Friday, January 30, 2015

Super Bowl XLIX Preview Extravaganza

The battle for the middle of the field, between Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski and Seahawks strong safety Kam Chancellor, will go a long way toward determining the winner of Super Bowl XLIX.

By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe), with cameos from Bob Lobel (@boblobel) and Andy Dougherty (@AndyDougherty10)

Last season, we blew out Super Bowl week with everything you needed to know about the Big Game in a different post each day. This year, however, a hellacious snowstorm dumped over two feet of snow in the greater Boston area, which meant Jeremy spent most of the week trapped under a pile of snow, and writing fell by the wayside to give way to playing cards and drinking whiskey with fellow snowed-in housemates, while Joe scrambled to finalize the purchase of a new home. It was really a banner week all around. So in lieu of dragging everything out, we've opted to just throw everything you need to know into one convenient (albeit obnoxiously long) post.

Our postseason gambling records continue to impress. Jeremy is 6-4 against the spread and a stellar 9-1 straight up while Joe is 7-3 against the spread and 7-3 straight up. With only one game left, Jeremy has clinched the straight-up title, and Joe has guaranteed himself at least a share of the ATS title. 

By The Numbers

Line: Patriots by 1

Record: 12-4 (10-6 vs. The Spread)
Average Score: 24.6 (10th) - 15.9 (1st)
Average Scoring Margin: +8.8 (2nd) - 11.8 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +16.7% Offense (5th); -16.3% Defense (1st); -1.7% Special Teams (19th); +31.3% Total (1st)

New England:
Record: 12-4 (9-7 vs. The Spread)
Average Score: 29.2 (4th) - 19.6 (8th)
Avergae Scoring Margin: +9.7 (1st) - 11.5 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +13.6% Offense (6th); -3.4% Defense (11th); +5.5% Special Teams (5th); +22.4% Total (4th)

A Note On The Line

The line opened at New England -1.5 in the wee hours of Sunday night and into Monday morning two weeks ago. The line didn't budge for nearly two weeks. It was rather surprising that the deflated balls scandal didn't affect the line at all. A suspension of a major player (either Brady or Belichick) was always far-fetched at best and laughably unrealistic at worst, but one might think that simply the distraction caused by the media circus might cause the gambling public to start putting money on Seattle. But the line didn't move until the last two days, when it swung just a half-point towards the Seahawks.

A one-point line is the smallest spread since 1982, when the 49ers were favored by one over Cincinnati. Picking Seattle technically qualifies as an underdog, and underdogs have had a nice run of success in recent Super Bowls. They've won three straight, plus six of the last seven and 10 of the last 13. The Patriots have played in five of those Super Bowls, but have only won against the spread once - when they beat St. Louis and covered a 14-point spread in the process in 2002 (they were favored by a touchdown against Carolina and Philadelphia but only won by field goals, and they were favored and lost both times against the Giants). Seattle has played two Super Bowls in that span. They easily covered last year in a blowout win, and they lost straight up and against the spread versus Pittsburgh in 2006.

The Best Bets

Adjusted Lines

If you think Patriots -1 is a load of malarkey, you can invest in these alternate lines with better odds:

Patriots -7.5 (+235)
Patriots +7.5 (-320)
Patriots -10.5 (+315)
Patriots +10.5 (-450)
Patriots -14.5 (+450)
Patriots +14.5 (-700)
Patriots -17.5 (+650)
Patriots +17.5 (-1000)

Seahawks -7.5 (+240)
Seahawks +7.5 (-300)
Seahawks -10.5 (+325)
Seahawks +10.5 (-425)
Seahawks -14.5 (+500)
Seahawks +14.5 (-650)
Seahawks -17.5 (+650)
Seahakws +17.5 (-1000)

First Touchdown Props

The player to score the first touchdown is always my favorite prop bet of the Super Bowl. I've nailed the bet in the last six Super Bowls, with Marshawn Lynch, Anquan Boldin, Victor Cruz, Jordy Nelson, Pierre Garcon, and The Field via Gary Russell (although, full disclosure, I do always spread money around to three or four candidates each year). This is the first year in a long time, however, that I'm totally uncomfortable. You'll see why in a minute, but first let's cross off some of the easy no-go bets.

No Touchdown (150-1)

Never happened. Move on.

Will Tukuafu (70-1)
Michael Hoomanawanui (70-1)
Matt Slater (70-1)
Kevin Norwood (70-1)
James Develin (70-1)
Christine Michael (70-1)
Bryan Walters (70-1)
Brian Tyms (70-1)
Brandon Bolden (70-1)

Hoomanawanui is probably the only plausible one, but when the Patriots get down near the goal line, he's usually not in the game (more on that later). The rest of these guys really only get on the field on special teams.

Tom Brady (50-1)

He becomes a very intriguing bet if you think the Patriots will march down the field and then get stopped inside the 1-yard line. Brady is the greatest QB sneak-er in NFL history, so it could be in play. 

Tony Moeaki (40-1)
Cooper Helflet (35-1)
Ricardo Lockette (33-1)
Danny Amendola (30-1)
Robert Turbin (28-1)
Patriots D/ST (28-1)
Luke Willson (18-1)
Seahawks D/ST (17-1)

These guys just don't get enough opportunities down in the Red Zone. Lockette could be a pick if you think Seattle takes shots deep early, but given the Patriots secondary, I'm not sure they'd be too successful.

Jermaine Kearse (17-1)
Shane Vereen (16-1)

They'll be on the field, but probably won't be real Red Zone factors.

Russell Wilson (15-1)

They play the zone-read, but when they're in close, I have to imagine that Wilson won't be keeping it.

Brandon LaFell (12-1)
Doug Baldwin (12-1)
Julian Edelman (9-1)

Given the talent at cornerback in this game, I just don't like the odds that I'd be getting, especially when neither team really tries to go to their wide receivers in the Red Zone. Edelmen only has four touchdowns this year, and one was on a 69-yard catch and run. Brandon LaFell has eight touchdowns (including playoffs), and only two of them came in goal-to-go situations. Baldwin only scored three times this year total. I'm not expecting any big play scores to open the game, so I'll pass on these guys as well. Here's where I'm laying my money - three obvious picks, and three long-shots.

Marshawn Lynch (5-1)
Rob Gronkowski (6-1)
LeGarrette Blount (8-1)
Tim Wright (40-1)
Tom Brady (50-1)
Jonas Gray (70-1)

Taking five Patriots isn't an indication that I think that they'll score first, just that their offense is more diverse once they get into goal-to-go situations. Wright won't be on the field much, but he's a staple of their jumbo offense inside the five yard line. He scored six times this year and four of them came from inside the five yard line. Brady, as mentioned above, becomes a real asset at 50-1 if the Patriots get down deep. A lot of times, the Patriots will go from outside the ten yard line to inside the two, pick up a first-and-goal, and rush to the line before the defense can substitute, and more often than not, those become Tom Brady sneak touchdowns. Jonas Gray is the longest shot, but there's better than a 70-1 chance that he's on the field in a goal-to-go situation. That's pure value.

The top three are the obvious ones. Both teams run more than pass when they get deep into opposing territory, and when the Patriots do pass, it's usually to Gronkowski split out wide. I don't think there will be too many big plays, especially early, so I went with the guys likely to score on short fields.

The other "first" bet is simply what the first score of the game will be. If you're confused the odds should clear it up:

Patriots TD Pass: +295
Seahawks TD Pass: +325
Patriots Field Goal: +325
Seahawks Field Goal: +375
Patriots TD Run: +600
Seahawks TD Run: +600
Seahawks Any Other TD: +2000
Patriots Any Other TD: +2500
Safety (Either Team): +5000

I like both TD run bets. Throw some money on each and you're likely to win.


Other Props

Longest TD of the Game (Over/Under 44.5 yards)

Last year, the over hit, but only because of a long interception return by Bobby Wagner. Long scoring plays tend to be more rare in the Super Bowl as defenses are usually more conservative, so bet the UNDER (-115)

Will Either Team Score in the Last 2 Minutes of the 1st Half (Yes: -250, No: +200)

The Patriots are usually masters of the clock at the end of the first half, stealing extra possessions for three or seven points. -250 odds would be good enough for them alone, and if you can get Seattle for that price as well, it makes it almost a no-brainer. Bet YES (-250)

First Touchdown of The Game (Passing Touchdown: -160, Any Other Touchdown: +130)

Both of these teams run more than pass in the Red Zone. Not to be a broken record, but I don't see either team making big plays down the field early in the game. The first touchdown will probably be a run, so bet Any Other Touchdown (+130)

Jersey Number of Player To Score 1st Touchdown (Over/Under 29.5)

Bet. The. House. On. The. Under. The Under covers Lynch (24), Blount (29), Brady (12), Wilson (3), Edelman (11), LaFell (19), and Jermaine Kearse (15). The Over gives you Gronkowski (87) and Baldwin (89), but that's pretty much it. Even a few key defensive players, like Revis (24) and Earl Thomas (29) are covered by the under. Bet UNDER 29.5 (-135)

Will The Patriots Score a 1st-Half Rushing Touchdown (Yes: +165, No: -200)

Bet YES (+165)

Will The Seahawks Score a 1st-Half Rushing Touchdown (Yes: +120, No: -150)

Bet YES (+120)

Will The Patriots Convert on 4th Down (Yes: +125, No: -155)

Bet YES (+125)

Margin of Victory Props:

Patriots by 1-3 points: +600
Patriots by 4-6 points: +850
Patriots by 7-10 points: +700
Patriots by 11-13 points: +1500
Patriots by 14-17 points: +1200
Patriots by 18-21 points: +1500
Patriots by 22+ points: +750
Seahawks by 1-3 points: +650
Seahawks by 4-6 points: +900
Seahawks by 7-10 points: +750
Seahawks by 11-13 points: +1600
Seahawks by 14-17 points: +1300
Seahawks by 18-21 points: +1600
Seahawks by 22+ points: +900


Player(s) To Watch

Kam Chancellor

Chancellor should have been the Super Bowl MVP last year. Entering the game, I figured Seattle would sit back in Cover 3, and Denver would be able to send slants and crossing routes over the middle and stay ahead of the chains. Chancellor completely took that away by crashing down on every route over the middle. He dominated the middle of the field and Denver was left with no way to move the ball thanks to Seattle's all-world corners on the outside and Earl Thomas in the deep middle.

Chancellor will probably play a similar role on Sunday against New England. While they don't have the weapons on the outside that Denver did a year ago, the Patriots still love to sit their slot receivers in the middle of the field and try to create yards after the catch. If Chancellor has a game like he did last year, Julian Edelman, Shane Vereen, and Rob Gronkowski could have a tough time moving the ball down the field.


Rob Gronkowski

It isn't every day that the best tight end on the planet is called out by a nickel corner, but that's why Super Bowl week is so awesome. I'll let Seattle corner Jeremy Lane tell you himself just what he thinks of Gronk.

"I actually don't think he's that good," Lane said. "He's OK. He does have a big body. But from what I've seen on tape, he doesn't like you putting your hands on him. So if we put our hands on him and shake him up a little bit, he won't catch that many balls."

While I have no doubt that the Seahawks will do everything in their power to "put their hands on Gronkowski" and, as Jeremy said above, they seem to have the perfect foil for him in the form of Kam Chancellor, it's hard to see Gronk not having a say in determining this outcome.

The massive tight end will surely help New England's ground game, which has been on fire lately with the re-emergence of LeGarrette Blount, and he's one of the best redzone targets in league history when healthy.

Much of Seattle's attention in coverage will be placed on Gronk, and the Seahawks have the speed at linebacker and physicality at safety to match up with him like no other team down the field. But, this could be the game where we find out none of that matters. Gronk might just be too good, despite what Lane says.


Jamie Collins, Brandon Browner

The Packers were able to use Clay Matthews as a spy very effectively for most of the NFC Championship game two weeks ago. If the Patriots want to use a similar model, Collins and Browner are likely to be the two candidates. In recent weeks, New England has been sliding Browner inside into a linebacker-esque role while Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan cover outside receivers. With Seattle not exactly having a stable of receivers to rival the early 2000s Colts, the Patriots should be able to get away with that again. They'll put Revis on Doug Baldwin, plant Devin McCourty in the middle of the field, and use Browner and strong safety Patrick Chung to pinch down in run support.

Jamie Collins is New England's most versatile linebacker and likely to be the most effective in the spy role, but don't be surprised to see him and Dont'a Hightower switch back and forth between blitzing and spying to keep Seattle off guard, and Vince Wilfork is also likely to play a role in containing Wilson. If Wilfork stays home at the top of the pocket (as opposed to trying to collapse it), it will force Wilson to escape sideways instead of up in the pocket and potentially down the field. The longer the Patriots can force Wilson to move laterally, the better off they'll be.

Spying on Wilson and keeping him in the pocket will be a team effort, but Collins and Browner will likely be at the forefront.


Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse

Seattle's receivers are, for lack of a better term, not all that good.

I mean, they're not awful, but neither of these guys is exactly instilling fear in the star-filled Patriots secondary, and it actually makes you wonder if Seattle's lack of talent at receiver will cause New England to adjust its defensive strategy. It would seem a waste, after all, to dedicate Darrelle Revis to a guy that has just over 800 yards and three touchdowns on the year (Baldwin), or a guy with under 600 yards and just one touchdown all regular season long (Kearse).

Especially when the Seahawks' backs and receivers combined to catch 105 balls for 1,355 yards and 13 of the team's 20 touchdown receptions.

So yeah, it isn't out of the realm of possibility that New England either plays more zone, or commits extra defenders to stopping the run near the line of scrimmage, leaving Revis and Browner/Ryan one-on-one with Seattle's less-than-spectacular receivers with no safety help.

Either way, Baldwin and Kearse need to find a way to make a play. Whether it's finding a hole in the zone underneath, then breaking it for big yardage, or being able to finally catch that one ball over the top, as Kearse did against Green Bay, the Seahawks likely won't be able to win without one of these two guys making something happen.

The Patriots always do their best to take away your strength, in this case, Seattle's ground game, so it will be on the Seahawks' perceived "weaknesses" to take advantage.


Michael Hoomanawanui, Cameron Fleming

These are two mostly un-heralded guys, but they've come up big in the postseason in strange ways. The Patriots have messed around with formations, sometimes using just four offensive lineman (with a wide receiver lining up as ineligible) and other times using six offensive lineman and confusing the defense as to which one is eligible. Both formations have led to big plays for New England's offense, and these two guys have been at the center of it. Fleming is a backup guard that has been checking in at tight end and mauling opposing linebackers on stretch plays. Seattle's run defense is decidedly more stout than Indianapolis', but that doesn't mean that they'll shut down New England's ground game. If Fleming, Hoomanawanui (a grossly underrated blocking tight end), and Rob Gronkowski (ditto) are all on the field together, the Patriots suddenly have eight capable blockers against what will likely be six- and seven-man boxes, and they should be able to take advantage.


Cliff Avril, Rob Ninkovich

Ok, here's where I get to be a total homer for my alma mater and say that these two Purdue pass rushers could turn the game in either of their teams' favor. Ninkovich hasn't put up big numbers the last few games, but he virtually lived in the Ravens' backfield in the Divisional Round, and had a nice game playing the run against the Colts.

Living up to his reputation as a savvy player with a high-motor, Ninkovich has done his best Mike Vrabel impression and made his mark as a true "Patriot guy" during New England's run to the Super Bowl. He does a little bit of everything, and his effort, and patience, will be tested against a Seattle offense that can run the ball with the best of them, and a quarterback in Russell Wilson who can break contain and make you pay.

Avril, on the other hand, has been the only pass rusher firing on all cylinders for the Seahawks these playoffs, grabbing two of the team's three sacks this postseason, including their only sack of Aaron Rodgers in the NFC Championship Game. If Seattle is to get back to its dominant defensive ways, a pass rush led by Avril will have to get SOME pressure on Tom Brady.


The Picks

Jeremy Conlin: Patriots 23, Seahawks 21

Before the season, I picked the Patriots to win the Super Bowl. Based on their season and the matchups at hand, I don't see much reason to change my mind. The Seahawks' Cover 3 defense is designed to take away big plays down the sidelines, but the strength of the Patriots offense is in the middle of the field. If they can win the battle between the hash marks and create confusion with deceptive formations, they should be able to move the ball against Seattle's defense. Aaron Rodgers showed two weeks ago that an elite quarterback can exploit the tight windows that Seattle's defense surrenders - Green Bay only lost because they couldn't convert in the Red Zone. With Rob Gronkowski, LeGarrette Blount, and the most effective QB Sneak in NFL history, the Patriots shouldn't have as much trouble punching the ball into the endzone.

When Seattle has the ball, their wide receivers will be going up against the best defensive secondary they've seen all year. Seattle burned Green Bay in overtime by beating a Cover-0 down the middle of the field, but the Patriots almost never play Cover-0. Devin McCourty, possibly the best free safety in the AFC this year (and possibly the best free safety not named Earl Thomas in the whole league) will be sitting in center field to take away big plays. If the Seahawks can't win one-on-one matchups on the outside, all of a sudden the Patriots will be able to send seven or eight defenders towards the line of scrimmage to combat Seattle's zone-read.

New England's last two Super Bowls have been spoiled by the opponent's front four dominating New England's offensive line. That's certainly in play this time around as well, as Seattle's pass rush is among the best in the league, and New England's offensive line has some question marks with starting center Bryan Stork questionable with a knee injury. But if the Patriots continue their trend of confusing defenses with formations, the pass rush could slow down just enough for Brady to have enough time to find open windows, and history has shown that when Brady stays upright, it doesn't matter what kind of coverage he's facing - he'll find a way to exploit it. If the offensive line gives Brady enough time, the Patriots should win.

Joe Parello: Patriots 23, Seahawks 10

I picked the Seahawks to win the Super Bowl in our NFL preview, and it may seem like I'm hedging my bets here, but I actually have one major reason to believe that New England will win, and can potentially win big.

The book is out on Russell Wilson.

Or so it would seem. Wilson, one of the best young quarterbacks in the league, does so many great things off play action, in the run game and outside of the pocket.

To limit Seattle's ground game and attack Wilson, most teams send run blitzes designed to slow down Seattle's read-option, and further harass the young signal caller.

The only problem is that Wilson is such a unique athlete, and he often breaks contain to make plays outside the pocket. Plus, the Seahawks have designed so many plays that either move the pocket or get Wilson outside of it entirely, that the undersized quarterback rarely has to get his passes over the outstretched arms of massive defensive linemen.

To combat that, the Packers just didn't blitz a whole lot in the NFC Championship Game, often rushing four, or even three guys, while keeping a spy on Wilson, containing him inside the pocket and constantly having a tall defender looking to redirect his passes.

Acorrding to ESPN Stats and Information, Wilson is blitzed on 36% of his drop backs, second in the league to only Geno Smith (38%), but the Packers brought pressure with five or more just 19% of the time. This led to an astonishing 27 of Wilson's 29 pass attempts, including all four of his interceptions, coming from inside the pocket.

As for Wilson's game winner against Green Bay in overtime. That came, as you might have guessed, against the blitz, as the Packers simply lined five guys up and sent them after Wilson, leaving both corners one-on-one and Kearse to make the game-winning catch.

No doubt Bill Belichick and the Patriots coaching staff took notice of this and will try to replicate what Green Bay did for most of the game. And, with a more talented secondary, it's hard to see Seattle breaking through with big plays down the field to make New England pay for not bringing pressure.

The Seattle defense will likely tighten in the red zone, same as it did against Green Bay, but if the Seahawks can't find a way to get Wilson out of the pocket (where his QBR is 4.4 points better than the league average) and he is instead throwing from inside the pocket (where his QBR is 3.7 points below the league average), settling for a few field goals won't kill the Patriots.

Bob Lobel: Patriots 28, Seahawks 24

I have never picked any game on the money when it comes to score. Ok, one exception, when Chris Collins, then of Fox 25, picked it too. 

It was the Patriots' first Super Bowl of the Belichick/Brady era. Going in as 14 point underdogs, they won by three. 

In fact they have won all their Super Bowls by three points. So, since this will be number four, let's pick them by four… Seems pretty logical to me

Andy Dougherty: Patriots, 26, Seahawks 24

It’s a shame that Deflategate has dominated the media’s attention for the last two weeks, because this year’s Super Bowl matchup is actually one of the best ever. The defending champs take on the team of the century. Former Patriots Head Coach Pete Carroll battles his successor, Bill Belichick. The storylines go on and on.

The more specific matchups on the field will have the biggest impact on the game. Tom Brady vs. the Legion of Boom will probably be the most important one. The Seahawks’ secondary has disrupted star quarterbacks consistently since 2012. In fact, the Seahawks are 10-0 against Super Bowl winning quarterbacks in that span. They will stop Brady from putting up huge numbers, but Brady controls the ball better than any other quarterback, so he is unlikely to let the game get away from him like Peyton Manning did last year with early turnovers.

Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch also presents problems for the Patriots. New England faced two Pro Bowl running backs this year: Jamaal Charles of the Chiefs and Justin Forsett of the Ravens. Charles put up 108 yards and three touchdowns while Forsett ran for 129 and tacked on a 16-yard receiving touchdown.

Cornerback Darrelle Revis is the star of New England’s defense, and he should be able to strand Seahawks No. 1 receiver Doug Baldwin on Revis Island all game. Then Russell Wilson’s top target will be Jermaine Kearse. In the NFC Championship Game, Wilson’s first four passes to Kearse were intercepted. The pair will surely learn from some of those mistakes, but Seattle’s passing game should still struggle against New England’s secondary. That should allow the Patriots to devote more players to stopping Lynch.

All of these factors should make the game a tightly contested, relatively low-scoring affair. Then Belichick should empty his bag of tricks in crucial moments to pull out big plays when the Patriots desperately need them, like he did against Baltimore in the divisional round. 

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