2016 NFL Picks: Super Bowl
Those games didn't go at all as I had expected. The only thing more painful than watching my faint hopes for a .500 record dissolve was watching the games themselves, as both were essentially over midway through their 3rd quarters.
With an 0-2 performance in the Conference Championship round, our season record sits at a very sad 63-67-4. I'm going to comfort myself by blaming the whole season on my 0-7-1 performance in Week 6, which was both extremely bad and statistically unlikely. Kind of like 2016 as a whole, now that I think about it. But it's a new year, so let's see what our two Super Bowl contenders bring to the table!
The Matchup: New England Patriots vs. Atlanta Falcons
It's always tempting to draw conclusions about teams from their most recent performances, but I don't think it's a useful exercise here. Both teams enjoyed some good fortune in their Conference Championship games in the form of injuries (seemingly all of Green Bay's wide receivers and offensive linemen, Le'Veon Bell), and fumble recoveries (3 of 3 for Atlanta, 1 of 1 plus an "insufficient video evidence" Tom Brady fumble for New England). I don't think it would have changed the outcome of either game, but short stretches in both really drew the curtains in a hurry. For Atlanta, the sequence was Green Bay missed field goal, Atlanta made field goal, Green Bay fumble inside the 10-yard line. When the Falcons scored on the ensuing possession, the score was 17-0 instead of 17-6 or 17-10. New England was leading by 11 when Pittsburgh's Jesse James appeared to score a touchdown; it was overturned, and the Steelers settled for a field goal. After Pittsburgh lost their challenge of the aforementioned Brady fumble, a New England field goal pushed the score to 20-9 instead of 20-13 or even 20-17. The Packers and Steelers are left to ponder what might have been while Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are preparing to take on Matt Ryan and Kyle Shanahan, leaders of the scariest offense they've faced in a Super Bowl since 2001 (usually an empty stat, but the Patriots are now in their seventh of the sixteen Super Bowls between 2001 and 2016, so it's not a small sample size). Let's see how the two teams stack up:
Two things in the table above stand out to me immediately: both offenses are really good, and both defenses are better in weighted DVOA than non-adjusted DVOA, which means both units improved later in the season. I think it's safe to assume both offenses will move the ball on Sunday (more on that later), so whose defense can come up with a turnover or a big play to swing the game in their favor?
During the regular season, New England's defense nabbed 23 takeaways to Atlanta's 22; the Patriots gave the ball away 11 times and the Falcons gave it away...11 times. Here's an easy takeaway for those of you unfamiliar with football: if a team has twice as many takeaways as giveaways, they're probably having a good year.
If the turnover battle is even (or non-existent), key stops could decide the game. Rather than simply saying, "converting third downs into first downs and red zone possessions into touchdowns is important" like a standard commentator, let's dig into the stats to see if one team has a distinct advantage.
In the regular season, New England's offense converted 3rd downs 45.8% of the time, 4th-best in the NFL. Atlanta's offense finished a surprisingly mediocre 11th, converting 42.1% of the time. Given the punishing slate of games the Falcons played, the Patriots' advantage here might not be significant. On the other side of the ball, though, the gap is much more pronounced: New England's defense ranked 7th, allowing opponents to convert 36.9% of the time. Atlanta ranked 26th, giving up first downs on 41.8% of third down snaps.
How about the red zone? Both offenses ranked in the top 10 in offensive red zone performance, with the Patriots 9th (63.8% TD rate) and the Falcons 10th (63.2%). The big discrepancy again is on defense, where the Patriots ranked 7th (50% TD allowed rate) and the Falcons ranked dead last (72.1%).
One more data point jumping off the page is Atlanta's 29th-ranked rush defense. Belichick and Brady are experienced and competent enough to use the clock to limit Atlanta's possessions in an attempt to slow down their truly awesome offense. If New England carries a lead late into the game, the Falcons' porous run defense might not get the ball back in time to mount a comeback.
The Super Bowl Pick:
New England Patriots -3 vs. Atlanta Falcons
I know, the pick is boring. On the bright side, I think the game itself will be anything but. Atlanta's offense won't be shut down by New England's defense, and I'd be surprised if they failed to score 30+ points for a seventh consecutive game. Unfortunately for them, Tom Brady and the Patriots' offense is almost as dangerous and facing a weaker defense. Pushing me over the edge is Alex Mack's lingering leg injury. I always believe offensive linemen deserve more credit and recognition, and Mack is one of the best centers in the league. If he's limited on Sunday, it could provide Belichick and the New England defense with the weak link they need to gain the upper hand. I'm taking the Patriots -3, the over on total points (59.5), and a long shower to wash off the gross feeling of picking New England to win.
Thank you as always for stopping by the QQ Sports Book for a preview of upcoming NFL action. Feel free to follow us on Facebook, and don't forget to check out some of our podcasts on Soundcloud or iTunes. Cheers to a wild and wacky NFL season - we hope you enjoyed following along even if we didn't win you any money!