On Paper is back with the first or the last NFL preview of the year, depending on your perspective.
While I sadly won’t be previewing the Detroit Lions for the 10th straight Super Bowl since I’ve been doing these, the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles will be getting the On Paper treatment today.
Since there may be some non-Lions fans reading who are not accustomed to my style of preview, here’s a quick tutorial:
Each chart represents one unit of a team (e.g.: 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, who 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 and a yellow cell means the team performed within 5 percent of the team average. 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 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 indicated that this matchup unbelievably lopsided, and it’s likely to win the game for the team.
Caught up? Let’s get to it.
Note: All statistical averages are for the regular season only, unless otherwise stated.
Patriots pass offense (1st in DVOA) vs. Eagles pass defense (7th)
I don’t think I’m breaking any news here, but Tom Brady is pretty good. He and the Patriots passing offense have outgained the defense’s passer rating average in 12 of 18 games this season, including both playoff contests.
At 40 years old, Brady is still playing at an above-average level. That is, above his own career averages. In 2017, he topped his own career averages in completion percentage (66.3), interception percentage (1.4%), yards per attempt (7.9) and passer rating (102.8). Unsurprisingly, Brady ranks in the top five in all of those statistical categories compared to the rest of the NFL this season.
There just isn’t anything this passing offense can’t do. They’ve got one of the best receiving tight ends in the game. Brady has the ability to make Brandin Cooks, Danny Amendola or Chris Hogan look like a No. 1 receiver.
If there’s one weakness, it’s pass protection. Brady was sacked 35 times this year, which is the fourth-most in his career. But even then, New England’s adjusted sack rate is still 14th best in the league.
The Eagles have a formidable pass defense to match. Only eight of 18 teams managed to outgain their passer rating average when facing Philadelphia. Lately, that number has been even lower. In their past eight games, only three teams have managed to outgain their averages, and over those games, Philly has faced some good passing offenses. They completely shut down Matt Ryan, Derek Carr, Case Keenum, and Dak Prescott (twice).
The Eagles rank ninth in passer rating allowed (79.5), t-third in yards per attempt (6.5) and 13th in completion percentage (60.4).
They’re also a very disruptive defense. Their 19 interceptions are the fourth most in the NFL, and their 38 sacks rank 15th. The best part of their defense is that anyone can bring the heat. The Eagles have five different players that had at least 5.0 sacks this season—Brandon Graham (9.5), Chris Long (5.0), Fletcher Cox (5.5) and Derek Barnett (5.0).
Player to watch: Rob Gronkowski. Gronk missed two regular season games this year and he still finished first in receiving yards for the Patriots (and first among all tight ends in 2017). The dude is a matchup nightmare for anyone and the Eagles defense is just average in stopping opposing tight ends (17th in DVOA).
Advantage: Patriots +1.5. Never count out Touchdown Tom. The Eagles have a very good chance to make the Patriots one-dimensional, but that has very rarely stopped Brady from torching defenses. Philly can rush the passer, but they haven’t done it consistently enough for me to give them the advantage here. It may take a while, but Brady will get his own on Sunday, like he always does.
Patriots run offense (3rd) vs. Eagles run defense (3rd)
This is odd. The chart doesn’t match the DVOA ranking at all. The Patriots appear to have a very average running game this year. They’ve only outgained the opponent’s YPC average in seven of 18 games.
The raw statistics aren’t all that more impressive. They rank t-12th in yards per carry (4.2), 10th in rushing yards per game (118.1) and seventh in percentage of rushes earning first downs (23.9).
They aren’t a bad rushing offense, but they’re only slightly above average, and they haven’t been all that good recently. In the past six games, they’ve only averaged above 4.0 YPC twice and, in total, averaged just 98.6 rushing yards per game.
The Eagles defense, again, looks dominant. Only two teams all season rushed for more yards against Philly than they averaged for the year. Only four teams were able to outgain their YPC average. They’ve held half of their opponents below 4.0 YPC and seven at 70 yards or less.
Compared to the rest of the league, the Eagles rank sixth in YPC allowed (3.8) and fifth in percentage of rushes earning first downs (18.4). Surprisingly, they are a little susceptible to long rushes, allowing 11 20+ yard rushes all year (t-18th), but have only allowed seven rushing touchdowns (t-third).
Player to watch: Fletcher Cox. The Eagles’ defensive tackle is the No. 2 ranked interior defender according to Pro Football Focus. The man is a force to be reckoned with.
Advantage: Eagles +1. The Eagles have only allowed 100 rushing yards six times all season. Though part of the reasoning there is their ability to jump out to early leads, this Eagles defense is capable of shutting down running games and making teams one dimensional. I get the feeling that’s exactly what will happen on Sunday.
Eagles pass offense (5th) vs. Patriots pass defense (21st)
*Indicates games in which Nick Foles played
Prior to Carson Wentz’s injury, this was arguably the best passing offense in the league. Wentz failed to reach the defense’s passer rating allowed average in just one game all year. When Foles took over, he failed to do it twice (although he only played in one quarter in the regular season finale).
But Foles has been fantastic in the playoffs. His 122.1 postseason passer rating is highest among all 12 playoff quarterbacks. So is his yards per attempt (9.5) and completion percentage (77.8). That’s right, Nick Foles is the best statistical quarterback in the 2017 playoffs, and it’s not all that close.
This is the part where Lions fans will lean into their monitors. You know that second-half turnaround that we’ve all been crediting Matt Patricia with? Well, here it is. It doesn’t look quite as impressive as the points per game stats, but as you can see from the chart above, they were clearly better defending the pass in the second half of the season than they were to start.
Still, they haven’t been great at defending the pass all year. They rank just 17th in passer rating (89.5), 25th in yards per attempt (7.3), and 17th in completion percentage (62.2).
The one thing this defense seems capable of doing, surprisingly, is rush the passer. Though they don’t have a premier pass rusher, they still rank seventh in the league in sacks (42).
Player to watch: Alshon Jeffery. Though the Eagles are extremely good at spreading the ball around, Jeffery has been their guy in the postseason. In two games, Jeffery has nine catches for 146 yards and two touchdowns. And the Patriots aren’t all that good against No. 1 receivers. They rank just 26th in DVOA against No. 1 receivers all year.
Advantage: Eagles +1. There’s no doubt in my mind that the Eagles passing offense is dynamic and versatile enough to make this mediocre Patriots defense look bad. If you take away Jeffery or Zach Ertz, they can hurt you Torrey Smith, Jay Ajayi or Nelson Agholor. But I can’t with confidence give Philly a bigger advantage. I just don’t know how much you can trust Foles in a big game, especially against a defense that can rush the passer. I think Philadelphia will be okay, but I just can’t be sure considering how small our sample size is with Foles.
Eagles run offense (17th) vs. Patriots run defense (30th)
The chart is the definition of average. Of their 18 games, the Eagles surpassed the defense’s YPC average in five games, met averages in seven games, and failed to reach averages in six games. They tend to rack up a ton of yards, but that is more of a result of having the sixth-most rushing attempts in the league.
Still, this is a rushing attack that can hurt you. They rank t-third in yards per carry (4.5) and 10th in percent of rushes earing first downs (22.8).
Things have been considerably better for the Eagles since adding Jay Ajayi, who is averaging an impressive 5.8 yards per carry since Philly traded for him in the middle of the season. However, he’s been somewhat subdued in the playoffs, averaging just 3.8 yards per carry.
Again, look at the drastic change between the first half and second half Patriots. After allowing nine of their first 10 opponents to reach or surpass their season YPC average, only four of their final eight have managed to do so. They’ve absolutely shut down their past four opponents.
But if we’re talking big picture here, the Patriots run defense isn’t all that good. They’re allowing an embarrassing 4.7 YPC (t-30th), and 25.1 percent of rushes against the Patriots earn first downs (29th).
Part of the problem is that New England’s front seven just isn’t all that talented. No player on the roster has more than five tackles for loss all season. The Eagles, by comparison, have four players with that distinction.
Player to watch: Jason Kelce. I don’t think I’ve ever listed a center in this section, but Kelce is the best in the business. The All-Pro center is the highest ranked in the league per PFF and is the anchor to this successful running game.
Advantage: Eagles +1. This would be a more lopsided matchup if it weren’t for the recent trends. The Patriots are starting to get things figured out on defense, while Eagles’ running game doesn’t quite have the bite they had earlier in the year. Still, Philly clearly has the better talent in this matchup.
The Eagles come out with a +1.5 advantage, which is pretty surprising considering they’re currently about 4.5-point underdogs. What may be even more surprising is that they have an advantage in three of the four matchups.
Unfortunately for the Eagles, the one matchup they don’t own is the one with the ultimate equalizer: Tom Brady. The Patriots have been outmatched on paper hundreds of times before, but Brady—and Bill Belichick—have made up the difference in spades.
So it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see New England pull off the On Paper upset. But this preview is all about who is the better team when statistically compared, and there’s little doubt that team resides in Philly. Eagles 27, Patriots 24.