Posted by Jonah Gardner on February 2, 2017
After 20 weeks of football (and an extra week of skills challenges and half-contested exhibition action in the Pro Bowl), we've arrived at the Super Bowl. And in between the commercials, the (sometimes overly enthusiastic) questions from reporters, Media Day, Opening Night, the NFL Honors show with awards like NFL Most Valuable Player and the announcement of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2017, more commercials, Lady Gaga, and the Jack Bauer-free return of 24, there's an actual game to played!
The good news is that, on paper, Super Bowl LI seems like it should be a good one. The bad news is that I also said that last year and, unless you're a Denver Broncos fan, there wasn't much to enjoy in that one. However, between the quality of the two teams, especially at quarterback, and the extremely high-stakes historic implications in play for the outcome, there's plenty in this year's matchup for us to dig into.
Clash of the Titans
One reason to get excited for the game this year: it actually features the two best teams in the NFL. That may seem self-evident, but it isn't always the case. Last year's Super Bowl teams, for example, were ranked 6th and 9th in Simple Rating System, Pro-Football-Reference's method of measuring team strength using point differential and schedule difficulty.
In contrast, this year's Super Bowl is a contest between the number-one ranked New England Patriots and the number-two ranked Atlanta Falcons. Not only is that exciting, it's also pretty rare. This will be just the ninth time in the 51-year history of the Super Bowl that the two best teams actually made it to the game. However, that doesn't necessarily portend a close game:
Of the other eight #1 vs #2 Super Bowls, six were decided by more than one score, including major blowouts like the Seattle Seahawks' romping of Denver in Super Bowl XLVIII. What about the predictive abilities of SRS? The team ranked first in SRS is 4-4.
That actually makes sense when you dig into SRS, if you'll permit a quick digression. SRS measures how many points above league average a team is, so the Patriots' score of 9.3 means they're 9.3 points better than the average NFL team. You can also use this scale to create a rough point spread for a game. In Super Bowl LI, that spread is about a point (since the Falcons have an SRS of 8.5). You wouldn't expect a one-point favorite on a neutral field to win that much more than 50% of the time, certainly in just eight samples. While admittedly, the spread has been different in past years, the broader concept holds.
However, what makes this game so interesting isn't just that these are two excellent and evenly matched teams, but the way they match up. The Falcons had the number one offense by points scored this year, while the Patriots had the number one defense by points allowed.
This is the 8th Super Bowl between the top offense and top defense. If the other seven look familiar, it's because they're also #1 vs #2 SRS matchups:
In these games, the team with the best defense has had a sizable advantage, going 6-1. The only #1 offense to beat a #1 defense was the 1989 San Francisco 49ers, and they had the NFL's third best defense to go with their top offense.
That's bad enough news for Atlanta fans, but things get really dire when you look at the side of the ball that isn't their strength. While the Falcons were far-and-away first in offense, not just according to raw points but more advanced stats like Offensive SRS, they were actually well below average on defense. By points, they had the 27th ranked defense in the NFL, and by Defensive SRS, they were 22nd. The Patriots, on the other hand, graded out as well above average on both sides of the ball, ranking 3rd in DSRS and 4th in OSRS.
The Falcons' didn't just lag in defense, they had a DSRS of -2.0, meaning they were two points worse than the average NFL team on D. They'll be the 17th team to play in the Super Bowl with a negative SRS on one side of the ball or the other and the record for those teams isn't great:
Leaving aside Super Bowl XLVI, since both teams had a negative DSRS, teams who are below average on one side of the ball are 5-9 in the Super Bowl. And it's troubling how many times the 2013 Broncos are showing up on these charts. While that team was worse on defense than the Falcons (-2.7 DSRS), they were much better on offense (14.1 OSRS vs. 10.5 for Atlanta).
But the good news is that this year's Patriots are hardly the 2013 Seahawks. That Seattle defense (led by now-Falcons head coach Dan Quinn) had a DSRS of 8.9, nearly four points better than the New England defense. Those Seahawks also led the NFL in DSRS (the Pats are third this year), as well as yards per play (NE is 10th) and turnovers (NE is 14th).
If the Patriots are so good at stopping opponents from scoring, why doesn't it show up in any of the more in-depth defensive numbers? One of the most likely culprits is their strength of schedule. It's turned into something of a cliche among Patriot-haters that New England hasn't beaten anybody good, particularly on the offensive end. And while at the end of the day, New England can only play the teams in front of them, it's also true that they had a much easier path than their opponents.
In fact, according to SoS, the schedule-strength component of SRS, the Patriots had the easiest schedule in the entire NFL this year. Their opponents were 2.7 points worse than an average NFL team; the Falcons', on the other hand, were 0.1 points better, a roughly middling schedule.
However, the ease of New England's path has been a tad overstated by the critics. Their schedule would have ranked 26th last year; still easy, but ahead of more than a few teams, including the NFC Champion Carolina Panthers. And in beating the Pittsburgh Steelers to make it to the Super Bowl, the Patriots faced a team that was nearly twice as good as either of Atlanta's postseason opponents.
And those assuming the cake walk will continue for the Patriots may be in for a rude awakening. By SRS, the Falcons are nearly twice as good as the best team New England beat, the Steelers (and New England never beat a Pittsburgh team that got a full 60-minutes out of Le'Veon Bell and Ben Roethlisberger) and four times better than the Seahawks, who beat New England in Week 10.
In fact, the Falcons will be one of the toughest tests that the Patriots have faced in the Belichick-era. Of their six Super Bowl opponents since 2001, only two had a better SRS than Atlanta. Of course, those two are the 2014 Seahawks and the 2001 St. Louis Rams, both teams that the Patriots defeated. The Falcons will also be the first team that the Pats face in the Super Bowl since those Rams to finish first or second in SRS.
Still, there are precedents of teams doing what Atlanta will try on Sunday. The one that stands out the most to me is Atlanta's hated rivals: the New Orleans Saints. The 2009 edition of that team had a slightly better offense than this year's Falcons (and they were facing an Indianapolis Colts team that had a worse defense than this year's Pats), but they showed that a high-octane offense can drag a lackluster defense to the title. Those Saints, and the other champions with negative defensive SRS, like the 2006 Colts and 1998 Broncos, make one thing clear. If the Falcons want to win, they're going to need a big day from Matt Ryan.
Everyone Digs the Long Ball
Fortunately, Ryan appears to be up to the task. Since 1950, no one's ever had a better season, on a per attempt basis and counting the playoffs, than Ryan is having this year:
— ProFootballReference (@pfref) February 1, 2017
But take a look at that picture and you can see Ryan's opposite number, Tom Brady, lurking just outside the Top 5. Any way you slice it, this is going to be a historic matchup between two QBs playing at the very top of their games. Indeed, while Brady has lagged behind Ryan in counting stats like passing yards and passing touchdowns, he's been dead even on rate stats like QBR and adjusted net yards per attempt:
However, it's worth digging into how these quarterbacks got these numbers, especially since the answer may come as a surprise to you. While the popular image of Brady this season has been a quick release QB who carves up teams with fast throws of just a few yeards, it's Ryan who actually leads the NFL in passer rating on short passes (defined as passes that travel under 15 yards in the air). He's also fourth in completion percentage and first in yards per attempt. Brady, on the other hand, ranks fourteenth, fifth, and sixth, respectively.
Where Brady actually narrows the gap on Ryan is on deep passes. While Ryan had the second best completion percentage on deep passes among QBs who threw at least 25 of them, Brady is right there in fifth:
By passer rating, Brady was actually better, finishing second to Ryan's third:
And by yards per attempt, their positions were flipped with Brady in third and Ryan in second:
And both men threw deep a lot. Ryan placed sixth in deep pass attempts, while Brady was on-pace to finish fourth over a full 16-game season. These are two quarterbacks who are prepared to chuck the ball, which will be a nice change-of-pace after a Super Bowl with just six completed deep passes (and where Peyton Manning attempted just three in the entire game).
However, only one defense looks to be up for the challenge. The Patriots allowed a passer rating of 63.3 and a completion rate of 38.2% on deep throws, compared to 83.3 and 43.9% for the Falcons. It's not quite game over, though, and, once again, the culprit is the schedule. Here's every QB to attempt a deep pass on the Patriots defense this season:
While they deserve credit for containing Ben Roethlisberger, it's important to remember that Big Ben missed the regular season game against New England, meaning those numbers come exclusively from the AFC Championship, where Le'Veon Bell left early with an injury and took the Steelers' running game to the sideline with him.
The only other QB who's even close to Ryan's level on that list is Russell Wilson, and Wilson pretty much got whatever he wanted when he went deep against the Pats. He was just as good throwing short too, completing 20 of 29 for two TDs and no interceptions.
Atlanta, in contrast, had to face Drew Brees twice, Cam Newton twice, Aaron Rodgers twice, and Wilson twice. Against that kind of competition, their deep pass numbers actually look relatively impressive:
Atlanta's true defensive weakness is against the run, and it makes me wonder if we'll see a return for New England's somewhat dormant running game.
In the first five games of the season, the Patriots were fourth in rushing yards. However, that number was inflated by a large number of attempts, as they compensated for Brady's absence by giving the ball to LeGarrette Blount. By yards per attempt, the Patriots's running game was 20th, averaging 3.8. But they'd probably still take that over what's happened since. After Week 5 and counting the playoffs, the Patriots have ranked 26th in rushing yards per attempt, averaging 3.7. And in the last five games, again including the playoffs, they've averaged just 3.2 yards per carry, 29th in the NFL since Week 15.
Of course, New England also went 12-1 and 5-0, respectively, over the latter two spans of games, with a top three offense in both. So did the running game dwindle because the Pats could afford to neglect it with Brady back, or has it somehow gotten harder for New England to run even as they got their star QB back? If Falcons can keep their pass defense at the good-enough level it's been at all year (their 6.2 net yards per attempt allowed matched where Seattle and the Legion of Boom finished this season), then we may find out the answer.
After a couple of failed attempts, Tom Brady finally matched his idol, Joe Montana, by winning his fourth Super Bowl in 2015. Now he can best him and become the first QB, and second player at any position, to win five.
While that's the most famous record at stake, it's hardly the only one. For Brady's coach, this is also a huge opportunity to seize history. A fifth Super Bowl win would give Bill Belichick the most by a head coach in NFL history. He'd also be the fifth coach in NFL history to win five titles (of any kind, including the pre-Super Bowl NFL and AFL Championships):
This is a big game for Matty Ice's legacy, as well. A win would make him the first quarterback to lead the league in Approximate Value and win the Super Bowl in the same season since Steve Young in 1994. While Manning, Rodgers, and Brady have all done both, they've never done it in the same season. In fact, the last AV leader at any position (not counting ties) to also win the Super Bowl was Marshall Faulk in 1999. For Ryan, a win could be the difference between being seen in the same league as these current and future Hall of Famers or being remembered like Rich Gannon and Donovan McNabb, who had great individual seasons but never won the title.
There's also bragging rights at stake for the fans of both franchises. For Patriots fans, a title would bring their franchise total to five, tying the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers for the second most all-time. Perhaps a fifth title will finally make Pats fans feel empowered to speak out in favor of their team and its players online.
As for the Falcons, their fans have gone 50 years without a championship. A win would put them on par with two of their NFC South rivals, the Saints and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, while pushing them ahead of the Panthers.