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The Super Bowl advanced tale of the tape

The Rams are the better team on paper, but the Patriots are... well, the Patriots. What gives?

1. Los Angeles should be favored

Call it the Patriots Effect. Los Angeles grades out better heading into Super Bowl LIII in basically any predictive metric you can find, but oddsmakers installed the Pats as a one-point favorite out of the gates, and the line has since grown. It feels like you almost literally can’t bet against the Patriots in these types of situations.

Of course, the Pats were favored in last year’s Super Bowl, too, weren’t they? And all the aura in the world didn’t prevent them from losing to a first-time Super Bowl coach and first-time Super Bowl quarterback. Those Philadelphia Eagles were, per DVOA, slightly ahead of New England in the regular season; these Rams were quite a bit ahead.

Two years ago against the Falcons, the Patriots graded out as the better team and then won, albeit in ... creative fashion. It’s begun to feel like they pull this “lay in the weeds as long as possible and accelerate only when you have to” thing every year, but statistically, that’s not really the case — at least not in the title game.

In eight Super Bowls in the Brady-and-Belichick era, the Patriots have won as the lesser team twice and lost as the superior team twice. In the other four, the better regular season team has won. It feels like there is an undying supply of Pats Magic somewhere, but whatever exists is used to get them to the Super Bowl. Once there, the magic is neutralized.

It sure is hard to pick against them, though, isn’t it?

2. It’s all about the high-leverage moments

As you might expect if you’ve watched either of these teams this year, the offenses hold most of the advantages. One of New England’s primary advantages comes in the big-play department, if only because that’s an advantage for whoever plays the Rams.

On average, every 20-yard gain you post adds about a point to your scoring margin in the NFL. Big plays are as unpredictable as they are important, but against these defenses, they were, shall we say, more predictable than for other teams. The Patriots were leaky themselves in this regard, giving up gains of 20-plus yards on 6.9 percent of all snaps (25th in the league). The Rams were 30th at 7.2 percent — only the Eagles, Jets, and Dolphins were more prone to suffering large gashes.

The Rams, of course, were also very good at creating big plays. Defensively, their pass rush and, at times, tight coverage created enough mistakes to lead to turnover opportunities, and offensively, they were sixth in the league with a 7-percent big-play rate. They gave what they got.

New England? Not so much. The Patriots are efficiency-based, combining an increasingly solid between-the-tackles run game — after gaining 100-plus yards just three times in his first 11 games, rookie Sony Michel has done so in three of his last four, including both playoff games — with an efficiency-first pass game built mainly around Julian Edelman (11.5 yards per catch in the regular season) and James White (8.6) and Tom Brady’s 66 percent completion rate.

The Pats are in the league’s top 10 in every marginal efficiency category and outside of the top 10 in every marginal explosiveness category. There was a similar dynamic with the Rams’ numbers — mediocre to good in the efficiency numbers, ghastly in most of the explosiveness numbers. The Patriots dink and dunk, and the Rams try to render you all-or-nothing.

In a game in which both teams have lots of offensive advantages, things could be decided on the rare occasions in which the defense has actually leveraged the offense into passing downs.

When you don’t have a lot of opportunities to get your defense off the field, you better take advantage of the shots you get. That’s certainly how the Rams beat the Saints in the NFC Championship*.

  • Standard downs success rate: Saints 50 percent, Rams 47 percent
  • Passing downs success rate: Rams 25 percent, Saints 14 percent

Los Angeles didn’t have many chances to get off the field but did so when it could. If the Rams can limit how many times the Patriots gash them, their passing downs aggressiveness could pay off before New England reaches the end zone.

Of course, you saw the Patriots’ overtime drive against the Chiefs, right? Where they converted three third-and-longs that decided the game? Their passing downs success rate in the AFC Championship was an absurd 48 percent, higher than their standard downs success rate.

Seems like these moments might be the game’s most important, yeah?

*I know, I know, blown pass interference call, etc. The Rams also actually made plays to help themselves win. We’re focusing on those now.

3. Pressure, pressure, pressure

It’s probably a waste of time to talk too much about either of these teams’ respective ground games. After all, the Rams’ defense ranked 21st in rushing marginal efficiency, and the Patriots ranked 30th, and they went a combined 27-9 and reached the Super Bowl, right?

Offensively, the correlation between the Rams’ passing success rate and points scored was 0.49. The correlation between rushing success rate and points? Minus-0.20. I’m not all the way into the “running backs don’t matter” narrative (only most of the way), but there’s no question that the passing game matters far, far more.

In this game, the pass rush probably matters the most, at least when the Rams’ offense is on the field. New England finally figured out how to generate pressure late in the season, and after a brief, sputtering disaster in pass protection, the Rams once again figured out how to keep the pressure off of Jared Goff late in the year.

  • Rams sack rate allowed: 3.3 percent in the first five games, 7.3 percent in the next eight games, 2.2 percent in the last five.
  • Patriots sack rate: 3.8 percent in the first 12 games, 8.1 percent in the last six.

Both end Trey Flowers and OLB Kyle Van Noy have erupted of late. According to Pro Football Reference, Flowers and KVN combined for 23.5 combined sacks and quarterback hits in the first 12 games (2 per game) but raised that to 27.5 in the last six games (4.6 per game).

Los Angeles committed a rash of midseason turnovers — 11 in four games, compared to nine in the other 14 — and it coincided almost directly with the uptick in the sack rate. Once the latter settled, so did the former.

Kansas City allowed a sack rate of over nine percent just twice all year, and one came in the AFC title game against New England (11.4 percent). The Patriots are peaking in this regard; maybe this is a way in which their “accelerate late in the year” effect is real.

New England’s improved pass rush is huge because knocking Los Angeles off-schedule and taking advantage of it is incredibly difficult, and the Patriots (27th in passing downs marginal efficiency) weren’t well-equipped to do it for most of the year. And while the run game is secondary from an importance standpoint, season-long stats suggest the Rams should be able to use the ground game to stay on schedule, or close to it, and limit the number of chances Flowers and Van Noy have of getting after Goff.

4. Security blankets are nice and warm

Greg Zuerlein’s 57-yard, NFC title-clinching bomb in New Orleans was maybe the greatest, most clutch kick of all time. And the fact that Rams coach Sean McVay was confident enough in him to even attempt the kick, knowing that a miss would give the Saints the ball near midfield, needing only a field goal to win, was incredible.

That confidence in Zuerlein baited McVay into quite a few overly conservative decisions in 2018, however, including one earlier in the same game.

EdjSports compiled the top play-call errors of the season — decisions that, before the outcome of the play was factored in, significantly lowered a team’s chance of winning a given game. When McVay elected to have Zuerlein attempt a 19-yard field goal to tie the game late in the fourth quarter, instead of going for the touchdown, it lowered the Rams’ Game Winning Chance (Edj’s win probability measure) by 12.4 percentage points.

Zuerlein is a security blanket, and because of it, McVay was by far the most conservative coach in the league in fourth-and-short situations.

On fourth-and-2 or fewer yards in opposition territory, the Rams went for it just 20 percent of the time — one run, one pass, and eight field goals. Not only was that the lowest go-for-it rate in the NFL in those situations, but only two other teams were even under 40 percent (Tennessee was at 30 percent, Chicago at 36). New England? 70 percent.

There’s conservative, and there’s that.

McVay’s offensive prowess is perhaps the primary reason why the Rams are in the Super Bowl; his in-game decision-making, however, has held them back. In that way, you could almost say that the more special teams play a role in this game, the worse it is for the Rams, even if Zuerlein’s making kicks.

5. It would be a shock if this game weren’t as close as the conference title games

If there’s any sort of big-game effect here, then obviously it should benefit the Patriots. They’ve been on this stage as much as any team ever has; they won’t be cowed by the moment.

Any such effect, however, would simply neutralize the advantages the Rams have on paper.

My prediction: Rams 28, Patriots 26

It’s fair to assume that both teams will move the ball pretty efficiently, and both will create about the same number of scoring opportunities. The game will swing, then, on who takes more advantage of those scoring chances and which defense is more able to capitalize on rare behind-schedule scenarios.

I’m going with the Rams because they have been the better team over the course of 18 games — it would surprise absolutely no one if the Pats were the better team on Sunday, though.

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