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Minnesota and New England favored to meet in Superbowl

With the 2017-2018 NFL playoffs starting this weekend, we’ll whittle down the 12 remaining teams into the four teams that will advance into the NFL’s division rounds, and take on the four teams who secured first-round byes in the playoffs.

But isn’t the goal of the playoffs to determine the two teams that will be playing in the Super Bowl? So why not take a look ahead to the early favorites for Super Bowl LII?

Here’s our predictions for who will win each conference:

AFC: New England Patriots

This really shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Given that the New England Patriots have homefield advantage throughout the playoffs, any other team in the AFC with aspirations of making it to the Super Bowl has to go into Foxborough and beat Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in Gillette Stadium. That’s a lot easier said than done; since 2001, the New England Patriots are 17-3 in home playoff games. They haven’t lost a home playoff game in six years, and their average margin of victory in home playoff games in that span is over 17 points.

Fans of opposing teams will point to the fact that the Patriots were actually ranked 30th in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game, and 20th in rushing yards allowed. That’s all well and good, but even with those less-than-stellar statistical rankings, they were still among the top five defenses in fewest points allowed per game.

So even if you do think the Patriots are more vulnerable than some of the teams that’ve trotted out in the past, ask yourself an honest question: who do you really trust in the AFC to beat them? Pittsburgh is the obvious answer, but Ben Roethlisberger isn’t nearly the quarterback he used to be, Antonio Brown very likely won’t be fully recovered from his calf injury, and the Steelers defense suffered a major hit with the loss of linebacker Ryan Shazier. In other words: the #1 contender to the Patriots title doesn’t appear to be a significant threat.

Beyond Pittsburgh? Jacksonville is a fascinating team with scary defensive potential, but do you really trust Blake Bortles to beat Tom Brady in a quarterback duel? Kansas City handily beat New England in Week 1 of the regular season, but don’t you think Belichick would have the Patriots raring to avenge one of their most lopsided losses in recent memory? And as far as the Buffalo Bills or Tennessee Titans? Not a snowball’s chance in hell.

The AFC remains the Patriots’ conference, and everyone else is playing for second place.

NFC: The Minnesota Vikings

The moment it was revealed that quarterback Carson Wentz of the Philadelphia Eagles had torn his ACL and would be out for the remainder of the year, the Minnesota Vikings became not only the favorites to emerge out of the NFC playoff picture, but to become the first team in NFL history to make the Super Bowl when it’s being played in their home stadium.

Of course, there’s a lot more intrigue in the NFC playoff picture than there is in that of the AFC. Even without Wentz, the Eagles are still a very formidable team, especially given their front seven on defense. The offensive ingenuity and firepower of the Los Angeles Rams, combined with a tremendous defense that gets somewhat overlooked, makes them a dangerous dark horse. There were stretches of the season where the New Orleans Saints looked like one of the best teams in the entire NFL, thanks to their offensive balance plus drastic improvements to their defense.

But mostly on account of the fact that they really don’t have any “household names” on their team, most people simply don’t realize just how good the Minnesota Vikings were this season. They’re the only team in the NFL to finish in the top three defensively in passing yards allowed (#2) and rushing yards allowed (#2) per game; those totals made them the #1 overall defense, in terms of fewest yards allowed per game. Between October 2nd through today, the Vikings have lost a total of one game.
On the other side of the ball, it’s easy to see why offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur is now getting a lot of consideration around the league for head coaching positions. He took Case Keenum, who was essentially typecast as a journeyman backup quarterback, and helped him become best quarterbacks in the game this year; Keenum’s 67.6% completion percentage was second best in the NFL this year, and his 98.3 passer rating was 8th best.

In other words: Minnesota already has a championship-caliber defense, and now has an offense that it can rely on as well. They’re the most balanced team in the NFC, and even though they don’t have homefield advantage throughout, they’ll be the ones defending the right to play in the Super Bowl taking place in their own stadium.

Article by Rajan Nanavati with NFL Artificial Intelligence.

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