Super Bowl LI: 5 X-Factors for the Falcons and Patriots

Which of the super-powered individuals in Super Bowl LI will turn the game for their team?

Whenever I hear the term X-factor, I bet I am one of the few people who immediately think of the comic book in Marvel’s X-Men series.

The X-Men, if you aren’t familiar, are a superhero team that consists of people with super powers resulting from genetic mutations; X-Factor was a splinter group off of the main team. They became a way to flesh out the X-Men universe alongside the main storylines of the comic; while not central, they provided important turning points for the world.

When we look at the storylines present in Super Bowl LI between the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots, there is a lot of rich backstory to be told that will fill in our understanding of the main game. Sure, you can watch the game without comprehending some of the finer points of who is in it, but to really immerse in the world of this year’s “Big Game,” you have to consider all the narratives.

In our X-factors columns, we like to identify important players, matchups, or narratives -- ones that could turn the tide of the game -- and there are plenty of super-powered individuals who will be suiting up on Super Bowl Sunday.

Which ones will have the edge in the title game?

Wide Open

Last week alone, Patriots wideout Chris Hogan and Falcons’ star receiver Julio Jones put up identical 180-yard, 2-touchdown days, both with 9 catches on 12 targets. These performances were both among the top-10 receiving yards days on the season.

The NFL playoffs have been good to both teams’ wide receiving corps.

The table below shows the Atlanta and New England wide receivers’ per-game production from their 12th game of the season onward, among those receivers with at least 30 targets in that span.

Player Tm Targ/G Rec/G RecYd/G RecTD/G
Julian Edelman NE 11.86 7.14 106.29 0.29
Julio Jones ATL 9.00 6.60 103.20 0.80
Chris Hogan NE 5.57 4.00 70.57 0.57
Taylor Gabriel ATL 5.17 3.33 49.33 0.33

Julian Edelman serves as the Patriots’ reliable possession target with nearly 12 targets per game, while Hogan is the low-volume, high-impact downfield threat for New England. Behind them, tight end Martellus Bennett has been a red-zone threat, but not much else; he’s scored three touchdowns in their last seven games.

Atlanta is a little more one-dimensional in their receiving group, clearly, with Jones as judge, jury, and executioner. Taylor Gabriel did fill in admirably when Jones and Mohamed Sanu were both injured, and Sanu himself is averaging 45.60 yards and 0.60 touchdowns per game over the last five, when he was finally healthy again from a groin injury.

The top-end impact advantage clearly goes to Atlanta in this one, but the Patriots have an edge in the depth and variety of their pass-catchers.

“Over-The-Hill” vs. In-Their-Prime

They say “age before beauty” and “respect your elders,” but the Falcons are going to come into this Super Bowl looking to greatly disrespect the reigning monarchs of the NFL. Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan enters this game at the sprightly age of 31, while his elder, Pats passer Tom Brady, clocks in at a wizened 39.

Brady is clearly on the back-nine of his NFL career, but does his age mean he can’t be effective in the postseason?

The table below examines the quarterbacks in each age group and their average production in playoff games since 2000. Is it better to have youth or wisdom at crunch time?

QB Playoff Age Win% Comp% Yd/Att TD% Int%
29-32 46.46% 62.04% 7.04 4.41% 3.21%
38-plus 65.52% 64.47% 7.18 5.75% 2.57%

Shockingly, the old geezers take the cake across the board for this one. Brady will be playing just the 30th player-game for a quarterback 38 years old or more in the new millennium, but it’s safe to say those aging quarterbacks don’t get to those games without being really, really talented.

As a matter of fact, Brady himself makes up seven of those 38-plus appearances, with a 6-1 record in those games; age 29-32 Brady was just 4-3 in the postseason.

No Negativity

This game may be a shootout, not just because both offenses have high-powered weapons, but because they both do a good job at limiting losses of yards. The easiest way to ensure you go forward? Just don’t go backward.

Over their last four games, New England has been particularly stingy in allowing sacks, limiting opponents to the seventh-fewest in that span (3.50 percent), while Atlanta ranks 16th (5.56 percent). Over the same span of time, they have ranked both in the bottom half of sack rate against their opponents -- New England is 10th-worst and Atlanta is 15th-lowest.

Where things begin to separate themselves is in the run game.

The Atlanta running backs, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, have been incredible performers this year. However, Freeman has been stopped for a loss on a ridiculous 14.50 percent of his rushing attempts this year -- sixth-most among the 42 running backs with at least 100 carries. Coleman, at least, is the 18th-lowest in this metric.

LeGarrette Blount, New England’s big back rusher, has been stuffed 11.40 percent of the time, the 16th-most among these rushers. Dion Lewis, however, has been stopped behind the line on 6.30 percent of his carries; while he has just 64 rushes, he would be the fifth-lowest in this metric if he qualified.

New England’s line just happens to keep them cleaner than Atlanta’s.

Playing Catch-Up

The great strength of both teams is they get ahead of the opponent early and then coast on offense, while the defense is allowed to play with as little pressure as possible. They have good enough offenses to race opponents and good enough defenses to stall other teams out.

But one of them is going to be playing from behind at some point. Which team is better at making comebacks?

The table below shows each team’s win percentage when playing from a tie game or a deficit at the end of each quarter. Who’s better at late-game heroics?

Team Q1 Games Q2 Games Q3 Games
Atlanta 57.1% 7 20.0% 5 0.0% 3
New England 66.7% 3 33.3% 3 0.0% 2

The answer: neither. Neither team has much experience this year playing from behind, so whichever gets off to the faster start will likely win out. If it’s a tie game going into the fourth quarter, all bets are off.

Strength of Schedule

There’s been a lot of talk about how the Patriots have had a cakewalk schedule, while the Falcons had one of the most difficult schedules on the season. This is somewhat true, as traditional methods of measuring seem to give the edge to the Falcons (.555 SOS), whose opponents went 142-115 in 2015, as opposed to the Patriots (.523 SOS), who played teams that went a collective 134-122. That said, based on 2017 strength-of-schedule, the Falcons (.494) had a much easier time than the Patriots (.527).

So, who’s right? Which team is more prepared for this game by having had its mettle tested?

Our nERD metric analyzes a team's productivity and prowess on the field, giving us a succinct number that we would expect each team to beat (or lose to) a league-average team by. The table below shows the combined nERD of each of the Falcons' and Patriots’ opponents this year. Who had the tougher SOS by our analytics?

Team Opp nERD
Atlanta 1.48
New England -37.09

Both of these scores were fairly low because the two best teams in the league were the Falcons and Patriots themselves, and each of these teams played the San Francisco 49ers (-9.88 nERD) and Los Angeles Rams (-11.32) this season, dropping their values.

The Patriots, however, took advantage of a schedule that also included the Cleveland Browns (-9.57) and two games against the New York Jets (-6.70). The only other negative opponents Atlanta faced were the Carolina Panthers (-1.54).

When averaging the nERD of their opponents, rather than adding it up, it’s clear who has had better tests: the Falcons’ average opponent was a league-average 0.09, while the Patriots’ average would have been the ninth-worst team in the league if it existed. The Falcons are just as prepared for this game, and possibly more so.