Don’t bother trying to make sense of the AFC postseason picture. Just focus on where you can find reasonable value in a race that’s up for grabs.
Three weeks ago, the Cincinnati Bengals lit Baltimore on fire, demolishing the Ravens, 41-17, at M&T Bank Stadium. After that victory, the Bengals found themselves in the driver’s seat of the AFC playoff race as the top seed. Two games later, the Bengals don’t hold a playoff berth anymore after being upset by the Jets and hammered by their division rivals from Cleveland.
Now, amid a turbulent AFC playoff picture, the Bengals are all the way down in 10th place.
At the top of the NFC, we have five squads that most NFL fans can grasp: Arizona, Green Bay, Tampa Bay, Dallas, and the Los Angeles Rams. Elite offenses primarily drive those teams, as four of the five rank in the top-five of offensive DVOA. Based on the first nine weeks, it’s easy to make a case for why these teams are at the top of the NFC.
Over in the AFC? Not so much.
Entering Week 10, nine AFC teams have five wins. The 4-5 Colts, who rank 12th in the conference, are separated by two wins from the second-placed Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens, still the second seed in the AFC, lost to the Dolphins in prime time.
The Bills looked like the top Super Bowl contender on Sunday Night Football at Arrowhead in Week 5, but after losing 9-6 to the Jaguars and playing the most manageable schedule of all, Buffalo’s record is only 5-3. The preseason Super Bowl favorite Chiefs are one spot removed from the playoff picture, with the Browns right behind them.
We need to talk about what’s going on here.
The AFC Defies Logic
Justin Herbert and the Chargers got schooled by the Ravens and Patriots defense and now sit with the third-best record. The Pittsburgh Steelers, who are struggling to put a lot of offense together, are in sixth place. And the Titans have the first seed, even though no one knows why.
The AFC simply defies logic.
From the AFC, the Bills, Titans, and Chiefs are in the mix. Even though Patrick Mahomes and Co. have struggled for a few weeks, priors are still strong. All told, the Bucs and Bills are betting favorites to win the Super Bowl (+550) and the Rams are right behind them (+750).
The NFC is top-heavy, and the rest of its members have some obvious weaknesses. It will be hard for teams like the Saints, Vikings, or Seahawks to get home-field advantage if they sneak into the postseason, and that’s the reason we will likely not find a ton of value from the top NFC squads. Betting on a team like the Seahawks (+9000) to start a run with Russell Wilson back feels more like a long shot.
But there might be more value in the AFC, as perplexing as the conference may appear.
Opportunities in a Wide-open Conference
All it takes is back-to-back wins can catapult a team to the top of the AFC — even the Colts would be suddenly back in business.
Because the AFC is so open, bettors have a better shot of finding underpriced teams. The Colts are priced at +7000, but they are only one win away from a playoff berth. The Steelers look short at +4500, but they have one of the most robust remaining schedules. One team that could be worth a look: the Cleveland Browns (+2400), which have dealt with various injuries to key players.
It’s worth mentioning what the Browns have achieved in terms of underlying metrics. Football Outsiders ranks them as the sixth-best team in overall DVOA – fifth on offense, 12th on defense, and fifth on special teams. The Pats rank 13th.
Another key indicator is to look at how good teams are on early downs, which is more predictive than late down performance. The former is more stable; the latter is more subject to variance.
On offense, you want to avoid late downs as often as possible, whereas on defense, you want to force the opposition into brutal late downs. On early downs, the Browns rank third in net EPA/play, first in net yards per play, and first in net success rate per play, making them a top-three team on early downs.
Third Down Variance for the Browns
The Browns’ downfall has been late downs, where they’ve had to deal with some bad luck.
Imagine the Browns don’t fumble the punt deep in their territory against the Chiefs, which paved the way for a late Kansas City win. Or imagine Odell Beckham didn’t drop the fourth-down pass against the Chargers when he was wide open. Or maybe a Browns defender gets his hand between Pat Freiermuth and the ball when the Steelers converted a fourth-and-goal, and the young tight end made one heck of a catch.
All those bounces went against the Browns on late downs.
The Browns have a competent coaching staff, one of the best offensive lines, and a functioning offensive scheme. If Baker Mayfield shows some consistency after his shoulder injury, he could play again at the late 2020 performance level. They have a great pass rush, a top-five run defense, and a deep secondary on defense.