The time has come. It’s Super Bowl week. The Patriots go to Atlanta to continue a dynasty so long that the team they face this week isn’t even in the same city as the one they defeated in New Orleans to begin their run. While the spread and total have been beaten up since the Patriots got a first down in overtime in Kansas City two weeks ago, we still think there is some value, and jokes, to be had for the sports holiday weekend.
Our models rely heavily on our PFFELO rating system for the NFL, along with game information like where the game is played, how far a team has to travel, etc. We also fold in opponent-adjusted PFF grades into our machine learning algorithm to factor in roster changes and possible asymmetric mismatches that can occur through the course of a game.
With the New Orleans (-3) loss against the Rams and the officials, we’re 24-19-2 on our “Lock of the Week” picks since the start of the 2017 season (55.8%). The analyses below will involve a point-counterpoint between the two of us for all five picks, using perspectives that only the PFF grades and data can provide. Follow us on Twitter at @PFF_Eric and @PFF_George, and for some podcast commentary on some of these picks and the process that goes into them give the PFF Forecast a listen. We will have a special Monday morning podcast each week with look ahead lines for the upcoming week.
While the PFF algorithm does not have an official pick for this game, we’re going to go through some of our processes in terms of picking games for this special occasion. We are merely humans (or maybe more dancers) so if you want to hear our personal feelings, head to the PFF YouTube channel.
Our base power ranking (PFFELO) for the Patriots is 1691 (second, to New Orleans) and 1684 for the Rams (third, 1505 is average), so from the perspective of “who is better?” based on the PFF grades weighted using machine learning and the classic Elo algorithm, it’s basically a wash.
It’s a little more complicated when looking at some of our opponent-adjusted metrics for different facets of play. For example, in coverage (which is the second-most-important variable), the Rams have a slight edge with their collection of John Johnson III (84.2), Nickell Robey-Coleman (82.1), Aqib Talib (77.7) and Lamarcus Joyner (71.7) as well as the improvement of Marcus Peters (60.1) since a difficult start to his first season in LA. This difference in coverage is not as stark as that between the pass rush between the Rams and the Patriots, where Aaron Donald (likely the league’s best player) heads a group that added a lot of juice when Dante Fowler (68.2) came over in a mid-season trade. The Patriots are slightly better in terms of pass protection, so if you’re in the “Belichick always finds a way” camp, it’s not outside of the realm of possibility that he could neutralize the best that the Rams have to offer defensively (as he did with the Chiefs and the Chargers).
While Cooper Kupp has been out for the better part of the second half of the season, the Rams receivers, led by Brandin Cooks (2.07 yards per route run) and Robert Woods (2.05), have an edge over a Patriots group that has played significant parts of the season with and without players like Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon. While the latter receiving corps (sans Gordon) did carve up the Chiefs secondary two weeks ago, the task will be far taller against the aforementioned coverage group of the Rams.
So, as you can see, the Rams have a lot going for them in this matchup, and they are likely the reason that books opened with them as short favorites before money subsequently landed on the Patriots. Why the love for New England? You guessed it – Tom Brady has been better than Jared Goff both historically and this season. Brady’s 91.2 grade in what has been a down year for him is still one of the top five in the game. His 4.45/2.50 ratio of “big-time throws” to “turnover-worthy plays” is, low for him, but it's still much better than Goff’s 4.83/3.73. Brady has been even better in the playoffs, seemingly turning back the clock;73 percent of his throws have been located perfectly or on the receiver’s frame (what we call “accurate”), which is a full 10 percentage points above his Super Bowl counterpart (Drew Brees led the regular season at 72 percent).
The most-predictive variable quarterback play – the player’s percentage of negatively-graded dropbacks – favors Brady slightly (12.5 percent to Goff’s 12.8). Goff’s clean-pocket passer rating is fourth-best in the league, versus 16th for Brady. This has trended in the other direction of late, though, with Brady sixth in that department since week 13, versus Goff at 25th.
In a game with two of the league’s best offensive play callers in Sean McVay and Josh McDaniels, the outcome will likely be decided by which coach/quarterback pair is the most efficient. Given the extensive history of Brady with Josh McDaniels, this will be an edge that the Patriots will likely have, but not so much for the model to recommend the Patriots at -2.5 (a moneyline wager of -135 would be better in our opinion, but still not recommendation worthy).
In terms of the total, this number has come down significantly since it opened above 58, settling in at 56.5. The number 56 is a (new) key one, and would certainly be enticing were it to get down there before kickoff as a possibility to bet an OVER (our number rests at 57 right now). Until then, however, it’s probably best to lay off of the total for a few reasons. One is that the Patriots and the Rams leave a lot of expected points on the table on fourth-down decisions. On decisions where going for it on fourth down would have yielded higher expected points (in neutral situations), the Patriots went for it on just eight of 50 opportunities this year, costing them over 13 expected points (only the Cardinals were more conservative). The Rams went for it more often, but lost the most points in the NFL on such decisions, in many ways contributing to games like two weeks ago in New Orleans going under the total and games like theirs against Dallas needing backdoor touchdowns to get over.
If this total was closer to last year’s 48, I think the over would easily be the play. However, we’re a year older, and that’s more than a touchdown less than what it’s going to require here. Furthermore, this season has been a strange one to predict for totals, demonstrating the non-stationarity in a league constantly evolving. Below are the average Vegas totals for each week of the NFL season for 2014-2017 (green) and 2018 (black).
Scoring (and expected scoring) certainly saw an increase in the early-to-middle part of the season, only to fall significantly (along with an increase in penalties) near the end of the year, only to increase again (and outpace previous years) during the playoffs. All this is to say that totals have been a difficult beast this year, so tread lightly on this one.
All-in-all, it’s difficult to find value here on either the side or the total. If you followed our advice at different times of the year and took the Patriots (who could have been found at over +600 even as the playoffs were beginning) and would like to hedge, buying the Rams up to +3 would be an ok play to add some action and an opportunity for a middle if the Patriots won by one or two points. In any event, below are our official picks for the game.
Los Angeles Rams versus New England (-0.5 FIRST HALF) in Atlanta
Pick: Patriots 17-14 first-half score (Patriots cover first half)
Point (GC): The Pats are favored by 2.5 for the game and perhaps even 3 by game time. So why is the first half line cut by so much? Probably because the TrendZone is like a Magic City higher entertainment center, everything looks so shiny and neat you simply can’t help but buy in. The Patriots have trailed by 18 and 12 in each of the last two Super Bowls, which of course means they are destined to trail again this Sunday. Ironically, they were winning or tied at the half of all the Super Bowls prior (all the new fresh trends get all the love SMDH). Let’s do our best to pay attention to things that really matter.
The Patriots have had no problem generating early offense against the Chargers and Chiefs, who like the Rams, possessed a strong pass rush. But mitigating a pass rush is far easier than people want to admit and that makes sense given the greater value of coverage when predicting who wins the game (if you think this is not possible, please go back and watch the Rams week 13 game in Chicago and their week 14 game at home against Foles and the Eagles). The Pats shut down the Chargers' and Chiefs' pass rush in historic fashion, both with solid line play and with an ultra-quick passing attack. Brady has enjoyed a clean pocket on 84 percent of his dropbacks, best in the playoffs all-time and eight points better than Goff. Brady is also averaging just 2.18 seconds from snap to pass, which is, again, a playoff record and nearly 0.3 of a second better than the league leader this season (that’s the difference between leading the league and being the 12th slowest from snap to pass). NFL defenses mustered pressure on just 15 percent of dropbacks lasting 2.2 seconds or less this season (notice the symmetry between that number and Brady’s clean pocket rate). This is important because Brady’s subpar first halves have come with a lack of clean pockets — Brady was under pressure on 43 percent of his dropbacks against both sets of Dirty Birds in 2017 and 2018. That rate would lead the league and as we know clean pockets are the key to success (the NFL averaged a 103.1 passer rating from a clean pocket this season). There may not be a better player in NFL history than TB12, and I would expect him to do what the players do when they visit the ATL.
Counterpoint (EE): I think the narrative that the Patriots start Super Bowls slowly is a small-sample-size farce. However, there are many (real) things going for the Rams in this one (see above), not the least of which is the fact that their team led the entire NFL this season in cumulative wins about replacement (WAR). Their defense, specifically, got some flack early in the season as players like Marcus Peters and Ndamukong Suh were acclimating to a new team and Mark Barron and Aqib Talib were out with injuries. They are all back, and with Aaron Donald (2.28 WAR), the league’s most valuable defensive player, there is clearly a path to which the Rams get a few stops en route to a halftime score that is at least a tie in their favor.
Pick: the UNDER hits
Point (EE): In Anderson’s first four games with the Rams, he has played 75 percent, 64 percent, 44 percent and 53 percent of the Rams’ snaps, while earning only six total targets and five total air yards. In the two games with Todd Gurley as his backup, he’s earned just two targets for three air yards (resulting in five total receiving yards). With Gurls likely as healthy as he’s been in months and motivated to retake not only his starting position but a leading role in an offense for which many (not us) thought he was the most valuable, look for volume to be an issue for C.J. in this one, and for this under to hit.
Counterpoint (GC): Volume will never be an issue for C.J… To use his own words “fat, thick I don’t care,” and certainly Sean McVay doesn’t care either, seeing as how he’s played more than 50 percent of snaps in all but one of his games. If there’s a city where you can cover real estate with that description, this is it. Be wary.
Pick: the OVER hits
Point: We love James White. A lot. But his prices (six receptions, 52.5 receiving yards) are much bigger than Burkhead’s (even accounting for the -135 price on this over). The former Nebraska star played in 30 snaps against the Chiefs in the AFC title game, earning and catching all four targets in the process, while getting another 12 touches in the running game. Since returning from injury in week 13, he’s earned two or more targets in all but two games, catching all but two of said targets. The name of the game with Belichick is uncertainty in his backfield, and so while Sony Michel and White appear to be the lead backs there, look for Rex to get just enough of a look to get you over.
Counterpoint: Bill is going to pick a player to bench for this Super Bowl, sexy Rexy is probability at the top of this list.
Pick: the OVER hits
Point: Sneaks and kneel downs. If you get one of each in this one, you clear this number without requiring the ageless quarterback to take off and run at all. Even without both, the Rams defense is great at generating pressure, so look for the likelihood that Brady scrambles at least once to increase, and with a total closer to 60 than 50, look for there to be plenty of opportunity for Tommy to pick up an extra yard via sneak either in the middle of the field or at the goal line. Hammer the over here.
Semi-Serious Additional Picks:
Nantz/Romo Don’t Mention the Spread (-400): Hello friends… Jim Nantz is as much a company man as any. He is also gearing up for the Masters, which requires perfect composure. With CBS saying the spread will not be mentioned there is no way that the sweet Honeycrisp, melodic tones of Mr. Nantz touch on such a low-brow topic. There is a better chance that Nantz harkens to the host city by whispering a few lines from the Ying Yang Twins.
Meanwhile, next to Nantz we will have “OHHHHH JIIIIMMMMMMM I DON’T KNOW JIM, IT LOOKS LIKE THIS ONE IS GONNA BE CLOSE.” Tony is finally getting a chance to play in the big game now that he’s free from the Jason Garrett shackles. Tony is all about the football; he will be too busy telling everyone that Brady is throwing to Gronk when he’s iso-left with single coverage, or that we might see a run to the right when everyone on the field motions to the right. No need to put earmuffs on the children; they won’t hear anything that might damage ears that have only listened to music about acting like Mother Teresa and TV shows that deal with wholesome topics at all times.