX 26 -5.0
PIT 61 PIT 57 PIT 52, CAR 21 -5.4
NE 63 NE 74 TEN 34, NE 10 -16.6

Home teams are in bold.

The scoring system is nonlinear, so readers’ average points don’t necessarily match the number of points that would be given to the average reader prediction.

Another week, another loss for the readers against Elo, which now has beaten the field in nine of 10 weeks so far this season. This time, it was the Patriots’ surprising road loss to the Tennessee Titans that ended up costing readers the whole week — on average, they lost 16.6 points in that matchup, in a week where they lost by 12.5 total points. However, even though the readers have followed up their lone win of the season in Week 7 with three more losses in a row, they are getting better: In the season’s first six weeks, they lost by an average of 38.9 points per week; over the past three weeks, they’ve only lost by an average of 8.6 points.

Among those readers who aren’t mired in a losing streak, congrats to David Ryborz, who topped all identified users in Week 10 with 148.6 points, and to Brian Hake, who continues to lead the season-long leaderboard with 808.4 points. Thanks to everyone who has been playing — and if you haven’t, be sure to get in on the action! You can make picks now and still try your luck against Elo, even if you haven’t played yet.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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