Super Bowl LII Preview – David Is Coming For Goliath

It’s another “David vs Goliath” story come Super Bowl Sunday, but this time David is equipped with much more than a sling-shot.

It is the Patriots’ third post-season game this year and it is the third time that the game is being billed as David vs Goliath. 

Marcus Mariota and the never-been-here-before Titans stood no chance.

Blake Bortles vs. The Golden Boy and The Hooded One? Please.

Nick Foles and a bunch of grown men in German Shepard masks are not taking down the greatest dynasty the NFL has ever known.

FiveThiryEight is giving the Patriots a 58% chance of winning.  Mike Clay, former PFF turned ESPN statistician, is giving the Patriots a 67% chance of winning.  PFF Forecast has the Patriots winning 28-23.  The Patriots opened as 6-point favorites, which has since been bet down to 4.5.  If the spread stays at 4.5 it will be only the third spread in the past 9 Super Bowls to be 4 points or higher.  If it grows back toward the Patriots and closes at 5 or 5.5, it will be the largest Super Bowl spread since the Steelers beat the Cardinals in 2008.

But FPI is seeing a much closer matchup.  FPI gives the Patriots a 53% chance of winning this game.  I don’t know how much FPI, or any of these models, are accounting for the absence of Carson Wentz in projecting the win probability.  My educated guess is that only Mike Clay has basically scrubbed Carson Wentz clean from his formula.

But the FPI projection is correct, and we can use the information available to us to see why this game, like every Tom Brady-Patriots Super Bowl before it, will be close.

Stop me when you’ve heard this before: To beat Tom Brady, you need to pressure him without blitzing.

It isn’t about generating pressure on Brady, it’s about doing so without sending extra help.  Brady has excelled in his career against the blitz.  Sending an extra guy means one less in coverage, and if Brady diagnoses your blitz before the snap (which he will), you’re dead.  So you have to get there with only your front-four.  Ask the Giants.  Ask the Ravens.  Ask the Broncos.

And we may just have to ask the Eagles come Sunday night.  The Eagles, surprisingly, finished tied for 15th in sacks this season with 38.  In fact, the Patriots finished ahead of them, tied for 7th with 42 sacks.  When you think of all the pressure the Eagles generate, and all the talent on their defensive line, you would think they accumulated more sacks.  They only finished 19th in adjusted sack rate.

Sacks are wonderful, but it isn’t necessarily all about getting Brady on the ground.  You just have to bother him, move him off his spot, disrupt the timing of the play.  No one does that better than Philadelphia.

The Eagles led the NFL in most pressured snaps in 2017.  Not only did they amass the most pressures, but they did so on the best efficiency as well.

The foundational piece the Eagles possess for the archetype of slowing down Brady is Fletcher Cox.  Getting pressure on Brady is one thing, and obviously it coming off the edge can work out well.  I think all Patriots fans remember Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora, JPP, and Justin Tuck quite well.  But what really, truly annoys Brady is pressure up the middle.  Brady is perhaps the best quarterback in the history of football at sliding and moving in the pocket, avoiding pressure, extending the play for an extra two-tenths of a second and then completing a pass.  Bringing pressure up the middle eliminates any of that from becoming a possibility.

Oh, and Fletcher Cox is the best interior pass rusher this side of Aaron Donald.  The guy is a beast.  He had 50 pressures this season.  But of course the Eagles can also match up with those Giants teams of Patriot Nation disdain.  They run four deep at defensive end, led by stud pass rusher Brandon Graham, along with Vinny Curry, Chris Long, and rookie first-round pick Derek Barnett.

That 41% pressure rate is especially important in this game.  In Tom Brady’s previous seven Super Bowl appearances, the Patriots are 5-0 when Brady is pressured on less than 40% of his drop backs, and 0-2 when Brady is pressured on more than 40% of his drop backs.  I’m not saying that 40% is some magic number, but, well, I’ll let you decide to do what you want with that information.

For all the depth the Eagles have along the defensive line, I do find it interesting that they rotate their guys less frequently than the 2016 Atlanta Falcons.  The 2016 Falcons had nine guys play at least 23% of the defensive snaps, with only two guys above 40%.  Contrast these numbers with the 2017 Eagles, who have seven guys all above 40% of the defensive snaps.

This may not seem like a huge deal, because going seven deep is tremendous depth.  But consider part of what made the Patriots comeback against Atlanta possible.  New England moved to full time hurry up (not exactly novel trailing by such a large margin) and it resulted in the Falcons defense playing 93 snaps over the course of the entire game and becoming absolutely gassed.  In the Super Bowl, the Falcons had five guys along the defensive line play over 40% of the snaps, and eight guys over 20%.  The seven guys the Eagles primarily used during the season are all stalwarts on the line.  But if each plays 40% of over 90 snaps in Super Bowl LII, well, I think they can ask the Falcons how it’ll turn out.

Of course, Super LI went to overtime, but if the Patriots game plan against the Eagles is to “run them out of the gym,” the same result will transpire.  And if I were Belichick and McDaniels, that is exactly what I would do.  I’m not going to sit here and tell you about how much worse the Eagles defense is against the hurry up offense, because I can’t conclusively tell you it is true.  I can tell you, however, that in games against the Rams, Chiefs, and the New York Giants, those teams faired well in regular season games going no-huddle against the Eagles.

But my real point is that we all know what the Eagles are going to do: try to shorten the game.  Harass Brady, stuff the run, run the ball themselves and play keep away.  If you give Brady only six or seven possessions in a game then he has less chances to hurt you.

It’s simple math, really.  If you want to beat Michael Jordan one-on-one, get the ball first and play first basket wins.  Want to beat Tiger at golf?  Play one hole.  You might just get lucky.  So, then, logic dictates the Patriots ought to run as many plays as possible.

Consider that the Golden State Warriors lead the NBA in offensive net rating and are second in pace of play.  The Warriors have the three best shooters alive on planet earth, so if they keep firing up more shots than you, then they are probably going to make enough to win the game.  If Tom Brady gets 93 snaps in a game, it might not matter that he was at one time behind by 25 points.

And the Patriots probably will do so.  They ranked 5th in the NFL in seconds/play.  The Eagles, for the record, ranked 19th.  I think know what both teams will try to do.

How successful will Brady be against the Eagles Defense?  Well, they do present a challenge.  They are designed perfectly to put pressure on Brady.  The Eagles finished 5th in defensive DVOA, 4th in yards per game, and 4th in points per game.

They do, however, enjoy one of the most dramatic home-field advantages in the NFL.  During the regular season Philadelphia allowed 13.4 points per game at home, and 23.5 points per game on the road.  In two home playoff games the Eagles have allowed 17 points total.

Also encouraging for the Patriots is that they only allowed 9 total pressures on 42 Brady drop backs against Sacksonville.  That 21% pressure rate is almost half of Philadelphia’s 41% on the season.

Looking for further encouragement?  Tom Brady had a passer rating of 96.6 when under pressure this season.  The average passer rating on every single throw this year was 87.0 Tom Brady was nearly 10.0 passer rating points better under pressure in 2017 than the average NFL quarterback was on any given play.

More encouragement is that the Eagles have seen the likes of Travis Kelce, Jordan Reed and Evan Engram have big performances against them.  They finished 17th in defensive DVOA against the tight end.  Assuming Gronk plays (I’d be shocked if he doesn’t) he will most likely by the center piece of the Patriots offensive attack.

The Eagles really struggle in pass coverage against tight ends and running backs.  That is the entire point of the Patriots offense.  The Eagles do a good job of taking away your receivers, but the Patriots don’t care if you do.  If you want to wipe out Cooks and Amendola, go for it.  They will just knife through you with Gronk, White and Lewis.  The Eagles are 29.3 points of passer rating worse against tight ends and running backs than they are against wide receivers, the 4th largest differential in the NFL.

“The Patriots’ offense is No. 1 not just in total yards on passes to RB/TEs but also in Raw QBR on passes to those players, and the only offenses the Eagles faced that ranked in the top 10 in both of those statistics were Kansas City, Washington (twice) and the Los Angeles Chargers. So let’s isolate those games:

Washington 7 8.8 3 143.0 92.7
Kansas City 2 10.1 1 134.3 83.1
Washington 1 5.9 1 98.8 74.4
LA Chargers 4 4.7 1 99.1 26.1
Average 7.4 1.50 118.8 69.1
Average vs. all other teams 5.7 0.33 86.3 39.1


So my educated guess is the Patriots will run a ton of no huddle and feature Gronk and the running backs in the passing game.

Another tidbit: Brady was second in the NFL in QBR on throws 11-20 yards downfield, while the Eagles defense was 21st in QBR allowed on throws 11-20 yards downfield.

But the Eagles defense is very, very good.  What’s more than their DVOA, Yards/Game and Points/Game standings is their top ten standing in other important categories.  The Eagles defense ranked 7th and 3rd in pass and rush DVOA, respectively.  Football Outsiders has a metric called “Weighted Defense” which “is adjusted so that earlier games in the season become gradually less important. It better reflects how the team was playing at the end of the season.”  The Eagles rank 2nd in this category.

The Eagles defense also ranks 5th in Yards/Drive and 4th in Points/Drive.  The Yards/Drive stats go back to 1993.  The DVOA database at Football Outsiders goes back to 1986.  I went back and looked at every Super Bowl matchup to see how teams faired in four defensive categories: DVOA, Weighted DVOA, Yards/Drive, and Points/Drive.  Teams that have made the Super Bowl with a top 5 defense by DVOA and Weighted DVOA are 15-9.  Teams that have made the Super Bowl that are top 5 in DVOA, Weighted DVOA, Yards/Drive, and Points/Drive are 6-4

So, while not as daunting as I suspected, the profile of the Eagles defense tends to win.

The important matchup in this game is the Eagles offense against the Patriots defense.

The Patriots defense is bad.  Like, really bad.  They finished the season 31st in DVOA.  They’re 29th in yards per game.  In classic bend-but-don’t-break Belichick fashion, they are 5th in points per game allowed.

But the defense is bad.  They are dead last, 32nd, in Yards/Drive.  They stiffen to 6th in Points/Drive, but the divide is practically unheard of.  Consider this nugget from Football Outsiders:

“All of Belichick’s defenses have been known as “bend but don’t break” defenses, but the 2017 Patriots have taken this to an absurd level. The Patriots ranked 32nd this year in yards allowed per drive but sixth in points allowed per drive. Our drive stats go back to 1993, and no defense that finished last in yards per drive had ever finished better than 21st in points allowed per drive. No team that finished in the top 10 for points per drive had ever finished worse than 25th in yards per drive. And it’s not like any other Belichick defense even comes close to this year’s defense. The 2014 Patriots are the only other Patriots defense to rank in the bottom 10 of yards per drive (23rd) and the top 10 of points per drive (eighth).”

This is uncharted territory.  During my research into each Super Bowl participants’ defense I discovered that the team that sported the worst defensive DVOA to ever win a Super Bowl was the 2006 Colts, who ranked 25th.  And the Colts are the only team to win with a ranking below 20.  The next worst defense to ever win is the 1998 Broncos, who ranked 20th in defensive DVOA. The only other team to even make the Super Bowl with a defensive DVOA ranked 30 or worse is the 2011 Patriots.

As for Yards/Drive?  Well, there is a little more hope here.  Those 2006 Colts were 32nd in Yards/Drive.  The next worse to win the Super Bowl was the 1993 Dallas Cowboys at 25th.

Staying on the “the defense isn’t that screwed” train, the Patriots Weighted Defensive DVOA is 22nd.  So, more recently, the Patriots have been about the 22nd best defense in football.  Five Super Bowl champions have sported a Weighted Defensive DVOA of 21 or worse, with two of those instances ranking below the 2017 Patriots mark of 22nd.

The good news?  The Patriots could end up like the 2006 Colts and get a nice Rex Grossman impression from Nick Foles in Super Bowl LII.  The sketchy news?  I’m not sure Rex Grossman is walking through that door.

Doug Pederson deserves coach of the year consideration, and what he has done in the playoffs only confirms his inclusion as a finalist for the award.  After finishing the season with two abysmal starts against Oakland and Dallas, where Foles posted single game QBRs of 23.7 and 4.1, respectively, Pederson spent the team’s bye week watching film of Nick Foles from 2013 while he was playing for Chip Kelly to integrate more RPO’s into the Eagles offense so Foles would be more comfortable.  Say what you want about Chip Kelly as an NFL head coach, but he really evolved the RPO in the NFL game.  His downfall came when the league figured it out and he never came up with a counter.  Coaches like Pederson have come up with the counter.

The entire concept of an RPO is to make a quick decision: read one guy – probably a linebacker – and either hand it off or hit a quick route.  The decision is to be made within one second.  If the linebacker crashes down, throw the ball and get an easy seven yards.  If he drops, let the running back take it.  How can the Patriots, and their 7th best 42 sacks, get to Foles if the ball is out in one second?

This also plays directly into one of Foles’ strengths.  Nick Foles is much, much better earlier in the play than later in the down.  In 2014, ’15, ’16 and ’17, Foles’ passer rating is 103.5, 77.7, 119.1, and 112.3, respectively, when throwing in 2.5 seconds or less.  In those same years, when throwing in 2.6 seconds or more, Foles’ passer rating is 59.4, 55.4, 78.7, 43.3, respectively.

It also helps avoid a Foles weakness.  Under pressure, in 2014, ’15, ’16, and ’17, Foles’ passer rating has been 51.5, 49.9, 52.6, and 23.8, respectively.

We all just saw how successful Foles and the Eagles can be running more RPO’s.  The Eagles thrashed the Vikings in the NFC Championship and Foles posted the 5th highest graded playoff game for a quarterback in the history of the PFF database.

Since Foles has spent most of his career in Philadelphia, mostly playing for Chip Kelly or Doug Pederson, I decided to see what kind of career Foles had when only in an Eagles uniform in the regular season.  Here are those numbers:

Completion Percentage 61
Yards/Attempt 7.3
Yards/Completion 11.96
TD % 5.1
INT% 1.9
Average QBR* 54.55
Average Passer Rating 89.9
Average ANY/A 6.25

*I cannot isolate to get Foles’ total QBR while a member of the Eagles and therefore averaged the QBR he had each season in Philadelphia.  Doing a simple average also cannot weight the QBR for how many games he played in each season.

For some context, here is where each of those numbers would have ranked in 2017 among quarterbacks:

Completion Percentage 22nd
Yards/Attempt 15th
Yards/Completion 8th
TD % 6th
INT% 11th
Average QBR* 16th
Average Passer Rating 16th
Average ANY/A 14th

Regular Season Eagles Nick Foles has been a perfectly average NFL quarterback.

Tom Brady has lost to worse quarterbacks with the right defense in the playoffs.  He lost to Mark Sanchez and the carcass of Peyton Manning.  He has lost to Eli Manning and Joe Flacco twice each.  Are they both worse than Eagles Foles?  I dunno, maybe, considering Eli really isn’t that good and Flacco is clearly not good.  They just got hot.  The problem is we don’t know which Foles will show up.  He could do his best 2006 Rex Grossman impression like the did against the Raiders and the Cowboys.  Against the Vikings he did his best 2012 Joe Flacco impression.

The most educated guess as to what the next outcome will be is simply the average.  So, my educated guess is that average QB Nick Foles will be the one that shows up on Sunday.

Well, is that enough to beat the Patriots?  It’s possible.  The Jaguars had success running RPO’s against the Patriots.  Blake Bortles throwing to Marqise Lee and Keenan Cole would rip off 11-yard chunks, so what do you think will happen when Foles does this with Nelson Agholor?

Another change Pederson has made while transitioning from Wentz to Foles is the depth at which he attacks the field.  With Wentz under center, the Eagles threw at or behind the line of scrimmage 15.5% of the time, while attacking 10+ yards downfield 40.2% of the time.  With Foles, during the regular season, the Eagles are throwing at or behind the line of scrimmage 28.6% of the time and 10+ yards down field only 25.4% of the time.  In the regular season, Foles threw less than 10 yards down field on 74.6% of his throws.

This is significant because the Patriots defense ranked 27th in DVOA on “short” passes, defined as passes up to 15 yards in the air.  Another positive for the Eagles offense is that those RPO passes, which tend to read a linebacker and tend to strike in the middle of the field, is that the Patriots defense ranked 30th in DVOA defending passes to the middle of the field, and 30th in defending the short middle of the field in pass defense.

The Patriots defense in certain match ups does line up well with the Eagles offense.  I expect the Patriots to play man, as it is better suited to stop RPOs, so I’m guessing Stephon Gilmore will shadow Alshon Jeffery.  I don’t think Alshon Jeffery is some world-beater Gilmore is incapable of covering.  Despite his early season struggles, Gilmore finished the year strong, albeit a little streaky, and has the size to matchup with Jeffery.

I also am not overly concerned with Zach Ertz.  Yes, he had a wonderful season, but let me ask you this: when was the last time the Patriots were gashed by a tight end?  I’ll wait…  The Patriots finished the year 7th in defensive DVOA vs the tight end.

The concerning matchup in the passing game is who covers Agholor?  For all the positives Malcolm Butler brings to the table, he has trouble sticking with quick-twitch guys like Agholor.  Go back and watch Patriots games and it is clear which corner teams would target on 3rd downs.  If Agholor moves into the slot and draws man coverage from former teammate Eric Rowe, this is also advantage Philadelphia.

The Patriots run defense, after being atrocious all year, has really perked up in the playoffs.  A lot of this is circumstantial, however.  Belichick is known for his defensive philosophy of eliminating your best offensive player.  Against the Titans, Belichick clearly identified that individual as Derrick Henry and stacked the line.  Henry was held to 28 yards on 12 carries.

Run that same strategy back against the Jaguars, when Belichick decided Fournette was the Jaguars’ best offensive player.  Fournette finished with 76 yards on 24 carries, for 3.2 yards per carry.  This does work as a perfect segue, since part of the reason for why this happened doubles for why the Eagles will be so much better equipped under Doug Pederson than the Jaguars were.

In regards to the AFC Title game, forget the quick whistle on the Myles Jack fumble, forget the iffy pass interference call on A.J. Bouye, forget the notion that the Patriots paid the referees because there is a picture of one smiling during a Patriots’ touchdown.

The Jaguars lost to the Patriots because they fucking blew it.

Warren Sharp, of Sharp Football, did a fantastic job of chronicling the Jaguars absolutely heinous 4th quarter play calling against the Patriots.  If you don’t want to read the entire thing, here is a synopsis:

On three consecutive drives the Jags ran from the shotgun on first down.  Those runs garnered 2 yards, 1 yard, 1 yard, and -1 yard.

On each subsequent second down, the Jaguars passed downfield at depths of 20 yards, 20 yards, 35 yards, and 17 yards.

On each third down, with the clock now stopped, the Jags passed, and completed only one of those passes for 6 yards.  On the ensuing punt after that one completion, with the clock running, the Jags snapped the ball with 6 seconds left on the play clock.

The Jaguars had six snaps in the 4th quarter with a running clock and the lead.  They never ran the play clock to 5 seconds, let alone inside 5 seconds.  Four out of the six snaps were snapped between 9-13 seconds remaining on the play clock.

So what’s my point?  Bill Belichick is a defensive mastermind and the Jaguars’ bright idea was to do the exact same thing three straight drives.  That went about as well as you could have expected.

Doug Pederson is not Nathaniel Hackett.  He is going to mix up his play calls, he is going to create as much confusion and diversion as possible.  He is not going to give Belichick a courtesy heads up about the exact play that’s coming next.  Stopping Fournette for 3 yards on 4 carries isn’t that hard when you know that it’s coming.

This is a really long winded way of saying the Patriots can’t just load up against Ajayi and Blount.  The Eagles receivers are better than the Titans’ and the Eagles don’t run the exact same plays in the exact same sequence when they’re on the field.  The Eagles are going to have more running room.

About the situational butchery involving play calling and the play clock?  We’ve seen this before.  Part of the reason why I wanted the Patriots to go up early against the Falcons (aside from the obvious advantage of taking an early lead) was putting the pressure on the team that’s never been there before.  Imagine being Atlanta, and all of a sudden you’re down 10-0, 14-0, and staring at you from across the field is the All-Mighty Patriots.  You may be mostly calm, but there are some nerves that will set in.

I watched Super Bowl LI at a bar with a friend of mine and explained that to him as the Patriots began to squander the chance to go up early.  When it got to the point that the Falcons had a stunning lead, I said to him that I just wanted the Patriots to get within striking distance.  If you have a massive lead against the Patriots and now they clawed their way back to having a chance, those nerves and maybe some panic is going to set in.  Don’t blow it.

The Falcons were up 28-3 and everything was fine.  Just execute, it’ll be ok.  Even after the Patriots first touchdown the Falcons seemed relaxed.  If you look at the body language of the closest defenders to James White when he crossed the goal line, they seemed to be upset for a moment, before probably saying “well they’re the Patriots, they were gonna eventually score a touchdown.  We’re fine.”

When Dont’a Hightower strip sacked Matt Ryan and the Patriots were 25 yards from making it a one-score game, the pressure set in.  We cannot fucking blow this.

We all saw what happened.  The Falcons lost their minds.  Matt Ryan continually snapped the ball with 20 seconds left on the play clock.  The Julio Jones catch should forever be on a highlight reel of greatest catches leading to Super Bowl victories.  Run the ball three times, go up 10 and the game is on ice.  The Falcons ran on first down after the catch then decided to pass on second down, and Matt Ryan decided to take a sack instead of throwing the ball away.  Jake Matthews committed a holding penalty on third down, and the subsequent pass attempt fell incomplete, stopping the clock and forcing a punt after being knocked out of field goal range.

Here you go, exhausted Falcons defense.  Tom Brady has the ball and is about to drive down the field to send this game to overtime.  Can you stop him?  If you don’t you blew the biggest lead in Super Bowl history.  No pressure.

Hey Jaguars, you’re up 10 points in Foxborough and just had an incredible fumble recovery from Myles Jack.  Don’t blow it.

The Patriot mystique is real.

If someone like Kyle Shanahan and Matt Ryan can lose their cool on this stage, then Doug Pederson or Nick Foles can also.  I just believe in Pederson to learn from these mistakes.  Maybe the pressure will get to him and he will make some dumb play call, but there is no chance in hell he calls the exact same play on four consecutive sequences.

For all the scheming that Belichick and Patricia can do for their defense, if the Patriots players aren’t good enough to execute it well enough, the Eagles will score enough to maybe win the game.

I don’t have a stat on this, but my educated guess is the Patriots blitz using a defensive back at a very low rate compared to the rest of the league.  If they do bring pressure, they will stunt linemen or linebackers, or just have a linebacker come flying off the edge (like Dont’a Hightower against the Falcons).

The Patriots did, however, blitz a corner against Blake Bortles twice.  The reason is probably what Tony Romo’s theory was on the subject before it even happened (seriously, is anyone in life better at his/her than Romo is at his?): At some point, Belichick is going to make Bortles feel the pressure of getting to the Super Bowl and make him make a play.

It makes sense.  I’m Bill Belichick.  We’re the Patriots.  You’re Blake Freakin’ Bortles.  Here’s a corner, untouched, off the edge.  You have 0.8 seconds to figure out what to do with this ball before you get blasted.  I don’t believe you have the ability to navigate your way out of this situation.  (It also makes sense since they were trailing by double digits in the 4th quarter and needed to make something happen if they wanted to win, just like against Atlanta).  It also helped that the Jagaurs wide receivers aren’t very dangerous so it isn’t a risky proposition to send a corner and pass the receivers down the cornerback chain of command.

The Eagles do have dangerous wide receivers though.  So I wouldn’t expect a corner blitz.  But I do think at some point, perhaps once or twice in the 4th quarter, Belichick will send a safety at Foles.  This is the Super Bowl.  We’re the Patriots.  You’re Nick Freakin’ Foles.  My ridiculously specific prediction is that Patrick Chung, who will probably be manned up against Ertz for most of the game, will walk down to the line of scrimmage as if he is going to jam-and-man Ertz, and then fly off the edge after Foles.

Which brings us to the broader question of how much pressure can the Patriots put on Foles?  I outlined before that under duress Foles has been one of the worst quarterbacks throughout his career.  I’m not going to say that losing Jason Peters is a bigger deal than losing Carson Wentz, but I will say the downgrade from Jason Peters to his backup is much larger than the downgrade from Wentz to his backup.

Halapoulivaati Vaitai has taken over at starting left tackle ever since Peters was lost for the season and has been a turnstile since inheriting the job.  If matched up across from Vaitai, Trey Flowers has a chance to single handedly ruin the Eagles offense.  Only Cameron Jordan and Malik Jackson have more pressures in the playoffs than Flowers.  During the regular season, Kyle Van Noy was 5th in the NFL in pressures among linebackers.  As mentioned earlier, the Patriots were tied for 7th in the NFL this season in sacks, and they were 10th in adjusted sack rate.

And (unsurprisingly given the above information) the Patriots are converting their pressures into sacks at a high rate.  Including the postseason, the Patriots are converting 21.6% of their pressures into sacks, the 4th best rate in football.  Specifically in the playoffs, the Patriots are converting 32% of their pressures into sacks.

The rest of the Eagles line is good to All-Pro level.  If the Eagles leave someone in to help Vaitai, like Ertz or a running back, then that’s one less option for Foles to get the ball out to quickly.  The longer he holds it, the worse he gets.  If the Eagles don’t give Vaitai help, the Patriots can get to Foles on plays where he has to look past his first read.

A Street Car named Special Teams

The Patriots do hold an advantage in the special teams phase of the game.  Take a look:

  Patriots Eagles
Special Teams DVOA 3rd 16th
Average Kick Return 12th 27th
Average Punt Return 18th 11th
Opp Ave Kick Return 3rd 17th
Opp Ave Punt Return 4th 14th
FG% 92.5 (Gostkowski) 83.9 (Elliot)
XP% 95.7 (Gostkowski) 92.9 (Elliot)

Not captured in the table: The fact that I would MUCH rather have Gostkowski lining up with seconds remaining and the game on the line than his rookie counter part.  Yes, Elliot drilled a 61-yarder to beat the Giants earlier this season, but Gostkowski has hit more than his share of clutch field goals throughout his career.  He has been to four Super Bowls.  The moment won’t rattle him.  Having PTSD from the 2015 AFC Championship game might, but that affects his extra points, not his field goals.

So how about an actual prediction?

When the Patriots played the Falcons I figured the Patriots would win because the difference in how superior the Patriots’ defense was to Atlanta’s defense was larger than the difference in how superior Atlanta’s offense was to the Patriots’. Simplified, but it was the logic nonetheless. The result was the Patriots pulling off a miracle comeback and hoisting a fifth Lombardi Trophy.

When the Patriots played the Seahawks I figured the Patriots would win because, in my mind, the difference between the Patriots offense being superior to the Seahawks offense was larger than the difference between the Seahawks defense being superior to the Patriots defense. There was no statistical data to back this up, I was probably just being a homer.  The result was Malcolm Butler jumping a route he was chewed out for not jumping in practice days earlier and creating perhaps the most iconic moment in Super Bowl history.

So, if we follow the same logic, is the difference between how much better the Patriots offense is than the Eagles offense larger than the difference of how much better the Eagles defense is than the Patriots defense, we get “probably not.”

For all the talk you have heard or read to this point and will read and hear before kickoff about X factors that could swing this game, tune them out. One person will decide this game: Nick Foles

You may think I just wasted a ton of time using 5,000 words, which heavily outlined why Fletcher Cox and Co. could blow things up for Brady and Co., to get to the answer of “Nick Foles performance will decide the Super Bowl,” but it’s just the truth.

What are the things we know?

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are normally the guys that win

A defense that profiles like the Eagles normally wins

The Patriots offense is damn near unstoppable

The Patriots defense gets its lunch money stolen by Big-12 defenses

Doug Pederson will not call the exact same play every first, second and third down

Belichick is 15-0 in the playoffs against teams he didn’t face in the regular season

Head coaches in the Super Bowl within their first two seasons with a team are 7-10 in 17 previous instances

In 7 previous Super Bowl appearances, the total point differential of Tom Brady teams is +12, the average margin of victory in the game is 3.7

We don’t know if Rex Grossman, average Foles, or 2012 Joe Flacco will end up on the field for the Eagles on Sunday.  If it’s Grossman, the Patriots win handily.  If it’s average Foles, the Patriots will most likely win a close game.  If it’s 2012 Joe Flacco/NFC Championship Foles, the Patriots defense won’t come up with enough stops.

I said before that the idea of Patriots winning the Super Bowl despite a defense this bad is uncharted territory.  But more than anyone, the Patriots are used to uncharted territory.  They’re the only team in the salary cap era to win the Super Bowl in three out of four years.  They have a record 8 consecutive division titles and counting.  They have appeared in a record seven consecutive conference titles and counting.  No quarterback has started, or won, more Super Bowls than Tom Brady.  No head coach has gone to, or won, more Super Bowls than Bill Belichick.  The Patriots have a 16-0 regular season.  Tom Brady is 40 years old and “it is more probable than not,” that he wins MVP on Super Bowl eve.

The best guess of the next outcome is simply the average.  Average Foles shows up, making it a close game in the 4th quarter, as Patriots Super Bowls tend to be.  Under such a pretense, consider this from Pro Football Focus: “Tom Brady has overcome 4th quarter ties or deficits in four of his last nine playoff wins.  Compared to his numbers in the 1st through 3rd quarters: Brady’s 4th quarter passer rating jumps from 83.3 to 138.0, his average yards per attempt jumps from 9.9 to 11.5 and his adjusted completion percentage jumps from 74.6 percent to 80.7 percent. When tied or trailing in the 4th quarter, Brady’s offensive weapons have caught 46 targets without dropping a single pass.”

The Patriots get everything they can handle from the Eagles but in classic fashion when it matters most, Brady makes the winning plays.  I’m predicting a Patriots victory but am not confident in it (yea, I hedge a lot). The Patriots escape having won a tight one, 28-24.

filed under: NFL

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