The Chalky AFC Is Stronger Than The Schlocky NFC
NFL watchers have been talking about how stacked the AFC is all season — not just that its top teams, like the Buffalo Bills, are better than the NFC’s best, but that second- and third-tier AFC squads would dominate some NFC divisions.
But the season is long, and the football gods are fickle. In December, injuries to top quarterbacks Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens and Tua Tagovailoa of the Miami Dolphins kneecapped the stacked AFC, and ruled-dead-at-the-trade-deadline NFC teams like the Detroit Lions roared. Going into Week 18, some of the league’s hottest teams had chances to qualify on the NFC side of the bracket, and squads our Elo model doesn’t like at all (like the 23rd-ranked Tennessee Titans) could claim AFC berths.
But the 10th-ranked Jacksonville Jaguars kicked the Titans out, and the ninth-ranked Los Angeles Chargers made their way in. The Ravens and Dolphins’ QB-adjusted Elo ratings would be tied for third and fifth, respectively, if their starters weren’t hurt, but with their likely quarterbacks for this weekend, they are well below-average for sixth- and seventh-seeds. Even so, the AFC’s top seeds are strong enough to drag the 2022 AFC field nearly up to the average of the conference fields produced in the last three seasons:1
The AFC playoff field looks stronger than the NFC
Best postseason fields of the NFL’s 14-team playoff era (2020-22) by conference, according to pre-playoff QB-adjusted Elo ratings
Each of the AFC’s top four seeds this year carries an Elo rating better than the average for that seed-line since 2020. This stands in sharp contrast with the NFC, which is the weakest field of the 14-team playoff era and whose top four seeds are all worse than the average for each slot.
But what’s a strong playoff field worth, anyway? If you, like our NFL round-tablers this week, were looking forward to dangerous wild-card teams pulling off some big upsets, well, manage your expectations. The strength of the AFC’s top seeds may pay off with great matchups down the line, but it also makes for some lopsided wild-card matchups.
The Bills (1708 Elo), Cincinnati Bengals (1666) and Jaguars (1540) are the first-, second- and 10th-ranked teams in our model, and they’re much more likely to win their opening-round contests this weekend than average No. 2-through-No. 4 seeds since 2020:
The AFC’s wild-card games are more lopsided than normal
Win probabilities for 2022 wild-card round matchups, along with the average for the same seed’s matchup since 2020
|Conf.||Seed||Team||Opponent||Win Prob.||Avg. For Seed|
The disparity between the conferences occurs up and down the seedings. The AFC’s weakest division champ is Jacksonville, with an Elo rating 36 points higher than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ (the NFC’s weakest division champ, and the only playoff team with a losing record) — and the AFC’s No. 7 seed, the Dolphins, is stronger by Elo at full strength than the fourth-seeded Bucs, sixth-seeded New York Giants or seventh-seeded Seattle Seahawks. But the Dolphins aren’t playing anyone in the NFC — they’re up against the highest Elo-rated team, Buffalo.
Miami split its two prior matchups against the division-rival Bills this year, winning by two points at home in 90-degree heat, and losing by three points on the road in 29-degree cold. But adjusting for the fact that Tagovailoa won’t be playing, and third-stringer Skylar Thompson likely will be, our model considers Buffalo overwhelming favorites (-20 points, 95 percent win probability). Should Miami pull off the big upset, as the bottom seed it would travel to Kansas City next week and face the top-seeded Chiefs. But if the Bills take care of business, they’ll be Elo favorites at home against any of the Chargers, Jaguars or Cincinnati Bengals.
The Baltimore Ravens must play a second straight game in Cincinnati a week after losing there without Jackson, who seems unlikely to play. In large part due to the unpopular-in-Baltimore question of Jackson’s playoff availability, our QB-adjusted model has the Bengals as 9.5-point favorites this weekend, with an 80 percent chance of advancing. If they do, they’d be pitted against the highest remaining non-Chiefs team — the Bills, quite likely, against whom they’d be underdogs. Otherwise, our model would consider them stronger than either the Chargers or Jags.
Finally, we have Chargers-Jags. It’s easily the most competitive of the three AFC games, with a nearly even Elo matchup (Chargers 1543, Jags 1540), and Jacksonville’s home-field advantage accounting for essentially all of the model’s 2.5-point spread. Though our model ranks these two contenders as the ninth- and tenth-strongest teams in the league, whichever one wins would still be a decided second-round underdog at any of the possible second-round road matchups: Buffalo, Kansas City or Cincinnati. Should the Dolphins and Ravens both pull out miracles, though, the winner of Chargers-Jags would actually host Baltimore. That might seem like a winnable game — but Baltimore’s lugging around a negative-92-point Elo adjustment for Jackson’s absence.
And then there’s the NFC side of the bracket. Last week actually weakened the field there: The Lions and Green Bay Packers combined to go 11-4 between their Week 10 and 18 meetings, and according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, in that stretch they ranked fifth and ninth, respectively, in offensive and defensive expected points added. They respectively finished as our model’s 11th- and 13th-strongest teams at full strength. But the 24th-ranked Seattle Seahawks claimed the last NFC playoff berth on the last day of the regular season (at the Lions’ and Packers’ expense); the Seahawks and 16th-ranked New York Giants helped make this year’s NFC the weakest seven-team conference field our model’s ever seen.
In fact, the NFC field is so weak that, despite its wimpy wild cards, their higher seeds are much more likely than average to get upset in the opening round. The San Francisco 49ers (1700), Minnesota Vikings (1553), and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1504) are, on average, 13 percentage points more likely to lose than their AFC counterparts. And the Bucs, despite their higher seed and home-field advantage, have just a 40 percent chance to beat the Dallas Cowboys.
For all the seeding and scenarios, all the roller-coaster seasons and nail-biting finishes, we come back to the same conclusion we started with: The AFC is much stronger than the NFC, and the only real challengers to the AFC’s top seeds are each other.
Check out our latest NFL predictions.