Exactly 1 week away from the biggest sporting event of the year and the prognostication will only heat up.
While we are not quite ready to make our prediction, here are some thoughts we have about Super Bowl LI between the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots.
- The Falcons will be going up against a solid defense in the Patriots. To think the Falcons will easily put 40+ points like they did against Green Bay last weekend is ludicrous. The Patriots are healthier than the Packers were, have a much better defense (Patriots defense ranks 3rd based on the GE model whereas the Packers ranked 18th), and won't make the same mistakes on offense, especially with 2 weeks to prepare and having so much experience at this stage in the NFL postseason. Even getting 30+ points for Atlanta won't be easy but the Falcons offense is one of the best we have seen since starting our analysis 20 years ago. In fact, the Falcons offense rates just as high as the record breaking offenses of the 2001 Rams, 2007 Patriots, and 2013 Broncos. All three wound up losing the Super Bowl but what makes this Falcons team unique is that they don't turnover the ball as often as the 2001 Rams did (not even close with the Rams turning the ball over a league high 43 times and the Falcons a league low 11 times) and they run the ball way better than the 2007 Patriots and 2013 Broncos while still passing the ball very well. The QB/WR duo of Matt Ryan and Julio Jones has been one of the best in the NFL for the last 6 years and the RB duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman is historic when you compare their combined numbers to the great RBs like Barry Sanders, Eric Dickerson, Marshall Faulk, and Emmitt Smith.
- Going a bit deeper with the Falcons offense, one thing that stands out is how efficient the offense has been. There are FOUR non-conventional stats to consider: yards per play, yards per point, points per play, and number of third down attempts per game. Of course we mention these stats since the Falcons had the highest numbers in two of them and lowest in the other two. Say what? Lowest in two of them? Work with us here! As you probably guessed, the Falcons were #1 in yards per play. No other team was close. In fact, the Falcons yards per play is the highest in NFL history. No one talks about that which is kind of crazy. That is a true indication of offensive efficiency. Secondly, the Falcons were #1 in points per play. Again, no other team was close this year and this is also the highest in NFL history. Even the great offenses like the 2007 Patriots and 2013 Broncos were not close. Now the Falcons had the lowest yards per point. This means they didn't need to grind out many yards to score. Again, very, very efficient. Finally, the Falcons ranked dead last in number of 3rd down attempts. Oh, they converted a good number of 3rd downs and have a high 3rd down percentage but they don't rely on 3rd down conversions like other teams do. This leads us to our next observation ...
- The Patriots heavily rely on converting 3rd downs to move the chains. The correlation between their 3rd down conversion percentage and points scored is 70.5%. It is roughly the same for Atlanta but the Falcons average 6 more points per game than the Patriots so 3rd down conversion is more crucial for the Patriots offense to succeed. In fact, the Patriots ranked 3rd this season in the number of 3rd down attempts per game.
- So how are the Patriots with 3rd down conversion rate? Very good and they have been for the last 6 seasons. A big reason for that is Rob Gronkowski who was drafted by New England 6 years ago! For the first 10 games this season, the Patriots converted at least half of their 3rd downs per game in 7 of those games. Since Gronkowski's injury, they have converted 3rd downs at least half of the time per game in just 4 of the last 8 games. A key reason for the Patriots beating Seattle in Super Bowl 48 was because of their high 3rd down conversion rate. That was also a key reason why New England did so well against Pittsburgh last week (converted 11 out of 17 3rd downs). Gronkowski contributed heavily in Super Bowl 48 but did not play last week which kind of contradicts what we said earlier in this bullet point. Credit the solid coaching staff and QB Tom Brady for keeping the 3rd down conversion rate high without their stud tight end.
- Now how are the Falcons at preventing 3rd down conversions? For the 2016 season as a whole, not great. They ranked 24th at a rate of 41.70%. The Falcons had a stretch from Weeks 7 - 9 when they allowed each of their opponents to convert at least half of their 3rd downs. They also allowed an average of 30 points per game during that stretch. Since then, however, the Falcons have not allowed any of their opponents to reach a 3rd down conversion percentage of 50% which has translated to 20.9 points per game allowed, about 8 points less than the first half of the season. While the Falcons did play some really strong offenses from Weeks 1 - 9 like Oakland and New Orleans and some weak offenses during the 2nd half of the regular season like Los Angeles and San Francisco, the Falcons played New Orleans again in Week 17 as well as Kansas City in Week 13 and recently destroyed a red hot Green Bay team last weekend. What this tells us is that the youth on the Falcons defense is starting to come together and the speed they display is nothing to ignore. May we add that the Super Bowl will be played on turf which is very conducive to speed.
- Another thing the Patriots offense does well is scoring touchdowns in the red zone. They consistently rank in the top 5 or 10 every year during the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era. Again, Gronkowski is a big reason for that high number but the Patriots have still been fine in the red zone after his injury. The Falcons red zone defense this season, unfortunately, is downright awful. They rank dead last at 72.13%. Ouch!
- The Patriots defense has not really faced a strong offense all year. They got lucky with Le'Veon Bell leaving last week's game early and drawing the Texans' inept offense for their first playoff game. They also faced the Jets twice, 49ers, Rams, Ravens, Broncos, and Dolphins during their current 9 game winning streak. Those teams' offenses rank 31st, 32nd, 28th, 18th, 24th, and 19th, respectively, according to the GE model. The Texans rank 29th. In fact, no offense the Patriots played this year ranked in the top 10 based on the GE model except for Buffalo and Pittsburgh but the Steelers did not have Big Ben for the regular season matchup and of course no Bell for the playoff game. The Falcons offense, on the other hand, faced Seattle, Denver, Kansas City, and Arizona whose GE-defensive rankings were 8th, 1st, 7th, and 5th, respectively. We can safely say that the Patriots defense has not been truly tested while the Falcons offense has been challenged and was able to hold its own.
When we take all of these points into consideration, we come to the conclusion that the Falcons offense will be fine given that they have seen good defenses and are highly efficient. They may not score an insane amount of points in the Super Bowl but they should move the ball without too much difficulty and score about 3 - 4 TDs. We also come to the conclusion that it is imperative for the Falcons to prevent New England from converting too many 3rd downs and to keep them out of the red zone. The Falcons youth and speed on defense might be up to the task. If the Patriots wind up converting over 50% of their 3rd down attempts and get to the red zone 5 - 6 times, it will be the Patriots, not the Falcons, hoisting the Lombardi trophy after Roger Goodell awkwardly congratulates and hands the hardware off to Belichick and Brady. Can Falcons head coach Dan Quinn come up with a game plan so that his defense can apply constant pressure on Brady?
We will run more analysis over the next couple of days and have a prediction ready to share!