Super Bowl LI: The Keys to Beating the Falcons and Patriots
I finally saw Rogue One: A Star Wars Story this month, and I was blown away.
In the world of this story, the Jedi and the Sith are merely super-powered space fairytales. The story centers around the normal people who take up the cause, each of whom have flaws and blind spots; they aren’t perfect. In the course of that story, too, we found out that the Death Star space station’s glaring weakness was indeed an intentional design flaw by the architect.
Everything has a weak point; you just have to find it.
The margin for error in Sunday’s Super Bowl LI is much smaller than a womp rat, but the implications of this game are no less galactic. Two great teams will face off in the championship game, but which team has the most exploitable weakness -- and can the other team take advantage of it?
The Shields Are Down: Atlanta’s Run Defense
The Falcons have been on a roll since Week 12 of the regular season in all phases of the game. The passing attack has been as ferocious as a supercharged interstellar laser strike, and the running game has ground opposing defenses into dust and crushed uprisings of opponents everywhere.
Even their defensive secondary has struck fear into the hearts of others since then, allowing just a 4.55 percent touchdown rate while converting a 2.73 percent interception rate.
The only flaw in their team is so simple it seems impossible: right up the middle. The Atlanta run defense is the planned weakness that could be exploited but only in the perfect circumstances.
Since Week 12, the Falcons have produced 0.09 opponent-adjusted Defensive Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) per play, which would have been the second-worst rate in the league if extrapolated out to a full season.
NEP is a metric that describes the contribution a play (or player) makes to their team’s chances of scoring. By adding down-and-distance value to standard box score information, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.
Since that streak point for every other facet of Atlanta’s prowess in Week 12, opposing running backs have had a 44.72 percent Rushing Success Rate -- the percent of attempts that lead to a positive NEP gain.
To put that in perspective, running backs playing against Atlanta combined for a Rushing Success Rate around that of Le'Veon Bell and David Johnson. Atlanta has even allowed a first down rate that would be third-highest on the season if extrapolated to a full 16 games.
Teams can churn out yards on the ground against the Falcons. As long as the Patriots get ahead of the explosive offense, they can grind out the clock with LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis, keeping the ball out of the hands of the imperious Atlanta team.
I Can’t Shake Them: New England’s Receiving Corps
No one is surprised that quarterback Tom Brady is able to be an MVP player year-in, year-out, with the impressive scheming of his coaching staff and brilliant play that he himself is capable of. What is continually a shock is that he’s able to rally a group of ragtag receiving options nearly every season and turn them into a force to be reckoned with.
Consider this: only one New England pass-catcher received even 75 targets this season. Wide receiver Julian Edelman has become the bread-and-butter of this offense, and his 160 targets are more than double that of the next receiver for New England.
With tight end Rob Gronkowski injured, Martellus Bennett saw an extra workload and earned 73 targets in 2016, but Chris Hogan earned a paltry 58, Malcolm Mitchell picked up 48, and Danny Amendola was next with 29.
In addition, the receivers haven’t been prolifically productive by any means this season. The Patriots’ wide receivers have accrued the 6th-fewest Reception NEP this season, as well as the 13th-least Reception NEP per target and 13th-worst Reception Success Rate.
This indicates that the New England passing offense has been reliant primarily on short passes, high-percentage completions, and possession receptions to keep the chains moving. It’s not pretty or impressive, but it’s necessary to continue their imperial march down the field and on toward dynasty.
However, this means that if the Atlanta defensive backs can shut down the New England receiving game, perhaps there’s a chance the Falcons get ahead and never look back in this game. Jalen Collins has been incredible over the last two months of the season, as have Robert Alford and Brian Poole, and they could certainly shut down the plucky but non-dominant New England receiving corps.
The NFL universe hangs in the balance of this game; whichever group seizes the opportunity that they've been given will reign supreme.