The great thing about the two weeks between the NFL’s conference championship games and the Super Bowl is the extra time we get to dissect every angle.
That’s also the worst thing.
One recent headline: “Tom Brady excited to return to Minnesota, where he used to milk cows.”
Mercifully, Super Bowl LII is almost here. Before the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles kick off Sunday, though, there’s one last order of business to attend to.
It’s time to analyze the analysis.
You’ve heard a lot of takes, some of them smart and some of them lazy. In this space, I’ll take a cold look at some of the most popular claims and guide you through what you should and should not say in case they come up at your Super Bowl party.
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Don’t say: “Tom Brady vs. Nick Foles is a classic David vs. Goliath matchup.”
Do say: “Don’t underestimate Foles.”
Before their legendary battle, Goliath says to David, “Am I a dog that you should come to me with sticks?”
As Malcolm Gladwell explains in David and Goliath, the giant feels insulted that King Saul and the Israelites didn’t send a seasoned warrior to fight him. When he looks at David, all he sees is a lowly shepherd unprepared for combat. No sword. No shield. No armor. Just a staff and a bag of stones. Because David doesn’t appear powerful, Goliath underestimates the threat, and that ultimately is his undoing.
By now, you might believe that likelihood of Foles and the Eagles beating Brady and the Patriots is just as improbable as David defeating Goliath.
“The Patriots have the greatest coach/quarterback combination in NFL history,” the experts say.
“No one outsmarts the Patriots.”
“Foles can’t repeat his NFC Championship Game performance.”
“Never bet against Brady.”
There’s some merit to this commentary. Brady has won five Super Bowls. The Eagles have seven players on their active roster who have won a Super Bowl. Brady will be starting in his 37th postseason game. He is 279 yards away from reaching 10,000 passing yards in the playoffs. Foles will be starting in his 43rd game — regular season and postseason. He is 201 yards away from reaching 1,000 passing yards in the playoffs.
Last season, I argued that Brady vs. Matt Ryan was the greatest quarterback matchup in Super Bowl history. The basis for that claim was that Brady and Ryan led the NFL in a statistic called adjusted net yards per attempt, or ANY/A. It’s basically a souped-up version of yards per attempt. The difference is that ANY/A rewards quarterbacks for touchdowns and penalizes them for interceptions and sacks. It’s one of my favorite ways to measure performance because it’s more highly correlated to wins than any other passing stat. Here’s the formula: (pass yards – sack yards + 20*pass touchdowns – 45*interceptions) / (pass attempts + sacks).
By that same measure, Brady vs. Foles is one of the greatest quarterback mismatches in Super Bowl history. Brady finished the regular season with 7.56 ANY/A, which ranked sixth among quarterbacks who threw at least 100 passes. Foles finished with 4.75 ANY/A, which ranked 32nd.
Foles doesn’t have the experience. He doesn’t have the arm. He doesn’t have the smarts. He doesn’t have the smoothies.
But how often do quarterback mismatches unfold the way we expect them to? Ninety percent of the time? Seventy-five? Sixty?
To find out, I combed through Super Bowl history and built a list of the 25 greatest mismatches by ANY/A.
It turns out that upsets occur more often than we think. Of those 25 supposed mismatches, the team with the weaker quarterback won 15 times. Among the surprises: Eli Manning beat Brady. Peyton Manning beat Cam Newton. Jim Plunkett beat Ron Jaworski and later Joe Theismann. Russell Wilson beat Peyton Manning. Jeff Hostetler beat Jim Kelly.
Oh, and in 2002, Brady beat Kurt Warner. That’s right. Once upon a time, Brady was Foles — the inexperienced game manager who started the season as the backup and took his team to the Super Bowl.
Never bet against Brady? Stop it. That’s an easy take. He’s the greatest quarterback of all time, but he’s not invincible. He won his past two Super Bowls thanks in large part to his opponents’ recklessness.
Foles isn’t elite, but you don’t have to be to beat the Patriots in the playoffs. They lost to Jake Plummer, Eli Manning (twice), Joe Flacco (twice) and Mark Sanchez.
The lesson: Don’t dismiss Foles just because he’s not as accomplished as Brady. Reputations don’t win football games.
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Don’t say: “The Patriots have a ‘bend but don’t break’ defense.”
Do say: “You know what wins games? Field position.”
The Patriots were among the league’s best defenses in points allowed (1.65 per drive, sixth lowest) but the worst in yards allowed (35.27 per drive). That must mean that they somehow tighten up once opponents approach the end zone, right?
Their red-zone efficiency (0.44 touchdowns allowed per visit, fourth lowest) would indicate as much, but there’s another reason:
The Patriots made opponents string together longer drives than anyone else. On average, opponents started their drives shy of their own 25-yard line. Compare that with the Broncos, whose opponents started 8 yards farther down the field. Despite allowing the fewest yards per drive in the NFL, they allowed nearly 100 more points than the Patriots.
The Patriots didn’t have a “bend but don’t break” defense. They just had a built-in advantage before they even stepped onto the field.
The Patriots have enjoyed this advantage for years. They’ve ranked in the top six in opponent average starting field position in 14 of the past 18 seasons.
Kicker Stephen Gostkowski deserves credit, too, for pinning opponents deep in their own territory. He’s among the best at dropping kickoffs just short of the end zone and forcing the opponent to run it back. Want to start at the 25-yard line? It won’t be via a touchback. The Patriots are going to make sure you earn it.
Rewind to last season’s Super Bowl. We remember Brady’s heroics and the Falcons’ ruinous play calls, but we’ve forgotten Gostkowski’s influence. In the final six minutes of the fourth quarter, he dropped two kickoffs inside the 5. The Falcons returned the first to the 10 and the second to the 11. Both drives ended in punts.
Keep an eye Sunday on where the Eagles begin their possessions. The longer they have to drive, the more the game will tilt in the Patriots’ favor.
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Don’t say: “The way to beat Brady is by generating pressure with four, and only four, defenders.”
Do say: “Blitz him.”
Brady doesn’t like to get hit.
If someone drops that knowledge bomb at your party, make sure you get them on the phone with Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz right away. That’s critical intel.
By now you’ve heard that the way to beat Brady is by applying pressure, and preferably with four players so that the other seven can drop into pass coverage. That also happens to be the blueprint to beat EVERY QUARTERBACK.
Don’t be that friend that parrots what every Super Bowl preview has already said.
Conventional wisdom says that if you need to blitz Brady to generate pressure, you’ll get burned. He is, after all, smarter than you. He knows when you’re going to blitz before you do. He hears that secrets that you keep when you’re talking in your sleep.
The conventional wisdom has been right … until now. Brady earned a league-high 131.4 quarterback rating last season when blitzed, which was 17 percent higher than his overall rating.
Brady wasn’t as effective against the blitz this season, however. His completion rate dropped about 15 percentage points, and his interception rate doubled.
The Eagles didn’t blitz often this season (about one out of every five pass plays), but when they did, they were able to generate pressure about half the time. I’m not suggesting the Eagles blitz with reckless abandon, but to beat the Patriots, they’ll need to force a turnover or two. A well-timed blitz might do just that.
Statistics in this report are from Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus and Pro Football Reference. Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected] Follow @tometrics.