Sunday, February 3, 2013

NFL Super Bowl Picks

Better late than never! Especially compared to my MLB season review, half of which is still in draft form 3 months after the end of the season. For those needing a framework to understand today's game to those needing a few tips on game/prop bets, you've probably already found a smorgasbord of information from all over the web. But from years of watching and re-watching the game, remember, there are a few constants that hold true:

1. Pace Matters, Kind Of.

The Super Bowl is played at a glacial pace, with the average game time going well over the regular season averages due to more stoppages for commercials. According to NFL Team Rankings, last season's Patriots ran 67.2 plays per game in the regular season (1st), while the Giants ran 65.7 (31st), for a total of 132.9 between the two teams. In the Super Bowl, the script flipped with the Giants running 71 plays and the Patriots 62. The sum is exactly 133, which is what the season stats would predict. Let's look at a few more season's worth of pace in terms of offensive plays/game:

These numbers show virtually no correlation between regular season plays and plays run during the Super Bowl. A lot of teams thought that the Giants had success against the Patriots by slowing the game down and keeping it close. Well, that may be true from a narrative point of view, but in actuality, the Patriots ran more plays against the Giants in the Super Bowl than both the average winning team as well as the 2005 Patriots team that beat the Eagles with only 63 offensive plays. So teams that run a lot of plays, like the Patrots, Seahawks, and Colts have had success running lots of plays in the Super Bowl, too.

What does matter for these teams and their pace is that timeouts and halftime are drawn out during the Super Bowl, giving the opposing defense to catch their breath. It seems that offenses that rely on a fast-pace may be able to achieve that pace and still be not be as effective in the Super Bowl. I haven't done the stats on this, and would need to do a correlation study on pace, adjusted net yards per play, and regular season/Super Bowl. So while pace doesn't really change in the Super Bowl, the time between plays increases, which changes the rhythm of the game. As far as the impact on this game, San Francisco was 8th in plays per game in 2012 with 64.1, while Baltimore was 21st with 61.9. However, I wouldn't characterize the 49ers as a fast-snapping team, and think the impact of pace on this game to be relatively small, with both teams scoring near their season averages (24.8 for San Francisco, 24.9 for Baltimore).

2. Coaching Does Matter.

One place where pace seems to matter is the long break between halves, which good coaches can take advantage of. Looking at the last several coaching matchups: Belichick and Coughlin seemed to be evenly matched. So did Tomlin/Wisenhunt (the version with a QB), Dungy/Lovie Smith and Cowher/Holmgren. But Belichick/Reid? I am a fan of Reid's work in Philadelphia and he is an intelligent coach for sure. But one constant of the Reid era was that he would get little game management things wrong: challenges, timeout management, end-of-half and end-of-game scenarios. These decisions may only affect one or two things during a game, but are things that Belichick and other attention-detailed coaches just don't miss. Reid brutally mismanaged the Patriots game not with challenges (got them right) or timeouts (managed well), but by calling 72 plays when the team averaged less than 61 in the regular season (for now, you can see it here). By 8 minutes left in the 4th quarter, McNabb was gassed, showing it on his second pick right after a big play to T.O. into Patriots territory. Balls were low, wobbly, and lacked consistency, making McNabb look like he was gripping too tight and trying to muscle throws instead of relying on memory. There were nice throws to Owens on an out and the throw to Lewis right on the money in the end zone to get within three, but these were offset by terrible picks and badly missed checkdowns. And I haven't even gotten to the last drive, which was a travesty of bad hurry-up.

But the biggest example of a coaching disparity was the second half of the Saints-Colts tilt in 2010. The Saints knew they had time during halftime to change the look of the defense, and were able to start pressuring Peyton with good results. While the Colts under Peyton generally try to do similar things to out-execute their opponents, it is considerably more difficult to do so when Peyton is unable to diagnose the defense before the snap. Jim Caldwell is a football mind (the classic coordinator), but he was unable to lead his team during the season's biggest game and was thoroughly out-coached when Sean Payton took the gloves off after halftime.

In this game, both coaches are obviously well matched. But I think that Jim Harbaugh has made his team assume his identity better than John in Baltimore. I think the firing of Cam Cameron was handled poorly, and I think the 49ers are more on the same page.

3. Super Bowls are Won in the Trenches

Much has been made of how Baltimore is now playing with their 5 best offensive linemen after rejuvenating and inserting Brian McKinnie as the LT and moving Michael Oher to RT, a better fit for his skills. But the 49ers offensive line has improved throughout the season, too. I was surprised to hear Bruce Arians Friday interview on Colin Cowherd's show, where Bruce described the pistol offense as a fad that defensive coordinators will figure out in the offseason. News flash: well run pistol teams want you to take the pistol away. They don't want their developing star QBs to take hits as the ball carrier. They want you to commit to stopping the pistol so they can defeat you in other places. No defense is perfect, and the pistol has exploited the current two-deep defenses in vogue around the league. Once defenses adjust, the offense will run a whole bunch of concepts where the defense will be short personnel. And that's what the pistol, read-option, and other college running plays are all about: making the defense commit extra personnel to specific areas in order to stretch it thin and attack it in others.

That's the difference between these offensive teams that are willing to try new concepts. And no analysis would be complete without looking at the quarterbacks running the show. Make no mistake: Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, and Colin Kaepernick aren't running QBs in the mold of Michael Vick or Vince Young. They're incredibly talented QBs with great arms that have the ability to take blockers out of the picture with their running abilities.

But I digress. Bill Barnwell's Super Bowl preview did a great job highlighting the 49ers fantastic series of offensive linemen. I think the Ravens front, including Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, and Ray Lewis are too banged up to make the impact they'd like to in moving the 49ers blockers, and I think the 49ers will have success running up the middle.

On the other side, I think Baltimore will be able to throw deep, just like they've done against the Broncos and Pats. But remember: if not for a tremendously blown coverage by Rahim Moore, and the Ravens still lose the Broncos game by seven after connecting on several deep passes. I think Joe Flacco will be able to use Dashon Goldson's aggressiveness against him. I tweeted during last week's Falcons/49ers game that sometimes, Dashon Goldson takes himself out of the play with his big-hitting style, and that's dangerous against Torrey Smith. And I think Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta will fare well against San Francisco's hard hitting secondary. But for me, the 49ers have the advantage in the trenches, and that's why I believe they'll win.

49ERS -4.5 over Ravens

Score prediction: Baltimore 24, San Francisco 31.

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