Super Bowl Breakdown, Part One
I’ll begin by saying it seems pretty clear to me that unless the Patriots are way off their game on Sunday night, they should not only beat the Eagles but cover the seven-point spread handily. But I could be wrong. Clearly I like the Pats a lot more than I like the Eagles. I’ll be rooting for the Pats. I’ve watched the Pats all season long. Maybe I’m letting what I want get in the way of a meaningful evaluation of what’s likely. That’s why it makes sense to step back and look at what is. Let’s start with the pure stuff — the numbers. Not because that’s where it all happens — this is the Super Bowl and it all happens all over the place — but because the talk and the hype and the speculation in either direction is gonna be going on all week. Give the media plenty of time to overanalyze what Terrell Owens’ gameday status could mean for the Eagles. Then we can take a look at everything on the table and try to figure out if any of it means a goddamn thing. (It probably doesn’t).
And to make it that much simpler, let’s keep the regular season numbers and the playoff numbers separate, since they come out of completely different contexts to begin with (that is, a playoff game and a regular season game are very different animals, so let’s not try to breed them, because the offspring won’t have much chance of survival). First, the regular season.
I think rather than running down raw numbers and then looking at competition and then looking at matchups, I’ll try to do it all at once. I’ll go matchup by matchup in four key statistical areas for each team — overall offense/defense, points scored/allowed, rushing offense/defense, and passing offense/defense — flipping back and forth between teams in each area.
The Patriots’ seventh-ranked offense, which put up 357.6 yards per game, will face the Eagles’ 10th-ranked defense, which allowed 319.7 yards per game. Meanwhile, the Eagles offense, which was ranked ninth and put up 351.1 yards per game, faces a Patriots D that was ranked ninth, allowing 310.8 yards per game.
On the surface, that’s a minor Patriots’ advantage. When you look at how all those numbers were earned, however, things start to look even better for the Pats.
The Patriots’ offense faced stiffer competition than the Eagles’ offense. Both teams faced the league’s’ best defense, Pittsburgh, but after that there’s a big dropoff for the Eagles. The Pats played half their games against teams ranked in the top 10 in the league in overall defense. The Eagles faced top 10 Ds in only four of their 16 games.
The disparity in the quality of competition faced by the two defenses is less pronounced, but notable just the same. Again, looking at the top 10 teams in the league in overall numbers, the Pats D squared off against the first-, second-, sixth- and eighth-ranked offenses, while the Eagles D faced the third-, fourth-, and sixth-ranked squads.
Looking at that, one can only conclude that the Pats overall advantage is fairly substantial.
As has been widely reported, the Patriots and Eagles were tied for the second fewest points allowed on defense during the season, giving up 16.3 points per game. New England’s offense finished fourth in points scored, putting up 27.3 points per game, while Philadelphia’s offense finished eighth, logging 24.1 points per game.
There again, it would appear the Patriots have a slight advantage. But once again, the advantage begins to look less slight as you look more closely.
Both offenses faced the league’s top-ranked D in this category as well (again, it was Pittsburgh). And both played the sixth-ranked Baltimore Ravens. The Pats also faced the fourth-ranked New York Jets (twice) and eighth-ranked Buffalo Bills (twice). The Eagles faced the fifth-ranked Washington Redskins (twice). So the Pats put up more points while facing stingier Ds.
The Pats D, meanwhile, earned its share of the number two ranking against much higher scoring offenses. The Pats played the top-ranked Indianapolis Colts and second-ranked Kansas City Chiefs (who put up 32.6 and 30.2 points per game respectively) as well as the seventh-ranked Buffalo Bills (twice) and 10th-ranked Cincinnati Bengals. The most potent offense in terms of scoring the Eagles faced was the fifth ranked Green Bay Packers (who averaged 26.5 points per game, seven fewer than the Colts and nearly four fewer than the Chiefs), followed by the sixth-ranked Minnesota Vikings (25.3) and Cincinnati.
That clearly points to the Pats having the better part of this matchup.
The Patriots will put their seventh-ranked rushing offense (which put up 133.4 yards per game and scored 15 touchdowns) up against the Eagles’ 16th ranked rush defense (which allowed 118.9 yards per game and 13 touchdowns). The Eagles’ 24th-ranked rushing offense (102.4 yards per game, 10 touchdowns) will face the Patriots sixth-ranked rushing D (98.3 yards per game, nine touchdowns).
It’s not hard to see where the advantage falls there. But it gets slightly better for the Pats.
The Patriots and Eagles faced a similar level of competition in route to their offensive rushing stats. Both teams played the best run-stopping team in the league (again, Pittsburgh). The Eagles also faced the second-ranked Redskins (twice), eighth-ranked Ravens and Atlanta Falcons (the two teams tied for that ranking), and 10th-ranked Dallas Cowboys (twice). The Patriots faced the fifth-ranked Jets (twice), seventh-ranked Bills (twice) and eighth-ranked Ravens. The Eagles have a minor edge in toughness of competition there, but it’s nothing that offsets the enormous disparity in offensive rankings. That is, the Pats did much, much better while facing ever-so-slightly less difficult opposition.
The defensive disparity in this category, meanwhile, only deepens when you look at the level of competition. The Pats’ run D earned its number six ranking against a slate of opponents that included the second-, third-, fifth-, eighth- and ninth-ranked rushing offenses in the league. The Eagles run D got its number 16 ranking while facing the second-, ninth- and 10th-ranked offenses (and, in fairness, the 11th). That is, the Pats did a much better job of stopping much better running attacks.
Here, the advantage appears to belong to the Eagles. Philadelphia’s sixth-ranked passing offense (which put up 263 yards per game and logged 32 touchdowns) will face a New England pass D ranked 19th (having given up 231.9 yards per game and 18 touchdowns). On the other side of the ball, New England’s 13th-ranked passing offense (263, 29) will face a 12th-ranked Philadelphia pass D (217.2, 16).
But the competition skews these stats back toward a level playing field.
The Eagles’ pass offense earned its sixth-place ranking against a slate of opponents that included the fourth-, fifth-, seventh-, ninth- and 10th-ranked pass defenses. The Patriots pass offense’s 13th-place ranking was earned against opponents including the league’s first-, third-, fourth-, fifth-, eighth- and 10th-ranked pass Ds. (It’s also notable that whereas the Pats played the first-ranked Miami pass D and third-ranked Buffalo pass D twice each, the highest-ranked pass Ds the Eagles faced twice each were seventh-ranked Washington and the ninth-ranked New York Giants). That doesn’t turn things around, but it makes them look pretty close to even.
The Eagles fare better in close inspection of pass defense. Philly got its 12th-place ranking against teams that included the first-, fourth-, fifth- and 10th-ranked passing offenses. The Pats faced the second-, third- and fourth-ranked pass offenses. And while the dropoff from third-ranked Kansas City (which averaged 289.9 yards per game) to fifth-ranked Green Bay (284.4) is slightly more pronounced than that from first-ranked Minnesota (297.1) to second-ranked Indianapolis (295.8), and while the Pats faced somewhat stiffer competition outside the top 10, it still appears the Eagles had a tougher route to their 217.2 yards per game allowed than the Pats did to their 231.9. (Unless you want to adjust for the fact that the Eagles played 12 of their games against inferior NFC competition, which one could argue is fair, but which I’ll not do.)
So it appears the Pats are somewhat weaker in pass defense than the Eagles and about equal in pass offense.
So what does it all indicate? Well, the way I look at these numbers, the Pats clearly come out way ahead in everything except the way the Eagles pass offense matches up against the Patriots secondary, where the Eagles are arguably a few degrees ahead. Does that mean the Eagles are gonna win? Certainly not. Of course the Eagles can win. Either team can win in any game. But the passing game matchup, which many are holding up as evidence that the Eagles will keep it close and maybe pull off the upset, doesn’t ultimately amount to that much. The difference isn’t nearly as significant as the difference in the running game mismatch, where the Pats hold a clear and pronounced advantage. You can’t pass if you can’t run, and I don’t see the Eagles running on the Pats.
So for now at least, I still feel like the Patriots are headed for a double-digit margin of victory. Next up, I’ll see whether the teams’ playoff numbers change my mind.