Atlanta Falcons vs. New England Patriots: Super Bowl LI Pick

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

Confidence: Low

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Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots: 2016 AFC Championship Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers (13-5) at New England Patriots (15-2)

Like the Packers in the NFC, the Steelers enter this game on a long winning streak, winning 9 straight games to go from 4-5 to 11-5, the 3rd seed in the AFC, 2 playoff wins, and an AFC Championship appearance. However, the Steelers have two big obstacles to overcome if they want to make their 4th Super Bowl in the Ben Roethlisberger era. One, they haven’t been very good on the road this season. Two, they’re facing a New England team that isn’t just the best team in the NFL, but that also has rarely lost at home in recent years, especially against AFC opponents. Since 2010, they are 57-9 at home, including 48-4 against AFC opponents, with one loss coming in a meaningless week 17 game and another coming in a game started by 3rd string quarterback Jacoby Brissett. Brady has lost just two meaningful conference home games in the last 6 seasons, though both came in the playoffs (both against Baltimore).

On the other side, in 7 home starts this season (including playoffs), the Steelers are 6-1, with the one loss coming in a close shootout with the Cowboys and the 6 wins coming by a combined 96 points. In those 7 home games, Roethlisberger completed 70.9% of his passes for an average of 8.66 YPA, 22 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions, a QB rating of 115.3. In 9 road games, however, his QB rating is 36.5 points lower. The Steelers are 6-3 in those 9 games, but with a point differential of just +18, as compared to +91 in 7 home games started by Roethlisberger. This home/away split is nothing new for Roethlisberger, as he’s had at least a 15 point disparity in home to road QB rating in 4 of the last 6 seasons, including each of the last 3.

Fortunately for the Steelers, they have arguably the league’s most dangerous weapon, Le’Veon Bell, doing work both as a de facto #2 receiver out of the backfield and as a runner, behind one of the best offensive lines in football. The Patriots were able to keep the Steelers’ run game in check in their first matchup with the Steelers, but that was because Ben Roethlisberger was injured and Landry Jones was starting, enabling the Patriots to stack 8 or 9 guys in the box against Bell on almost every snap. Bell still had a huge game overall, leading the team with 10 catches for 68 yards in what was ultimately a 27-16 home loss for the Steelers. Roethlisberger hasn’t been the same quarterback on the road this season, but he’s an obvious upgrade over Landry Jones, so the Patriots won’t have the luxury of being able to stack the box against Bell as often.

Roethlisberger is also an obvious upgrade over most of the quarterbacks the Patriots have faced in recent weeks. In fact, since Brady’s return, the Patriots have faced Cody Kessler, Andy Dalton, Landry Jones, Tyrod Taylor, Russell Wilson (their one loss), Colin Kaepernick, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jared Goff, Joe Flacco, Trevor Siemian, Bryce Petty, Matt Moore, and Brock Osweiler. That at least calls into question some of the legitimacy of the Patriots’ defense, which finished the regular season ranked 4th in first down rate allowed. It’s concerning that they lost at home to the only even decent offense they’ve faced since trading Jamie Collins.

In fact, 7 of the 9 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 two were Miami (18th), who was starting a backup quarterback, and Seattle (19th) who beat them. The Steelers rank 10th, and that’s with Le’Veon Bell missing 3 games, Ben Roethlisberger missing one, and most of the key offensive starters resting in a meaningless week 17 game. Even with Roethlisberger struggling on the road, this is still the toughest offense the Patriots have faced since trading away one of their best defensive players almost 3 months ago.

Fortunately, it’s much tougher to call into question the legitimacy of the Patriots’ offense, which has managed to keep rolling without injured tight end Rob Gronkowski, something they haven’t been able to do in recent years, because their running game, offensive line, and complementary pass catchers are all better and healthier than they’ve been in recent years. And, of course, because quarterback Tom Brady is having arguably one of the best seasons of his career. They finished the regular season 8th in first down rate, despite Brady missing 4 games with injury and despite the fact that the defenses they’ve faced are much tougher than the offenses they’ve faced. Baltimore, Seattle, Houston, and Denver all have weak offenses, but they also all have top-8 defenses and the Patriots have had impressive offensive performances in 3 of those 4 games. The Patriots’ offense is much more battle tested than their defense and Pittsburgh’s average stop unit figures to have trouble with them.

Overall, the Patriots have had a pretty easy schedule, as their opponents had the 2nd lowest combined winning percentage of any team’s opponents this season and two of the playoff teams they faced (Pittsburgh and Miami) were using backup quarterbacks when the Patriots faced them. However, at the end of the day, you can only play the teams that are on your schedule and it’s not like the Patriots were squeaking out victories against these teams. Just 4 of their 15 wins have come by 7 points or fewer and two of those were weeks 1 and 2 when Tom Brady was suspended.

Their average margin of victory was 15.47, 16.33 in Brady’s 12 wins. They finished the regular season with a league best +24 offensive touchdown margin (Dallas was second at +just 15) and a league best +191 point differential (Atlanta was second at just +134) and they have the highest first down rate differential of any team left in the playoffs (+6.26 vs. +2.34 for Pittsburgh). So, while the Patriots might not be quite as good as their 15-2 record suggests, they’re probably still the best team in the league.

For that reason, they should be able to win big here at home against a Pittsburgh team that hasn’t been that good on the road this season, but it’s tough to lay 6 points with them confidently. This line was at 5.5 earlier this week and I made a big mistake not locking in that line at the time (expecting the line to possibly go to 4 or 4.5 if the sharps liked Pittsburgh). If 5.5 or lower comes back in the next 24 or so hours before the game, it’s worth a bet, but it would be tough to be confident at 6.

New England Patriots 31 Pittsburgh Steelers 23

Pick against the spread: New England -6

Confidence: Low

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Houston Texans at New England Patriots: 2016 AFC Divisional Round Pick

Houston Texans (10-7) at New England Patriots (14-2)

The Patriots are 16 point favorites here in this matchup with the Houston Texans, the first time a team has been favored by that many points in the playoffs since the 1998 Minnesota Vikings blew out the Arizona Cardinals 41-21 as 16 point home favorites in the divisional round of the playoffs that season. Not only are they the largest playoff favorites in two decades, it’s also hard to argue that they don’t deserve it. The Texans snuck into the playoffs because of close wins and a weak division, winning the AFC South with just 9 wins (4-6 in non-divisional games), despite a -49 point differential that was easily worst among playoff teams (7th worst in the entire NFL). They lucked out in their first playoff matchup, getting to host the Oakland Raiders and 3rd string quarterback Connor Cook, but now they enter the round of 8 as easily the worst team left facing arguably the best team in the entire NFL.

The Patriots had easily the most impressive regular season of any team in the league. They have the best point differential (+191) and first down rate differential (+5.90%) of any team in the post-season, despite not even having Tom Brady for the first 4 games of the season. One of those 4 games was against these Texans, who they defeated 27-0 week 3, despite being down to 3rd string quarterback Jacoby Brissett. With Brady back, the Patriots have obvious advantages on both sides of the ball. I mentioned earlier that almost all of the Texans regular seasons wins were close (9 wins by a total of 44 points). In addition to that, a lot of their losses were not close (7 losses by a total of 93 points).

I also mentioned earlier that they struggle outside of the division. That was especially bad on the road outside of the division, losing all 5 road non-divisional games, by an average of 15.6 points per game. These Patriots are better than any team they’ve faced this year though and should be able to win this one easy. I’ve flipped back and forth between Houston +16 and New England -16, but I’ve ultimately decided on New England, though I could see this being a 14-point game that isn’t as close as the final score suggests. The Patriots played a weak schedule in the regular season and are more vulnerable than most people realize, but the schedule isn’t really getting any harder this week. It’s a no confidence play either way because I have no interest in betting on Houston here, but I don’t really want to lay 16 points either.

New England Patriots 27 Houston Texans 10

Pick against the spread: New England -16

Confidence: None

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New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins: 2016 Week 17 NFL Pick

New England Patriots (13-2) at Miami Dolphins (10-5)

In a league with few top level teams, the Patriots have to stand out atop the league. Not only are they the Patriots and they’ve done this before, but they rank 1st in the NFL in first down rate differential and point differential, despite not even having quarterback Tom Brady for the first 4 games of the season. They rank 5th in points, first in points allowed, 8th in first down rate, and 3rd in first down rate allowed. Their +22 offensive touchdown margin is double any other team’s offensive touchdown margin except the Dallas Cowboys (+17).

However, this line moved from 6 to 9.5 in the past week as a result of the Patriots’ 41-3 victory over the lowly Jets, so I think the Patriots’ hype is a little bit out of control right now. The Patriots have had a pretty easy schedule since Brady returned, with their only even somewhat tough games coming at home against the Seahawks, on the road in Denver, at home against the Ravens, on the road in Buffalo, and at home for the Bengals. Other than the Seahawks, the Dolphins might be the toughest team they’ve faced since Brady’s return, so I don’t think the Dolphins should be 9.5 point home underdogs, especially since the Broncos were just 3.5 point home underdogs two weeks ago. The Patriots could win big again here (9 of their 13 victories have come by double digits), so there’s not enough here for me to bet money against them, but this should be a closer game than this line suggests.

New England Patriots 27 Miami Dolphins 20

Pick against the spread: Miami +9.5

Confidence: Low

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New York Jets at New England Patriots: 2016 Week 16 NFL Pick

New York Jets (4-10) at New England Patriots (12-2)

The Patriots finish the season in Miami next week, while the Jets host the Bills. That puts the Patriots in a much better spot because the Miami isn’t a real distraction for them. The Buffalo game might not be a distraction for the Jets given that they’re facing the Patriots this week, but it’s tough for inferior teams to keep it close against superior teams with a big home game on deck, while superior teams tend to take care of business and cover the spread when they don’t have any upcoming distractions. While teams are 73-58 ATS since 2012 before being road favorites of 4.5 or more, as the Patriots will be next week in Miami, teams are 43-93 ATS since 2012 before being home underdogs of 4.5 or more, as the Jets will be next week against the Bills. That being said, the Patriots are favored by 17 here at home, so we’re getting terrible value with them. This is a no confidence pick, but New England is the pick in pick ‘em pools.

New England Patriots 31 New York Jets 13

Pick against the spread: New England -17

Confidence: None

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New England Patriots at Denver Broncos: 2016 Week 15 NFL Pick

New England Patriots (11-2) at Denver Broncos (8-5)

Tom Brady has had a lot of success in his career, but the Denver Broncos have always been his achilles heel. They’re the only team in the league he has a losing record against and he is just 2-7 in his career on the road in Denver, including a loss late last season that cost them homefield advantage in the AFC Championship and the Patriots’ eventual loss in the AFC Championship as well.

Since the AFC Championship, a lot has actually changed with these teams. New England has a healthy LeGarrette Blount and an improved offensive line, two things they didn’t have last year. Denver is also without Malik Jackson, Danny Trevathan, and Brandon Marshall from this defense. The former two left as free agents this off-season, while the latter remains sidelined with an injury. As a result, the Broncos’ run defense is actually pretty weak right now, which the Patriots should be able to take advantage of. It’s going to be a much different gameplan for them than last January when the Patriots had 56 passes to 17 runs.

At the same time, Denver’s pass defense has arguably improved since last season with Chris Harris and Aqib Talib both playing as well as any cornerback in the league. They still rank 2nd in first down rate allowed. Their offense has been a problem as they rank 26th in first down rate, but their offense wasn’t good last season either. If anything, new starting quarterback Trevor Siemian is better than either Brock Osweiler or Peyton Manning were last season and the offensive line is improved, though they’ve had major problems with their running game since losing CJ Anderson for the season with injury a few weeks back.

New England, meanwhile, is without Rob Gronkowski on offense with injury and have traded away defensive stars Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins. Despite those losses, the Patriots still rank 1st in first down rate (compared to 13th for Denver), but they’ve also had a very easy schedule, so it’s fair to question how good they really are, even after an impressive victory over Baltimore last week. We’re getting 3.5 points with Denver, a lot considering 1 in 4 games are decided by 3 points or fewer, so I’m taking the Broncos, but there’s not enough here for me to bet money on them.

New England Patriots 23 Denver Broncos 20

Pick against the spread: Denver +3.5

Confidence: Low

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Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots: 2016 Week 14 NFL Pick

Baltimore Ravens (7-5) at New England Patriots (10-2)

The Patriots are a very interesting team. Despite being without Tom Brady for the first 4 games of the season, they rank 2nd in first down rate. Since Brady returned, they are 7-1 with 6 of 7 wins by double digits. However, they have had a very easy schedule over those 8 games. Aside from Seattle, who beat them by a touchdown in New England, their toughest game since Brady’s return was in Buffalo. Yes, they can only play the teams that are on their schedule and they’ve done pretty well in doing so, as most of the wins have come by convincing margins, but Jamie Collins is in Cleveland, Rob Gronkowski is on injured reserve, and it’s fair to wonder how good they really are. We’ll find out a lot this week as they host the Baltimore Ravens, who are a step up in class from most of the teams the Patriots have faced in recent weeks.

After largely playing close games all season, the Ravens got their biggest win by margin of victory since 2009 last week, with a 38-6 home victory over a capable Miami team. It was out of character for this team, but boosted them to 12nd in first down rate differential and moved this line from 10 on the early line last week to 6.5 this week. As a result, we’re not getting good line value with the Ravens. However, the Ravens are in a good spot with an easy home game against the Eagles on deck, while the Patriots have to go to Denver next week. Underdogs of 6 or more points are 41-31 ATS since 2008 before being favorites of 6 or more the following week, which the Ravens are expected to be, according to the early line. It’s a no confidence pick at 6.5, but the Ravens are the pick for pick ‘em purposes.

New England Patriots 24 Baltimore Ravens 19

Pick against the spread: Baltimore +6.5

Confidence: None

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