The NFC playoff race will run through New Orleans. The Saints, after beating the Carolina Panthers 12-9 on Monday night, have a 94 percent chance to secure the No. 1 seed in the conference, giving them a first-round bye and home-field throughout the playoffs.
However, there are concerns. New Orleans, winner of 12 of its last 13 games, went its third consecutive game without scoring a touchdown in the first half and was held under 400 yards of total offense for the fourth consecutive time. The Saints had exceeded that mark in six of their first nine matchups.
Despite the rough patch the Saints are still the favorite to win the Super Bowl, but you’d prefer to be peaking at this time of year rather than seeing your offense sputter into the playoffs.
Los Angeles Chargers
22 percent chance to win AFC West; 35 percent chance to win AFC
The Chargers have clinched a playoff spot yet they could start the postseason in two very different ways. If the regular season ended today they would be the No. 5 seed in the AFC, but they still have a chance at the AFC West which, if accomplished, would give them a No. 1 seed and a bye in the first round.
A win over the Baltimore Ravens in Week 16 pushes their division chances from 22 to 39 percent. If the Kansas City Chiefs also lose to the Seattle Seahawks in that same week the Chargers’ chances to win the division go even higher to 63 percent. Then, a Chargers win in Week 17 over the Denver Broncos locks them in as the No. 1 seed with home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. That scenario, based on win rates for each respective team, has a nine percent chance of playing out.
Perhaps that goes a bit higher with the news that star running back Melvin Gordon and third-year tight end Hunter Henry returned to practice on Monday, in addition to backup running back Austin Ekeler. Receiver Keenan Allen, who left Sunday’s game early with a hip injury, also has a shot to return against the Ravens.
Gordon, despite missing the last three weeks with a knee injury, is tied for fifth for runs of 15 yards or more this season (15) with the third-most yards per route run (2.2) per Pro Football Focus. Allen ranks third among wideouts for yards per route run in 2018 (2.6)
Los Angeles Rams
12 percent chance to win Super Bowl LIII
Not too long ago the Rams were the Super Bowl favorite. After Sunday’s games they are the second choice behind the New Orleans Saints with more questions than answers about their offense.
Jared Goff, once talked about in MVP conversations, has thrown seven interceptions in his last three games, with six of those in his last two outings; he had just six interceptions in the first 11 games of the season. That’s put the brakes on an otherwise high-flying offense: the Rams were scoring 13 points per game more than expected during the first 11 weeks of the season after factoring in the down, distance and field position of each play, per data from TruMedia. Over the last three weeks they are scoring 10 points fewer per game. When looked at this way, only the 7-7 Washington Redskins, 4-10 Jacksonville Jaguars and 3-11 Arizona Cardinals have been worse on offense over that three-week span.
To complicate matters, running back Todd Gurley is considered day-to-day because of inflammation in his left knee; he leads the league in rushing (17) and total touchdowns (21) while averaging over 3.1 yards per carry after contact. Third-string running back Justin Davis, who replaced backup Malcolm Brown after he was put on injured reserve for a broken collarbone, is also day-to-day (shoulder).
“We’ve got to be able to figure this out and figure it out fast,” McVay told reporters on Sunday. “Because these last couple weeks, we’re doing things totally uncharacteristic of what good football teams do, of what we’ve done through the first handful of games this season. The only thing we know how to do is go back to work, look at ourselves. Everybody’s got a hand in this and we’ve got to get it figured out fast.”
16-to-1 odds to win Super Bowl LIII
If you subscribe to the notion defense wins championships, the Monsters of the midway deserve your attention. The Bears are holding opponents to a league-low 1.5 points per drive in 2018 (league average is 2.0) while forcing opponents to go three-and-out more than a third of the time (36 percent, fifth best this season). After adjusting for opponent, they remain the league’s top defensive unit, per Football Outsiders.
Opposing quarterbacks have had a very difficult time throwing against Chicago’s pass coverage, producing a league-low 73.0 rating this season, which helps push their overall net rating, the difference between a team’s passer rating and the collective rating of the team’s opposing quarterbacks, to plus-21.3, the third-best mark in 2018. That ranking is key: Since 2002, 23 of the past 31 Super Bowl participants had a passer rating differential among the top five in the league, including 11 of the past 16 winners.
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