Super Bowl LI: Who Has the Special Teams Edge?

With such a tight game expected, special teams could swing the NFL's championship game. Which team has the advantage?

No matter who you ask, Super Bowl LI should be a close game.

Well, fans of the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots might not think so, but oddsmakers project a close game (with the Patriots favored by three), and our algorithm gives New England a 54.3% chance to earn yet another Super Bowl ring.

Both offenses are elite. The Falcons' unit is pretty much unstoppable when factoring in their running back duo, and the Patriots' keeps clicking even without their best pass-catcher.

The defenses are good enough to win, even if New England's is a tad overrated.

With all of that in mind, special teams could play a big factor in deciding this one. Which team has the edge there?

The Analytics

Taking all of the various aspects of special teams into account can make it hard to compare two different units, but we actually have that covered with our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric.

A drive starting on the 50 doesn't have the same expected outcome as a drive starting on a team's own 10. Why, then, should a short punt be considered below average if it pins an opponent deep?

NEP factors in all these variables on each play to show just how well a player or team is performing.

Unfortunately for our attempt to determine which side has an advantage, the Patriots and Falcons were nearly identical in Total Special Teams NEP during the 2016 regular season.

The Patriots ranked ninth in Special Teams NEP, with a score of 16.62, meaning they earned roughly 17 points in their favor because of special teams play. The Falcons ranked 10th with a mark of 16.02.

The way they got there, however, was vastly different.

Special Teams NEP Offensive Defensive Total
New England Patriots 38.72 (9th) 22.10 (13th) 16.62
Atlanta Falcons 57.51 (2nd) 41.46 (24th) 16.05

The Patriots hovered around the top 12 in both generating and limiting expected points on special teams. Atlanta was one of the most vulnerable teams in the league on special teams plays but made up for it with an explosive offensive special teams.


Kickers, of course, are a big part of the special teams game, and in name, there are two great ones squaring off in Super Bowl LI. Based on the 2016 performance, though, one team has a clear edge.

In the regular season, Stephen Gostkowski earned a Field Goal NEP of 7.41, which ranked 19th among 30 kickers with at least 25 attempts. Per attempt, he also ranked 19th. But in the late-game (fourth quarter and overtime), he posted the 12th-best per-attempt score among those kickers.

Gostkowski did have his weakest showing since his rookie campaign, according to our metrics, but he has gone 5 for 5 on field goals in the postseason, all from within 49 yards, and is 7 for 8 on extra points, as well.

Matt Bryant, conversely, finished with 22.52 Field Goal NEP in the regular season, ranking second overall and fourth on a per-attempt basis. His late-game Field Goal NEP per attempt, though, was 11th, just narrowly besting Gostkowski's. So far in the postseason, he is 3 for 3 on field goals (all between 20 and 39 yards) and 9 of 10 on extra points.

Bryant's recent form might give him the edge, but both kickers are some of the most capable in the NFL.


Punters don't get much love, unless they're Marquette King or Johnny Hekker, but that applied in a different way to Atlanta's punter this year: Matt Bosher.

He attempted just 44 punts all season, and Atlanta attempted just 46 during the regular season (Matt Wile punted 2 away this year for the Falcons). Bosher averaged 46.8 yards per punt, ranking seventh among qualified punters, and his 41.6 net average ranked sixth.

Remember the part where the Falcons had a weak defensive special teams? Well, part of that is that they allowed 10.0 return yards per punt from Bosher, fifth-most in the NFL.

For New England, Ryan Allen attempted all 72 of their punts, racking up an average of 44.7 yards (21st in the NFL) but a net average of 41.4 (7th). His 72 punts were returned for an average of 5.0 yards per pop -- second-best in the NFL to only Hekker's 4.3.

Allen's net average has dropped to 36.6 yards on 8 punts this postseason, and the Pats have allowed 14.7 return yards per punt, most in the playoffs. But the success over the 72 regular season punts is a big part of why the Patriots were a top-13 squad in limiting expected points from opposing special teams units.

So, who has the edge? The Falcons.

Punter Punts NEP NEP per Punt
Matt Bosher 50 9.10 0.182
Ryan Allen 81 14.44 0.178


Return Games

One overlooked aspect of return games is the kickoff. That's especially true when we already know that the Falcons have had a superior offensive special teams.

But based on the analytics, New England's kickoff performance trumps Atlanta's.

KickoffsKickoffsKickoff NEPNEP per Kickoff
New England110-3.31-0.030

Kicking the ball away isn't exactly a great way to increase your chances to score -- after all, you're giving the ball to the other team -- but the Patriots mitigated the damage much better than the Falcons did, and that could very well play a big factor in the big game.

On the flip side, on 23 kick return attempts as a team during the regular season, the Falcons averaged 21.0 yards (21st in the NFL). The Patriots took 29 returns for just 18.7 yards on average (27th).

But by NEP, the Falcons have a pretty substantial edge over the Patriots in the return game. When excluding touchbacks, the Falcons averaged 0.50 NEP per kickoff return, compared to just 0.25 for the Patriots.

And with New England's punt return struggles -- five total muffs and two lost fumbles -- they actually lost 0.12 expected points, on average, on their punt returns. The Falcons earned 0.19 NEP on average.


The cumulative NEP scores were close for a reason.

Matt Bryant has fared well for one of the best offenses in history, but we all know that Stephen Gostkowski is no stranger to big-time kicks. The punters are nearly equally successful this season, too.

What it might all come down to, then, is which wins out: the Falcons' superior return game or the Patriots' ability to stifle it.