We survived media week, Marshawn Lynch mobs and Ballghazi, and it's almost time to actually watch the final game of football for the 2014 season. Keeping the tradition alive, I will preview the Super Bowl the same way I preview Detroit Lions games (despite the fact that Detroit will be absent in the game for the 49th consecutive time). In case there are some non-Lions readers out there, here's a quick recap of how On Paper works:
Each chart represents one unit of a team (i.e.: Bucs Pass Offense, Lions Run Defense, etc.). Therefore, there are eight total charts (four units, two teams). Each chart lists the opponents the team has played, their performance that week and season averages to compare their performance for that week.
The purpose of this is because stats can be very misleading without the proper context. If the Lions give up 250 yards, 2 TDs and 1 INT through the air, that looks bad. But if it's against the Packers, which are (hypothetically) averaging 290 yards and 3 TDs, that is actually a very good performance. So if the team performs better than average on a given week, the cell is highlighted green; a bad performance is red. The color-coding system is based on the team being analyzed, so green doesn't necessarily mean good for the Lions. Confused? You can check out my past previews, but you'll get used to it.
After analyzing each chart, I give a matchup edge to one team on a 0-5 scale. The scale is based not only on which team looks better in this matchup, but how likely this edge will affect the final outcome of the game. A +5 advantage would predict that this matchup is key and likely to win the game for the team.
Additionally, the color yellow on a chart means the team performed within 5 percent of averages.
All averages and rankings are based on 2014 regular-season statistics unless otherwise stated. With the disclaimers out of the way, let's move to the charts:
Russell Wilson and the Seahawks pass offense aren't the kind of crew that will come in and light the field on fire. In fact, they've only reached 300 net yards in one game this season. However, Seattle does throw the ball pretty efficiently. In 11 of 18 games this season, the Seahawks have finished with a higher passer rating than the opposing defense typically allows.
The reason for this disconnect between the columns above is -- as it almost always turns out to be -- because of attempts. The Seahawks attempted the fewest passes in the league during the regular season, averaging just 28.4 passing attempts per game. But they make the most of their passing attempts. They completed 63.2 percent of those passes (15th), for 7.7 yards per attempt (t-sixth) and a passer rating of 95.1 (eighth).
So while the Seahawks won't torch your defense through the air, they will pick and choose their moments and likely be successful when they finally decide to air it out. The NFC Championship Game was the perfect example of this. Even though they struggled mightily through three and a half quarters, when the Seahawks desperately needed Wilson, he threw two perfect passes to win the game.
The Patriots pass defense has been all over the place this year. Early in the season, they allowed the Cincinnati Bengals, Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns to throw it all over them, but later in the year, they completely shut down the Lions, Indianapolis Colts and San Diego Chargers. There's no doubt they've been playing better as a unit lately, but they are still very beatable, as the Baltimore Ravens proved in the divisional round of the playoffs.
Overall, the Pats rank eighth in completion percentage allowed (59.6), t-15th in yards per attempt allowed (7.2) and 10th in passer rating allowed (84.0). To put it simply, they have a slightly above-average unit defending the pass.
Player to watch: Marshawn Lynch. Seattle's receiving corps leaves much to be desired, which is why Lynch could be a big factor in the passing game. Lynch was actually third on the team in targets, receptions and yards during the regular season, and he led the team in touchdown receptions with four.
Advantage: Draw. The Seahawks wouldn't dominate this matchup even if they had the clear advantage. But with the way the Patriots have been playing as of late, this matchup is too close to call. I wouldn't expect much more than 200 yards of pass offense from the Seahawks, so it'll be the touchdowns and interceptions that swing this matchup one way or another. Wilson doesn't turn the ball over much (with the NFC Championship being a major exception), but the Patriots did have the 12th-most interceptions in the league this year.
Seahawks run offense (1st) vs. Patriots run defense (9th)
Seattle's running attack is as good as advertised. Not only have they outgained yardage averages in 15 of 18 games and YPC averages in 12 of 18, but they have put up some ridiculous numbers in the process. In eight games this season, they averaged over 5.5 yards per carry, and in nine games they surpassed 170 yards. In case you're wondering, the Lions failed to accomplish either of those feats once all year.
Unsurprisingly, the Seahawks rank first in yards per carry (5.3) and also earn first downs on the highest percentage of rushes (27.4 percent). Additionally, they have the most rushing touchdowns (20) and rushes of 40+ yards (6). They are the undisputed best running team in the league.
Once again, we see a marked improvement from the Patriots defense as the season wore on. After allowing four of their first eight opponents to outgain their season YPC average, they went the next eight games without allowing one opponent to do so. In fact, their only true bump in the road since Week 9 was their playoff game against the Ravens.
New England's raw statistics look a little more pedestrian. They are allowing 4.0 yards per carry (t-eighth) and first downs on 21.0 percent of rushes (13th). They are certainly a good run defense, especially since their bye week, but they are still unspectacular.
Player to watch: Jamie Collins. Lynch is obviously the guy to watch on Seattle's side, but keep an eye out for Collins, the second-year linebacker for New England. Collins led the team in tackles this year by a large margin and even tallied an interception last game against the Colts. He is emerging as a star for the Patriots defense.
Advantage: Seahawks +1. The Seahawks' entire offensive identity revolves around their running game, and no one does it better. The Patriots will present a good challenge for the Seahawks, but not good enough to stop them. I'd be absolutely shocked if Seattle was held below 100 yards rushing or 4.0 yards per carry.
Patriots pass offense (9th) vs. Seahawks pass defense (1st)
*Tom Brady was pulled after the first half of the Buffalo Bills game.
After a worrisome start to the season, the Patriots got completely back on track to the kind of passing game we've grown accustomed to seeing. Since Week 4, Brady and the Patriots have met or surpassed the defense's passer rating allowed average in 12 of 14 games.
Strangely, the Patriots' offensive rankings don't look too impressive. New England ranks 12th in completion percentage (64.4) and t-20th in yards per attempt (7.0), but they're fifth in passer rating (97.5). This hasn't been one of the Patriots' most explosive seasons in passing the ball, but Brady still throws a lot of touchdowns (fifth-most) and doesn't throw many interceptions (fourth-fewest). That's always a pretty good recipe for a great pass offense. But, still, it's important to point out they aren't as dominant of a unit as they have been in the past.
The Seattle pass defense, however, is as good as ever. Not only do they have a clean column in passer rating defense since Week 8, but they haven't allowed a team to surpass a passer rating above 90 since then. Additionally, no team has reached 300 net passing yards against this defense all year. Their dominance cannot be overstated.
Compared to the rest of the NFL, Seattle remains an elite defense. Though they rank 12th in completion percentage allowed (61.7), they are second in yards per attempt allowed (6.3) and fifth in passer rating allowed (80.4).
Player to watch: Rob Gronkowski. Since Richard Sherman will be busy blanketing his receivers, expect Brady to look to his all-star tight end for help. Gronk can be unstoppable at times, and the Seahawks are actually quite pedestrian at defending tight ends. According to Football Outsiders, the Seahawks rank 18th at stopping tight ends.
Advantage: Draw. This is a matchup the Patriots absolutely have to win, and they have quite the uphill battle. The Patriots often look like a very well-oiled machine on offense, but the Seahawks tend to dismantle even the most well-constructed offenses. Still, this should be a very entertaining matchup.
Patriots run offense (18th) vs. Seahawks run defense (3rd)
Perhaps the weakest aspect of their team, the Patriots couldn't find consistency running the ball all season. They only outgained the defense's yardage average in seven of 18 games this season and YPC averages in six of 18. They've been outstanding at times (both games against Indianapolis), but dreadful at others (vs. Baltimore, vs. Denver).
New England ranks just t-22nd with 3.9 yards per carry and t-15th with 21.9 percent of their rushes resulting in first downs. They are just a mediocre running team, which has been good enough for them.
Once again, the Seahawks' dominance is clear. They've held all but one opponent at or below their YPC average, and only four opponents have managed to surpass their rushing yards average against Seattle. Interestingly, however, the Seahawks did not fare well in their first two playoff games, allowing over 130 yards and 4.4 yards per carry in both games.
Regardless, this is still one of the most feared run defenses in the league. They allowed just 3.4 yards per carry in the regular season (second-best), and only 18.4 percent of rushes against the Seahawks resulted in first downs (fourth-best).
Player to watch: Kam Chancellor. The Seahawks' Pro Bowl safety has no issue coming down into the box and laying the boom on someone. According to Pro Football Focus, Chancellor actually spends 81.3 percent of his snaps within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage, which is highest among safeties. As a result, Chancellor ranks fourth on his team in tackles.
Advantage: Seahawks +1.5. It's hard to say either of these teams has a true weakness, but if there's one in this game, it's the Patriots' running game. Unfortunately for them, they are matched up against one of the best units in the NFL. However, Seattle's performance in the playoffs has given me pause; otherwise the Seahawks' advantage here would have been much higher.
Injuries. The Seahawks came out of the NFC Championship Game beat up physically. Both Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas faced serious-looking injuries. Though both have practiced all week without the "limited" designation, they cannot be 100 percent after just two weeks.
The Seahawks come out with a fairly conclusive +2.5 advantage. I have to admit, I went into this preview expecting to pick the Patriots. Seattle seemed a bit underwhelming all season, while the Patriots created havoc throughout the second half of the season, just embarrassing some of their opponents (Lions included *tear*). But after creating the charts, it's pretty obvious the Seahawks have put together the better resume in 2014.
While the Patriots got markedly better in every aspect of their game as the season went on, the Seahawks have been at the top of their game since the middle of the season. Seattle has an elite unit in three aspects of the game (run offense, run defense, pass defense), and their fourth unit isn't too shabby, either. The Patriots have serious questions running the ball and defending the run, and those are two things the Seahawks happen to excel at.
Of course, you have to factor in Bill Belichick "magic," and you can never, ever count out Touchdown Tom. But looking at the two teams on paper, it's hard to pick anyone other than the Seahawks. 27-17 Seattle.