New England’s Defense Isn’t What it Seems
Everyone knows how good the two offenses are at Super Bowl 51. Nobody scored more points per game this year than the Atlanta Falcons at 33.8, and while the New England Patriots finished third at 27.6 points per game, they didn’t have QB Tom Brady for the first four weeks of the regular season. In the 12 games he did play, the Patriots scored 30 points per game. No wonder the total for Sunday’s Super Bowl 51 (6:30 PM ET, FOX) is a record-high 59.5 at press time.
There’s less certainty about the quality of the Patriots’ defense. On one hand, New England allowed only 15.6 points per game this year – the lowest in the NFL, and much lower than Atlanta’s 25.4 points (No. 27 overall). But a closer look at the numbers reveals a defense with a weakness that the Falcons can exploit this Sunday, maybe even enough to cash in as 3-point underdogs at Houston’s NRG Stadium.
One of the biggest lessons sharp bettors have learned in the Moneyball era is to take “per game” stats with more than just a grain of salt. This goes double in the NFL, where the regular season lasts 16 games. There’s a lot of variance in the strength of schedule among the 32 teams; as it turned out, the Patriots had the easiest schedule in the league according to DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average). Atlanta’s schedule ranked No. 16 overall.
That takes a lot of the starch out of New England’s defensive profile. Again, using DVOA as the criteria, the Pats graded out at No. 16 overall on defense. That’s still better than the Falcons at No. 27, but the run/pass splits make Sunday’s game look more like a toss-up. New England ranks No. 4 in rush defense and No. 23 in pass defense, compared to Atlanta at No. 19 and No. 29, respectively.
Me and Julio
Enter Julio Jones (83 catches, six TDs in the regular season). The Falcons have this season’s top two wideouts according to DVOA. Taylor Gabriel (35 catches, six TDs) is actually ahead of Jones in efficiency, but Jones gets most of the targets, and New England cornerbacks have struggled dealing with their opponents’ top receivers. On the flip side, New England’s ground game may not be stout enough to take full advantage of Atlanta’s dubious rush defense, even with Dion Lewis (4.4 yards per carry) back in action.
Don’t expect to hear much about these finer details as we get closer to kick-off. One of the top storylines for Super Bowl 51 is about Brady and the Patriots smothering Atlanta and getting revenge for the Deflategate punishment handed down by commissioner Roger Goodell. Maybe they will, but basing your Super Bowl bets on this narrative is like basing your presidential vote on something you saw on Twitter.