Do the Patriots or Seahawks Have the Edge at Special Teams?

This game is projected to be close, so special teams might impact the game significantly. Who has the advantage?

By all accounts, Super Bowl XLIX is shaping up to be one of the closest of all time.

And while Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski and the polarizingly different duo of Russell Wilson and Richard Sherman are affixed on the marquee of this game, special teams might swing the outcome one way or another.

If that's the case, which team would be better off in a battle of field position? New England or Seattle?

The Metrics

If you're new to numberFire, first of all, welcome! But if that's the case, you'll need to be introduced to our signature metric: Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP indicates how many points above or below expectation a player or team adds (or subtracts) has played over the course of a regular season.

So, if, say, Russell Wilson runs for 10 yards on a 3rd-and-11 from his own 20, he gets 10 yards to his rushing total, but the team had to punt. If he runs for 10 yards on 3rd-and-9, he gets a first down, and the Seahawks get an improved chance for scoring. Wilson gets credit for that even though the yardage is the same.

With that in mind, we also have NEP data for special teams. So now we can ask the real question: which unit has been better in the regular season?

The short answer is the Patriots. The long answer also is the Patriots.

TeamOffensive ST NEPDefensive ST NEPTotal ST NEP
Patriots61.20 (3)-2.13 (1)63.33 (1)
Seahawks34.08 (21)35.96 (12)-1.88 (16)

The Patriots had, by a significant margin, the best special teams in the NFL this year. They were the only team, too, with a Defensive Special Teams NEP below zero, which means that they actually took points off the board of their opponents as a net result of their defensive special teams. Maybe there is something to that left-footed punter idea.

Their Total Special Teams NEP (the sum of their Offensive and Defensive Special Teams NEPs) was more than 15 points better than the next best team's (Philadelphia's was 48.19). Only two other teams had a Total Special Teams NEP greater than 30: St. Louis (40.50) and Indianapolis (35.15).

Seattle combined to have just an average special teams unit overall but were only a few points from 11th place (Miami's Total Special Teams NEP was 0.96). There's really nothing in the numbers that really narrows the gap, though.

In fact, New England's Total Special Teams NEP of 63.33 is the seventh-best overall score for any team since we started collecting data in 2000. Ahead of them? The 2008 Raiders (74.53), the 2007 Bears (74.39), the 2011 49ers (70.01), the 2001 Bears (68.80), the 2000 Panthers (66.94), and the 2000 Pats (64.85).

As for the defensive side of things, the Pats this year were just one of five teams ever to post a Defensive Special Teams NEP below zero, ranking in the middle of the 2001 Bears (-5.15), the 2002 Pats (-3.90), the 2000 Pats (-0.92), and the 2001 Ravens (-0.12).

In the Super Bowl -- or any single game for that matter -- anything can happen. But if the field position battle becomes critical in this game, then New England should have the edge. With Brady and Gronk stealing the headlines, the historically-good New England special teams unit doesn't get much love, but it could very well be a key factor come February 1st.