Super Bowl XLIX Analytical Preview: Is There Actually a Favorite?
We've said it a lot over the last two weeks: Super Bowl XLIX is going to be close.
But that'll only happen if both the Patriots and Seahawks execute as they did throughout the entire 2014 NFL season. Let's not forget that last year's big game saw a Vegas spread of -2.5 in favor of the Broncos. And we know how that turned out. (*fart noise*)
We can only assume -- or at least hope -- that the real New England and Seattle teams will show up on Sunday. Because analytically, this game could not be tighter. And who doesn't want to watch a close championship game?
Both New England and Seattle enter Super Bowl XLIX (If you're curious, I'm pronouncing this "ex-licks") with similar regular-season resumes. Each team struggled at the beginning of the year, and many thought or assumed they wouldn't make it this far. They both ended the season strong, snagging one seeds in their conference playoffs. And both teams actually hit a wall during the regular season against the exact same opponent, the Kansas City Chiefs.
The chart below is a snapshot of their journey -- a look at how they moved through the regular season, in playoff odds form.
The main reason New England had better odds throughout the season was because their division was weaker. Seattle, on the other hand, had to fight off a surging Arizona Cardinals team and a 49ers squad that was talented enough to hang around for most of the year.
New England's lowest point in the season came after a Week 4 Monday night loss -- a beatdown -- to the Kansas City Chiefs. After the game, their probability of making the playoffs sat at a 17th-ranked 34.2 percent.
Seattle's loss to the Chiefs in Week 11 brought their playoff odds to a measly 45.6 percent, close to their worst playoff probability during the season.
Who knew Alex Smith was such a winner?
Since New England's loss in Week 4, they've fallen just once in a meaningful game. Seattle, on the other hand, hasn't lost a single contest since their matchup against Kansas City.
Two Outstanding Teams
According to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metrics, this season's Seattle Seahawks had the best rushing offense that we've seen since the turn of the century. They ended the year with a 93.50 Adjusted Rushing NEP total, which is silly when you consider only 12 teams were able to finish above zero within the metric -- this is because passing is far more efficient than running.
Not surprisingly, both Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch finished at the top of their positions in Rushing Net Expected Points. Lynch's 27.34 Rushing NEP total ranked 27th among running backs since 2000, while Wilson's 60.50 Rushing NEP was only worse than Michael Vick's 2004 campaign at quarterback.
(The reason quarterbacks tend to see higher Rushing NEP totals is because they typically pick up large chunks of yards when running, or more NEP, whereas it's easier for running backs to grind out small two-, three-, or four-yard runs.)
The Seahawks' defense wasn't as historic as their running game, but it was, once again, really good. After Week 17, the unit ranked third in the league in total defense when adjusted for strength of schedule, as the pass defense was third best and the rush defense ranked sixth.
The average defense this season -- the 16th-ranked Colts -- finished with an Adjusted Defensive NEP of 44.12 (this is an offensive-driven league, which is why this number isn't zero -- it's compared to all seasons since 2000). Seattle's was -36.11, which was 80.23 expected points above the median. In other words, the Seahawks' defense prevented roughly 80 fewer points from being scored than an average unit in 2014, or 5.01 points per game. In an NFL where a field goal often decides the outcome of a game, that's huge.
They'll have a tough test against New England's fourth-ranked offense though. After the first four weeks of the season, Tom Brady was the fourth-worst quarterback in the league according to Passing Net Expected Points. He finished the season fifth within the metric, and put together the sixth-best campaign of his career.
Brady's spike in production completely coincided with Rob Gronkowski's more prominent role in the Patriots' offense. Through four weeks, Gronk was averaging 6.5 targets per game, and the Pats' passing numbers were, as shown above, mediocre. From that point on through the end of the year, Gronk saw an average of 9.5 targets per contest and ended up with 22 more Reception Net Expected Points than any other tight end in the NFL.
Despite losing Stevan Ridley this season, the Patriots' running game was as strong as ever. Yes, Seattle's was far better -- historic, as I showed earlier -- but New England's rushing attack finished sixth in the league this year, and was only 0.33 Adjusted Rushing Net Expected Points away from the four spot.
For some context, though, Seattle's 93.50 Adjusted Rushing NEP was still 76.96 expected points higher than New England's this season. So while it's a strength for the Patriots, the Seahawks certainly run the ball much better.
Perhaps the most consistent area for New England this year, though, came from the pass defense. With free agent Darrelle Revis leading the way, the Patriots finished the year with the fourth-ranked secondary, behind Seattle by only a couple of expected points.
It seems like I just mentioned the entire roster for both teams, but there are weaknesses to these squads, if you want to call it that.
Where Are the Weaknesses?
Russell Wilson is a very good quarterback. In each of his first three seasons, he's finished as a top-10 passer in Total NEP (which factors in both passing and rushing). That's a very rare thing.
His passing efficiency in 2014 really declined though. Much of this had to do with poor receiving play (appetizers?), and we'll get to that in a second, but Wilson's Passing NEP went from 74.66 last year to 47.65 this season, as his per drop back NEP dipped by 0.07 Net Expected Points (0.17 to 0.10).
When adjusted for strength of opponent, the Seahawks' passing offense was an average 15th in the NFL this year. The Giants and Bills, according to our numbers, were better.
Seattle's receivers didn't exactly help Wilson, who, again, was a top-10 quarterback in 2014 when you factor in rushing. In terms of Reception NEP, which measures the number of points added on catches only, Doug Baldwin was the best Seahawks' receiver this season, ranking 39th in the NFL among wideouts. Jermaine Kearse was second on the team, and his 42.25 Reception NEP ranked 71st.
Reception Net Expected Points is a cumulative statistic though, so volume matters. And the Seahawks were the second-most run-heavy team in the NFL this year. Even still, when you divide those receivers' Reception NEP by volume -- targets -- you find that Baldwin was actually even less efficient (42nd among receivers with 30-plus receptions), while Kearse was a little more effective (55th). As your top receivers, that's still dreadful.
New England's biggest weakness this year was their rush defense, which admittedly improved over the second half of the season. It did finish 17th in the NFL though, which was by far their worst ranking of any unit on the team. This rush defense was exposed a bit against Baltimore in the Divisional Round, as Justin Forsett rushed for 129 yards in the Ravens loss.
Pound the Rock, Seattle
We know the strengths and weaknesses, so what should we expect from each of these teams on Sunday?
Well, for starters, you know Seattle is going to run the football. Their 0.95 pass-to-run ratio in 2014 was second only to Houston and, as mentioned above, the rushing offense was the most effective one our database has ever seen.
Meanwhile, the matchup for them really couldn't be better. Sort of. The fact that New England's rush defense has gotten better is a plus for the Patriots, but it's clearly one of the weaker spots of the team. If Seattle can move the rock on early downs, it could be a long day for the Pats.
Look for Luke Willson to get involved in the passing game, too. From a Net Expected Points standpoint, Willson was a top-eight tight end on a per target basis in 2014. The Patriots' secondary is tough, but New England was one of three teams this season to surrender over 1,000 yards to the tight end position. A total of 45.98% of the receptions New England allowed to wide receivers and tight ends came from the tight end position, which was the fifth-highest rate in the NFL this season.
Defensively, the focus for Seattle is certainly going to be on Rob Gronkowski. The Seahawks allowed 17 touchdown passes in 2014, and 11 of them went to tight ends. We saw a huge game from Antonio Gates against Seattle, and players like Mychal Rivera and Jason Witten had well above average days, in terms of NEP, against the Seahawks as well.
Force the Pass, New England
The Patriots are going to stack the box in order to stop the Seahawks ground game. This is obvious. The question is whether or not they can do it effectively.
The good news for New England is that they have a secondary capable of locking down Seattle's below-average receivers, which will allow extra help in stopping Lynch and Wilson.
If New England wins, it will more than likely be because they successfully ran the ball on Seattle. Winning teams will typically have a lower pass-to-run ratio simply because they run down clock towards the end of a contest, but even still, in Seattle's four losses this season, their opponents finished with a 0.83 pass-to-run rate. In their 12 regular-season wins, their opponents' rate was 1.74.
New England's ratio this year was a fairly average 1.45, but Bill Belichick is no stranger to drastically changing his game plan based on matchup. We saw that against the Colts -- a team with a weak run defense -- in the AFC Championship, when the Pats went into run-first mode throughout the game, even before it got out of hand. Against Baltimore in the Divisional Round, a team with one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL, New England ran the ball just 13 times to 51 pass attempts. Of course game script can dictate these end results, but it's certainly worth noting.
According to our nERD metric, which measures the number of points you'd expect a team to win by against a league-average opponent on a neutral field, Seattle has a slight edge in this contest. And by slight, I mean razor-thin tiny.
Including the playoffs, Seattle's nERD is 9.75, while New England's is 9.49. You really can't get any closer than that.
Who do we think will end up hoisting the Lombardi though? Well, you'll have to check our game projections for that. (Hint: It's essentially a pick'em.)
Enjoy the game, and don't forget to follow along with numberFire Live.