Super Bowl Edition
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*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
Mando’s Records Entering Super Bowl LII
Straight Up: 182-84 (.684) Playoffs: 5-5 (.500) Total: 346-185-2 (.651)
Spread: 151-103-12 (.590) Playoffs: 5-4-1 (.550) Total: 302-211-20 (.585)
Over/Under: 149-111-6 (.571) Playoffs: 6-4 (.600) Total: 291-236-6 (.552)
Locks: 25-4 (.862) Playoffs: 1-0 (1.000) Total: 57-10 (.851)
Best Bets: 74-46 (.617) Playoffs: 7-3 (.700) Total: 203-146-1 (.581)
*Note: Total records date back to 2016 season.
CAPITAL Letters indicate pick with spread
*Aster-risk denotes LOCK
Spread: NE -4.5 Over/Under: 48
DVOA: NE (1) > PHI (2)
Public Betting: PHI 56%
Super Bowl LII pits the NFL’s greatest dynasty against a franchise looking for its first title since 1960. The former will take the field armed with the greatest head coach & quarterback combination the sport has ever seen; the latter will look to make due once again with a backup QB after losing this season’s likely MVP.
But don’t mistake Eagles/Patriots for a David vs Goliath matchup. After all, New England and Philadelphia will become the 13th set of number one seeds to meet in a Super Bowl after each finished the regular season 13-3. And while the Patriots have the league’s top-ranked offense, the Eagles counter with the NFL’s second-ranked defense. More importantly, they also boast a ferocious defensive-line, the likes of which resembles other units that have handed Bill Belichick’s squad rare defeats in the postseason.
However, there are plenty of other factors that will decide whether Tom Brady and company wins its sixth Super Bowl since 2001 or whether Doug Pederson’s emerging Eagles pull one of the bigger championship-game upsets in recent memory to claim Philadelphia’s first Lombardi trophy. I’ll analyze five facets in particular, starting with the game’s intriguing quarterback battle.
1) What can we expect from Nick Foles after his terrific NFC Championship performance? And is it possible he could outplay Brady?
As mentioned in my Super Bowl LII prop bet article, it’s likely that Foles’ sensational showing against Minnesota’s top-ranked defense (352 yards, 3 touchdowns, 141.4 quarterback rating) was an outlier. His career yards per attempt average, for instance, is 7.0. Foles threw for 10.67 Y/A against the Vikings, which is nearly 55% higher than his career mark. And if we look only at his three most recent seasons (5.85 Y/A), this disparity is even more pronounced.
The good news for Foles, though, is that there wasn’t anything particularly flukey about his most recent performance. In other words, there was nothing lucky about Foles’ touchdown bombs to Alshon Jeffrey or Torrey Smith, particularly since Minnesota’s defense, as mentioned, is no slouch. And the reason why this is good news is because if Foles can have that kind of success against the Vikings, he could certainly torch the Patriots, too.
Despite finishing with the league’s fifth-best scoring defense, New England measures as one of the least-efficient defenses in football, as it finished just 22nd in total defense according to Football Outsiders’ Weighted DVOA metric. Moreover, similarly mediocre quarterbacks have had success recently against the Patriots’ 20th-ranked pass defense. Blake Bortles was the most recent, as he played an efficient, turnover-free game in the AFC Championship (293 yards, 8.1 yards per attempt).
Even so, I think we also need to account for how Foles might succumb to the spotlight given it is his first Super Bowl appearance. Sure, other quarterbacks like Matt Ryan and Russell Wilson have recently had success (at least from a statistical standpoint, in Ryan’s case) in their first appearances. But Foles obviously is not as capable as either of those two, which is why it is more likely he turns in a Cam Newton-esque performance from Super Bowl 50 and whittles under the pressure.
But while I don’t expect Foles to necessarily play poorly, I’ll side with Belichick, aided by two weeks of preparation, to craft a game-plan that will keep him in check.
2) So no, I don’t expect Foles to outplay a five-time Super Bowl champion. But here is how Philadelphia’s defense can frustrate Brady and contain New England’s offense.
I find it rather cliche when pundits claim “the key to beat Brady is to get pressure using only four rushers — that way the seven defenders in pass coverage can cover all five receiving options.” I mean, isn’t that the ideal game plan no matter what quarterback you play? And has this strategy really been “successful” against Brady (27-9 career postseason record; 9-1 in his previous ten playoff games with a 97.3 quarterback rating) considering that other teams have undoubtedly tried to replicate this tactic to little avail?
Nonetheless, the Eagles’ defensive front certainly has the ability to put pressure on Brady, who has continued to play flawlessly (5 touchdowns, 0 interceptions) this postseason. Led by Pro Bowl defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and underrated edge rusher Brandon Graham (9.5 sacks), Philadelphia led the NFL in pressure rate percentage (41%) in 2017 according to Pro Football Focus. However, it will be important for them to finish once they’ve closed in on the pocket, as the Eagles rank just 16th in sacks per game.
But assuming Philly can at least make Brady uncomfortable, its secondary will need to continue to play like it has this postseason. After finishing 7th in pass defense during the regular season, the Eagles have done a terrific job limiting opposing wide-outs in the playoffs, holding the likes of Julio Jones (56.3% catch rate) and Adam Thielen (33.3% catch rate) to sub-par totals.
In theory, guarding the likes of Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan, and Danny Amendola shouldn’t be too problematic for corners Ronald Dearby, Jalen Mills, and Patrick Robinson after recently containing those aforementioned Pro Bowlers. The same could have been said for Jalen Ramsey and the Jaguars’ top-ranked pass defense two weeks ago, though, but that didn’t stop Cooks (100 receiving yards) and particularly Amendola (7 receptions, 2 touchdowns) from having big games. Plus, Brady obviously has another notable receiving target to throw to, so let’s look next at the game’s two X-factors.
3) Rob Gronkowski vs Zach Ertz: Which tight end will rule the day?
Arguably the NFL’s two best tight ends will face off in Super Bowl LII, each of whom could be the ultimate difference maker for their respective teams. Of course, Gronkowski is no guarantee to play considering he is still in the concussion protocol, but let’s assume he plays (because he will). I’ve been skeptical of the idea that the Patriots need Gronk to win — after all, New England went 10-0 and won the damn Super Bowl without Gronkowski in the lineup last season. But there’s no doubt that Brady’s stats are superior with Gronk than without him (106.5 quarterback rating with Gronk; 90.3 without). In short, it will certainly help the Patriots’ chances if their most dominant player outside of Brady is at full strength (and barring any unexpected developments, I think that will be the case).
Meanwhile, Ertz may be as integral to Philadelphia as Gronk is to New England. The Eagles don’t have someone like Julio Jones or Antonio Brown offensively, but the Pro Bowler is still a noteworthy player to stop, as he led the Eagles in both receptions (74) and yards (824) during the regular season and was especially terrific in their recent win over Minnesota: with first-team All Pro Harrison Smith in coverage, Ertz caught all eight of the passes thrown his way for a total of 93 yards.
Why will Ertz be particularly important on Sunday? The Patriots defend tight ends reasonably well (8th in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders), but have rarely seen players as good at the position as Ertz. Plus, New England’s secondary should be capable of holding up in man coverage against Philly’s other top receiving threats like Alshon Jeffrey and Torrey Smith, particularly given the recent emergence of Stephon Gilmore, who is finally proving why it made sense for Belichick to sign him to such a large contract.
Simply put, it will be crucial for Doug Pederson to find ways to effectively use Philadelphia’s most underrated offensive weapon in order to make life easier for Foles.
4) Will the Eagles’ biggest strength be their key to victory?
Lost amid the discussions surrounding Philadelphia’s imposing defense and surprising offensive play is this: its offensive line, which features two All-Pro’s in right tackle Lane Johnson and center Jason Kelce, is arguably the best in football. Combined with the fact that New England’s defense (on paper) doesn’t stop the run very well, the Eagles actually may have the game’s most significant advantage.
However, the Patriots’ run defense, anchored by the likes of defensive tackle Malcolm Brown and defensive end Trey Flowers, has been surprisingly stout in the postseason, as it held Derrick Henry to just 28 yards in the Divisional Round and limited Leonard Fournette to 3.2 yards per carry in the Conference Championship. Even though Philadelphia’s offensive line is far better than both Tennessee and Jacksonville’s, I’m not sure the Eagles have enough speed at running back with Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount, whose running styles are similar to both Henry and Fournette, to have much success. The Patriots may even prioritize stopping the run and let Foles try to beat them through the air.
Regardless, Philadelphia has the edge in the trenches, but it is unclear whether its backs can take advantage. How this matchup plays out could be crucial if the Eagles are to pull an upset.
5) The ultimate difference-makers: turnovers and coaching
So to summarize, I doubt Foles will play very well (although I don’t think he’ll play poorly) and I’m not convinced that their outstanding offensive line will be enough for the Eagles to take advantage in the running game considering that a) Ajayi and Blount are not fast (relatively speaking) and b) the Patriots’ run defense has played extremely well this postseason. However, I do think that Philly’s defense will be able to frustrate Brady and Co. for stretches thanks to both its formidable front-seven and solid secondary, each of which has also performed superbly in the playoffs.
But there are two additional factors that side in New England’s favor. The first is turnovers. While Philadelphia finished in the top five in turnover margin during the regular season, the Patriots’ offense has had the NFL’s second fewest giveaways in 2017. Translation: it’s unlikely that New England will beat itself.
There’s also little doubt that coaching experience will play a role in Super Bowl LII as it did in Super Bowl XLIX, when Pete Carroll botched the game’s waning moments, and Super Bowl LI, when Belichick made the necessary second-half adjustments to overcome an overzealous Dan Quinn and guide the Patriots to a 31-0 run in the final twenty minutes. Don’t sleep on the impact coaching has on special teams either because New England, which has held opposing offenses to the lowest starting field position average in the NFL, has the edge in this underrated area, too.
Philadelphia, in short, will need herculean performances from its playmakers on the offensive and defensive lines in order to win. But I ultimately think New England will hold its own in these areas. And with Brady continuing to perform at a historic level of excellence, I’ll take the Patriots — in relatively comfortable fashion, for a change — to win their sixth Super Bowl title.