NFL Playoffs: Super Bowl LIII

It’s been quite a while since we last spoke. Both of the conference championships had some unfortunate events not fall our way, namely a missed pass interference / helmet-to-helmet call in the NFC Championship game that compromised our NO -3 play, and then an unfortunate neutral zone infraction by Dee Ford that negated a game-sealing interception that would have won us our KC -3.5 model play. Despite those worst-case scenarios, playoff model plays sit at 3-3-1 for basically a wash at +0.03 units. More interestingly, those two losses on home favorites moves that split to a negative ROI on the season – the only split to do so across home / road and favorite / underdog splits:

But enough about that, there is now just one game remaining in the 2018 NFL season. It’s been a long journey to get to this point for both the Patriots and Rams, and it would only be right for us to take a deeper look at both of these teams and this monstrous matchup ahead of the biggest sports game of the year. There’s quite a lot to unpack, so let’s get right into it.

#2 Patriots (13-5) vs. #2 Rams (15-3)

I’m going to skip right past all of the narrative stuff that I’m sure you’ve been bombarded with the last two weeks (SB 36 rematch, young vs. old coach/QB, etc.) and dive head-first into the numbers. Before the season began, the Rams were projected to be the second-strongest team at 10.68 expected wins and the Patriots were projected to be the seventh-strongest team at 9.66 expected wins. As the season progressed, the Rams continuously outperformed their expectation while the Patriots somewhat tread water in the eyes of the model. The culmination of this was a gap between the two that peaked at a 2.91 expected win difference. The Rams then spent the remainder of the season tumbling back down to Earth, landing at 10.53 expected wins and within just 0.15 expected wins of their preseason projection. Meanwhile, the Patriots continued to tread water and would go on to finish the season with 9.86 expected wins, which was just 0.20 expected wins off from their preseason projection.

Last write-up I spent a lot of time talking about Rams defensive coordinator and his history of devising defensive gameplans to stifle elite quarterbacks and passing attacks. This week, he of course has the task of slowing down Tom Brady. Not enough can be said about Brady, especially in regards to his efficiency against blitzes even in his “old age”. Since 2016, the Patriots are 29-2 when brady has been pressured less than 27% against four or less pass rushers. The quick answer a lot of defensive coordinators come up with when faced with a statistic like that is “blitz more then”. But during that same stretch, the Patriots are 15-1 when Brady is blitzed 30% or more on dropbacks (via NextGenStats). So what is the appropriate gameplan?

I think Wade Phillips knows that answer. The last time Phillips faced off against Brady and Belicheck in the playoffs (2016 AFC Championship), he crafted a defensive gameplan that limited Brady to a 48% completion rate while forcing two interceptions and generating four sacks. He did so by utilizing the gameplan I highlighted two weeks ago in my newsletter: utilizing line-of-scrimmage disruption on the pass catchers to delay route development in order to generate an effective four-man pass rush. We’ve seen throughout these playoffs that Brady has been able to completely neuter solid pass rushes by getting the ball out quickly. Forcing Brady to hold the ball for an extra second makes a world of difference, as it gives Aaron Donald (who has the fastest time-to-sack average in the league) and Ndamukong Suh more time to penetrate the pocket. Only sending four to generate pressure gives the Rams more resources to dedicate in coverage, making Brady’s job even harder.

Despite all of that, Brady will not be the only quarterback who could have a hard time come Sunday. In the Patriots two playoff games thus far, they’ve generated two of their three highest pressure rates of the season (45.3% against the Chargers and 44.4% against the Chiefs). Unlike Brady, Goff isn’t quick to get rid of the ball. In fact Goff holds the ball on average for 2.96 seconds, the fourth-longest of all starting quarterbacks this year. That characteristic of Goff’s is blood in the water for the Patriots pass rush, as the Patriots have secured a perfect 10-0 record this year against quarterbacks holding the ball 2.8 seconds or longer (via ESPN Stats & Info). The one caveat to all of this is that this tendency of Goff’s is a product of the Rams’ reliance on play-action passes, which only exists due to the quality and outstanding performance of their offensive line. It obviously remains to be seen who will win that battle in particular.

If the Rams’ offensive line happens to hold up against the Patriots pass rush, then the Patriots coverage scheme become arguably the single-most important element to this game. As mentioned in a previous newsletter, the Patriots utilized man coverage more than any other team in the NFL this season. It would not surprise me one bit if Patriots Defensive Coordinator Brian Flores and of course the defensive-minded Bill Belicheck opt to rely less on man coverage and utilize more zone coverage. The reason being is that Jared Goff has the highest yard per attempt average in the league against man coverage this year, and has thrown 16 TDs and just 2 INTs against man. The magnitude of that efficiency is more apparent when compared to his 9 TD / 9 INT split against zone coverage.

The model has an easier time projecting the Super Bowl than it does any other game because the game is played on a neutral field, requiring no travel or homefield adjustments. This particular Super Bowl also has an extremely clean injury report, meaning the data is even more pure than usual. As for the actual numbers, the model actually projects the Rams as the favorite with a 51.64% chance of winning the game which converts to a LAR -1 model spread. The spread has been stuck in the mud at NE +2.5 for the past ten or so days and I don’t anticipate a move to LAR +3 that comes with juice of -110 or lower. LAR +2.5 would be an official model play for 3.5 units but the juice unfortunately moved from -102 to -109 between the time I started this write-up and the time I submitted it to be published. I do think I can get better than the current -109 juice and will wait to do so, and as always you can expect a tweet from me with the official model play when it is made.

And with that, the NFL 2018 season as well as the accompanying model plays come to a close. I hope my write-ups this season provided some insight into modeling the NFL and how to assess matchups. I want to thank all of you who have reached out via Twitter with words of encouragement, it certainly means a lot. Next week, I’ll return with a full recap and in-depth look at the model and its performance. This will include week-by-week splits, team splits, and areas of potential improvement for the 2019 season. If you have any questions or particular things you would like me to cover, make sure to give me a shout on Twitter.

And with the NFL season coming to a close, I now have my eyes set on the 2019 MLB season and the model I’ve been building in preparation for it. Following next week’s NFL model recap write-up, I plan to do a weekly MLB series that will cover higher-level MLB topics and model principals, so stay tuned for that. The plan as of right now is to provide MLB model plays for free through April, and to utilize a publicly available Google Sheet that allows you guys to see what the model line is and at what prices each team begins to show enough value to be a model play. I have some other tools in the works as well, so make sure to keep your eyes open for all of that.

Thanks again for reading.

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