Super Bowl LII Preview: A Numbers-Driven Look at This Weekend's Big Game
Nick Foles' mom didn't even expect this.
In case you missed it, the Eagles are in the Super Bowl. And their leader under center is Nick bleeping Foles.
This didn't happen by accident. Well, I mean, it kind of did -- Carson Wentz's ACL tear in Week 14 certainly wasn't planned. But Foles has played well above expectation since taking over as Philly's starting passer, and the Eagles are deservedly playing for a Lombardi this weekend.
They'll have to beat Tom Brady, though.
This is the fourth time in seven years that the Patriots are in the championship. Are we shocked? No, not at all. Entering the season, numberFire's algorithm gave New England a 17.1% chance to win it all. Those odds were 11% higher than any other team in football.
Unsurprisingly, New England's a decent 4.5-point favorite in this weekend's game.
But don't count out the Eagles.
New England fans will openly admit that this isn't close to the best Patriots team assembled during this multi-decade dynasty. In fact, according to our numbers, the Patriots weren't even a top-five team in the league this year performance-wise. Our nERD metric, which looks at the number of points we'd expect a team to win by against an average one on a neutral field, pegs the Patriots with a 6.79 rating (this is all algorithm-based), meaning we'd expect them to beat an average squad by about a touchdown.
They were actually far worse earlier this season, too, specifically before their bye week.
When Week 9 hit, the Patriots had a nERD rating that wasn't much above average. Though they had six wins and just two losses, a lot of their wins came in close games: they beat the Texans by 3, the Buccaneers by 5, the Jets by 7, and the Chargers by 8.
And throughout the season, the Eagles were mostly the better team of the two playing on Sunday. Things peaked around the same time Carson Wentz suffered his season-ending ACL tear, and they've seen a net loss in nERD since that occurred. Nevertheless, the Eagles were a more complete team this season by the all-encompassing metric.
That, of course, doesn't mean they're a lock to win. Not even close.
Nick Foles is the biggest x-factor in this Super Bowl. It's an easy, obvious conclusion to draw, but it's the truth.
And it's because, first off, quarterbacks matter a lot. It's still very much a passing league, and quarterback efficiency correlates pretty well to overall team success.
Second, though, is that Foles has had pretty strange production since taking over for Philadelphia. Our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric -- which you can read more about in our glossary -- paints an interesting picture.
|Passing NEP||Per Drop Back||Success%|
To give you some context around what these numbers mean, the average Passing NEP per drop back rate this season across the league was roughly 0.06. Foles has been almost five times as efficient as the average passer. And from a Success Rate standpoint, anything at or above 50% would be considered strong. That, clearly, is where Foles is at.
Our own Brandon Gdula made the point earlier in the week that Foles' numbers are basically identical to Tom Brady's. They've got the same Passing NEP per drop back rate and Success Rate, or the percentage of throws that go for positive expected points.
Naturally, we're working with a small sample size here with Foles. But even in just four games, we've seen some extreme play from the backup signal-caller. Week 16 against Oakland featured a horrific -0.28 Passing NEP per drop back, and then the NFC Championship saw Foles go nuts for a 0.83 rate.
We all saw what Foles did in that contest against Minnesota less than two weeks ago. He finished the game with 352 yards and 3 scores, torching the talented Vikings secondary. But a lot of that performance was, quite simply, unsustainable. Take a look at how he fared on deep balls (throws that traveled 15 or more yards through the air) during that game versus every other long ball pass he's thrown since becoming the starter:
|Deep Ball Throws||Deep Ball Completions||Rate||Yds||TD||INT|
|Every Other Start||18||2||11.11%||33||0||1|
Like I said, his performance wasn't exactly sustainable.
If you were to pinpoint one reason the Eagles stomped the Vikings, it was because of this table. It was because Nick Foles was an animal when throwing it deep.
During the regular season, only two teams faced more of these types of passes than New England, but the Patriots allowed a completion on just 32.50% of those tosses, which was the sixth-best rate in the league.
It probably wouldn't be wise to attack the Patriots in this manner, unless the Eagles are looking to play a super high-variance game. They're better than that, though. And there are ways to successfully hit this New England defense.
Attacking New England Through the Air
Recency Bias may tell us that the Eagles need to heave it deep to win, because that's what they did against Minnesota. But as we just saw, asking Foles to do that probably doesn't make a lot of sense given his deep ball performance in literally every other start this season.
The good news is that New England's secondary is beatable (they rank as a bottom-10 one according to our schedule-adjusted numbers), and they're beatable where Foles would hypothetically be able to consistently beat them.
On short and intermediate passes this year -- balls that aren't traveling 15 or more air yards -- the Patriots allowed the fifth-most yards per play. In the regular season, they surrendered the third-most. All the while, on these types of throws this season, Foles has racked up a 103.7 passer rating. Among the 42 quarterbacks with 100 or more short tosses this season (includes the playoffs), that rating is fifth-best.
A lot of Philadelphia's passing offense funnels through the tight end position. During the regular season, the team's tight ends accounted for 32.16% of Philadelphia's passing yards, the third-highest mark in the NFL. Unfortunately for them, New England surrendered the 10th-fewest yards to the tight end position this season despite giving up the 3rd-most passing yards. Perhaps the Eagles force feed Zach Ertz on those short passes, but it wouldn't be shocking at all to see the Philly wide receivers get more looks than usual closer to the line of scrimmage.
That's especially true of Nelson Agholor, who will draw Eric Rowe in the slot. Agholor had the lowest average depth of target among relevant Philly wide receivers this season, and Rowe allowed the eighth-most yards per coverage snap among 55 relevant slot receivers this year according to Pro Football Focus. That's a matchup for the Eagles to exploit.
The Ground Game
People probably think the Eagles offense is driven by their running game -- especially now that Foles is quarterbacking the offense -- but that's not really the case. In the regular season, Philadelphia ranked 22nd in pass-to-rush attempt ratio, but that's where they should rank as a winning team. Good teams have the lead more, and teams leading tend to grind down clock.
What's been interesting with the shift over to Foles is that the Eagles haven't really changed their pass-to-rush tendencies. In fact, they've become more pass-friendly in neutral (when the game margin is within six points) game situations.
|Neutral Game Script||Pass||Rush||Ratio|
This isn't a bad thing, per se. New England started the season off with one of the worst rush defenses in the entire league, but things have really shifted over the second half of the year. Prior to their Week 9 bye, the Patriots had allowed a 44.70% Success Rate to opposing running backs, the third-worst in the league. That's dropped to about 38% since, and they've had the fifth-best rush defense by Success Rate since Week 12.
New England's especially been good at stopping runs to the left side of the field, which just so happens to be where Jay Ajayi has really made a mark since joining the Eagles in Week 9. The table below highlights this, showing the yards per carry averages on directional runs in particular splits.
|Patriots Rush D, Weeks 1-9||4.61||4.98||5.64|
|Patriots Rush D, Weeks 10-20||3.96||4.33||4.56|
|Eagles Since Ajayi Trade||6.02||3.79||4.33|
Ajayi's had one of the highest yards per carry averages in football since becoming an Eagle, and big runs have played a part in that. According to SharpFootballStats.com, of the 32 10-plus yard runs that Philly running backs have had since Ajayi entered the picture, 15 have occurred on the left side of the line, while 9 have happened on the right. And 11 of those runs saw the running back bounce to the outside on the left side of the field.
From strictly a rush defense standpoint, that's where New England's been strongest, as you can see in the table above. And since their bye -- since the rush defense has turned the corner -- they've allowed only four 10-plus yard runs to the left outside part of the field. It'll be an interesting battle to watch on Sunday.
Traditionally, teams who've been able to generate natural pressure on Tom Brady -- not pressure just on blitzes -- have had the most success against New England. That's why the Giants were able to beat the Patriots in multiple Super Bowls over the last decade.
This season's been a little different, though. According to Pro Football Focus, when the pocket's been clean this year, Brady's had a 105.0 quarterback rating. Nothing wrong with that, as it's ninth-best in the league, but it's far from his 123.0 clean pocket rating last season.
Brady also was far better this year against non-blitzed pressure (103.1 rating) than blitzed pressure (73.0), per Pro Football Focus' Pat Thorman. As Thorman shows, "the Eagles had the league’s highest quarterback pressure rate (41%) on the 23rd-highest blitz rate (23%)."
We shouldn't let a one-year sample change the way we view Brady against the blitz, and overall, pressure against Brady is still better than no pressure at all, even if he was the best quarterback by rating under pressure this year (96.0 rating). And, fortunately, the Eagles are good at getting in an opposing quarterback's face.
But there's one piece to this Philadelphia defense where New England may have a big advantage.
An Area to Exploit
The 2017 campaign saw Tom Brady throw it deep more often than we'd essentially ever seen.
|Year||15+ Yd Att Rate||15+ Comp Rate||15+ Percentage of Total Yds|
Brady threw it 15 or more yards through the air on 20.48% of his passes, a high since the 2011 season. And nearly 34% of his passing yards came on those throws, also a high.
With the increased number of deep balls thrown, Brady saw a smaller percentage of his yards coming after the catch versus through the air.
|Year||YAC Per Attempt||% YAC Yards||% Air Yards|
Why did this happen? One answer could be the lack of Julian Edelman in the offense, a player who's consistently had a lower average depth of target and, in turn, a better yards after the catch rate. Why is this important? Well, the Eagles finished second this season in percentage of passing yards allowed coming after the catch. Meaning, a large majority of the yards they allowed through the air came after a receiver caught the ball.
Like the Patriots, Philadelphia struggled a bit on short and intermediate throws this season, specifically to the middle of the field, where they allowed the third-most yards per passing play in the league. Brady was a top-five player in passer rating on these types of tosses. The two players who benefitted most were Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski, who ranked in the top-15 in targets to the short middle area of the field.
Amendola's been a monster in this year's playoffs for New England, grabbing hold of 22 targets in just two contests, accounting for over 24% of New England's targets. He should continue to play a role on Super Bowl Sunday.
Stopping the Run
Philadelphia boasts the league's fourth-best run defense according to our schedule-adjusted numbers, and that could be big because, since New England's bye, the Patriots have been a more run-heavy team. From Weeks 1 through 9, New England had a pass-to-rush ratio of 1.50. Since that point -- and this includes the playoffs, where they've thrown the ball more often -- that ratio's dropped to 1.41. And New England's rushing offense in this split has gone from ranking 21st in efficiency to 7th, per our numbers. The combination of Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead played a role in this, as they started working more significantly in tandem out of the backfield after the bye week.
The fact that Philadelphia can stop the run, though, means the Patriots are more than likely going to approach this contest with a more pass-friendly game plan. And they'll probably utilize shorter tosses, as that's where the Eagles have struggled, and it can really combat the Philadelphia pass rush.
Because, as we know, of all the teams in football, New England's the one that game plans around weaknesses best.
No example of this is better than the divisional round of this year's playoffs, where they faced a Tennessee D that struggled mightily against the pass but could stop the run effectively. Brady came out and threw the ball a season high 53 times even though the Patriots had a pretty comfortable lead throughout the contest.
Expecting a huge Dion Lewis game on the ground probably isn't wise, but the running backs will more than likely be involved in the passing game.
If you're an Eagles fan, perhaps the scariest part about this game is the location. Because away from home this season, Philadelphia's been a completely different team defensively.
|Road Points Per Game Allowed||Home Points Per Game Allowed||Difference|
No team in the NFL saw a larger difference in points allowed away from home than the Eagles this season. And while this isn't a road game in the traditional sense, it's still a frightening notion, and it needs to be stated.
And the Winner Is...
It's fitting that this year's Super Bowl may see two offenses throwing conservative passes, potentially many of them to their slot receivers. Because that's really what this era of the National Football League is about: efficient passing and the emergence of the slot receiver.
New England seems to have more going for them in this contest matchup-wise, but we have to keep in mind that this Patriots team has plenty of weaknesses. For all intents and purposes, the Eagles have been better this season. They may not have their star quarterback on Sunday, but the Eagles, in sum, have been better.
Unfortunately, that change under center may be what ruins their story in the end. The Patriots are favorites. The Patriots know how to game plan.
The Patriots are, well, the Patriots.
And our algorithm gives them a 62.9% chance of winning this weekend's Super Bowl.