Atlanta Falcons (13-5) vs. New England Patriots (16-2) in Super Bowl LI
There are distinct differences between these two teams, but they have one impressive similarity: both teams have lost key players and played as well or better without them. On New England’s side, one of their losses was a self-inflicted one if you can even call it a loss, as the Patriots “lost” linebacker Jamie Collins in a midseason trade. Collins, one of the Patriots’ best defensive players and one of the best athletes on the defensive side of the ball in the entire league, was stunningly sent to the last place Browns for a mere 3rd round compensatory pick during the Patriots week 9 bye. The 3rd round compensatory pick they got from the Browns is what they would have gotten in 2018’s draft if they simply let Collins walk at the end of the off-season, so they essentially got no compensation. Despite Collins’ obvious talent, Bill Belichick didn’t like Collins’ tendency to freestyle and simply thought his defense would be better without him.
That seemed like an absurd idea at the time, even giving Belichick the benefit of the doubt as much as he deserves, but, if the numbers are to be believed, the Patriots have been a lot better without him, with young role players like Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts filling in well for Collins. In 8 games with Collins, the Patriots allowed opponents to pick up first downs at a 34.54% rate, as opposed to 29.49% in 10 games without him, a substantial difference. To put that into perspective, the figure with Collins is around where the Seattle Seahawks finished the regular season in first down rate (19th). The figure without Collins would have been lower than every offense in the league this year except for the Rams’ offense. In 8 games with Collins, the Patriots allowed 166 first downs and 15 touchdowns. They allowed the same amount of touchdowns and two fewer first downs in 10 games without him.
The numbers don’t give the full context, as the Patriots played an easier schedule in the second half of the season. 7 of the 10 offenses they’ve faced since trading Collins finished the regular season 26th or worse in first down rate (NY Jets twice, St. Louis, San Francisco, Baltimore, Houston, and Denver). The other three were Miami (18th), who was starting a backup quarterback, Seattle (19th) who beat them, and Pittsburgh last week, in a game in which the Steelers lost Le’Veon Bell with an injury early in the game. Their schedule wasn’t that hard in the first half of the season either, but it was definitely easier after losing Collins, so that probably played a role in the significant statistical improvement. It might not be fair to say their defense is definitely better without Collins, but at the very least the trade has not backfired in any way. Their defense is untested, but it’s still one of the better stop units in the NFL.
On the other side of the ball, it’s definitely not fair to say the Patriots have been better offensively without Gronkowski. Gronkowski was fully healthy for 5 games this season, not counting the 2 games he played as a decoy with a 3rd string quarterback under center in week 3 and week 4 or the game in which he hurt his back in and left the game in the first quarter in week 12. In those 5 games, the Patriots picked up first downs at a 43.35% rate. The only team that picked up first downs at a better rate than that this season is their opponent this week, the Atlanta Falcons (more on them later obviously). In the 9 games since Gronkowski last caught a pass, the Patriots have picked up first downs at a 37.06% rate, good, but significantly down from the 5 games in which Brady and Gronkowski tore apart the NFL (they averaged a ridiculous 14.0 yards per target). That first down rate is most equivalent to the Detroit Lions, who finished just 12th.
The Patriots’ offense hasn’t been derailed by the absence of the Gronkowski this season, as it has been in years past, thanks to a deeper than usual receiving corps, a great #2 tight end in Martellus Bennett, a much improved running game and offensive line, and, of course, Tom Brady somehow arguably having the best season of his career at age 39. It’s a myth that they don’t need Gronkowski and should sell low and trade him this off-season, ahead of just his age 28 season. They just aren’t screwed in the playoffs without him like they have been in recent years because the rest of the team is better on both sides of the ball.
Without Gronkowski, it’s very hard to argue that the Patriots have the better offense in this game, an unfamiliar position for a New England team that is used to having the better offense in the Super Bowl. Matchup wise, the Falcons most resemble the Patriots’ first Super Bowl opponent, against the Greatest Show on Turf Rams. The Falcons finished the regular season with easily the best first down rate in the NFL, picking up first downs at a 43.92% rate. The next best team was the Saints, who picked up first downs at “just” a 40.72% rate in the regular season. In fact, there was a bigger gap between 1st and 2nd in first down rate than there was between 2nd and 9th. That number has actually jumped after two playoff games and they’ve picked up first downs at a 44.61% rate between 16 regular season games and 2 postseason games.
Basically, as good as the Patriots were offensively for 5 games with Gronkowski, the Falcons have been better than that all year for 18 games on the offensive side of the ball. Led by their version of the triplets (Matt Ryan, Devonta Freeman, and Julio Jones), along with one of the best offensive lines in football, the Falcons have been so good offensively that they lead the NFL in first down rate differential, despite a defense that has allowed opponents to pick up first downs at a 38.23% rate, more or less equivalent to the Colts’ 7th ranked offense in terms of first down rate. They’re not a balanced team, but they still rank #1 in that in first down differential, just ahead of the Patriots.
The good news for Atlanta is, like the Patriots’ defense, the Falcons’ defense has statistically been significantly better down the stretch, despite losing one of their best defensive players, cornerback Desmond Trufant, for the season. In 9 games with Trufant, the Falcons allowed opponents to pick up first downs at a 40.06% rate, most equivalent to Dallas’ 3rd ranked offense. In 9 games without him, they’ve allowed opponents to pick up first downs at a 36.27% rate, most equivalent to Oakland’s 15th ranked offense. Part of that could be that they faced weak offenses like San Francisco and Los Angeles during that time period, but their defense has held up much better without their best defensive back than you’d expect.
Young cornerbacks Brian Poole and Jalen Collins have played well in his absence and overall a very young defense has gotten better as the season has gone on. The Falcons are starting 4 rookies (2nd round and 4th round linebackers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell, 1st round safety Keanu Neal, and Poole, an undrafted free agent), 3 second year players (first round edge rusher Vic Beasley, Collins, a 2nd rounder, and 5th round defensive tackle Grady Jarrett), and a third year player (safety Ricardo Allen, a former 5th round pick). They aren’t a great defense by any stretch of the imagination, especially after losing starting defensive end Adrian Clayborn with an injury a few weeks back, but Dan Quinn has done a good job developing young defensive talent in 2 years on the job and this defense is definitely better than it was earlier in the season, even without Trufant or Clayborn.
It’s definitely fair to wonder if their young defense has much of a shot to stop Tom Brady and company though, especially since they don’t consistently pressure the passer. The Falcons enter this game with the better offense, but the Patriots have easily the better defense and probably have a better chance of slowing down the Falcons’ offense than Atlanta’s defense has of slowing down the Patriots. One thing that could be very important in a close game is the fact that Atlanta All-Pro center Alex Mack is playing hurt and reportedly might not be able to last the whole game. It’s tough to wager on this game with the line at 3 though because I think this has a very good chance to be a 3 point game. At the very least, I see this game being decided by a touchdown or less, a shootout where the team who has the ball last likely wins the game. New England is my pick, but it figures to be a great game either way. Unfortunately though, this game is a non-bet.
New England Patriots 38 Atlanta Falcons 34
Pick against the spread: New England -3