Wednesday, February 1, 2017


New England (-3) vs. Atlanta

This (let’s hope), is a classic.  The 2017 Superbowl pits the best Adjusted-Yards-Per-Pass team in the NFC against the best AYP team in the AFC.

Atlanta, with Matt Ryan and friends, notched an 8.1 AYP for the regular season.  (Second best in the NFC was Dallas, with 6.9.)  The Patriots dominated the AFC with a 7.7 AYP, with Oakland in second place at 6.2.  If nothing else, this Superbowl validates the theory that what is needed to get to the championship game is an ability to make big plays.

Other statistical measures suggest the teams are evenly matched.  New England has an edge in point differential---they are +12 while the Falcons are +8.5.  Over the last ten games, however (eight regular season and two playoff), both NE and Atlanta are +14.3 points.  The Falcons have also played a slightly tougher schedule (48% opponent win percentage) than the Patriots (43% opponent win percentage).

On the defensive side, there can be little doubt New England has an edge, having given up the fewest points of any NFL team.  Throughout the season, Atlanta has been near the bottom of that (scoring defense) list.   However, the gap has been closing rapidly, largely because the Falcons’ defense has gotten steadily better.  Throughout the first half of the season, New England gave up 16 points/game; over the second half, it was basically unchanged at 15.1.  Atlanta, however, allowed its opponents 29 points/game over the first eight games, but over the last ten games cut that number by more than a touchdown to 21.6 points/game.

People who know about such things attribute Atlanta’s improvement on defense to its secondary, which had to reinvent itself after Week 9 when all-Pro shutdown corner Desmond Trufant went down for the season.  Atlanta’s cover-3 zone is still the foundation of its pass defense, but the use of man-to-man coverage has increased every week, with noticeable results.  It is a very young group (two rookie LBs, a rookie safety and a rookie corner), but it is extremely fast and athletic, which is a prerequisite for successful man-to-man coverage.

Those same people (the ones who know about such things), point out that the only way to beat the Patriot offense (not that it’s easy), is with man-to-man coverage.  Patriot receivers are not necessarily the fastest in the league or the most superior athletes, but they are extremely skilled in the New England system of exploiting zone vulnerabilities and finding empty places in the coverage scheme.  Brady is viewed as the best in the league at picking zones apart.  Only a defense that can play man-to-man (and not every defense has the speed to do it), can potentially give Brady problems.

I’m taking Atlanta in this Superbowl, largely because there is little to choose from between these teams and with the Falcons, I get three points.  An additional rationale is that Atlanta still seems to be improving week-to-week.  I expect a close game, and a last-minute field goal could well be the difference.

What I don’t expect is a shootout.  The average score of the last eight New England games was 28 – 15, for a total of 43 points.  The average of Atlanta games was 35 – 22 (total=57).  So how do we get an over/under of 59 points?  The defense for both of these teams has been improving as the season and the playoffs have unfolded, so why, suddenly, are we to expect an Arena Football game?  In addition, many coaches become a bit timid and conservative when thrust into the Superbowl spotlight, and that tends to hold down scoring.  In the L Superbowls played so far, only VIII have seen total points of 60 or more.

I take Atlanta (-3), but I do so somewhat reluctantly, understanding that betting against the Patriots has not traditionally been a path to riches.  I eagerly take the under 59, however.  I will be genuinely surprised if these teams score 60 or more.