Super Bowl Edition
*Note – DVOA stands for Defense-adjusted Value Over Average: It’s Football Outsiders’ primary efficiency statistic and I believe it to be the best and most predictive measure of assessing the strength of NFL teams
***Note – All betting odds courtesy of Vegas Insider
****Note – Public betting refers to the amount of wagers taken on the spread
New England Patriots vs Atlanta Falcons
Spread: NE -3 Over/Under: 59
’16 DVOA: NE (1) > ATL (2)
Public Betting: NE 67%
With my preview from Tuesday serving as a launching point, it’s time now for me to discuss how I see Super Bowl LI playing out. First things first: Man is this a tough game to call! There’s a reason why there has never been an over/under line in the Super Bowl as high as this one. Only seven offenses in NFL history averaged more points than the Atlanta Falcons (34.4) did this year. Plus, they accomplished this despite playing the league’s second toughest slate of defenses. And yet, according to Football Outsiders’ (FO) Weighted DVOA metric, which places greater emphasis on more recent games to evaluate a team’s efficiency, New England’s offense actually ranks a tad higher than Atlanta’s. With both defenses leaving much to be desired, this game, in many respects, is a pick ’em.
But let’s turn to the respective defenses for a moment. Both sides improved as the season went along. New England may have finished just 16th in defensive DVOA during the regular season; but when using FO’s Weighted DVOA metric, which also factors in their two playoff victories, the Patriots move all the way up to 6th. They’re also stout against the run, in particular. The Patriots rank 2nd in opponent rushing yards per game and 8th in opponent yards per rush attempt.
Atlanta’s made strides thanks to their suddenly terrific pass-rush. As noted in my preview, the Falcons ranked just 24th in adjusted sack rate during the regular season. By blitzing much more in the playoffs, though, Atlanta’s pressure rate has nearly doubled from 24.9% to 44.9%, courtesy of ESPN’s Bill Barnwell. Surprisingly, they’ve been able to do this despite Vic Beasley, the NFL’s sack leader in 2016, registering only one pressure in those two games. Whether the Falcons’ suddenly emergent front-seven has similar success harassing Brady will play a large role in deciding Super Bowl LI.
I’m finally done analyzing what might happen. Here are my two primary predictions for how this game will transpire.
1) New England will entice Atlanta to rely on their running game, but the Falcons will still find ways to score
In many articles I’ve come across this week, there’s been too much emphasis on how the Patriots will try to stop Julio Jones. The Falcons have an extremely diversified offense, so stopping Jones won’t necessarily hinder them. People are neglecting the capabilities of Atlanta’s other receivers, namely Mohammed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel, as well as the damage Atlanta’s backfield combo of Devota Freeman and Tevin Coleman can do in the receiving game, particularly against a New England defense that struggled to defend quality pass-catching backs.
With reliable defensive backs like Malcolm Butler and Devin McCourty, New England can expect to slow a few of these players down–even Jones. Containing all five, though, will be a tall task. For that reason, I think the Patriots will entice Atlanta to run the ball. The Falcons have ran the ball effectively in 2016–they rank 7th in rushing DVOA–but it’s not their preferred method of scoring. Forcing the opposition into a situation they’re not particularly comfortable in would be a sound strategy. Moreover, incentivizing the Falcons to run will cater to the Patriots’ strength. As mentioned, New England’s run defense has been terrific all season. They may even have an added advantage with Atlanta’s All-Pro center Alex Mack’s health in question.
I expect New England to align in some uncharacteristic defensive formations in order to force Matt Ryan to check into more run plays. In turn, this should lead to higher carry and yardage totals for either Freeman or Coleman. This won’t prevent Atlanta from having their share of successful plays, both through the air and on the ground. Simply put, their offense is too efficient and too diversified. However, I do think that this strategy could allow New England to keep Atlanta’s scoring total within reason because a) They have a slight advantage over Atlanta’s offensive-line, particularly if Mack is as hobbled as some reports indicate and b) It will decrease the chances of Atlanta producing big, 20+ yard plays from Jones and others.
2) Tom Brady and company will have success in a variety of ways against an exploitable Atlanta defense
The Falcons will need their pass rush to be as effective as it was in their first two playoff victories. Atlanta’s secondary is inexperienced and finished a mediocre 19th against the pass, according to Football Outsiders. It also doesn’t help that their best defensive back, Desmond Trufant, required season-ending pectoral surgery back in late November. Without pressure, the Falcons defense has little chance of stopping New England’s high-powered attack.
I don’t expect Atlanta’s front-seven to come through, either. The Patriots’ offensive-line has been very good at protecting Brady this season, as they had the sixth lowest adjusted sack rate allowed in the regular season. With Marcus Cannon–a second-team All-Pro in 2016–and Nate Soldier protecting the edges, New England is well-equipped to handle Beasley, too.
What really makes Atlanta’s situation a conundrum, though, is that if they decide to blitz Brady, he might even have more success: Against the blitz this season, Brady finished with the league’s highest Total QBR (90.4). So the Falcons’ task is two-fold: Get pressure on Brady, preferably without blitzing. I don’t think Atlanta can achieve that main goal without disregarding the other.
Three other reasons why I think the Patriots will pile up points on Atlanta.
1) The Falcons are even shakier defending the run than they are against the pass
Atlanta ranks a mere 29th in opponent yards per rush attempt. LeGarrette Blount and the rest of the Patriots’ backfield should be able to have success on the ground, which will open up even more opportunities for Brady through the air.
2) New England is unlikely to turn the ball over
Atlanta’s defense may desperately need to force a turnover, but it’s unlikely to come via interception. Tom Brady was picked off on just 0.5% of passes this year. The Falcons’ best chance will be to recover a fumble, which is a 50-50 proposition.
3) Most importantly, Atlanta is not a good tackling team
Here are a few very revealing statistics. The Falcons missed 136 tackles this season, second most in the NFL. They also allowed a league-high 132.9 yards after catch (YAC) in 2016. In short, Atlanta does not have a fundamentally sound defense. This fatal flaw would look even worse if Rob Gronkowski were suiting up, but I project the Falcons to struggle to keep guys like Julian Edelman, Martellus Bennett, and Dion Lewis contained in space. As if New England didn’t have enough offensive advantages already…
A quick word on special teams
Atlanta holds an edge in the kicking department, as Matt Bryant has been much more reliable than Stephen Gostkowski this year. This might not be a huge factor, though, seeing as this game will take place in an indoor setting. However, field position could be crucial. The Patriots have excelled in this area in 2016. In fact, it’s a large reason why their defense, which started with the best field position in the NFL on a per drive basis, was able to lead the league in points against. Dictating this underrated aspect could be as crucial as it was in Super Bowl XLVI, where the Giants’ decided edge in this area–New England’s average drive started at the fifteen yard-line–propelled them to victory.
Atlanta’s offense will find ways to score, even if Belichick introduces a variety of unconventional schemes. Yet similar to how I said that the Falcons would expose Green Bay’s very pedestrian defense in my NFC Championship preview, Atlanta’s downfall will be due to their defense. The Falcons’ only hope defensively is if they get pressure on Brady. I don’t think they can do that without blitzing given a) New England’s solid offensive line and b) Brady’s ability to read blitzes pre-snap. And if they do blitz, Brady could pick them apart.
Atlanta’s suspect against the pass, even worse against the run, and they don’t tackle well. This is a recipe for disaster against the Patriots, who have been firing on all cylinders offensively. For these reasons, I think it will be too tall of a task for Matt Ryan and company to keep pace. New England’s defense is not as good as the points against numbers indicate, but one crucial thing to note is that, in contrast to Atlanta, they allowed the fewest yards after catch in the NFL this year. Simply put, success won’t come quite as easily for the Falcons’ offense in their final postseason showdown.
In a contest that might not be decided until deep into the fourth quarter, I’m taking the more fundamentally sound team whose elite offense has a far easier matchup. Once again, Brady and the Pats prevail.