Super Bowl LI: Is This the Best Offensive Championship Game Ever?
I'm not saying it.
I will not say it.
There are two sides to football, and this season, the Super Bowl will be won by one of the best offenses in football.
Whether it's the Atlanta Falcons or the New England Patriots who emerge, I don't care. What I do care about -- for now at least -- is that the Falcons and Patriots had some of the best offenses in NFL history this season.
And this is going to be one of the best offensive championship games ever.
But is it the best matchup of opposing offenses in Super Bowl history?
At numberFire, we have a metric called Net Expected Points (NEP), which measures a team's efficiency in terms of adding expected points to the scoreboard.
A drive from a team's own 10 to the red zone that ends with a missed field goal won't necessarily show up in the box score as a great offensive drive without those points, but NEP will show that a team increased their scoring odds by reversing field position drastically. What's the difference between a 10-yard pass on 3rd-and-5 inside the red zone and a 10-yard pass on 3rd-and-20 at midfield? NEP accounts for that.
Teams run roughly 1,000 plays per season, and these differences add up.
According to our Adjusted NEP per play metric (which helps us adjust for opponent strength and volume), the Falcons had the best offense since 2000, as far back as our NEP database goes. Their 0.26 Adjusted NEP per play, meaning they added roughly a full point of expected scoring every four plays, was one of just five seasons above 0.20.
The Patriots posted a mark of 0.18, 3rd in 2016 and 13th-best since 2000.
Of course, with the increased offensive efficiency in recent years -- the top 13 seasons since 1966 by yards per play have all been since 2000 -- current offensive performance needs to be treated with a grain of salt, even when comparing this season to one from the early 2000s.
So, if we compare these two offenses in terms of standard deviations of their Adjusted NEP relative the average offense of their given season (to help adjust for the yearly norm), what do we find?
The Falcons' 276.84 Adjusted NEP was 2.29 standard deviations from the 2016 NFL average of 78.04. That separation from the rest of the league ranked seventh since 2000.
New England (1.47 standard deviations from the 2016 average with an Adjusted NEP of 205.51) ranked 39th offensively since 2000 after adjusting for the yearly average. (They actually own the top two seasons by this method; in 2007, they were 2.85 standard deviations above the rest of the NFL, and in 2010, they were 2.66 standard deviations from the mean.)
But we're focusing on the combined offenses here. And that suggests is the best offensive Super Bowl in the NEP era.
in Adjusted NEP
in Adjusted NEP
And it's not particularly close. Of course, no method will ever really please everyone, and NEP doesn't give us insight into any Super Bowls before 2000.
What if we look at more traditional stats to see where this game ranks all-time?
Among the 1,482 seasons in the Super Bowl era (so, since 1966), the 2016 Falcons' regular season offense ranked fourth in yards per play (6.686). They were also fifth in points per play scored (0.543). Naturally, both of those marks ranked first in the NFL this season.
New England ranked sixth in yards per play and fourth in points per play this season. Their 5.852 yards per play ranked 105th in this timeframe, and their 0.418 points per play ranked 137th.
When adjusting for the season (the NFL averaged 5.481 yards per play this season, most in the Super Bowl era), the Falcons' 2.54 standard deviations relative to the rest of the league ranked them 9th, and the Patriots (0.78) ranked 327th. That's not a great start, but that includes (of course) every team to play since 1966 and not just Super Bowl contenders.
By points per play, the 2016 season (0.356) ranked second behind the 2013 season (0.360).
The Falcons (0.543 points per play) rank fifth after adjusting for the seasonal average. New England (0.418 points per play, 0.99 standard deviations) comes in 238th.
So, the Patriots were clearly an above average offense, even when factoring in the changes in efficiency and playing four games without Tom Brady and multiple games without other playmakers, and the Falcons were one of the most efficient regular season offenses ever.
But this isn't the best offensive matchup ever.
The Best Offensive Super Bowls Ever
Using our method of standard deviations from seasonal averages, here are the top matchups by yards per play in Super Bowl history.
|Season||Super Bowl||NFC||AFC||Combined SD|
|1984||XIX||San Francisco 49ers||Miami Dolphins||5.11|
|1988||XXIII||San Francisco 49ers||Cincinnati Bengals||3.42|
|1971||VI||Dallas Cowboys||Miami Dolphins||3.41|
|2016||LI||Atlanta Falcons||New England Patriots||3.32|
By this measure, Super Bowl LI is the fifth-best offensive matchup in Super Bowl history.
Only seven total matchups had combined deviations greater than three, but this game certainly doesn't have anything on some of the San Francisco 49ers' shootouts in the 1980s, particularly Super Bowl XIX against the Miami Dolphins.
By points per play, this game also stacks up pretty well.
|Season||Super Bowl||NFC||AFC||Combined SD|
|1984||XIX||San Francisco 49ers||Miami Dolphins||4.54|
|1997||XXXII||Green Bay Packers||Denver Broncos||4.21|
|2001||XXXVI||St. Louis Rams||New England Patriots||4.02|
|2016||LI||Atlanta Falcons||New England Patriots||4.01|
With the 1984 game topping each list, it's safe to say that Super Bowl LI won't quite earn top billing as the best offensive matchup ever, but it certainly stacks up, as only Super Bowl XIX and Super Bowl XXVI also rank inside the top five by each measure.
And it was just a matter of time before the Rams of the late 1990s and early 2000s made an appearance. Their 2001 squad had the best yards per play mark (6.644) and points per play mark (0.5000) after adjusting for the season average.
As much as we tried, this isn't an exact science by any means, and it doesn't account for recent play closer to the Super Bowl or the fact that this game will be Rob Gronkowski-less.
But if we take the full regular season into account and try to adjust for era, then this game -- even during an offensive gold rush -- is one of the best offensive matchups in Super Bowl history.