As an NFL season progresses, a straightforward but important question is often posed -- which teams can actually win the Super Bowl?
Often it's answered with a small collection of, like, 6-8 teams without much justification. That will not be the case here. In this Thanksgiving Eve article, I have pinpointed the super-specific, possibly obscure -- well beyond "they have a good offense" -- reasons why the genuine Super Bowl contenders have emerged as those teams this season that can win it all in February.
(The Ravens missed being included here by one measly point. No disrespect meant. Baltimore is a super-balanced club with warranted Super Bowl aspirations.)
Philadelphia Eagles: Run pass option
The Eagles love themselves some RPO. It's a fundamental facet of the offense Jalen Hurts operated in his final collegiate season at Oklahoma, thereby making it a logical root of Philadelphia's attack.
Entering Week 12, the Eagles have run 140 RPOs, the second-most in football behind only the Packers. Also Nick Sirianni's club has been significantly more effective on RPOs than any team in the NFL. On those plays, Philadelphia has accumulated a total of 26.98 Expected Points Added (EPA), far and away the highest sum in the league. Who's in second, you ask? The Chiefs at 9.01 EPA. Massive difference.
Given Hurts' experience reading defenses and quickly deciding if he should give the football or keep it and look for receivers down the field and how well the Eagles' offensive line moves people, it should come as no surprise Philadelphia is outstanding on RPOs. It's a big reason why they have the league's best record right now.
Dallas Cowboys: Pass rush
The Cowboys strut into the huge clash with the Giants in Week 12 with the NFL's highest pressure-creation rate on defense at 42.8% Dallas' 42 sacks, also currently the most in the league.
OK, those figures are slightly aided -- but not completely buoyed -- by Vikings stud left tackle Christian Darrisaw suffering a concussion against the Cowboys in Week 11. Dallas' pass rush has been super consistent. It's registered a pressure rate on the opposing quarterback of at least 30% in every game to date this season.
And that steadiness has been spawned by massive defensive-front depth. Micah Parsons is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. He has 49 pressures entering Week 12 with a monstrous 18.1% pressure-generation rate. DeMarcus Lawrence's rate is a respectable 12.7% and Sam Williams' 13.7% rate is second among the 16 rookie edge rushers with at least 75 pass-rushing snaps.
The ferocious work from the Cowboys pass rush is a big reason they are currently second in Football Outsiders' defensive DVOA.
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Kansas City Chiefs: Yards after the catch
From 2019 to 2021, in the regular season, Tyreek Hill amassed the eighth-most yards after the catch among receivers despite averaging more air yards per target than anyone else in the top 10 of YAC -- quite the incredible feat for an incredible player.
And he's gone from this offense. Yet the Chiefs, as a team, enter Week 12 having accumulated the most YAC in football (1,612), which is more than 150 yards clear of the second-place team (Bengals at 1,458). Remarkable.
Kansas City remaining the most frightening YAC team without Hill speaks to the genius of Patrick Mahomes and brilliance of Andy Reid's scheme. In Week 11's thrilling win over the Chargers in Los Angeles, a game the Chiefs did not have Mecole Hardman or JuJu Smith-Schuster, Mahomes' attack still averaged nearly 7.00 of YAC per reception (6.95 to be exact). We've long known the magical things Mahomes can do as a passer and efficient scrambler. His improvisational ability is the ultimate fallback luxury for an offense.
But the squad's established YAC prowess is part of why the Chiefs have remained the gold standard of offense in the Mahomes era.
Buffalo Bills: Early-down passing efficiency
The Bills have passed on 58.1% of their first downs in a neutral situation (game within one score), which is currently tops in the league. The high rate isn't an aberration either. It's been baked into Buffalo's philosophy as the club has built a robust analytics department under GM Brandon Beane.
In the 2021 regular season, the Bills had the highest first-down, neutral-situation pass rate in the NFL (62.6%). The same was true in 2020, when the Bills threw it on 63.6% of their first downs when the game was within one score.
Why is it better to have a higher pass rate on first down? In almost every team situation, a dropback (and eventual pass attempt) is a more efficient way to move the ball than a handoff, and that's especially true when Josh Allen is your quarterback. Unsurprisingly, given their high pass rate, the Bills have amassed the most EPA on first downs in neutral situations (27.57). That's huge. Even though Buffalo is second in third-down conversion rate (50%), this is a club tied for the fewest third-down plays on offense (116) because it is so damn effective on first down.
That combination is a subtle but key reason why the Bills offense is so difficult to stop.
Miami Dolphins: Motion rate
Coming off their bye, the Dolphins enter Week 12 with the league's highest rate of pre-snap motion (74.1%) on all plays. That's an absurdly high figure. League average is 48.2%!
Motion typically helps a quarterback -- and an entire offense -- identify whether the opposition is in man or zone coverage. I never played quarterback in the NFL, but pre-snap diagnosis of coverage type seems pretty darn important. And it's catalyzed awesome efficiency for Miami's attack. On snaps with motion, the Dolphins have averaged 6.54 yards per play (the best in football), which includes a hefty 4.61-yards-per-rush average, a league-high 8.62 yards per attempt (YPA) and a 114.9 passer rating in games started and finished by Tagovailoa.
The team's offense has averaged a whopping 0.23 EPA per play with motion -- in the eight full Tagovailoa contests to date. For reference, the Chiefs' season EPA per play on motion is 0.20.
Couple Miami getting that edge offensively with Tagovailoa's pinpoint accuracy -- his 80.1% adjusted completion rate is second in the NFL even with the sixth-highest average depth of target (aDOT) -- and it's easy to see how and why the Dolphins have been a nightmare to defend this season.
San Francisco 49ers: Yards after the catch
The Chiefs lead the NFL in total YAC, but the 49ers are first in yards after the catch per reception at 7.01 yards, a colossal number. YAC has forever been the foundation of Kyle Shanahan's offense. He schemes it better than any play-caller in football, and the organization emphasizes acquiring players with clear-cut YAC talent.
Beyond Shanahan's schematic excellence, San Francisco's boasts some DUDES at the offensive skill positions. You know them. In fact, the 49ers are the only team in football with three receivers in the top 26 in YAC per reception -- Deebo Samuel (2nd), Jauan Jennings (14th) and Brandon Aiyuk (26th). Then there's George Kittle who's sixth among tight ends in YAC per grab, and Christian McCaffrey's 8.9 YAC-per-catch grab on the season is third among the 21 running backs with at least 30 targets to date.
The number crunch here is done. I promise. In short, the 49ers will make every defense work extraordinarily hard for each and every tackle. That makes them extremely dangerous down the stretch and in the playoffs.
Cincinnati Bengals: Joe Burrow's under-pressure play
The book on the Bengals has seemingly been -- if you can pressure Burrow, you can really slow down the offense. Well, yeah. Any quarterback is less effective when pressured than when kept clean.
However, Burrow's currently accomplishing something quite rare. He's maintained an elite-level status under pressure for consecutive seasons. Last year, counting the playoffs, Burrow led qualified quarterbacks with a passer rating while pressured of 92.7. His adjusted completion rate of 72% while under pressure was second in football. And under-pressure play isn't very stable year to year, yet Burrow's passer rating while pressured this season is 91.1, fifth in the NFL entering Week 12. He's maintained his accuracy in those scenarios with a 69.2 adjusted completion rate, which is ninth among qualified quarterbacks.
And he's accomplished those high marks without Ja'Marr Chase since the start of Week 8. Impressive for Joe Cool.