I finally found the formula. Or half the formula, anyhow.
And, of course, I found it just exactly too late. (Lucky for me it’s a load of bull to begin with.)
I went 2-0 picking the conference championships straight up. Went 1-1 against the spread, but I’m going to keep pretending I don’t care about that. (There’s no money on the line, but I still don’t like being wrong.) That gets me to 8-2 (.800) straight up this postseason, 4-6 (.400) against the spread.
What was the secret to my kinda, mostly, a little bit good performance on conference championship weekend? Well, I’ll tell you: First, you want to make sure there are only two games to pick. That one’s big. It limits your opportunities to overlook aspects of most of the games while focusing on a couple. So, yeah, big. Second, go where the stats point you. Three, feel even better about the stats when they point you toward picking the home teams.
Pretty cool, right? I mean, hard to go wrong there.
Maybe let’s keep the whole deal between us, though. I don’t need everyone getting hold of this gem.
Also, hooray for me, the stats don’t really point in a clear direction for this week’s little game. And there’s no home team. So I’m shelving the formula until next year’s conference championships.
Here’s what not to expect in Super Bowl LI.
New England (-3) vs. Atlanta
I know you hate stats. Or I’m pretty confident, anyhow. Because just about everyone does. But I don’t. And you’re probably a figment of my imagination anyhow. (Forgive me if you’re an actual person reading this. It’s just that you’re the odd real person in a giant crowd of figments. And, oh, on that note, while you’re here, why not go ahead and introduce yourself? The figments are mostly polite. I run a pretty tight figment ship over here.) So, back to business, I’m going to lead with the big three predictive stats. Ready? Scoring differential, Patriots +1.5; passer rating differential, Falcons +0.1; takeaway-giveaway differential, Falcons +1. Those are all effectively ties, which means this game would be a tossup in Foxborough or Atlanta, let alone the neutral field in Houston. But there they are just the same.
Now, you can take into consideration the way the numbers shift slightly if you look only at the 14 games in which the Patriots have had Tom Brady behind center. Then you end up with a scoring differential of Patriots +2.7 and a passer rating differential of Patriots +0.8. (You then have to get into the weird question of whether you need to adjust the turnover differential to factor out the four games Brady missed. New England came out of the first quarter of the season +3. Take that away, and you end up with Falcons +4. But if you’re doing that with a cumulative measure — the only one in the mix here — shouldn’t you also factor out the Falcons’ first four games? Atlanta also went +3 over that stretch. Which gets us back to Falcons +1. So that’s where I’m sticking. You figure out what you want to do.) You can get excited about that if you’re a Patriots fan and you really want something to get excited about. But it’s still pretty much a draw.
All of this is to say that no matter how you cut up those numbers, you’re looking at a tossup. So, yeah, that’s right. We did all that work to get nowhere. This is why you hate stats, isn’t it?
OK, now what? The predictive stats don’t really tell us which team is going to come out on top. But neither does most of what you’ve heard about, read about or talked about regarding this game. The so-called “Deflategate revenge tour.” The Patriots’ experience, and Falcons’ lack of experience in the Super Bowl. Brady’s politics. Brady’s family. Brady’s diet. Or, you know, Matt Ryan‘s politics, family or diet. (I know no one’s talking about that stuff with Ryan. But that’s not because the media is targeting Brady to be mean or anti-Patriots. It’s simply — please don’t tell any Pats fans I said this — the price of celebrity.) Spooky stuff and superfluous details. Nice for the water cooler, but devoid of predictive value.
The thing about the Falcons’ top scoring offense (34.4 points per game when you factor in the postseason) squaring off against the Patriots’ top scoring defense (15.7 points per game allowed) seems like it probably matters. I mean, it seems like one of those units has to win that battle, right? Though possibly not. What if the Falcons score 25? Does that mean the Falcons offense overcame the Patriots defense or that the New England D limited the Atlanta O? To answer that question, you have to know what’s on the other side of the scoreboard. In any event, that bit you keep hearing about how in the previous six Super Bowls that featured the #1 offense vs. the #1 defense, the team with the best D came out on top five times? That’s not predictive. It’s indicative of a trend that’s favorable to New England. But there’s no carryover from those games to this one. The teams are not the same. The game is not the same. Trends are always worthy of consideration, and if you’re in the business of making assumptions, the safe assumption is that a trend will continue barring interference from some external force. But you never want to rely on a trend continuing.
Let’s get back to that thing about the other side of the scoreboard for a moment, shall we? That seems like something worth examining a bit.
There, we find a New England offense that ranked third in scoring (28.4 points per game, including postseason results) against an Atlanta D that ranked 27th (24.8 points per game allowed). That seems kinda lopsided, right? I mean, you can wonder whether Atlanta’s high-powered O is going to be able to overcome New England’s stingy D, but you have to expect that the Patriots’ high-powered O is going to be able to put up points against the Falcons’ generous D. And, yes, I realize that the Falcons played better on D down the stretch and in the postseason. But “down the stretch” for the Falcons meant games against the Rams, 49ers, Panthers and Saints, teams that finished the season with 4, 2, 6 and 7 wins respectively. (Oh, and before I become the latest to fail to mention it, the Falcons gave up 32 points to the Saints, a team with the second highest scoring offense in the league at 29.3 points per game. That was in Atlanta. With a first-round bye on the line.) And in the postseason, with home games against two opponents without a healthy ground attack between them, Atlanta allowed 20.5 points per game. That’s better than 24.8, of course. But it’s worse than 15.7. It’s also worse than the 16.5 points per game New England allowed in its two playoff games. The last time the Falcons played a complete postseason-qualifying team was just before “down the stretch.” Week 13. Atlanta hosted Kansas City. The Falcons lost that game 29-28, giving up 266 yards through the air and 123 on the ground.
Keeping in mind that how a team (or unit) performed “down the stretch” sometimes depends on how you define the stretch, I feel like the safest approach is to look at the Falcons’ defensive results in aggregate — just as we do with everything else. And that points me to an expectation that the Patriots should be able to score somewhere between 26 and 28 points. Since both of those numbers are greater than 25 (this is arithmetic at work, kids; stay in school — at least till, like, third grade), that confirms what I’m pretty sure we all knew: A draw for the Falcons offense vs. the Patriots defense isn’t likely to get the job done. If Atlanta wants to win the game, they’re probably going to need to win that battle. (I say probably here mainly because there’s always a third path. A big special teams play on either side could end up making the difference. Both teams are capable of making those, though. And both are capable of preventing them. And the volatilities and vulnerabilities in play make it difficult to predict how, or even whether, special teams play will influence outcome. So I’m staying away from that, except by way of this really sad hedge.)
The question is, can the Falcons offense win big O vs. big D battle? And the answer is, sure, maybe. I mean, look, one of these units is going to have the right game plan, make the right adjustments, play mistake-free football and all that cliché stuff that leads to wins. That could be the Falcons. They’re in this game for a reason. But the same goes for the Patriots and their D.
And I suspect the puzzle is a bit less difficult for the Patriots to solve than it is for the Falcons.
We all know that if the Falcons defense is going to limit the Patriots offense, it’s going to need to bring interior pressure on Brady, disrupt the Patriots receivers (probably with effective press man coverage), and limit the run. I think the Falcons have the potential to do one of those things. The Falcons don’t have the personnel to bring pressure on Brady up the middle. And their run defense is beyond suspect (4.5 yards per carry and 15 TDs allowed during the regular season). They’ve played more man coverage over the latter part of the season, though, and they’ve done it fairly well. But even if they can continue that trend against New England, which is easier said than done, that alone isn’t going to shut down the Patriots. Particularly if the answer to any kind of disruption to the passing game is that New England runs the ball down your throats. The Patriots, like the Falcons, have the ability to move the ball in multiple ways. You have to play excellent defensive football to slow the Patriots down, exceptional defensive football to stop them. Better down the stretch is nice, but transitioning over the course of seven games from bad to better to exceptional would be a rare accomplishment to say the least.
The other way Atlanta can limit the Patriots’ offensive production, of course, is to keep the New England offense off the field. This is probably what you have to hope for, and plan for, if you’re Dan Quinn and Kyle Shanahan. It’s also where I think things get problematic for Atlanta. Because I’m not sure the Falcons can accomplish this goal without getting out of their game.
The way you keep another team’s offense off the field is to keep yours on it. You accomplish that with sustained drives and good production from your ground game. Trouble is, New England wants you to try to win with long drives. They want you snapping the ball a lot. They want you throwing the ball short. They want to maximize your opportunities to make mistakes.
The Patriots also are considerably better at stopping the run than the Falcons are. More important, the Patriots are better against the run than all but one of the teams the Falcons faced “down the stretch” and in the postseason. And even there, it’s a matter of how you look at the numbers. New England this season allowed 3.9 yards per carry, eighth fewest in the league, 88.6 rushing yards per game, third fewest, and 6 rushing TDs, fewest. The Seahawks (a team that lost to the Falcons in the postseason, but beat them in the regular season), allowed a league-low 3.4 yards per carry, but gave up 92.9 rushing yards per game (which is still really good, seventh fewest in the league), and 16 rushing TDs, tenth most. Since at the moment we’re talking about staying on the field rather than scoring, though, let’s say Seattle’s run D was better than New England’s. That’s one of six. And not by a lot.
This may point to a difficulty for an Atlanta offense that is portrayed as high flying because of Ryan’s gaudy stats, but that, in fact, relies on a balanced attack. The Falcons scored 38 TDs through the air this season, and 20 on the ground. The run accounted for 29 percent of Atlanta’s offensive yards and 39 percent of its first downs. That’s fantastic when it works, not so much when it doesn’t. Four times during the season, opponents were able to limit the Falcons’ run game. Atlanta lost three of those games, scoring 24, 24 and 15 points. Their sole win came against the Rams, a team that was 4-9 and in a tailspin at the time.
Don’t get the wrong idea. Slowing the Falcons’ ground attack is no simple thing. Devota Freeman and Tevin Coleman both are outstanding, versatile and dangerous football players. But it’s been done, and when done it’s been an effective strategy. And the Patriots have the size, tackling ability and discipline up front to do it. If New England has the right game plan, makes the right adjustments, and executes, it should be difficult for the Falcons to keep the Patriots offense off the field via a sustained ground attack.
Of course, even if the Patriots defense is able to control the Falcons’ run game, Atlanta still has the potential to be productive. Ryan throwing to Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and company has produced all season. It would be foolish to assume it can’t produce against the Patriots, regardless of New England’s defensive success. But if the run game is taken away, that would leave Atlanta with a decision. They can throw a lot of short passes in an effort to control the tempo of the game, and play into the Patriots bend-but-don’t-break approach. Or they can stick to what they do well and try to turn the game a shootout, exposing their defense to New England’s considerable offensive potential.
The Falcons can win a shootout. They usually do. But so do the Patriots.
I think it comes down to this. The Falcons have one way to win this game, which is to score early and often. They have to make this a sprint. The Patriots have two ways to win the game. One is to outpace the Falcons, with their defense not stopping Atlanta, but making it slightly more difficult for the Falcons to score than it is for the Patriots. The other is to outslug the Falcons, make the Atlanta offense fight for every point (every yard) while taking advantage of the holes in the Falcons’ D.
The game’s still a tossup. But in a tossup, I’ll take the team with two ways to win over the team with just one. I’ve always said balance wins championships. And the Patriots clearly are the more balanced team in Super Bowl LI.
New England by a touchdown.