Saturday, February 3, 2018

An Arbitrary Number of Things To Give A Shit About For Super Bowl 52

The Patriots and Eagles will once again square off in Super Bowl 52
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

Last year at this time, Jeremy was recovering from surgery, so our Super Bowl preview was a little lacking in substance because it was a little drug-induced. This year, Joe is traveling for a wedding and didn't bring his laptop with him. Jeremy would call him an idiot, but, to be fair, it's not his fault that some other jamoke scheduled a wedding for Super Bowl weekend.

The original plan was to have 52 Things to watch for in Super Bowl 52, but with Joe taking a temporary backseat, Jeremy didn't want to come up with 52 things all on his own. So he's just going to write about the things he wants to write about and Joe will chip in here and there, and however many we get to, that's how long the list will be. Hence the title above.

Just a quick update on our gambling prowess - keep in mind that Jeremy bested Joe in the regular season for the first time since Millard Fillmore was President, but while Jeremy has dominated the postseason over the same time frame, Joe went into last week with a lead. Both of us had the Patriots winning and covering against Jacksonville, and while both of us had Philadelphia covering against the Vikings, Jeremy was the only one who picked the Eagles to win outright. So, coming into the Super Bowl, Jeremy is 8-2 straight up (5-4-1 against the spread), while Joe is 4-6 straight up (6-3-1 against the spread).

And now, the list.

1. These Patriots Don't Play Close Super Bowls

The largest margin that the Brady-Belichick Patriots have seen in Super Bowls happened last year, when they won by 6 in overtime against the Falcons. They beat the Rams, Panthers, and Eagles by 3, beat the Seahawks by 4 and the Falcons by 6, and lost to the Giants twice, once by 3 and once by 4. In those seven Super Bowls, the Patriots are (obviously) 5-2, but only 3-4 against the spread. They come into this game favored by 4.5, so, just sayin'.

2-3. Last Rodeo for Matt Patricia and Josh McDaniels

Both New England coordinators have been reported to have accepted offers to become head coaches for other teams in the NFL following this season, although as of Friday afternoon, neither decision had been confirmed. Still, it seems to be common knowledge at this point that Josh McDaniels will take over as the head coach of the Colts, and Matt Patricia will serve the same role for the Detroit Lions possibly as soon as Monday morning. This dovetails nicely with the last time that the Patriots saw both of their coordinators leave for expanded roles elsewhere - following the 2004 season when Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis left the team. That year, they won the Super Bowl over the Philadelphia Eagles.

4-6. Chris Hogan, Brandin Cooks, Danny Amendola

The Eagles had one of the best defenses in the league this season, and they were particularly adept at slowing down opponent's wide receivers. According to data from Football Outsiders, the Eagles ranked 7th against their opponents' No. 1 wide receiver and 1st against opponents' No. 2 wide receivers. The Patriots throw a monkey wrench into this by not really playing into those distinctions. They move their receivers all over the field, and also line up their tight ends and running backs out wide more than just about any other team in the league. Doing this forces the defense to tip their hand towards what kind of coverage they're playing. If a linebacker follows James White out to the boundary, they're pretty clearly in man coverage. If it's their top cornerback on White's side, it's pretty clearly a zone scheme. From there, the Patriots motion and audible in order to take advantage of what they know and create a mis-match in the secondary. The other piece of relevant information here is that while the Eagles are exemplary against their opponents' top two receivers, they ranked just 22nd against all other wide receivers and 17th against tight ends. If you look at how the Eagles ranked based on where passes were thrown (regardless of who they targeted), they ranked 7th when the pass went to the offense's left, 2nd when it went to the offense's right, and just 19th when it was to the middle of the field. With how often the Patriots run crossing routes and go up the seam with their tight ends, this could be an advantage for them to exploit.

7-12. Relevant Field Position And Drive Numbers

The New England offense started their average drive at the 28.7 yard line (14th in the league), moved the ball an average of 35.9 yards on those drives (1st in the league), and scored an average of 2.6 points (1st in the league). The New England defense started their average drive at the 24.3 yard line (1st in the league), allowed an average of 33.5 yards on those drives (30th in the league), and surrendered an average of 1.6 points per drive (6th in the league). The Philadelphia offense started at the 29.3 yard line (9th) and moved the ball an average of 31.6 yards (8th) for 2.25 points (5th). The Philadelphia defense started at the 28.0 yard line (13th) and surrendered 26.8 yards (7th) and 1.43 points (2nd).

I want to focus on the New England numbers for a moment. There's been a lot of talk about how their defense doesn't allow many points even though they allow a lot of yards, and these field position numbers start to tell you why. If their offense starts at the 28.7 yard line and go 35.9 yards, that leaves them at their opponents 35 yard line (give or take). That leaves them in a position to attempt a long field goal, or punt to pin their opponent deep in their own territory. And, guess what? New England led the league in their opponents average starting field position. They sure allowed a lot of yards per drive, but starting at the 24.3 yard line and gaining 33.5 yards leaves them at New England's 42 yard line (give or take), about where a league-average offense ends up against a league-average defense (starting at the 28.4 yard line and gaining 29.1 yards). The Patriots allow yards, but because they establish great field position with their special teams, it's usually okay. How many yards an offense gains over the course of a drive is less relevant than where that yardage leaves them. For New England's defense, they epitomized bend-don't-break. As the stakes rose, their defense got better. They were 30th in total yards allowed, but ranked 21st on 3rd down, 13th on 4th down, and 4th-best in the league when their opponents got into the Red Zone. Their ability to limit teams to field goal attempts is huge when their offense is so proficient at converting drives into touchdowns. These trends continuing would be huge for the Patriots.

13-15. Philadelphia's Punts In The NFC Championship

The Eagles had nine offensive drives in the NFC Championship game against the Vikings. Five of them ended in scores, one of them was nine-play, five-minute march to run out the clock in the 4th quarter, and three of them were punts. For the season, the Vikings defense forced 86 punts on 172 relevant drives (excluding teams taking knees to run out the clock at the end of a half), which is a neat 50 percent. They allowed scores on 50 of those drives (27 field goals, 23 touchdowns), which is 29 percent of their drives. Those numbers were effectively flipped against Philadelphia two weeks ago, surrendering scores on more than half of the drives they were on the field. Minnesota's defense set a modern NFL record by allowing teams to convert on third down just 25.2 percent of the time. The Eagles converted on 10 of their 14 third down attempts. Philadelphia's offense was brutally efficient against perhaps the best defensive unit in football. It was perhaps the best performance of any offense in the league this year, considering the opponent (maybe ironically, the Steelers putting up 545 yards and 42 points against the Jaguars in the divisional round is another candidate). If the Eagles have another performance like that, they could put up 50 on a New England defense that has certainly struggled at times this season.

16. The Patriots Will Tie A Super Bowl Record Regardless

This is New England's 10th Super Bowl, which isn't super relevant because they're breaking their own record on that one (their 9th appearance last year put them above the Steelers, Cowboys, and Broncos, who have eight each). However, regardless of the outcome, the Patriots will tie another Super Bowl record. If they win, they'll join the Steelers as the only team to have won six Super Bowls. If they lose, they'll join the Broncos as the only team to have lost five Super Bowls. Long story short, the Patriots have been to a lot of Super Bowls.

17. Nick Foles Is Exactly The Kind Of Quarterback Who Would Beat The Patriots In The Playoffs

Let's take a look at the last handful of quarterbacks to take down New England.

In 2015, the Patriots lost to the Broncos. I can hear you already - yes, that team had Peyton Manning. But it was a Peyton Manning that had a passer rating below 70 that year (not a typo), the worst mark in the league of any quarterback who threw 300 or more passes. That he won a Super Bowl and was able to ride off into the sunset was really secondary reason for retiring to the fact that he just plain sucked that year.

In 2013, the Patriots lost to Peyton Manning in pretty much the greatest season a quarterback has ever had in the history of the sport. This season doesn't really support my point so I'll conveniently ignore it.

In 2012, the Patriots lost to the Ravens and Joe Flacco, who enjoyed an inexplicable four-game stretch of brilliance that he hasn't even remotely approached before or since and has a career passer rating in the same neighborhood as Marc Bulger and Brian Griese.

In 2011, the Patriots lost to the Giants and Eli Manning, who has three times led the league in interceptions and once in his life has even finished in the top 10 in passer rating (he's 22nd among active quarterbacks for his career).

In 2010, the Patriots lost to the Jets and Mark Sanchez. In 2009, the Patriots lost to the Ravens and Joe Flacco. In 2007, the Patriots lost to the Giants and Eli Manning. In 2006, the Patriots lost to the Colts and Peyton Manning (again, we'll ignore this one). In 2005, the Patriots lost to the Broncos and Jake Plummer.

It's a real motley crew of has-been and never-was quarterbacks who have knocked the Patriots out of the playoffs. Compare that to the list of quarterbacks that they've bested in the postseason over the last two decades, including Matt Ryan (during his MVP season), Ben Roethlisberger (multiple times), Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck (multiple times), Phil Rivers, Peyton Manning, and Kurt Warner. Which list does Nick Foles seem like he belongs on?

18. Rob Gronkowski's Brain

Gronkowski suffered a concussion in the AFC Championship and missed a significant portion of the game. He is, by all accounts, expected to clear the concussion protocol and be ready to play Sunday. But, it's worth mentioning that (a) a player returning from a concussion is at a higher risk to suffer subsequent concussions, (b) Gronkowski tends to take more punishment than the average player, and (c) we're two days removed from The Intercept publishing a supercut of every concussion in the league this year, so it's safe to say that the league is going to be paying attention. If Gronkowski suffers another head injury, New England's offense becomes much easier to defend.

19-24. Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, Chris Long, Derek Barnett, Vinny Curry, Timmy Jernigan

Philadelphia has one of the most talented defensive lines in the league, and if you're looking to back the Eagles, it's likely on the strength of this unit. In the AFC Championship preview two weeks ago, we discussed how Jacksonville's defensive setup was similar to those that have given Tom Brady and the Patriots' offense trouble in the past, and to some extent, they did. Obviously, Brady and the Patriots were able to correct their early mistakes and come back to win, but the first half of that game didn't exactly go well for them. Philadelphia's philosophy is similar. They rotate defensive lineman regularly, they tend to rush just four defenders, and they trust their defensive line to bring pressure without blitzing and their defensive backs to cover just long enough.

Despite their talent, the Eagles didn't put up all-world numbers in sacks; they took down opposing quarterbacks 38 times this season, tied for 15th in the league. However, they were the only roster in the league to have five different players with 10 or more knockdowns. They didn't generate sacks, but they applied pressure at a prodigious rate - Pro Football Focus tracked the Eagles as having 41 more QB Pressures than any other team in the league this year, and had them as the only team to pressure opposing quarterbacks on north of 40 percent of dropbacks. They don't necessarily sack the quarterback, but they make the presence felt, which is usually more than half the battle in the first place. One of the reasons they're able to do this is because they constantly rotate these defensive lineman in and out of the game, making sure that they always have a fresh pass rush on the field.

The way the Patriots might be able to combat this is by increasing the tempo. As strong as Philadelphia's defense was this year, they struggled when their opponents played without a huddle. Football Outsiders' pet metric, DVOA, had the Eagles as the 2nd-best overall unit in football this year, but if you look only at their snaps against no-huddle offenses, it not only would have been the worst defense in football, it would have been an eye-popping margin - the bottom four teams had defensive DVOAs around 10 or 11 percent below league average. Philadelphia's DVOA against no-huddle offense was 18 percent below. Yes, granted, it's a small sample size (fewer than 150 snaps, out of almost 1000 they played this year), and granted, defenses tend to do worse against no-huddle than otherwise. But it's a rather jarring disparity.

When offenses play up-tempo, Philadelphia can't constantly be rotating their defensive lineman. They're stuck with the same unit out there until there's a stoppage in play. If Philadelphia were playing Jacksonville, for example, this might not even come up, because Jacksonville spent their entire season playing a rather slow, plodding pace, and it wouldn't make sense for them to shift their entire offensive philosophy to take advantage of an inefficiency. But the Patriots already tend to play very fast - they take the least amount of time between snaps of any team in the league.

So where does this leave us? If the Patriots come out early in the game trying to grind out long drives one play at a time with a mix of run and pass, Philadelphia's offense is very capable of chewing them up, getting to Brady, and throwing New England out of whack. That game clearly favors the Eagles. If the Patriots come out in a no-huddle, spread the field, up-tempo, using screen passes as their running game offense, that plays into their strengths and into Philadelphia's weaknesses. That game clearly favors the Patriots. Which game it turns out to be remains to be seen.

25-28. Fumbles

The Patriots lost just four fumbles this year, which was the second-best mark in the league. Recovering fumbles tends to be a crap chute, so you can't just take that number and assume the Patriots aren't turnover-prone, but, as it turns out, they kind of aren't, because they only fumbled the ball 13 times total this year (4th best in the league), and even if they lost 50 percent of those (the expected number), they'd still be among the league's best. Their luck evened out on defense, where they recovered just six of their opponents' 19 fumbles. Overall, there were 32 fumbles available to the Patriots, and they recovered 15 of them, about what you would expect.

Philadelphia fumbled 25 times this year, losing 11 of those to turnovers, and, like the Patriots, their opponents fumbled the ball 19 times, with the Eagles recovering 12 of those. So Philadelphia pounced on 26 of the 44 fumbles they saw this year, about ten percent more than average, which certainly buoyed their turnover rate of +11 (4th best in the league).

Why are these numbers relevant? Well, it's not because the Eagles are "due" to have luck swing the other way, that's a classic case of the gambler's fallacy (akin to saying a coin is more likely to come up heads if it landed tails five times in a row). If they have any relevance at all, it's that the Eagles are almost twice as likely to fumble the ball in the first place, especially considering Nick Foles has fumbled six times in his six appearances since taking over for Carson Wentz, and eight times total in the nine games he's played this year. Kenjon Barner also fumbled three times this year in just 58 regular season touches, a staggering rate north of five percent (in an albeit small sample). Once the ball in on the ground, it's really up for grabs. There just isn't any data out there that suggests recovering fumbles is a predictable skill. The ball just kind of bounces one way or the other. And if the Eagles are more likely to fumble, it means they're more likely to turn the ball over.

29-31. Mychal Kendricks, Dannell Ellerbe, Nigel Bradham

Philadelphia's linebackers are mostly fine; there isn't an All-Pro among the bunch. They spend most of their time in pass coverage because Philadelphia blitzes very infrequently, just 20 percent of their defensive snaps, the third-lowest figure in the league. They're also on the field a lot - the Eagles usually don't go into their dime package (at least, they haven't much this postseason) because their linebackers can usually hold up in coverage just fine, and their defensive line is (usually) generating a consistent pass rush without blitzing.

Where the Eagles could run into trouble is with their depth. On the defensive line, they have six plus-value players who they can rotate through. At linebacker, however, they're rather thin. Jordan Hicks, probably their best linebacker, has been on injured reserve since Halloween. Dannell Ellerbe was hired off the street in November after being cut by New Orleans due to injury concerns, but is expected to play despite a bothered hamstring. Kendricks and Bradham are both capable players and, on par, better than average linebackers, but after that they're relying on special teamer Najee Goode who looked pretty poor when he was out there the last few weeks.

How Philadelphia's linebackers fare in pass coverage is certainly something to keep an eye on, considering how often the Patriots utilize the middle of the field and how often they throw to their tight ends and running backs. As mentioned above, those are areas of relative weakness for this Eagles' defense, so it will be up to this crew to keep pace. It's unlikely that their value will come from putting pressure on Brady (as a unit, Philadelphia's linebackers combined for three sacks this season), so if they can't cover the middle of the field, it could be a long day.

32. Jeremy Is Picking The Patriots To Win The Super Bowl

Because of course I am. There's no need to re-hash all of the things mentioned above, but suffice it to say, I'm confident that New England's defense and special teams will hold up just enough that their offense can carry them the rest of the way, the same way that they won the Super Bowl three years ago over Seattle and last year over Atlanta. I have no illusion that this is going to be an all-out ass-whoopin' against a backup quarterback in over his head. I've been tooting Nick Foles' horn all postseason, so it would be awfully hypocritical of me to all of a sudden start talking about him like he was Ryan Lindley or something. I mean, this is also the same Patriots team that lost to Jay Cutler two months ago, for [expletive deleted]'s sake. They're far from unbeatable. This is either the worst or second-worst team the Patriots have sent to the Super Bowl in the Brady era (depending on how you feel about the 2001 and 2011 teams).

But, they're still the Brady-Belichick Patriots, and historically speaking, it's been unwise to bet against them, regardless of the quality of the team or the opponent. All else being equal, the Patriots have the better coach and the better quarterback, and having those two variables in your favor tends to mask a lot of weaknesses elsewhere. When it comes to the NFL playoffs, and especially the Super Bowl, you tend to want to back a team that has some strength that separates them entirely from the rest of the league. Last year's Patriots had Brady. The 2015 Broncos had their pass rush. The 2013 Seahawks had their secondary. It pops up a lot. Super Bowl winners tend to have a best thing that's better than anyone else's best thing. If you're putting money on Philadelphia this weekend, what is that thing? I wouldn't say they have the best pass rush, I'd give that title to Jacksonville, and the Patriots just beat them. They don't have the best offense, the Patriots have that by virtually any measure you want to use. Their rush defense is really good, but not that much better (if at all) than a bunch of other teams in the league this year, and that doesn't really seem like it will influence the matchup all that much.

Don't get me wrong, the Eagles are a very, very good team, I expect this to be a close game, and I can definitely see a scenario in which Philadelphia's defense looks like Jacksonville's defense from the first half two weeks ago, or the Giants defense from 2007 or 2011, the ground game grinds out first downs, Nick Foles doesn't screw up, and the Eagles win a low-scoring game. It would be disingenuous of me to act like that was outside the realm of possibility. But if we're talking about probability rather than possibility, it's just more likely that the Patriots find an edge and press their advantage. They have matchups they can take advantage of, and Bill Belichick is the kind of coach that leans on a team's weak leg until it breaks. So I'm taking the Patriots, and I'm guessing it will be a rather high-scoring game, like the last two New England Super Bowls have turned out to be. Patriots 38, Eagles 31.

33. Joe Also Thinks The Patriots Will Win

I'll be honest: The Eagle defense has really impressed me the entire year, and seems like the kind of unit that could give Brady some problems.

That said, so did Jacksonville's defense, and when it came down to crunch time, Jacksonville went conservative (on both sides of the ball), and Brady went into God mode.

It just feels like this one's gonna go that way. New England 27, Philadelphia 24.

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