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The two teams most likely to be playing in the AFC championship game

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Let’s figure out which teams are most likely to still be playing when the conference championships arrive.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Chiefs open their postseason run with a game against the Houston Texans this Sunday afternoon at Arrowhead Stadium.

One of these teams will advance to the AFC championship game the following Sunday; the other will start thinking about the 2020 season. The same will apply to the Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans in their Divisional round matchup this weekend. That game, however, will be played in Baltimore on Saturday night; it will already be in the books when the Chiefs-Texans contest begins on Sunday.

Going into the Wild Card round, I used FiveThirtyEight.com’s Elo model to get a sense of which team the Chiefs would be most likely to face in the Divisional round. Using the same model, let’s do the math and see what the Chiefs might be doing a week from Sunday.

Here’s how the Elo model predicts this weekend’s AFC games.

Team Week 19 Win Pct
Ravens (1) vs. Titans 76%
Chiefs (2) vs. Texans 77%
Texans (4) at Chiefs 23%
Titans (6) at Ravens 24%

The top-level takeaway is that both the Chiefs and Ravens have better than a three-in-four chance to advance to the AFC title game.

So the probability that the Chiefs will face the Ravens (in Baltimore, since the Ravens have the higher seed) equals the probability the Ravens will win their game (76%) multiplied by the chance the Chiefs will win theirs (77%). That works out to 58.5% — which we’ll round to 59%. Carrying that equation to the other three possibilities for the AFC title game, we get this:

  • Chiefs at Ravens: 59%
  • Titans at Chiefs: 18%
  • Texans at Ravens: 17%
  • Titans at Texans: 6%

These probabilities use FiveThirtyEight’s traditional Elo model — which is the one we used for the last week’s calculations. But this season, FiveThirtyEight is also publishing a quarterback-adjusted Elo model. Depending on the quarterbacks involved, using the new model can make a difference in the probabilities.

Team Week 19 Win Pct
Ravens (1) vs. Titans 87%
Chiefs (2) vs. Texans 83%
Texans (4) at Chiefs 17%
Titans (6) at Ravens 13%

As shown in the table, the newer model gives both the Chiefs and Ravens better than a four-in-five chance to advance. When we run our calculations for the AFC title game, we see the teams have almost a three-in-four chance to face each other; the possibility that this weekend’s underdogs will face each other approaches nil.

  • Chiefs at Ravens: 72%
  • Texans at Ravens: 15%
  • Titans at Chiefs: 11%
  • Titans at Texans: 2%

But what about the NFC? The traditional Elo model sees this weekend’s games as closer matchups than in the AFC.

Team Week 19 Win Pct
49ers (1) vs. Vikings 60%
Packers (2) vs. Seahawks 66%
Seahawks (5) at Packers 34%
Vikings (6) at 49ers 40%

The top-seeded teams are both likely to advance — but not very likely. After doing the math, we see that it’s not even likely the NFCCG will feature the conference’s top teams.

  • Packers at 49ers: 40%
  • Vikings at Packers: 26%
  • Seahawks at 49ers: 20%
  • Vikings at Seahawks: 14%

The quarterback-adjusted model, however, gives the top seeds some breathing room.

Team Week 19 Win Pct
49ers (1) vs. Vikings 67%
Packers (2) vs. Seahawks 74%
Seahawks (5) at Packers 26%
Vikings (6) at 49ers 33%

As it turns out, the adjusted model gives the top seeds just enough breathing room to make the likelihood of a meeting between them in the conference championship a push.

  • Packers at 49ers: 50%
  • Vikings at Packers: 24%
  • Seahawks at 49ers: 17%
  • Vikings at Seahawks: 9%

This is only part of the story. All eight of these teams are focused on one goal: reaching (and winning) a Super Bowl. FiveThirtyEight figures the Ravens have the best chance to win the championship — almost an even chance by the quarterback-adjusted model and about a one-in-three chance with the traditional model.

Tean Record Trad QB-Adj
Ravens 14-2 35% 48%
Chiefs 12-4 19% 17%
49ers 13-3 14% 14%
Packers 13-3 13% 10%
Vikings 11-6 7% 5%
Seahawks 12-5 5% 2%
Titans 10-7 4% 2%
Texans 11-6 3% 1%

In both models, the Chiefs are the second-most likely team to win the championship — but only one-half to one-third as likely as the Ravens.

This means that for the Chiefs, the next two weeks will be the most crucial of the season. In any single-elimination tournament, this goes without saying. But it is also clear that the biggest obstacle standing in the way of a Chiefs championship is the Ravens. In the (likely) event the Titans can’t knock them off, it will be up to the Chiefs to take care of business this week — and then get the job done in Baltimore.

If they can do that, the Elo models suggest the Chiefs will enter Super Bowl LIV favored to win. After winning eight straight games, they will have earned it.