Just two days away from the biggest game of the year so no more waiting. Time to give the prediction I love to give annually and have been spot for the last 3 years. The last time I was wrong was 4 years ago when the 49ers lost to the Ravens but of course I am not going to go against the team I have been rooting for since I was 10 years old! I feel I am pretty unbiased in this affair so here is my prediction followed by my analysis.
SUPER BOWL LI
ATLANTA vs NEW ENGLAND (Sunday, February 5 3:30 PM PST on FOX)
Houston, TX at NRG Stadium
Vegas Line: NE -3, O/U 59
GE Line: NE -2.47, O/U 53.91
Super Bowl LI Prediction: ATL 31 - NE 27
Super Bowl MVP: Matt Ryan 315 yards & 3 TDs
Lady Gaga Playlist: Telephone, Poker Face, Just Dance, Bad Romance, Born This Way, You and I
If you viewed the Madden Simulation of Super Bowl LI (click here to check it out), it would follow the GE model very nicely. After all, it has the score under the projected Vegas line of 59 and has the Patriots winning 27-24 which has New England pushing the -3 point spread (by the way, can't help but notice EA's affinity for the dramatic with the way they have the Super Bowl ending). We feel the over/under line is an over-reaction to the high point totals the Falcons and Patriots put up 2 weeks ago in the conference championships. Our model has the line close to 54 which is 5 off from most sportsbooks. With two weeks of preparation and both head coaches being defensive gurus in their own right, we don't expect the offensive explosion that some may think will happen. However, the game should be close and very entertaining. We also feel that instead of Brady scoring the game winning TD, it will be Matt Ryan who will have enough time to march his team down the field not just to kick a field goal to send the Super Bowl to its first ever overtime in its 51 year history but to win or shall we say ICE the game!
So why do I feel the Falcons will win? Let's list the reasons.
- Offense. Pure and simple. Yes, defense wins championships but this year has been an anomaly. Several of the top defenses this year, based on the GE model and other advanced metrics, like Denver, Baltimore, and Arizona did not make the postseason and the top defenses that did such as the NY Giants or Houston Texans came into the postseason with very weak offenses and that lack of offensive production did them in. In a year when offense has reigned supreme, we have to go with the team with the better offense which is Atlanta. Not just Atlanta had the top rated offense this season but it ranks as a top 10 or some may argue a top 5 offense of all time. It is arguably the most efficient offense in NFL history which we will get into right now ...
- In our earlier post about this game, we mentioned four key stats that proves how efficient the Falcons offense was this year. Sure they scored a lot of points and had a lot of highlight reels. However, one has to look at yards per play and points per play for an indication of how prolific this offense really is. The Falcons of course ranked #1 in both categories but not just #1 this year but #1 in NFL history. Just think about it. The Falcons were able to move the chains more effectively than any team this year if it is gaining 6.7 yards per play whereas the rest of the league is doing it at about 5.5 yards per play. With an average of 60 plays per game, the Falcons were able to gain somewhere between 60 - 70 yards more than most of their opponents. That would mean they would probably make 1 - 2 more trips to the red zone which can make the difference between winning and losing.
- Furthermore, by ranking #1 in points per play, the Falcons were able to capitalize on their opportunities as they were moving the ball down the field so well. The Falcons earned 0.548 points per play this season. #2 was Green Bay with 0.428 which had displayed some serious offensive firepower before the Falcons pretty much shut them down in the NFC Championship game. For comparison purposes, that number by some record breaking offenses is as follows: 2004 Colts 0.530, 2007 Patriots 0.524, 2009 Saints 0.509, and 2013 Broncos 0.506. Those four teams ranked #1 in that category but that number doesn't come close to the Falcons. Again, the Falcons offense is very, very efficient but why is that ...
- The Falcons not just pass the ball well but they run it well too. The combination of running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman pretty much mirrors the record breaking seasons by Hall of Fame running backs Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Marshall Faulk, and Eric Dickerson. The Falcons do a nice job of rotating those two RBs so that each one is fresh. They are also very good as receivers which only makes this Falcons offense more dynamic. The record breaking offenses we just mentioned would put up impressive numbers mainly through the air. The Falcons can do it both through the air on and on the ground.
- So can the Patriots defense stop this well oiled offensive machine the Falcons will strut out there on Sunday? They can definitely limit this offense by reducing the likelihood of some home run plays but they will give up a lot of singles and doubles for those who like baseball analogies. The Falcons did, after all, go into Denver and Seattle in the middle of the season and held their own by winning in Denver and almost winning in Seattle. The Falcons did not put up 30+ points in those games but they did score in the mid-20s and played solid defense. Keep in mind that the Broncos and Seahawks defenses were at full health at that time and we all know how hard it is on road teams to play in Denver and Seattle, arguably the best home field advantages in football. The Patriots defense is very disciplined and ranks high on most metrics high but it's a bend-don't-break type of defense so the Falcons will get their points but may not crack the 30 or 40 point barrier that they seem to do so often this season.
- Keep in mind that quarterback Matt Ryan is on a tear this season and has a Pro Bowl center and seasoned veteran in Alex Mack protecting him as well as two physically imposing wide receivers in Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu (no one in the Patriots secondary can match their size and speed). There are injury concerns with Mack and Jones but Jones dominated the Packers two weeks ago with the same toe injury so with 2 weeks of rest, he should be OK. Mack should be fine too since he was able to return to the game against the Packers after tweaking his ankle.
- OK, the Falcons can score points and we feel there is no defense that can completely shut them down. Great. How will the Falcons defense then stop the Patriots from scoring. After all, the Patriots offense was also very good and the Falcons defense at times looked downright awful. It really comes down to two simple things really: (1) prevent New England from converting more than 50% of its 3rd down attempts and (2) keep New England out of the red zone. Let's start with 3rd downs...
- The Patriots have ranked very high in 3rd down conversion percentage for the last 6 seasons and that has coincided nicely with the arrival of perennial All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski. Of course Gronk has been out for the past 3 months but the Patriots offense is still humming. In fact, they converted 11 out of 17 3rd down attempts in the AFC Championship game. However, with Gronk this year, the Patriots converted at least 50% of its 3rd down attempts in 7 out of 10 games but without Gronk, the Patriots did so in 4 out of 8 games. The correlation between 3rd down conversion percentage and points scored for the Patriots is quite strong (over 70%) so they really need 3rd downs to put points on the board. Of course that correlation will be strong for most teams and it is for the Falcons but the Falcons average 6 more points per game than the Patriots. Also, the Patriots ranked 3rd this year in 3rd down attempts while the Falcons ranked dead last. Hence, converting 3rd downs is really crucial for the Patriots offense but not so much for the Falcons given how efficient their offense is.
- So can the Falcons defense stop the Patriots from converting 3rd downs? If the last 9 games are any indication, then we say yes. The Falcons have not allowed any of their last 9 opponents to convert more than 50% of its 3rd down attempts. Now the Falcons did have a rough stretch in the middle of the season when they lost to the Chargers and almost lost to the Packers (both games at home) and allowed their opponents in three straight games to convert at least 50% of its 3rd down attempts. The result was allowing an average of 30 points per game. Since then, the Falcons obviously have been good at keeping opponents 3rd down conversions low and the result has been allowing just a shade under 21 points per game. They have played some poor offenses in those 9 games but also played some good ones too in the Saints, Seahawks, and Packers.
- Why have the Falcons all of sudden improved on defense? One reason can be the emergence of outside linebacker Vic Beasley. Just how the Falcons have more talent on offense, they have the most talented defensive player on the field. Beasley was the 8th overall pick in the NFL draft two years ago for good reason: the guy is a beast! He dominated the competition in the ACC while playing for Clemson. In fact, all three of the Patriots interior offensive lineman played against Beasley in the ACC given that two of them entered the league at the same time as Beasley and one of them is currently a rookie. More specifically, Beasley had 7 sacks in his career against NC State which is where Patriots guard Joe Thuney played. The Patriots offensive line is good at the tackle positions but so-so with the interior. Jadeveon Clowney was able to flush Tom Brady out of the pocket often three weeks ago by rushing through the interior of the offensive line. Beasley tends to rush the QB from the edge but we are guessing the Falcons will make an adjustment given that this is the Super Bowl. Of course the Patriots may counter with having tight end Martellus Bennett in the back field to pick up a pass rusher like Beasley. However, Bennett has been playing with a cracked bone in his ankle so we are not sure how we will hold up against a freak of an athlete like Beasley. By the way, don't let Bennett's dancing to Whitney Houston's "I Want to Dance with Somebody" with the Patriots cheerleaders at the end of the AFC Championship game fool you! It's one thing to dance with pom poms and another to block the NFL sack leader. Bottom line is that if you want to beat Brady, you have to pressure him and by unleashing a pass rusher like Beasley, the Falcons should be able to limit the Patriots 3rd down conversions.
- Now the red zone is another story. The Falcons defense, unfortunately for our purposes here since we are predicting them to win, rank dead last in red zone efficiency (defined as scoring TDs per trip to the the red zone). The Patriots, on the other hand, are #1 in red zone efficiency. Blame the young Falcons secondary on this one. Even Falcons head coach Dan Quinn's amazing Seahawks defenses in 2013 and 2014 struggled in red zone defense and is a key reason why the Patriots won the Super Bowl two years ago. That is why applying pressure to Brady early and often is essential for the Falcons to win. Otherwise, Brady will carve you up with all of the weapons at his disposal.
- One more stat we must throw out there: yards per point. The Falcons rank dead last at 12.2 but that is a good thing. Highly efficient offenses should not rely on chewing up so many yards to put points on the board. The Packers were 2nd to last with 13.5 and the Patriots 3rd to last with 13.7. We know the Packers and Patriots offenses were good this year but given that the Falcons lead this category by a significant margin, we feel this Falcons offense is very special.
- Another thing to consider is the playing surface at NRG stadium. It is one of the few stadium in the NFL with a retractable roof so the Texans used to play on grass. It proved to be too much of a headache to keep grass in that venue so this year they finally switched to turf. The Falcons play most of their games on turf whereas the Patriots play most of their games on grass. The Patriots of course will be fine on turf but turf is more conducive to speed and speed is what Atlanta has. Speed can kill and the Falcons have more of it than the Patriots.
- Finally, we cannot end our analysis by not comparing the schedules for both of these teams. While the Falcons and Patriots had a few common opponents, we just don't see how the Patriots defense has been challenged when lately they played some weak offenses like the 49ers, Rams, Jets (twice!), and the Texans. They also lucked out with Le'Veon Bell getting hurt early two weeks ago. On the other hand, the Falcons offense was tested by some of the top defenses like the Seahawks and Broncos and the defense was also tested by top offenses like the Saints and Packers. The Falcons passed those tests with flying colors, pun intended!
We can go on and on with so many other perspectives, metrics, and stats but at the end of the day if the Falcons can disrupt the Patriots offense by pressuring Brady often and take advantage of their offensive opportunities which they have done so well this season, the Falcons will be the ones bringing home the Lombardi Trophy for the first time in the franchise's 51 year history which actually started when the Super Bowl I was played. How fitting!