HOUSTON — With the big game nearing, Super Bowl bettors are trying to find an advantage buried in the odds, some inside edge to help them confidently place a wager.
Each week, Monty Andrews breaks down some of the underlying mismatches in the NFL for Covers.com, a Tribune sister site, and the Super Bowl no different.
Here are the biggest betting mismatches for Super Bowl LI:
The final game of the NFL season has arrived, as the Falcons and Patriots do battle to determine who will be crowned champion. As you can well imagine, Sunday’s showdown features two teams that are rather evenly-matched – but that doesn’t mean there aren’t weaknesses on both sides that the opponent will look to exploit.
Here are four of the more pronounced mismatches you’ll find heading into Super Bowl LI in Houston:
Patriots’ red-zone scoring vs. Falcons’ downfield defensive doldrums
New England did just about anything it wanted on offense, scoring the most points in the AFC despite being without star quarterback Tom Brady for the first four games of the regular season. Between Brady’s sensational performance, a stout running game led by LeGarrette Blount and solid performances from the entire receiving corps, opposing teams had little shot at stopping the Patriots, especially in the red zone. And that just happens to be where the Falcons’ defense struggles most.
Coming into the final weekend of the season, New England ranks ninth in the NFL in percentage of red-zone visits converted into touchdowns at 63.8 percent. That rate is even higher over the Pats’ last three games (69.2 percent). New England was almost equally proficient at home (64.1 percent) compared to the road (63.3 percent), but actually came in slightly lower than their 2015 red-zone TD rate (65.2 percent), which ranked fourth in the NFL.
For as prolific as the Atlanta offense has been, the Falcons have been positively dismal when it comes to slowing down opposing teams inside the 20-yard line. Atlanta has posted the worst opponent red-zone touchdown rate in the league at 72.1 percent, and has been only slightly better over its previous three games (66.7 percent). With rates above 70 percent both at home and on the road, Atlanta has been consistently underwhelming – and it could cost the Falcons the Super Bowl.
Patriots’ yards after the catch vs. Falcons’ YAC struggles
How did Brady rack up more than 3,500 passing yards in just 12 games? The future Hall of Famer still has a great arm, but he also had plenty of help this season, and two guys in particular were pivotal to helping Brady reach the 3,500-yard plateau for the 14th time in his illustrious career. Yards gained after the catch helped New England roll past its opponents – and while Atlanta can certainly keep pace on offense, its defense had a rough season in the YAC department.
The Patriots posted an average YAC of 6.34 yards per reception; coincidentally, only the Falcons have a higher YAC on the season (6.37). New England had a pair of players finish in the top eight in total YAC, with running back James White compiling 540 of his 551 total receiving yards after the catch – good for sixth in the league. Wide receiver Julian Edelman wasn’t far behind, finishing with 505 yards after the catch – nearly half of his 1,106-yard tally for the season.
White and Edelman will look to add to their lofty totals Sunday against a Falcons unit that was torched all season. Atlanta allowed the most yards after the catch in the league (2,126), their 132.9 YAC allowed per game slightly higher than that of the runner-up Indianapolis Colts (132.3). And if that wasn’t alarming enough, the Patriots were the league’s best in YAC allowed, limiting opponents to just 1,463 yards after the catch – an average of just 91.4 per contest.
Julio Jones vs. Malcolm Butler and the Pats’ secondary
While the majority of the focus in this post has been on how the teams match up against one another on the whole, there’s one pairing that could cause the Patriots fits on Sunday. Atlanta not only has superstars at quarterback and running back in Matt Ryan and Devonta Freeman, it also employs one of the league’s most electrifying receivers in Julio Jones – and if Pro Football Focus’s evaluation is any indication, the Patriots will have their hands full with him.
Statistically, Jones had what could be considered an okay season by his lofty standards; he finished second in the NFL in receiving yards with 1,409, but scored just six touchdowns. But PFF held him in much higher regard, giving him the highest rating of any player at his position (95.4). His 94.6 receiving grade was nearly 2 1/2 points higher than runner-up Mike Evans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and almost 6 1/2 points above Pittsburgh Steelers star Antonio Brown.
The Patriots were able to negate Brown in the AFC Championship, limiting him to seven catches for 77 yards. That includes just two catches on four targets when Brown was covered by Malcolm Butler, who will likely draw the bulk of the action against Jones. But while Butler has plenty of PFF love on his side (89.8 rating, sixth at his position), he’ll be giving up four inches and 30 pounds to Jones, making this one of the few mismatches the Falcons have at their disposal.
Matt Ryan’s improving pocket vs. Patriots’ passive pass rush
Ryan is an MVP candidate this season after posting career bests in passing yards (4,944) and touchdowns (38) while throwing a career-low seven interceptions – and it could have been even better than that had the Falcons’ offensive line done a slightly better job of keeping him upright. But Ryan and the Falcons have had no such problems recently, and should enjoy another solid showing against a Patriots pass rush that has underwhelmed of late.
Ryan has been sacked on 6.13 percent of his dropbacks so far this season, the 23rd-best rate in the NFL; of the nine teams behind Atlanta on the list, only Miami and Seattle made the playoffs. But things have improved dramatically over the past three games, with the Falcons allowing sacks on just 3.48 percent of plays over that span. That includes a zero-sack performance in their NFC Championship victory over the Green Bay Packers.
New England’s pass rush is trending in the opposite direction heading into Super Bowl LI. The Patriots, coincidentally, rank 23rd in the NFL in sack percentage at 5.14, but have recorded sacks on just 2.42 percent of opponent plays over their past three games. They didn’t have a single sack in the AFC Championship, one year after positing the fifth-highest sack rate in football (7.25 percent). If Ryan can stay on his feet, the Falcons have a puncher’s chance at taking home the Lombardi Trophy.
Editor’s note: This story was written by Monty Andrews for Covers.com, a sister site also owned by Tribune.