Two of three 2018 conference champions did not make the playoffs, while the NFC's Lucky Enuf is back to defend his title. Of 18 playoff contenders, only four have previously won a championship. They are:
The AFC is in its sixth season, and the first four championships were won by two teams, each one back-to-back. There will not, however, be a repeat champion this year, as the 2018 champion Vultures failed to make the tournament. Fitzgerald and Roe have secured a spot in the semifinals by finishing as the top two seeds. Steel Reign is 10-3 and seeded first, but the Rebel Alliance scored more points and is ranked second overall in OPR. Both teams are incredibly well-balanced and are the favorites for the Thunder Bowl.
Some things in life are inevitable, like death, taxes, and SoonerJack making a late run to secure a first-round bye. Four weeks ago, Bruesch's squad was 5-4 and coming off two-straight losses. They never looked like a favorite all season — ranking just seventh in the NFC in points scored and 14th overall in OPR — but they averaged 160.35 points over the final four games to finish the year 9-4 . . . while the favorites continued to stumble due to injury.
Meanwhile, second-seeded Lucky Enuf is the defending champion, and they also did not look like first-round bye material coming down the stretch. But enough teams ahead of them lost for Pyle's squad to steal a first-round bye with an 8-5 record. Pyle does, however, have the most points in the NFC and ranks seventh overall in OPR. Notably, DominationStation would have been the second seed had they not lost their Rivalry Week matchup by 1.3 points.
DominationStation did just enough to get to 8-2, including a six-game winning streak where they averaged 143.69 points per game. But injuries killed them late, as Jessen's team dropped three in a row to close out the regular season. Duffy's Hangovers, who are not being sued by the Green Bay Packers, average 13 more points per game than Jessen, but they are also dealing with injuries and uncertainty. This should be a toss-up, but I'm placing my money on the Hangovers.
Earlier in the year, this looked like a preview of the OIL Bowl, as each team started the season 5-1. But each team suffered injuries (Alvin Kamara for the Whackers and Pat Mahomes for Dead Again) and went 3-4 over the final seven games of the regular season. Now they're the 4/5 matchup on opening weekend of the playoffs. Neither team is quite back to full strength yet, but I'm picking the Whackers to defeat Dead Again despite having a lower points per game and OPR ranking. Notably, this is Dead Again's first playoff appearance since 2009, so here's hoping Schmidt takes a lot of photos.
Neither will there be a repeat champion in the PFC, as the defending champion Dirty Dogs bottomed out at 2-11 (although with an OPR-adjusted expected record of 6-7) and the only other PFC champion failed to make the tournament for the second-consecutive year.
Clinching first-round byes are the Nightmares and Team Tadlock. Tadlock is a perennial contender, but Mitchell's Nightmares are far and away the biggest surprise of the season. Their draft is a big reason why. Mitchell starts with hitting big-time on his first four picks. Then he gets solid contributors in the middle rounds in John Brown and LeSean McCoy, and he finishes the draft strong with Josh Allen, Darren Waller, and DJ Chark in rounds 14-17. It all adds up to a season that ranks sixth in OIL history in single-season OPR.
The Havoc are the lowest-rated team playing beyond Week 13. In fact, eight teams that did not even make the playoffs rank above Stanley's squad in OPR, but we all know the playoffs are a new season. They'll face Pennington's FDC Chiefs, who went 11-2 last season before being upset in the semifinals. I think Pennington wins this one to get to the semifinals for the second-consecutive season.
The Xtreme just clinched their fifth-consecutive winning season and third-straight playoff appearance. They'll face a very evenly-matched Vandals squad returning to the playoffs after a year away. If Julio Jones plays for the Vandals, I like them to win by a fair margin. But, if he does not, this game is a toss-up.