Spread pick for the Super Bowl
After a week off of (real) professional football, we are back for the culminating game of the 2016 season. The Super Bowl features the top-seeded AFC team against the NFC’s No. 2 seed, with the 14-2 New England Patriots coming off a convincing win over the Pittsburgh Steelers and the 11-5 Atlanta Falcons having beaten down the Green Bay Packers in their respective Conference Championships. This is only the second of 11 games this postseason that isn’t a rematch of the regular season, and features two of PFF’s highest-graded quarterbacks from the regular season in Tom Brady and Matt Ryan.
[Editor’s note: Analyst Eric Eager utilizes Pro Football Focus’ NFL Premium Stats in his predictive model. For more on Premium Stats, click here. For more game predictions, follow Eric on Twitter at @EricEager82.]
Patriots (-3) versus Falcons
Spread Plus: Patriots by 4 (Patriots cover)
The Atlanta Falcons have rebounded from three consecutive years of disappointing play to develop into one of the more potent teams in recent memory, with quarterback Matt Ryan pacing the league in yards per passing attempt (9.3), adjusted net yards per pass attempt (9.03), yards per pass completion (13.3), passing touchdown percentage (7.1 percent) and passer rating (117.1). After finishing 25th in the league a year ago in yards per play allowed on defense, Atlanta improved to 19th in the league, grading out as our 14th-highest-graded unit by season’s end.
While the Falcons have been one of the better sides this year (going 12-6 against the spread, including the playoffs), the Patriots have been ridiculous, posting a 15-3 record against the number on the season. On a throw-to-throw basis, Tom Brady has been every bit as good as (if not better than) the likely league MVP on the other side, grading out as the best quarterback in our system’s history. In a game where both quarterbacks are on the top of their game, it will be the one-on-one matchups, both on the field and off, that decide this one. While the Falcons have Julio Jones (our highest-graded receiver this year), the Patriots and Bill Belichick have always prioritized limiting a team’s No. 1 option. Players like Devonta Freeman (seventh among running backs in yards per route run), Tevin Coleman (first), Taylor Gabriel (third among wide receivers) and Mohamed Sanu (16th among slot receivers) have stepped up repeatedly for Ryan, but New England’s defense is our highest-graded pass-coverage unit, meaning the substantial scoring implied by a Vegas over/under of 58.5 might not materialize.
While I’m not super confident in this pick against the spread (I have the Patriots with roughly a 58-percent chance of winning the game outright), New England’s slight edge at the quarterback position, balance up and down the roster, and guiding hand of Belichick are going to be the difference in Houston this weekend.