Super Bowl LII: Which Team Has the Special Teams Edge?
Any time two NFL teams square off for just a single game, anything can happen. Upsets happen all the time.
That includes the oft-overlooked realm of special teams. Which team has the upper hand in Super Bowl LII?
Special Teams Breakdown
If you're a frequent reader of numberFire, you know about our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric by now. Every play is different. Down and distances are different, expectations are different -- everything is just not the same. So a 15-yard pass on 3rd-and-20 looks fine in the box score but not by NEP. That's a losing play in terms of expected points added. Conversely, a two-yard pass on 3rd-and-1 moves the sticks and increases expected scoring.
That principle translates into special teams, too.
Here are each team's overall Special Teams NEP scores for this season, both for and against. Defensive scores should be lower, as they indicate points allowed.
|Offensive Special Teams NEP||49.75 (9th)||42.17 (15th)|
|Defensive Special Teams NEP||12.81 (4th)||28.32 (9th)|
|Special Teams NEP||36.94 (3rd)||13.85 (10th)|
|Special Teams NEP/Game||2.31||0.87|
Based on these numbers, both squads have had top-10 special teams units on the full season, but the Pats have been markedly better. That's roughly a 1.5-point-per-game discrepancy based on special teams alone. That could be just enough to swing the big game.
But how do each stack up in individual areas?
The game is going to start with a kickoff. After that, nobody knows anything.
Here is how both teams fare in that area -- including the playoffs.
|Kickoff NEP per Kick||-0.11||-0.19|
|Kickoff Return NEP||26.77||13.24|
|Kickoff Return NEP/Return||0.33||0.18|
You rarely gain expected points by kicking the ball to the other team, so losing points there makes sense, but the Pats both lose fewer points per kick and gain more on a per-return basis than do the Eagles.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has been on record as being a fan of the new(ish) kickoff rule that places touchbacks on the 25, and their advantage over the Eagles is evident in the numbers.
Here's what NEP has to say about the punt and return games for both sides this season.
|Punting NEP per Punt||0.14||0.02|
|Punt Return NEP||1.11||-0.06|
|Punt Return NEP/Return||0.01||0.00|
Again, the Pats come out on top, especially in Punting NEP. It's not really a surprise that New England holds an edge on both kickoffs and punts, given their top-three status in the league in overall Special Teams NEP, but this certainly suggests that the field position battle could favor New England given their punt team success.
Last but certainly not least, we have a battle between Jake Elliott and Stephen Gostkowski for field goals and extra points. With New England's tendency to win Super Bowls by three to six points, every kick will count.
This one is close, but Elliott has outperformed Gostkowski this season, adding 0.51 Field Goal NEP per attempt, compared to 0.48 for Gostkowski.
Elliott is 5 for 6 on 50-plus yard attempts this season, 12 of 13 from 40 to 49 yards out, and just 4 of 7 from 30 to 39 yards. He also missed an extra point against the Atlanta Falcons in the Divisional Round. Still, the 23-year-old kicker is 10 of 11 in the fourth quarter this year (Gostkowski is 8 of 9).
Gostkowski is four for five on field goals longer than 50 yards, if you include his miss in the Divisional Round against the Tennessee Titans. The only range he's missed from is 40 to 49 yards, where he's 8 for 11 this season.
Our algorithms view the Patriots as 64% favorites in this game, and they're favored by 4.5 points, per bookmakers. That's still a tight enough spread where special teams could sway the game one way or the other.
Unfortunately for Eagles fans, the Patriots essentially match or best Philadelphia in the major facets of special teams, according to our numbers.