Beginning in 1990, the National Football League expanded the teams entering the postseason to a dozen, six from each conference. There were three Wild Card entrants from each conference included in the postseason field until 2002, when the league reorganized to the current structure of four divisions in each conference. Since that year, the NFL has had the four division winners and two Wild Card teams participate in the playoffs.
The two division winners with the best record earn playoff opening week byes, this year those four teams were the National Football Conference San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers, while out of the American Football Conference the Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs.
Since 1990, most of the Super Bowl wins have come from teams that had a bye last week, including 14 number one seeds winning the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Three times teams that didn’t win their division went on to win the Super Bowl. This year, two teams that won Wild Card games, the Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks, have advanced to this week’s round after finishing second in their divisions.
Pure numbers would indicate that the Vikings and Seahawks are not going to advance to the Super Bowl, but both teams have playoff experience on their rosters and were challenging for their division title late into the season. Both Minnesota and Seattle have coaches that have led their teams to the playoffs in past seasons, and the current quarterback and coach combination in Seattle, Russell Wilson and Pete Carroll, have won a Super Bowl.
These are not your typical Wild Card teams who come into the playoffs with insurmountable odds against their chances of advancing.
But, if we are going to look at what teams enter the postseason with the best statistical odds of winning it all we begin with the top seeds in each conference, the Ravens and 49ers..
The 49ers are making their first postseason trip after posting their first winning season under the current coach, quarterback and front office. Most Super Bowls are won by teams that have a quarterback and coach that have worked together at least three seasons, and the 49ers have this edge with Kyle Shanahan and Jimmy Garoppolo. The biggest concern for the 49ers is playoff experience. General Manager John Lynch is leading an organization that did not have a winning year in his first two seasons, but have now rocketed to the top seed in the NFC.
The Ravens have an organization with more recent winning seasons to their credit, and a coach, John Harbaugh, that beat the 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII to complete the 2012 season. Since the Ravens won that game, they have gone through major changes. Most notably, they have shifted from a team dominated by their defensive prowess to a squad driven by the most dynamic offensive player in the game today, quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Jackson guided the Ravens through the regular season with a flare that clinches the league’s Most Valuable Player honors before the award is announced. They enter the postseason the favorite to win it all.
But, the weight of the Ravens success is not unlike the magnificent seasons Peyton Manning enjoyed in his early years in the league. In 1999, Manning had guided the Colts to a playoff bye and a Divisional Round meeting against the underdog Tennessee Titans. The Titans won that game on the road, handing Manning his first of three career opening playoff losses.
This weekend, the Titans visit Baltimore to challenge the top seed Ravens in Jackson’s second postseason start. His first didn’t go well, as the Los Angeles Chargers beat Jackson and the favored Ravens last January in Baltimore, 23-17.
Ravens fans will contend that the loss to the Chargers in the 2018 playoffs was Jackson’s baptism into postseason play and this year is totally different. Last year, he was just replacing Joe Flacco, and a rookie, this year he is the best player in the league and it has been his team all season after the Ravens shipped Flacco to the Denver Broncos.
It’s a good story, and the Ravens are favored both this week by nearly double-digits and with two to one Super Bowl odds to win it all. But, what isn’t factored into that equation is that this Ravens team has a lot more in common with Manning’s Colts than they may want to acknowledge.
It has been a great season for Baltimore, but covering this week’s point spread is a lot less likely than them losing this game straight-up to a surging Titans squad.
Qoxhi Picks: Tennessee Titans (+9) over Baltimore Ravens