Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Super Bowl Pick: The Time Of Empire

Now And Forever
It's the kind of statistic that seems like it shouldn't matter because it's a small sample size, but here it is: Patriots QB and the NFL's Dorian Grey, Tom Brady, has never lost to his Super Bowl opponent, the Atlanta Falcons.

Sure, it's just a 4 game sample size, and the rotation of the NFL means that those losses come once every Olympics, but there it is. Home or road dome, the Pats win. (This also means that Falcons QB and Sudden Vindication of an All-In QB Strategy Matt Ryan has never beaten New England, but that's just 0-2.) You might notice a lot of that sort of thing going around, in re Brady's lifetime record.

There is, of course, many more stats for you to peruse as you consider your pick,and many of these seem incredibly germane; records of favorites, records by conference, trends in the past decade, and so on, and so on. I'm also partial to over-thinking these things, because money is money, and ending the year with a winning SB pick gets you in line to really enjoy the off-season. So let's get into the nitty gritty. 

The argument for New England: Incredible edge in coaching and championship game experience. Defense is playing its best ball of the year. Rushing attack is varied, deep and effective. Best big game QB of the era, and maybe the best big game QB of all time. Timing-based passing attack makes the other team's pass rush mostly theoretical. Pass coverage is among the best of this team's recent history, with coaching bringing up guys who failed elsewhere. Defense tackles well, and they are more stout against the running game than usual. They rarely, if ever, beat themselves.

The argument against: Pass rush is pedestrian at best. Without TE Rob Gronkowski, lacking a true game breaker, and heavily dependent on schemes (err, uncalled OPI). Special teams are mostly ordinary. Wide receivers are, with the moonshot exception of the Chris Hogan Game in the AFC Championship, no one that you have to double team. Fan base doesn't root hard, because they are the most spoiled people on the planet. They rarely, if ever, look as good in this game as they do in the AFC games that lead up to it.

The argument for Atlanta: Most complete offense in pro football, which is a necessity to beating the Patriots, since they usually take away your star and make you do other things. WR Julio Jones has only been stopped by health this year, and he gets a bye week; he is in the absolute prime of his career, and may so good as to even overwhelm the Patriots' scheming ability. HC Dan Quinn has been the best in the NFL this year, especially at getting his offense to not make mistakes in the red zone. QB Matt Ryan with a clean pocket this year has been historically good, and he should have that most of the day. The RBs are the best 1-2 attack in the NFL in many years, and unlike Pittsburgh, they don't suffer much in the event of injury. Secondary WRs make all of the plays, with Mohammed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel providing top-tier performance. Tight ends move the sticks and are reliable. In Vic Beasley Jr., the defense has the best young pass rusher in the game, and the defense is playing its best football of the year, with young LBs doing increasingly better work in coverage.

The argument against: No Super Bowl experience behind Quinn's coordinator work with Seattle, which (a) doesn't really count, and (b) doesn't really inspire, and will be beaten to death in the hype period before the game. Ryan has been exposed in big games in the past. Defense is bend not break, which doesn't work against a Brady offense, because Brady has exceptional patience, and eats young players alive. Special teams are also susceptible to breakdown. If Jones isn't 100%, WRs lose their tier structure and can struggle, because Gabriel isn't anything but a slot, and Sanu will try too hard. Defense in the red zone has been terrible for much of the year, so the recent better work shouldn't be seen as a definitive all clear.

The pick: This game has a 59.5 over under, which is the highest over/under in Super Bowl history, and sounds right in the ballpark to me; the only reason to pick an under is the concept that the scoring drives might not be very quick. Neither of these teams is going to stop the other; what will happen is that penalties and drops will combine to trip up less than a third of drives, and red zone execution will be everything. I'm looking for over 900 yards of total offense, which means that a pick in this game really comes down to a dozen critical plays, rather than, well, what you might historically have done, in regards to line play, momentum, record against common opponents, and so on.

If you pick the Falcons, you are trusting talent over experience, youth over execution, and the team that played in the tougher conference, with the much harder playoff path, against the folks that are, well, always here. If you pick the Patriots, you are rooting for the Empire to do what they do most of the time, and have the comfort of knowing that they rarely, if ever, lose games on their own mistakes... and the Falcons don't fit the profile of teams that beat them in the playoffs.

I have a clear and strong rooting interest in this game, in that this is the 14th time in the last 15 years that a Boston area team is playing for a championship in one of the four major American sports. This isn't just the most spoiled fan base in American history; they are also just the worst, because the New England diaspora means that they have local front runners everywhere, and unlike other fan bases, somehow feel like if they just talk to you about their team long enough, they'll convert you to their cult. (Every other fan base is just happy for themselves, and hangs out with their own kind, because they have a modicum of human decency. Yes, even New York Fan.) This also means that betting lines are skewed in their favor, because the chalk pick is to just take the dynasty and the over, and assume that the game will be, like many things in this country right now, terrible.

I'm an optimist by nature. I believe that I can work out any problem, think my way to new solutions, re-boot my mind with exercise and focus, and so on. Picking the Patriots has overtones of defeat and despair, of giving up on having a watchable game for just the third time in eleven NFL playoff games. If the Patriots win, a certain political figure and human denial of service attack will be happy, and anything that makes that person happy right now is incredibly suspect.

But all of that is beside the point, and makes things more complicated than it needs to be. Teams that are in the Super Bowl for the first time rarely play their best game from the start, rarely have all of their skill players avoid turnovers, and rarely have defenders not try too hard to make plays and commit back-breaking penalties of aggression.

Against the Empire, that gets you field goals instead of touchdowns, sustains drives you might have stopped, and puts you in a panicky early hole. The early stress leads to later stress and bad decisions even if you keep it close. Which winds up leading to coaches that spit the bit on fourth down decisions and play calls. There's a reason why teams turn into idiots when they play the Patriots, and do things like, well, not give the ball to Marshawn Lynch at the goal line.

Which means that the Patriots can win in a blowout, win in a close game, and have enough of a lead to take care of the late cover. My call is for the latter, and my recommendation is for you to watch as little of the pre and post-game as you can. In the time of Empire, profit comes before heart. And in the nature of gambling, it always will.

Patriots 31, Falcons 27

Last week: 1-1

Playoffs: 6-4

Season: 121-144-5

Career: 880-889-54

Past SBs: 4-6

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