Archive for February, 2018

Super Bowl LII Pick

February 3rd, 2018 Comments off

I knew the home underdog Eagles were going to cover the 3-point spread in the NFC Championship. Didn’t see them winning (I’m still not sure whether I overestimated the Vikings or underestimated the Eagles — maybe both), but I saw them keeping it close.

That, along with pegging the exact scoring differential in the AFC Championship, led to the rarest of occurrences for me, a weekend (well, a day, really) in which I fared better picking against the spread than simply identifying winners.

My 1-1 performance straight up and 2-0 finish against the spread get me to 6-4 and 7-3 respectively thus far in the postseason. There’s nothing remotely impressive about that. But I’m still up for the challenge of making things even worse. So let’s have a look at what not to expect with the Lombardi Trophy on the line Sunday night.

New England (-4.5) vs. Philadelphia
Maybe I haven’t been thinking deeply enough about this Super Bowl.

It’s possible.

I mean, there’s a difference (right?) between obsessing and deep thinking. So while no one could possibly make a case that I haven’t obsessed over this game adequately, one could certainly argue that I haven’t looked at it in the right way, that I’ve missed something crucial, that I’ve taken too much for granted or relied on faulty assumptions.

I raise this possibility because in the nearly 12 days that have passed since conference championship weekend, I haven’t come up with a more pressing question than the one that came to mind immediately after it became clear that the Eagles had their game in hand: Can the Patriots defense turn Nick Foles back into a frog?

I simply don’t have another paradigm through which I’m capable of looking at this game.

But, um, let’s maybe take half a step back. Because, you know, I like numbers and so I need to get some numbers out there in order to explain myself.

The Eagles’ and Patriots’ total regular season scoring numbers are virtually identical, and all ranked among the top 5 in the NFL. The Patriots scored 458 points (28.6 per game) and allowed 296 (18.5 per game). The Eagles scored 457 (28.6/game) and allowed 297 (18.4). None of this is surprising given that these teams were the top seeds in their conferences. But that’s sort of creepily close.

Factor in the postseason (that is, counting all 18 games for both teams) and you get the Patriots scoring 28.7 per game and allowing 18.3; and the Eagles at 28.3 and 17.3.

Here are your big three predictive stats based on all 18 games: Scoring differential, Eagles +0.3; passer rating differential, Eagles +4.4; takeaway-giveaway differential, Eagles +7.

On a neutral field, the first two numbers point to an almost immeasurable edge for Philadelphia. The third pushes that edge into measurable, if still narrow, territory. If I knew nothing else about these two teams and the paths they’ve taken to this game, I’d probably be inclined to predict the Eagles will win it — by a point, maybe two.

But I do know more. And this is where (and why) we start circling back around to the topic of enchanted frogs.

When you talk about top 5 offenses and defenses on both sides of the field, when you talk about one seeds and conference champions, when you talk about Super Bowl, unless you go out of your way to state otherwise (because, you know, weird things happen once in a very great while), you’re talking about terrific football teams.

You win two straight games against postseason quality competition — on any field — and you’re doing something very right.

There’s no taking anything away from any of that.

But when you focus on predictive stats and they don’t present a clear and compelling view of what’s likely to be ahead (which is usually the case with the Super Bowl), your only choice is to dive into the numbers. Or ignore the numbers, I suppose. But I’m not inclined to do that.

I don’t feel compelled to pull apart the Patriots’ offensive stats or the Eagles defensive stats. Some might, I suppose. They’d talk about the fact that Tom Brady had to work his way through the last six games of the season with regular targets either sidelined by injury or suspended by turns. And they’d also talk about the strain put on the Philadelphia defense down the stretch by the fact that the team had lost its MVP-candidate starting QB and was having difficulty producing on offense. That’s all very real stuff, but I’m not sure it sways the stats significantly enough to examine closely, and I’m certain that even if you did, you’d discover that whatever adjustments you could think to make would offset.

The Patriots defense and the Eagles offense, on the other hand, pretty much require closer examination.

With New England, it’s really the same stuff I discussed two weeks ago, which comes down to this: The Patriots D is a better unit right now than the aggregate data indicates.

New England’s D always seems to take a while to truly come together, but that tendency was considerably more pronounced than usual this season. The Patriots D was beyond awful in the team’s first four games, with players routinely out of position and communication issues manifesting themselves on the field plainly enough for the untrained eye to see. The unit began to come together after Dont’a Hightower returned from an ankle injury, putting a critical player and leader back on the field, then had to adjust again when Hightower was lost for the season with a torn pectoral in week seven.

They made the necessary adjustments, though, and did so in the process of becoming the league’s stingiest defense. Consider this: Of the 296 points the Patriots allowed in the 2017 season, 128 (43 percent) came in the first four games. From week five through the end of the season (12 games), New England surrendered an average 14 points per game, fewer than any other team in the NFL. Factoring in the postseason, the Patriots D has allowed 14.4 points on average over their last 14 games.

One lingering concern about the Patriots D is that it has had little success over the course of the season and through the playoffs so far in securing takeaways. New England’s 18 takeaways during the regular season (12 interceptions, 6 fumble recoveries) were the 8th fewest in the NFL. The only postseason qualifier with fewer was the Atlanta Falcons with 16. The big difference between the Patriots and the Falcons, though, is that the New England offense’s ball security has been excellent as usual. The Patriots turned it over only 12 times during the regular season, fewer than every team except the Kansas City Chiefs (11).

That lack of takeaways is the reason the Patriots ended up with a takeaway-giveaway differential of just +6 (11th best in the league) during the regular season, and why they sit at just +5, as compared to the Eagles’ +12, through all 18 games.

When I looked ahead to the AFC Championship, breaking down the numbers behind New England’s turnover stats made me feel like one couldn’t really read the usual advantage into the comparative differential between the Patriots and the Jaguars. I have the same thought here. The Eagles’ regular season takeaway numbers were pretty much on par with the Jaguars’ — 19 interceptions, 12 fumble recoveries (vs. 21 and 12 for Jacksonville). That’s 31 takeaways, fourth most in the league. The Eagles were a bit better than the Jags at holding on to the ball during the regular season, with just 20 giveaways (9 interceptions, 11 fumbles) vs. Jacksonville’s 23. That added up to a +11, one better than the Jaguars’ +10. Add in the postseason, though, and you had the Jaguars at +14 going into their matchup with New England (for a differential of +8). The Eagles, as noted are +12, with a differential advantage of +7.

I’m going to sidestep for a second here to hit you with some weird stuff that may or may not mean anything to this game.

Here’s a start: Including the AFC playoffs, the Patriots defense has gone four straight games without a takeaway. This is not only the D’s longest drought during Bill Belichick‘s tenure as head coach; it’s the longest in 58 years of Patriots history. Not tied for the longest — the longest. And they’ve only very rarely gone as many as three games without a takeaway.

Apparently, though, it doesn’t matter. Because, well a) here they are in the Super Bowl, and b)

We talk a lot about the importance of winning the turnover battle, particularly in big games. And certainly you can’t feel good about the likely outcome of a game when you see a team giving the ball away. But there’s an exception to every rule — and a reason behind every meaningful exception — at it would appear that maybe we’ve hit one of those with the 2017 Patriots. At the very least, looking inside the numbers leads one to wonder if the differential in this matchup, and the apparent weakness of this Patriots D, might not be as much of a concern one would otherwise tend to think.

And with that we’re back to the frog prince and the Philadelphia offense.

We’ve reviewed the aggregate numbers. They’re unquestionable excellent. But we can’t really pretend Nick Foles is behind them, can we?

Foles took over at quarterback after Carson Wentz‘s outstanding season came to an abrupt end in the Eagles’ 13th game. Foles wrapped up the regular season looking like … well, like Nick Foles. He completed 57 of 101 passes (56.4%) for 537 yards, 5 TDs and 2 interceptions, earning a passer rating of 79.5. His was the worst passer rating of any of the 12 postseason starting QBs.

In the postseason? Completely different story.

In the divisional round win over the Falcons Foles went 23 of 30 (76.7%) for 246 yards with no TDs and no picks for a passer rating of 100.1. In the NFC Championship, he was even better, completing 26 of 33 passes (78.8%) for 352 yards with 3 TDs and no interceptions, which calculates to a passer rating of 141.4. That elevates Foles’ aggregate numbers to 106 of 164 (64.6%) for 1,135 yards, 8 TDs and 2 INTs, passer rating of 96.0.

That passer rating still hasn’t risen to the level of Wentz’s 101.9, but the remainder of the data set is pretty compatible with Wentz’s numbers. And no one’s in any position to call Foles’ overall stats through five starts bad.

Still, though, that sample size is damned small. And the data doesn’t match up well with career numbers that look like this:

As a result, it’s really hard to know right now who exactly Nick Foles is. Is he the guy we’ve seen over 39 career regular season starts, or the guy we’ve seen in his last two postseason starts? Did the playoffs princess come along and remove the evil enchantment that’s had Nick Foles hopping around largely ineffectively through his career, or has some mischievous sorcerer temporarily transformed an ordinary frog into a postseason prince? And if it’s the latter, when can we expect the spell to wear off?

For a minute, I thought maybe the fact that only one of Foles’ five starts for the NFC champs was played on the road could be the key. But through his career as a starter, Foles has generally been the same player on the road that he’s been at home. So once again, I have no way of saying for sure.

What I can say is that if the Patriots defense can turn Foles back into a frog, New England will win this game. Regular, normal Nick Foles can’t beat the Patriots on any field.

If they can’t … it’s either team’s game to win. Or lose.

And here I go back to the same thing I talked about in advance of Super Bowl LI, and in advance of this year’s AFC championship: Paths to victory.

When I look at two fairly evenly matched (this assumes Prince Nick, not Foles the Frog), I think about which team has more ways to win.  And I think even with Nick Foles playing his best football, Tom Brady leading a healthy offense provides a team with more ways to win. The Eagles are a great team that may or may not have figured out how to carry an average quarterback. The Patriots are the best in the business at adapting to an opponents strengths both before an during a game.

I expect to see Chris Hogan step up big in this game. I expect to see James White play a critical role once again. And I expect to see Brady settle in over the course of 60 minutes, find the holes in the Eagles defense (because there are holes in even the best Ds) and take advantage of them.

I think this is going to be a close game into the last four or five minutes. I expect the Eagles to have the ball trailing by a score, but with plenty of time to tie it up. But in the end, I believe an insurance TD by the Patriots is going to make it look a lot less close on the scoreboard that it will have been on the field of play.

And when the confetti falls, I think the board reads Patriots 38, Eagles 24.

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