Saturday, February 4, 2017

Super Bowl LI

Super Bowl Sunday is just about here at long last, and it should be a fun one with the highest Over/Under in Super Bowl history at 59. I would lean towards the score not hitting that final total with both teams having the extra week to prepare and usual early nerves in the big game, but Atlanta and New England do rank 1st and 2nd, respectively, in Football Outsiders' offensive DVOA. While the Patriots defense only ranks 16th in defensive DVOA due to the weight of a soft schedule, they do hold the title of the #1 scoring defense on the season, and historically, the teams with the fewest points allowed are 6-1 against the top scoring teams in Super Bowl meetings. In recent history, Mike Lombardi notes that the 2009 Saints are the only #1 offense to have won it all since 2000 while the top scoring defense has won it five times in that span. Throw in the fact that the Falcons only rank 27th in both defensive DVOA and scoring defense, and you can see why the Pats are favored by 3 in Houston.
Super Bowl XXXVI is the first one I remember, and it's hard to believe what it would kick off.
It sounds cliche to say that getting off to a fast start will be key, but that could be the case here. The Patriots have not scored in the 1st quarter of any of their Super Bowls under Bill Belichick and Tom Brady while the Falcons have not only scored early but have gotten touchdowns on their opening possession in 8 straight games, as pointed out by Trey Wingo and ESPN. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has shown his schematic brilliance with his early game plans against opposing defenses, and getting put into an advantageous position early helped them finish as the 7th highest scoring offense of all time with Matt Ryan likely to win the MVP award. He has taken advantage of the deadly duo at running back, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, and the fact that defenses are preparing for the run to become the league's most lethal play-action passing attack. If Atlanta falls behind, they may not get their running game going and thus limit Ryan's effectiveness off play fakes. The strength of New England's defense is on the ground, with defensive tackles Alan Branch and Malcolm Brown clogging up running lanes for players like linebacker Dont'a Hightower and strong safety Patrick Chung to make plays, resulting in the 4th best rush defense DVOA.

Conversely, Atlanta's young, speedy defense is weak against the run with just a 29th DVOA ranking, which isn't entirely surprising since rookie linebackers Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell are only 222 lbs and 234 lbs, respectively, and second year stud Vic Beasley is 246 lbs. Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount is over 240 lbs and led the league with 18 rushing touchdowns, and I think he could have a huge imprint on this game if they are trying to bleed the clock on the ground game in the second half with a lead. At +1700 and +1750, he and fellow running back Dion Lewis are the best value bets for Super Bowl MVP, with Lewis' versatility making him my favorite pick. Getting off to a good start with the running game would also help control the time of possession to keep Atlanta's high flying offense off the field.
Following up on my last post, they are now 16-0 with Lewis in the lineup.
When they are on the field, I'd expect Belichick to do everything he can to take Julio Jones out of the game with constant double teams to help make up for their inconsistent pass rush. Although Malcolm Butler is their best cover man, he's at a severe size disadvantage standing 5'10", 187 lbs to Jones' 6'3", 220 lbs, so I would think Butler sticks to speedsters Taylor Gabriel and Aldrick Robinson one on one while Logan Ryan and Eric Rowe track Jones with All-Pro free safety Devin McCourty or effective sub-package safety Duron Harmon over the top. When in three receiver sets with Mohamed Sanu in the slot, Ryan can match up with him well while also providing terrific run support as he led all corners with 92 tackles. On the other side, undrafted rookie Brian Poole has been a valuable contributor as Atlanta's nickel back, but he has his work cut out for him against Julian Edelman, who had a case for MVP in Super Bowl XLIX when he had 9 catches for 109 yards and a score against Falcons head coach Gus Bradley when he was the defensive coordinator for the Seahawks. Brady adjusted to that defense and was 13 of 15 for 124 yards and 2 touchdowns in the fourth quarter of that game, and with his younger offensive line playing at a higher level now, I don't think he'll be too affected by the pass rush like in his two Super Bowl losses. Under the tutelage of un-retired offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, right tackle Marcus Cannon has improved by leaps and bounds across from steady left tackle Nate Solder, so the veteran quarterback should be kept clean from Beasley and have time to find big play threat Chris Hogan down the field when necessary. Second year second round pick Jalen Collins has settled into the starting role nicely since star corner Desmond Trufant went down, but left corner Robert Alford, while talented, is inconsistent, as evidenced by so many penalties called against him, which will likely lead to Brady challenging him with double moves.

With all of that in mind, I am taking the favored team to win and cover. They have been the best team all year and have key matchups in their favor, so here it goes: New England -3 versus Atlanta in Houston.

Season total: 59-44-3

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