Analyzing Both Sides Of The Super Bowl LIII Spread
“Who ya got in the Super Bowl?”
You will hear that question asked repeatedly during Super Bowl week. Picking against the spread in the NFL’s Super Bowl is a rite of passage for not just football writers, but just about every person who is remotely interested in sports in the United States. Early in the week, we all need to do some analyzing before we make a pick. With the line currently set with the New England Patriots favored by three points over the Los Angeles Rams, we are going to kick off Super Bowl week by looking at both sides of the line and exploring the validity of each pick. Towards the end of Super Bowl week, we will make official picks against the spread, highlight good Expected Value player props as well as looking at some in-game trends to watch for.
The Patriots actually opened, right as the AFC Conference Championship game ended, as an underdog to the Rams. As the week progressed, they crept up the boards and are now listed as three-point favorites in Atlanta for the Super Bowl.
There are, of course, good reasons for the Patriots to be favored in this game. Traditional thinking would state that they have far more experience than a relatively young Los Angeles Rams team and that tends to come into play in these games. I do not buy that line of thinking as much, but do definitely concede that the Patriots have a large edge in their coaching staff. The public thinks of Sean McVay as a whiz kid but Bill Belichick is the original 21st century football guru. It is a rare occurrence that a Belichick-led team does not have an optimized game plan for the opponent. Belichick’s career winning percentage in the playoffs is 73.2%. In the time Belichick has spent in New England, the Patriots have been in the Top Five in Point Differential 11 times, including this season.
The Patriots finished seventh in Weighted DVOA this season, which is Football Outsiders’ measurement instrument to compare entire NFL teams to one another. They finished fifth in offensive DVOA and 16th in defensive DVOA. Pro Football Focus graded them as the fourth best team in the NFL with the third best passing offense, which is where most of a teams’ strength comes from. James White had the third most Defensive Yards Above Replacement for running backs in the receiving game, which is a huge strength for the Patriots.
However, there are some nits to pick about the Patriots. This is not a perfect team; they are clearly not as good as last year’s Patriots team that finished first in Football Outsiders DVOA and first in Pro Football Focus grading. The offensive line is maybe the best in football (Tom Brady has taken zero sacks in the playoffs) but the weapons on offense are aging. Rob Gronkowski is likely to retire, their best wide receiver plays exclusively out of the slot and Tom Brady finished 13th of all NFL QBs in passer rating on deep throws in the 2018 regular season. If you are looking to take an angle against the Patriots mystique, it hinges on the fact that this is an older team with a 41-year old quarterback that lacks explosive playmakers on offense.
It is my opinion that without the mystique of Brady and Belichick, this line might be closer to New England only being favored by one or two. The fact that Brady has played in eight straight AFC championships and won five Super Bowls definitely impacts the Las Vegas spread. However, make no mistakes, this is a very talented Los Angeles Rams team. Sean McVay is not a perfect coach, despite what popular media coverage of the team may portray. Per Rufus Peabody, NFL teams went for it 62% of the time on fourth and less than 2 in plus territory. McVay’s Rams only went for it 6-of-19 times. That lack of aggression will have no place in a game against the Patriots. The Rams offense is faster and better than the Patriots offense despite the methodical play-calling and execution that the Patriots are able to put together.
The Rams run Jet Motion on more than 35% of their plays on offense, which creates a distinct tactical advantage. It gives away defensive information to the Los Angeles Rams offense. If the Jet Motion player has a trailer from the defense, it likely means that the opposing team is lined up in man coverage. If there is no direct coverage, Jared Goff and Sean McVay know that they are likely playing against a zone. The Jet Motion also allows Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods to have free releases from the line of scrimmage and keep them away from Stephon Gilmore, who had the second highest coverage grade of all defensive backs from Pro Football Focus in 2018.
For bettors selecting the Rams and the three points in the Super Bowl, there are some clear supporting factors. The Rams finished second in total yards per play on offense in the 2018 regular season, scored 30 points easily against a good Dallas Cowboys defense in the Divisional Round, and finished third in both Net Adjusted Yards Per Passing Attempt and third in total Yards Per Carry running the ball. If the Patriots sell out to keep Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods from getting deep, the Rams will be more than happy to throw short passes, screens and run the ball into a non-stacked box. If the Patriots do crowd the box to limit the effectiveness of Todd Gurley and force the Rams to throw more, no team ran more play-action during the regular season than the Rams.
While there is a common mantra that a team must run for the play-action to be effective, no study actually backs that up. From Ben Baldwin on Football Outsiders “From 2011 to 2017, 196 of 224 team-seasons had higher yards per play on play-action dropbacks than on non-play-action dropbacks. For every team observed to have a strong play-action game and a strong rushing attack, I can find an example of an effective play-action team that has a weak rushing attack.” Simply put, even if the Rams run a play-action every single time they choose to pass the ball against the Patriots and don’t run at even a 40% clip, there is no indication that the passing game efficiency will suffer.
This game is a battle of the new wave vs. the old guard. Belichick has always been able to stay ahead of the curve, but the numbers reveal a new brand of football being played by the Los Angeles Rams and it will be exciting to see who prevails on the largest stage.