New York Giants vs New England Patriots: NE -3
One other thing that I want to get out of the way before the write-up is an example of trends. I've probably heard about two dozen trends that other handicappers and bettors are waving around, but I haven't seen one that seems to merit any worthy attention. For instance, the team that is the better seed in the Super Bowl is 1-11-2 ATS since 1996. Concerning? Well before you race to the ticket counter, consider that Bill Belichick is 11-2 ATS against a team after losing to them the same year. If this was the preseason I'd give these trends some more thought, but we could go crazy trying to debate the merits of these numbers.
Let's get to the game...
If I'm NY, I certainly won't want to rely on the kind of breaks that they've got to earn their SB berth. No question they deserve full credit for executing and making enough plays to win games, but vs ATL they were able to ride home field momentum in the 2nd half. The following week they were lucky to match up with a rusty and flat GB Packers team. Some would argue that NY forced Rodgers into an off day, but if you've been watching GB all year you'll know that just isn't the full story. I had a feeling that one of the top seeds would be out of rhythm that weekend, but I didn't expect it to be GB. Fast forward to the game vs SF and you have two fortunate special teams gaffs that made the difference. SF was able to sack Manning a bunch of times and threw in a dozen knockdowns for good measure. Give NY props for surviving their mistakes, but they face a whole different animal when Sunday rolls around.
I'm not going to get too in-depth with the X's and O's because we've heard enough of that over the last two weeks. I will highlight the key factors that have me leaning towards the Pats though. Right off the bat it's clear that both teams should have ample opportunity in the passing game. The question everybody wants to know is what is the status of Gronkowksi's ankle. I'm not doctor, nor do I play one on the internet, but I have seen enough players hobbled with high ankle sprains over the years to know that he won't be able to command double coverage very often. So how does this impact the game plan? NY is going to be able to roll coverages and be more aggressive with the pass rush/blitzing. This puts the focus on the battle in the trenches.
There has been so much talk about the NY pass rush that I think it's time we looked at things a little more realistically. Throughout the season NY ranked in the middle of the pack in the adjusted sack total column. On the flip side, NE's O-line ranked near the top. I didn't see enough in the playoffs to dramatically alter my opinion on these stats. Looking at both O-lines, Diehl has given up the most sacks for NY (5.5), while Solder is the weakest link for NE (5). Comparatively, NE has the much better rush-passing O-line thanks in large part to Mankins/Waters and I expect them to chip/block Pierre Paul to keep things balanced in protection.
Do I think the lines will be a key factor in the game? Absolutely, but I think the so-called advantage for the NYG pass rush is getting overblown by the talking heads on TV. Unless NY can cause a turnover or two from the rush or make a key stop in the red zone--it will be business as usual for Brady and company. If I was backing NY, there are other areas that I'd be more concerned about.
To start with, NY should zero in on what Brady can do on long drives and in the red zone. NE rank near the top in red zone efficiency and have the most points from long drives in the entire NFL. They also rank near the top in turnover differential (last week notwithstanding) and penalties per game. There is so much talk about how leaky the NE defense is, but they were only 2nd to GB in points-to-yards ratio in the league. Simply put, this team either toughens up in the red zone or creates turnovers more often than people think. This stat has been very under-reported in all of the analysis I've seen and usually gets no more than mere lip service. Conversely, NY rank near the middle red zone efficiency on offense and a little worse for red zone defense. In fact, the only area that the NYG really excel at is their pass protection and points from long drives. They are average in almost every other meaningful statistical category that is linked to winning.
Is an all-around solid team good enough to beat a NE team that thrives in many important categories?
Like most people, I expect Brady to regress to the mean and have a much better performance than he did vs BAL. Eli is bound to have a productive day too given his passing options and less than stellar opposition on defense. NE gave up 20.7 points per game this year, but after adjusting for strength of schedule I'd peg NY to score between 20-30 points. NE averaged a lot more points offensively, but that also needs to be adjusted down due to their schedule. The question will be--which NY defense will show up? NY have been one of the most difficult teams to handicap all year and this game is no exception. Their units have played very good in the playoffs, but I'd hardly go as far as saying they have been "great".
In reality, the same key categories that dominant most games are likely going to dictate this game. Getting off the field on 3rd down is vital. Both teams rank near the bottom in 3rd down defense, but NE rank near the top in 3rd down offense, while NY sit somewhere near the middle of the pack offensively. Special teams will also be important to secure that "hidden yardage". NE have the slight edge here, but not enough to crown them with a clear advantage.
I can understand those who think that the Gronk injury is enough to swing the pendulum the other way, but I can't ignore the rest of the key advantages that favor NE. Even still, if Gronkowski is able to line up on that field on Sunday, you can be sure that he will have opportunities to make some key plays. If Brady sees him in a mismatch situation you can be sure that the ball will be going his way. NY will have to walk a fine line with their approach because the second you sleep on a guy like this, he'll make you pay--even if he is significantly hampered with his route-running and getting off the line. The guy put up 17 TD's this year and the next closest TE was Jimmy Graham with 8. Not many Patriots have earned double digit receiving TDs over the years, so just being on the field will be enough to take advantage.