There probably is no other sporting event in the world that garners as much attention as the Super Bowl. Just go to your local grocery store and you will find several aisles dedicated to party favors and typical fare associated with football. Anyone want to guess how many avocados will be consumed this Sunday?! As for entertainment, some of us look forward to the commercials which some years become instant classics and other years are very forgettable. I couldn't tell you what commercials last year were memorable but of course I am focused on the game. The halftime show itself is like attending a full concert with an A-list performer and the occasional surprise guest (more on that later in this post). Hosting the Super Bowl is considered a major deal with the bidding process somewhat on par with bidding for the Olympics. Entire metropolitan areas are completely transformed during the week leading up to the big game and let's not get into the astronomical price of a game ticket. Las Vegas sportsbooks see a dramatic increase in wagers and the items you can wager on border on the ridiculous such as the length of the National Anthem (something I will never bet on!).
Speaking of prognostication, isn't that what this blog post is all about?! Predicting the Super Bowl winner is a popular thing to do in the workplace, over social media, among family and friends, and so on. For example, you have the Madden Simulation which has been correct 10 out of 15 times with one year accurately predicting the winner and score (Super Bowl XLIX: New England 28 - Seattle 24). Yours truly had the Patriots winning 27-24 that year! By the way, the Madden Simulation this year is predicting the Rams to beat the Patriots 30 - 27. You have animals such as camels, llamas, and ostriches demonstrate their psychic ability by choosing a feed labeled with one of the teams and often times selecting the winner. Then there are the "so-called NFL pundits" who work for renowned sports journalism companies like ESPN and Sports Illustrated and love to pontificate their reasons why Team X is going to win it all when in reality they are simply selecting the favored team since if they are right, they look good and if they are wrong, they can say the result was an unlikely upset. If you are searching for good analysis on Super Bowl LIII, Bill Barnwell of ESPN does an outstanding job of breaking down the game in an objective manner:
For me personally, I have several people (and even animals!) around me who seem to have an idea of who will win. My mother-in-law's psychic (yes, she has a psychic, no lie) predicted the team from Los Angeles to win the Super Bowl right after the final four teams were determined (not sure if she can name either team from LA!). My own mother feels her psychic abilities are exemplary and I can't deny that. For all the insane analysis I do for NFL playoff games, my mother went 2-0 two weeks ago for the conference title games while I whiffed by going 0-2. My mother has reminded me about that several times during the past 12 days. She even predicted that Donald Trump would win the 2016 Presidential Election while most of us were surprised. Of course we will steer clear of politics since I want this post to bring out joy while those in DC can continue to bicker over menial matters. This year she has LA winning it (and yes, she does know the name of the team!). My dog has accurately predicted the winner 3 out of the last 4 years with the only off year being the New England - Atlanta Super Bowl, the only Super Bowl to go to overtime. My son's baby sitter on Tuesday afternoons was Tom Brady's 2nd grade teacher and librarian (I am not kidding you) and tells me that Tommy (anyone who knows Brady from his San Mateo days still call him that) won't be denied a 6th Super Bowl ring, becoming the only player in NFL history to achieve that feat. Amazing she knew about the potential 6th Super Bowl ring since she doesn't watch much football but she is also well-read (no surprise there!).
OK, OK, so who do I THINK will win? For those who know me well, I cannot give a prediction without heavy analysis. It is of my nature and the way I have gone about making my Super Bowl predictions for as long as I can remember. If you are curious about my track record with selecting a Super Bowl winner, it has been very good for the last six years and perhaps it has coincided with the fact that the last Super Bowl party I threw was for Super Bowl XLVI when my beloved 49ers fell to the Ravens in a very wild game. Not having to follow up with invitees, decorate my home like it's Christmas all over again, prepare a shopping list then actually go shopping, and finally cook some amazing food for the plethora of guests we love to entertain have afforded me a considerable amount of time to simply plop myself in front of my laptop to mine for the essential data that will inform all of us who should win and why. Except for the New England - Atlanta game (again, that game truly could have gone either way and was like watching a tale of two cities), I have correctly predicted the Super Bowl winner 5 out of the last 6 times. Definitely my efforts have really helped me just focus on the game at hand and make some serious money. I wonder what appliance/furniture item my wife will want to purchase after this Sunday!
So what does my crystal ball ... ahem ... my analysis suggest who will be hoisting the Lombardi trophy Sunday night? Let's break it down by what happens when both teams possess the ball.
When New England has the ball ...
If you have followed the Patriots' last few games, you should be well aware that New England has been getting the job done in a very blue collar fashion: running the ball up the middle and churning out several yards on most attempts. This is not typical of the high flying Patriots offense we have been accustomed to since the start of Brady's unbelievable run of 9 straight AFC title game berths. If you ask a mainstream football fan to name another player on the Patriots besides Tom Brady, a couple of names come to mind such as Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman and for good reason: they have been Brady's primary and super reliable targets. One staple of the Patriots' offense is success on 3rd down and Gronkowski and Edelman have been instrumental in sustaining key drives for New England by simply being in sync with their signal caller. This year, however, most of New England's offensive success has hinged on a rookie running back who will be returning to the state where he played college football: Sony Michel.
When the Patriots lost to a Miami in early December, in what is perhaps the craziest ending to a game this season, thanks to a Kenyan Drake scoring on a play mirroring "The Play" between Cal and Stanford in 1982 (some people are calling it the Miami Miracle) and then the following week to Pittburgh in a rather ugly 17-10 game, many of us had to wonder if we were witnessing the end of the Patriots dynasty. They were 9-5 at that time and at risk of not getting a first round bye for the first time since 2010. Remember, this is the Patriots though. The week 1 victory over Houston and some help from the team who defeated the Patriots last year in Super Bowl LII (Philadelphia beat Houston during Week 16) both proved monumental since it enabled the Patriots to earn a tiebreaker over Houston as both teams had finished 11-5. FYI, the Patriots completed MISSED the postseason in 2008 after finishing 11-5 so the fact that the Patriots not just won the AFC East but also earned a first round bye with the same record speaks volumes to the wackiness of the NFL.
What the Patriots decided to do after Week 15 in order to right the ship was lean on the kind of football most of us get nostalgic about when we talk about the great players/teams of the 70s and 80s: run the ball up the gut and do so with authority. Those who are my age or older will often talk about how running backs like Larry Csonka, Franco Harris, Early Campbell, John Riggins, and Walter Payton tore apart defenses by playing smashmouth football. OK, I never watched those guys live since I was too young or not even born but thankfully for NFL Films, I have seen footage of their games and love them! Bill Belichick is very good at adapting his offenses at pivotal moments so that they can realize their fullest potential. This current Patriots offense is set up very nicely for the interior run game with both guards and the center ranking high with their Pro Football Focus (PFF) grades. During Week 16 and 17, the Patriots destroyed the Bills and Jets by running the ball a combined 77 times for 404 yards. That is 5.25 yards per game which is very, very good. That dominance in the run game carried on to the NFL Division round (pardon the pun) when New England gained 155 yards on 34 carries. The result ... a 3 game winning streak with a combined score of 103-43 or an average margin of victory of 20 points. Then we had that barnburner of a game in Kansas City for the AFC title. The run game was still important and performed well for New England but in games like that, you can throw all of the analytics out the window since it seemed that whoever won the coin toss in overtime was going to win with a game ending TD given how gassed each of the defenses were in freezing conditions.
There is nothing fancy about the Patriots rushing attack. Echoing their mantra, "Do Your Job", the offensive line (mainly the two guards and center) as well as Gronkowski and unheralded fullback James Develin have done an outstanding job of fulfilling their blocking assignments so that Michel can consistently move the chains. This has helped a quarterback like Brady avoid pressure and just lead the team to the end zone early and often since their Week 15 loss to Pittsburgh. Seeing how well New England executes the run game is a joy for the football purist. It is how football is taught to youngsters and should be played.
So how do the LA Rams stop New England's impressive run game? The Rams did not rank particularly high with run defense. In fact, the Rams are DEAD LAST in yards per carry allowed at 5.1. Second worst was Kansas City at 5.0. OUCH! This does not look good for LA. However, there is hope. Let's consider the teams who beat New England this season: Jacksonville, Detroit, Tennessee, Miami, and Pittsburgh. None of those teams rank terribly high with rush defense and in fact the first three teams were in the middle of the pack. Except for Miami which needed an amazing 69 yard TD with lots of trickery to end the game victoriously, the other four teams were able to stymie the Patriots run game and ultimately prevent them from a high 3rd down conversion rate. Check out the numbers below with New England's rush stats and 3rd down conversion rate against each of the opponents listed.
Jacksonville: 24 carries for 84 yards and 4 for 12 on 3rd down
Detroit: 19 carries for 89 yards and 2 for 9 on 3rd down
Tennessee: 19 carries for 40 yards and 3 for 15 on 3rd down
Pittsburgh: 19 carries for 96 yards and 3 for 10 on 3rd down
Add it all up and that is 81 carries for 309 yards or a 3.81 yards per carry average. The 3rd down conversion rate comes out to 26%. The result is 0-4 in those games with an average point differential of -14.5 points per game. In the other 12 regular season games for New England, they went 11-1 with an average point differential of +14.08 points per game but here is how they fared with the run game and 3rd downs: 397 carries for 1728 yards or a 4.35 yards per carry average and a 3rd down conversion rate of 48.8%. The bottom line is this ... if you want to beat New England you have to prevent them from converting nearly 50% of its 3rd down attempts and to do so you must limit the run game.
How did those four teams do it then?! Let's dig even deeper. Pro Football Focus (PFF) is an awesome organization and if you have pondered a subscription to its site, I highly recommend it. I had the pleasure of hearing a talk by the founder of PFF Neil Hornsby and its owner Cris Collinsworth. If the second name sounds familiar, it should. Collinsworth is the lead football broadcaster for NBC and tends to call many big football games. After the presentation, I was sold on PFF's methods. PFF uses highly sophisticated video technology to grade all NFL players and I frequently incorporate PFF grades for my models with a high level of success. If you do a weighted average for the PFF run defense grades for interior defensive linemen for all NFL teams during the 2018 regular season, here is what you get for the four teams who beat New England this year (again, I am leaving out Miami due to their fluky TD to win the game).
Jacksonville: 73.11, 17th
Detroit: 80.85, 3rd
Tennessee: 74.34, 13th
Pittsburgh: 77.19, 10th
FYI, the NFL team average for combined interior defensive linemen PFF grade is 72.95 with a standard deviation of 5.42. This is an important metric to consider since the interior defensive line, for lack of a better phrase, is the first line of defense against New England's rush attack. All of those 4 teams had an interior defensive line unit who rated better than the league average when it came to stopping the run. In fact, for the four teams above, the average PFF grade is 76.37 while it's 72.78 for the Patriots other 12 regular season games. New England was especially challenged by Detroit who held New England to just TWO 3rd down conversions. It should not be too much of a surprise given that Lions head coach Matt Patricia was the defensive coordinator for New England from 2012 - 2017 and an assistant coach for other positions for the Patriots from 2004 - 2011. Guess which two teams rated better than Detroit at PFF run defense grade for interior defensive linemen? The Chicago Bears were #1 with a score of 83.16 and the LA Rams were #2 with a score of 80.97. The Patriots in fact played the Bears this season and didn't have great success running the ball but that game was also shootout with New England winning 38-31. Shifting our focus back to the Patriots' opponent this Sunday, Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald will most likely repeat as NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Even though the Rams as a whole ranked dead last in rushing yards allowed per carry, running up the middle was not a good idea when you have Donald and teammate Ndamukong Suh waiting for you. The Patriots tend to have more success running in between the tackles than outside and also call more interior run plays than outside ones. Here we have strength on strength and if the four losses for New England this year provide any evidence for how to beat New England, the defense will win out in this situation.
Fine, you stop the interior run game. The Patriots can still beat you in other ways, right? I say no. The interior run game is the MAIN reason why New England has reached a 9th Super Bowl appearance in the last 17 years. Even though Brady is the GOAT, he has slowed down, especially with play action. More on play action when we discuss what the Rams will do when they have the ball but play action is essential for success with the run game since it enables you to keep the opposing defenses guessing as to what play you will call. Of course that won't matter much if the team you are facing doesn't have the personnel to stop the interior run game. In those instances, you just keep grinding away and daring the opposing defense to stop the run. Once they cave in by committing too many defenders in the box, Brady is a smart enough QB to sense that and will make you pay by finding a receiver in a major mismatch. The key for the Rams is to keep doing what they have been doing with their base defense ... hold your own with the interior run defense with your two perennial Pro Bowlers in Donald and Suh and trust that everyone else will fulfill their assignments.
Earlier we mentioned that Patricia had an advantage by knowing much of the Patriots personnel and just having a lot of experience coaching with Belichick. Guess which NFL coach has the longest history of coaching against Belichick? If you guessed Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, then you are correct! Phillips is 71 years old and has been around just as long as Belichick. Their history goes all the way back to the 80's when Belichick was an assistant for the NY Giants and Phillips was with the Saints and Eagles. They have faced each other 32 times and the record is an even split at 16-16. While that is not great, it is still impressive for Phillips since beating Belichick, who is arguably one of the best head coaches of all time, is not easy.
If you are a diehard Patriots fan, name Brady's worst home loss? It was in 2005 against the San Diego Chargers. The Patriots lost 41-17. Brady struggled in that game completing just 19 passes out of 32 attempts for 224 yards, 1 TD, and 1 INT. Brady's QB rating in that game was 78.1, something very uncharacteristic for Brady at home. New England converted just 4 third downs out of 11 attempts. On the flip side, the Chargers ran the ball very well with Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson carrying the rock 25 times for 134 yards and 2 TDs and bulldozer RB Michael Turner adding 11 carries for 44 yards. Drew Brees was the QB for San Diego then, throwing the ball for 19 completions out 24 attempts, 248 yards, and 2 TDs. His rating was 137.5. The Chargers had two outstanding pass rushers in Shaun Phillips and Shawn Merriman who both played outside linebacker in the Chargers' 3-4 defensive front. Guess who the defensive coordinator was in that game? Yes ... Wade Phillips! Phillips also had amazing success with the pass rush when as the defensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos who played the Patriots twice in 2015 and winning both of those games. Serious football fans will recall that Brady was knocked down/pressured almost half of the time, mainly by Broncos linebacker Von Miller, in the 2015 AFC title game. Donald nearly broke the NFL record for sacks this year so if the Rams are successful in limiting the interior run offense for New England and Brady finds himself being flushed out of the pocket by Donald, the Rams will wind up winning this game.
When Los Angeles has the ball ...
Whew! We really dissected the heck out of the New England offense and how to defend their run game. So how will the Rams move the ball and will New England's defensive schemes make life difficult for young signal caller Jared Goff? The Rams offense has been transformed since Rams head coach Sean McVay came to LA in 2017. McVay flourished with the Redskins and even though hiring a millennial to be the head coach of an NFL team seemed suspect at first, it has paid off huge dividends for a team that used to be the laughing stock of the NFL. McVay is a brilliant football mind and the contrast of age, experience, and potential between Goff and Brady is quite similar between McVay and Belichick. Even those who casually follow football are familiar with the song and dance we have seen with Belichick and Brady so it is refreshing to see some new blood with loads of promise flesh itself out as the Patriots opponent. Like Brady, Goff is 24 in his first Super Bowl (and both from Northern California!). Like Brady, Goff has established a nice rapport with his head coach and could conceivably be on the brink of greatness should the Rams prevail on Sunday. Belichick and Brady instantly became household names after beating the heavily favored Rams 17 years ago so how fitting would it be for the Rams to end that dynasty and start their own.
So how will the Rams score TDs? Play action. It really is that simple. While the Rams' play action defense is not great, it's not a major concern since Brady (who used to be amazing with the play action pass) has been awful with play action this postseason going 12 for 22 with 0 TDs, 2 INTs, and a QB rating of 41.3 on play action passes. Perhaps Rams cornerback Nickell Roby-Coleman, infamous for his vicious hit on Saints wide receiver Tommylee Lewis in the NFC title game that became one of the most egregious non-calls in recent memory, is correct in saying that Brady has slowed down. The Patriots' play action defense is also awful but here is the problem: Jared Goff is an amazing play action QB! It was one of the main reasons why he was considered a strong #1 overall pick in the 2016 draft at least a year before that draft took place. He is as NFL ready as they get for a young QB, mainly due to his phenomenal ability to run the play action pass. Here are the 2018 numbers to prove it.
Play Action %: 34.6% (2nd)
Play Action TDs: 13 (1st)
Play Action Yards: 1971 (1st)
Play Action QB Rating: 112.3 (9th)
In 2017, Goff also led the league in play action yards with other solid passing numbers. The Patriots defense excels when they can disguise their coverages and keep you guessing. Where they falter is when the tables are turned and are left guessing themselves. This is where the Rams thrive and much credit belongs to McVay for making play action very relevant. For those who don't know the history of the play action pass, it goes all the way back to when Bill Walsh was the head coach of the 49ers and ran a similar play called "play pass". This shouldn't be too surprising to see Goff flourish as a play action QB given that his head coach's grandfather, John McVay, was the 49ers general manager while Walsh was the head coach. Here is a great link describing play action and its history.
Take a look at some of the games the Patriots have lost recently. Play action data can be found at PFF dating all the way back to 2012. Here are some good examples of when the Patriots opponent used play action to their advantage and ultimately beating the Patriots.
- When Peyton Manning beat the Patriots in the 2013 AFC title game, his play action QB rating was 158.3. He went 8 for 8 with 2 TDs and 116 yards.
- In the 2012 AFC title game, Joe Flacco was 5 for 7 on play action with 56 yards, 1 TD, and a rating of 134.5.
- Jacksonville nearly beat the Patriots in the 2017 AFC Championship. Part of Jacksonville's offensive success can be attributed to Blake Bortles' play action abilities: 11 for 14 for 169 yards, 1 TD, and rating of 140.8.
- Earlier we discussed the Lions' success against New England when it came to defending the interior run game. QB Matt Stafford was another reason for the Lions' victory: 4 for 5 on play action passes good for 2 TDs and a 142.1 QB rating.
- In 2017, the Panthers beat the Patriots 33 - 30. Cam Newton was 6 for 9 for 81 yards, 2 TDs, and a rating of 134.7.
- In 2016, Russell Wilson (one of the better play action QBs in the league) beat New England 31 - 24 on the heels of converting 7 of 10 play action attempts resulting in 125 yards, 1 TD, and a rating of 145.8.
Even though the Patriots don't lose often, when they DO LOSE it can sometimes be attributed to a great pass rush which limits the Patriots' 3rd down conversions but it can also attributed to running play action with success. This is why the Patriots are in trouble in Super Bowl LIII. Even though Goff is a young QB and playing on an enormous stage with the whole world watching, he is simply too good at play action.
Play action is also important when it comes to success with the run game. When you have a running back as talented as Todd Gurley or another upstart RB like CJ Anderson who had success against the Patriots in 2015 when he was with the Broncos, it becomes very easy to run the play action since the opposing defense simply cannot tell if a run play is coming or if the QB will pass.
Another important aspect of the Rams' offense is the impact McVay has had on Goff when it comes to reading defenses. True, the Patriots defensive schemes could fluster a young QB like Goff, especially if they are disguised well and Goff is left guessing. However, if you spent the time reading Bill Barnwell's Super Bowl LIII analysis (the link I posted at the start of this article), you will see that the Rams tend to snap the ball within 5 seconds of the ball being spotted at a rate three times greater than any other team. There is good reason for that. The headset communication between the QB and head coach goes silent when the play clock runs down to 15 seconds. At that point, whatever scheme the defense was hiding will take formation and this can be intimidating for a young QB if he is not sure how to counteract it. McVay has groomed his young QB well so that he avoids those situations and is truly set up for success. I would bet serious money that McVay is able to communicate to Goff very quickly (in a few seconds) what defensive scheme is coming up next. Goff simply runs his plays at a fast pace so that he can catch opposing defenses off guard, especially when running the play action. Here is another great link detailing how the Rams pull this off so well.
Let's go back to the Patriots' loss to the Chargers in 2005, which we discussed earlier. The parallels between that Chargers team and this current Rams team are striking. Gurley and Tomlinson are both dominant RBs. Anderson and Turner are both big, bruising backs. Brees is one of the best play action QBs of all time and Goff is on his way to join the elite class of QBs. Donald and Suh are both intimidating pass rushers, much how Phillips and Merriman were for San Diego. Same defensive coordinator for both teams. If you look at the blueprint for beating New England, the Rams have it. McVay has created something very special in LA and could go down as one of the great offensive minds in the game should the Rams be one of the few teams to figure out Belichick and Brady in the Super Bowl and then go on to win more Super Bowls.
We think the Madden Simulation will be correct this year. Expect a fun and close game with the prime offensive players such as Edelman, Gronkowski, Gurley, Anderson, James White, Robert Woods, Brandin Cooks and of course the QBs all making their presence felt. There will be some key defensive moments but I think those moments will come from the Rams side, not the Patriots.
LA Rams 27
New England 24
MVP: Jared Goff (300 yards & 2 TDs)
Maroon 5 Playlist:
- This Love
- She Will Be Loved
- Move Like Jagger (Surprise guests: Mick Jagger and Christina Aguilera!)
- Makes Me Wonder
- Harder to Breathe
- Sunday Morning
I am not a big Maroon 5 but something tells me that they are going to perform an amazing show and like past Super Bowls, the game will also be a spectacle with a return of the Greatest Show on Turf (nickname for Rams offense 20 years ago) with the game being played indoors on a fast surface. Enjoy the game and go make some money!