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Predicting the teams most likely to play in the Super Bowl

Let’s see which matchups are the most likely to happen in the league championship

San Francisco 49ers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

The Kansas City Chiefs and Tennessee Titans will play for the AFC Championship this Sunday afternoon at Arrowhead Stadium. Immediately afterward, the San Francisco 49ers will host the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship.

The winners of these two games will advance to Super Bowl LIV in Miami on Sunday, February 2.

As we’ve done for the last couple of weeks, let’s use’s Elo prediction model to predict which matchup is most likely in the championship game.

Team Week 20 Win Pct
Chiefs (AFC 2) vs. Titans 65%
49ers (NFC 1) vs. Packers 60%
Titans (AFC 6) at Chiefs 35%
Packers (NFC 2) at 49ers 40%

By the traditional Elo model, the Chiefs have a 65% chance to win on Sunday and reach the Super Bowl; the 49ers have a 60% chance. So the chance that the Chiefs will face the 49ers is 65% multiplied by 60% — which is 39%. Carrying this out for the rest of the potential Super Bowl matchups, here’s what we get:

  • Chiefs vs. 49ers: 39%
  • Chiefs vs. Packers: 26%
  • 49ers vs. Titans: 21%
  • Packers vs. Titans: 14%

But as we’ve noted in previous versions of this exercise, FiveThirtyEight has also been publishing a modified version of their Elo rankings this season; the quarterback-adjusted Elo rankings take the relative strengths of the team’s quarterbacks into consideration.

Team Week 20 Win Pct
Chiefs (AFC 2) vs. Titans 69%
49ers (NFC 1) vs. Packers 64%
Titans (AFC 6) at Chiefs 31%
Packers (NFC 2) at 49ers 36%

Using this version of the Elo model, this is how the matchups shake out.

  • Chiefs vs. 49ers: 44%
  • Chiefs vs. Packers: 25%
  • 49ers vs. Titans: 20%
  • Packers vs. Titans: 11%

Using either Elo model. the two conference championships are predicted to be pretty close games — which is exactly what we should expect in a tournament semifinal — so while there are matchups more likely than others, there isn’t a clear favorite for the final game. Anything could happen.

But we also see that the NFL playoff system will likely do what it usually does: there is about a two in three chance that the Super Bowl matchup will between teams that entered the postseason with one of the top two seeds in their conference.

Throughout the season, FiveThirtyEight uses their Elo rankings to predict how the season will play out. Before Week 1, Elo ranked the Chiefs second in the NFL behind the New England Patriots, predicting the Chiefs would finish 10-6 with a 46% chance to win the AFC West and an 8% chance to win the Super Bowl.

But as games are played, Elo values change. When the playoff began, the model still ranked the Chiefs second (behind the now-eliminated Baltimore Ravens), with a 28% chance to make the Super Bowl and a 16% chance to win it. At that time, the model said the Ravens were as about twice as likely as the Chiefs to reach (and win) the championship.

But as we noted earlier, the Chiefs now have about a two-in-three chance to play in the Super Bowl — and the Elo model now predicts the Chiefs are the most likely team to win it. Using the traditional model, the Chiefs have a 38% chance to win; the quarterback-adjusted model gives them a 43% chance.

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