I don’t have too many rules in life, but one of them is that I have to analyze the Super Bowl when the Patriots are in it. I know that 44 states hate the Patriots with the passion of some political candidates*.
However, I was a fan before their horrific 1-15 season was overshadowed by a Zeke Mowatt’s sexual harassment of a female reporter.
Imagine your team losing 15 of 16 games being the highlight of the season.
Now imagine that the history of your team was actually worse than that… yes it was truly that bad.
… and yes those bleachers at Sullivan stadium were really as bad as described in that article. When I was a kid, there were two classes of families, those who went to sold-out Celtics games to see Larry Bird in his prime… and those who went to Patriots games to freeze their behinds off sitting on snowy metal bleachers in the middle of December. I was the later.
So with no apologizes, I’m going to present an analysis of what I expect to happen in Super Bowl LI. Yes, it is going to be biased.
That said, I actually like the Falcons. They were a favorite of mine to play with in the early Madden games. Oh, they also have a Boston College quarterback, so arguably my local bias is in a no-lose situation.
I also know that my predictions may mean nothing, but my first Super Bowl Analysis Guide was almost perfectly dead-on, down to the amazing catch in the last minute. I specifically wrote:
“Don’t get beat by ‘the catch.’ The last two Super Bowls were highlighted by nearly impossible catches. The first the helmet catch by Tyree. The second by the long sideline catching by Manningham. By almost all accounts it is going to be a close game so a play like this could be the difference of whether we are talking about Brady being the best QB of all time or losing three straight Super Bowls. It’s insane, because he wasn’t on the field for either iconic catch. People magnify a few plays in a Super Bowl to overshadow a whole career with thousands of passes.”
Seattle made “the catch”, but Malcolm Butler made “the interception” which was the difference.
The Patriots couldn’t stop Bennett (one of my keys to the game), but brought the attack of the Lilliputians with Edelman and Vereen doing damage.
The disclaimers are out of the way. My chest-thumping for the one-time that a football game worked out as I thought it might is out of the way.
The only left is to dig into the actual analysis.
Super Bowl LI Analysis
If you thought the above was procrastinating you wouldn’t be entirely wrong.
For my last Super Bowl analysis, I spent at least 27 hours a day reading about the Seattle Seahawks to understand their depth chart… but I was already familiar with the team because they won the Super Bowl the previous year.
These Falcons seemingly came from nowhere. They were 8-8 last year and 11-5 this year. It’s often said that the Patriots “failure” in the past 13 years is that they missed the playoffs in 2008 when Tom Brady got injured. They were 11-5, same as the Falcons this year. My point? Sometimes 11-5 gets you a playoff bye (i.e. Falcons this year), sometimes it’s good enough for a wild card (i.e. NY Giants this year), and sometimes it means you don’t make the playoffs at all (i.e. 2008 Patriots**).
Bill Parcells is famous for saying, “You are what your record says you are.” Allow me to suggest that the Hall of Fame coach was wrong. Wins and losses get you to the game… we can use statistical analysis to make some rough (and often bad) predictions on how that game might go.
The most basic analysis (Points Forwarded vs. Points Against… or “PF-PA”) of the Falcons says that they are great team. They scored 134 more points than their opponents. That’s the best in the NFC and second best to the Patriots 191 PF-PA. (The Patriots faced an easy schedule so that number might be inflated – which we’ll save for later). Only the Cowboys came close with a 115 number.
Last year, the following teams had a higher PF-PA than Atlanta’s 134… Patriots (150), Bengals (140), Panthers (192), Cardinals (176), Seahawks (146). The Super Bowl Champions (Denver Broncos) weren’t on the list. They got hot at the right time… and it’s all about the matchups. My point here is dual-fold:
1) Atlanta’s PF-PA is a better indicator than their record… and it’s top tier this year. They are deserving champions.
2) Sometimes teams catch fire in the playoffs… Denver last year. It seems that Atlanta has done that as well, which bodes well for them.
Last time I did an exhaustive analysis of the each team at each position. I don’t feel I know the Falcons well enough to do that. So I’ll take the “Lazy Man’s” approach and address the basics…
Falcons’ Offense vs. Patriots’ Defense
The Falcons have the top scoring offense in the NFL. That’s not fake news or alternative stats. They scored 33.8 points per game… that’s amazing.
They have an MVP QB*** and a great offense. I haven’t spent a lot of time analyzing the Falcon’s depth charts, but here are my basic (biased) thoughts.
The Patriots focus on stopping the run. Going into the AFC Championship, the Patriots hadn’t allowed a 90-yard rusher in last 24 games. It’s now 25 games. The Patriots always play a “stop the run first” defense. They are so focused on shutting down the opponents’ running game that they don’t rush the passer. This is why they have the #2 run defense in the NFL. Atlanta has the #5 rushing offense. However, a lot of that was behind a healthier Alex Mack. It seems he has a serious injury that limit him.
I’m tempted to say that the Falcons simply won’t be able to run the ball, because of the Mack injury and simply that no one runs well against the Patriots. However, the Falcons have great balance with their MVP-worthy quarterback and receivers. The Patriots can’t just focus on stopping the run or Matt Ryan will show them what 4 touchdown passes look like.
When I look at the Falcons passing offense, things get more interesting. Obviously Julio Jones is a superstar receiver, perhaps the best in the game. Mohamed Sanu is a great receiver as well. I don’t know much about Taylor Gabriel, but he seems to be the third WR on the depth chart.
I expect the Patriots to defend the Falcons by putting Eric Rowe on Julio Jones with a lot of safety help from Devon McCourty. The Patriots often “double team” the opponents’ best player with their 2nd or 3rd best players to take them out of the game. I expect the Patriots to put their superstar cornerback, Malcolm Bulter, on Sanu. There’s a huge size mismatch there (in Atlanta’s favor), so I could be completely wrong and they could go with the taller Rowe on Sanu. However, Butler has shut down better receivers (Antonio Brown), so it is worth a shot. Also, Sanu is from Rutgers and the Patriots are known for their Rutgers secondary… there’s history there.
This leaves the Patriots’ Logan Ryan on Taylor Gabriel. I don’t know much about Gabriel, but Ryan is a “red-chip” quality player. Patriots fans will take their #2 cornerback on an opponents 3rd WR all day.
The Patriots would have to use 4 players, but they’d have an advantage against the top 3 Falcon’s wide receivers.
However, Altanta likes to pass their running backs. Their two top combined for 86 receptions more than any individual receiver. It will be up to the Patriots’ Chung and their linebackers to cover them. That’s not a match in the Patriots’ favor.
If I’m the Falcons, I use Julio Jones as a decoy to clear two Patriots defenders (the cornerback and a safety) to one side of the field and try to find a mismatch with a running back on a linebacker with little safety help. In my opinion that will be the key match-up.
Patriots’ Offense vs. Falcons’ Defense
There’s a lot of talk about the Falcon’s Offense being the best in the NFL and it’s well-deserved. There’s much less talk about the Patriots’ offense being just a shade behind in points per game when Brady was the QB.
Having watched every Patriots game this year, there were many games where the Patriots ran out the clock with Blount. More than any other season, I’ve seen the Patriots manage games to limit injuries. With a lead they’ll run out the last 10 minutes of the fourth quarter and depend on the defense to get one stop or hold the other team to a field goal. The point is that the Patriots’ offense might be as good as the Falcons, but they never had to get in shoot-outs.
On the flip side, the Patriots had a weak schedule. It’s easier to score points and prevent them when the competition is weak.
I don’t know much about the Falcon’s defense other than the stats, which aren’t too good. They are near the bottom of the league. From what I’ve read the Atlanta defense is young and they have some upside. The other problem is that Atlanta is terrible at tackling and the Patriots might be the best at forcing missed tackles and creating Yards After Catch (YAC). It’s a ginormous mismatch.
Final Thoughts and Pick
I simply see too many things going the Patriots way in this one. They’ve been healthy (minus Gronk), while Atlanta is injured (Mack). They have the defense they haven’t had in years and an offense that can arguably be as good as Atlanta’s.
My pick plays right into those thoughts and my obvious bias.
I’m going with the Patriots 38-29. I honestly feel it could be a 6 point game, but I’m going larger because I think the Patriots could put Atlanta in a hole if they force some field goals.
Notes and Further Biased Commentary
* Did you know that Patriots haters invented “alternative facts” and “fake news” years ago? There are still people (Marshall Faulk) who said that the Patriots taped the Rams practice in 2001. There was a story that ran after SpyGate, but it was quickly retracted as an attention-grabbing scheme. (And if the Patriots taped the Rams practice back then, the results should have showed it. The Rams had about 150 more yards of offense. Brady passed for 145 yards total. The Rams turned the ball over 3 times (their own fault). The Rams statistically dominated the game, but they made a few too many errors in a close game.
DeflateGate was the original “fake news.” The NFL planted a story about 11 of 12 deflated by over 2 each with a trusted ESPN news source (Chris Mortensen) which turned out to be completely false. The real facts were that the balls exhibited proper air pressure with relation to the ideal gas law. Scientists from top universities from all over the country weighed in to explain it. It would have been similar to the NBA punishing Michael Jordan (and the Bulls) for defying the law of gravity.
** Football nerds who are reading this might be interested in looking at that NFL 2008 season. The Patriots lead the division in point differential by a large margin, and were 6th in the NFL overall. They didn’t qualify for one of the 12 playoff spots, due to the 10th tie-braker or something like that. The 8-8 Chargers made the playoffs beating up on a very weak division, while an 11-5 team in a very competitive division went home. The Ravens and Steelers also beat up on a weak division. The 3rd best team in the AFC East (the NY Jets) had a 9-7 record, which was better than the Chargers that year… even in the Chargers weak division.
Miami, who won the division and got the home game got, predictably, blown out badly.
Yes, I’m a bit bitter. I think Detroit Lions fans can agree with me… that season never happened, right?
*** The MVP shouldn’t have been a debate. Ryan went 11-5 and Brady went 11-1. Ryan had his elite receiving weapon (Julio Jones) for almost the entire season. Brady lost his elite receiving weapon (Rob Gronkowski) early on. Despite that, Tom Brady was nearly perfect. Turn the tables, and ask yourself if Ryan would have put his numbers without Julio Jones and if Brady’s numbers would have been better with Gronk. Some may penalize Brady for missing 4 games, but the ideal gas law (like gravity) cleared him and showed measurements was just natural physics. If Brady played in those 4 games, we might presume that he’d have gone 4-0, arguably making him 15-1.
Some say that Brady’s contribution wasn’t of value because the team went 3-1 without him. That’s lazy narrative. The Patriots were shut out by the Bills in the last game because they were playing with an injured 3rd string rookie QB, who went on IR after Brady was activated. Brady clearly took the team from rock bottom to the #1 seed in the AFC. Brady’s value couldn’t be stated higher.
And for anyone who says that Tom Brady had zero value to the Patriots during those first 4 games (as I have read), you are completely wrong. Brady took the suspension rather than fighting for what’s right at the Supreme Court level, which was his option. The fight wasn’t about deflating footballs, but whether the commissioner of the NFL can do whatever he wants. Brady could have challenged it to that level, but then he might have missed the post-season. He took his unjust penalty early and helped Garoppolo get ready to lead the team.
Putting your team ahead of your personal reputation is a great sacrifice. I don’t think too many players in professional sports do that. I’m obviously biased, but that is a ginormous point in Brady’s favor that can’t be overlooked. It’s a feather in his cap that he came from it with no live action to exceptional performance.