In less than 24 hours, we’ll have a Super Bowl between two of the best and most evenly-matched teams in NFL history. I think the general consensus is that the main determination will be if the Patriots can stop Marshawn Lynch and if the Seattle defense can hold up against the Pats; whichever side does the better job on those two issues will win the game. But there are always numbers to look at! Let’s break down the game.
The line on the game was initially Seattle -2.5, but has swung to Patriots -1. I think the consensus there is that people were impressed by New England completely owning the Colts and have maybe given them too much credit. Interestingly enough, my models disagree; they think the swing was appropriate. My models have home field built into them, so when it comes to the Super Bowl I run it twice, once with each team listed as home. If Seattle were playing at home, all three models have them as just over 3 point favorites. But if the Patriots were at home, the models like them by 4.5 (Yoshi 2) to 6.5 (Yoshi 1) points. I usually resolve the home field difference by subtracting and taking the average of the two, so the models like the Pats by about .7 to about 1.5 points – or, New England -1. If I were putting money on the game and believed my model, I would have jumped on the Pats +2.5 at the initial number but would stay away now.
So why do the models prefer the Patriots? I haven’t posted them in a while, but here are Luigi’s model rankings including every game in the playoffs (click to see a bigger, actually readable version).
New England is the best team in the league according to Luigi, and there’s a clear gap between them and Seattle, who isn’t too different from Denver or Green Bay. Fitting with general consensus, Seattle has the best defensive rating in the league (bigger numbers are better for both offense and defense). However, the Pats aren’t exactly slouches; their rating is on par with Baltimore and Buffalo, with only Kansas City and Detroit between them and the Seahawks. Defensive SRS roughly agrees, with the top of the league breaking down as Seattle, KC, Buffalo, Detroit, Arizona, New England (I should note that the SRS I’m looking at is from pro-football-reference, and I don’t think it includes playoffs). Seattle definitely has the advantage on that front, but it may not be as large as people think.
Flipping to the offensive side, we have basically the reverse. Luigi has the Patriots with the best offense in the league this year, just barely ahead of Denver and Green Bay. Seattle lags behind, being more similar to the Saints, Giants, and Falcons. While those are all good offensive teams, they aren’t among the best in the league; we skipped right over teams like Dallas, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Philly, and Indy. Again, SRS roughly agrees: they give the Broncos the top offense followed by the Packers and then the Pats. But then you have four AFC teams and another 3 NFC teams before you get to Seattle. Put offense and defense together, and SRS likes New England by about 2 points on a neutral field, which isn’t too different from my models.
Since SRS leaves out the playoffs, we can take a quick look at those games to help us out. Seattle started with Carolina, a team that only had a .500 record if you could its win in the wild card round. The Seahawks put up 31 points in that game, with 7 coming directly from a pick-six and another 7 coming on a short field after a fumble. The Panthers had as many long drives as the Seahawks had. The same day, the Patriots beat the Ravens. They won by less, but Baltimore is a much better team than Carolina. The New England defense gave up 6 long drives, but ended one (as well as a shorter drive) with an interception. On offense the Pats had 5 long drives, but failed to take advantage of either interception. So basically the Pats and Ravens played even and evenly on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball while the Seahawks beat the Panthers by 14, with that margin coming largely on defense. By regular season SRS the Ravens are about 7 points better than Carolina, so I think that puts the Seahawks a little bit ahead of the Patriots with a defensive advantage.
In the Conference Championship games, Seattle had the tougher opponent. The Packers are rated about 4 points better than the Colts by SRS. Seattle won in overtime; they had 5 long drives (with the fifth being the OT winner) and gave up 4. Of course, they had two other short drives off of turnovers that ended in points. So, much like the game itself, I think you call that a draw. The Patriots, on the other hand, only gave up one long drive to the Colts (and maybe two medium ones, so let’s say 2 long drives total) while getting 4 (and maybe another two medium for 5) long drives themselves. Coupled with a couple of touchdowns on short fields after turnovers, the Patriots blew the Colts out of the game.
This is pretty self-evident, but in football you score when you can sustain drives or get short fields from turnovers. In two playoff games, Seattle has basically played its two opponents even on long drives but has an advantage on turnovers thanks to playing the Panthers. The Patriots played the Ravens even but sustained more drives than the Colts and won the turnover battle both times. New England’s opponents had a total SRS of 7.8, which Green Bay ties on their own but Seattle loses out because Carolina has a negative SRS. It seems like the Patriots have had the more successful playoffs after arguably a more successful regular season.
Given the storylines I mentioned above, we can ask a couple other questions. How have the Patriots done against top defenses? They played Buffalo once (ignoring the week 17 game where they didn’t try) and put up 37; they lost handily to the Chiefs and only scored 14; they hung 34 on the Lions; and they put up 23, 21, 43, 30, and 41/20 against the average defenses of the Chargers, Packers, Broncos, Vikings, and Dolphins. So they certainly can put up points against good defenses, and when they didn’t they usually still broke 20. How about Seattle’s offense? Will they be able to help their defense? The Seahawks scored 36, 21, and 26 against those same Chargers, Packers, and Broncos; they got 20 against the Chiefs (who must feel kind of bad that they beat both Super Bowl entrants and didn’t even make the playoffs); they put up 19 and 35 on the Cardinals; 19 and 17 on the 49ers; and against some other average defenses (Dallas and St. Louis) they got 23, 26, and 20. Outside of a couple of higher games (the Chargers and one Arizona game), the Seahawks stick to the 20s. Seattle’s offense just doesn’t put up the same kind of numbers.
Having run through all the numbers, I feel a bit better about the models having the Patriots as the better team. But as we saw last year, Seattle can certainly take it to supposed favorites. Bill Simmons is going with the Patriots, which should come as no surprise, and I guess I would too (with the line at 1, if you think they will win they can only cover or push, and the push is pretty unlikely). But all I really hope is that the game is entertaining this year. Last year we had people over and basically stopped watching the game in the second quarter. Whoever wins, let’s just keep it interesting until at least the fourth, ok?