On Paper isn’t quite in its offseason yet. Ever since I started the season, I made sure to continue for the Super Bowl because of just how big of an event it was. Additionally, it’s a nice perspective on what these charts should look like, given that we focus only the Detroit Lions all season.
That being said, these are two familiar teams to Lions fans. Detroit played both of the Patriots and Rams at home this year and competed pretty well with both. They absolutely dominated the Patriots back in Week 3, but couldn’t finish the Rams off a couple months later.
If you’re coming here from outside the Detroit Lions community, you can find a quick breakdown of how these On Paper preview work here.
So without further ado, here’s our On Paper preview for Super Bowl 53.
Note: All stats are for the regular season, unless stated otherwise.
Patriots’ pass offense (4th in DVOA) vs. Rams’ pass defense (9th)
This is the kind of chart you’d expect to see from a Tom Brady-led offense. In all but two games this season, the Patriots have met or outgained the defense’s passing yards per game allowed average. In all but five, they’ve done the same with passer rating.
It’s interesting, because there was this perception that the Patriots offense couldn’t get going early without Julian Edelman — who served a four-game suspension early — but you wouldn’t know from looking at their passing stats.
However, the raw statistics from this entire season are actually a little underwhelming by Patriots standards. They’re just 11th in overall passer rating (97.8), 10th in yards per attempt (7.7), and 15th in completion percentage (65.9).
They’re solid and they’re efficient, but they aren’t quite explosive. They have just 54 passing plays of 20+ yards (12th) and only eight of 40+ (t-17th).
However, where they really make their money is their offensive line. New England allowed just 21 sacks all year, the third-fewest all season. PFF ranked their offensive line fourth after the regular season, and they’ve only gotten better in the postseason.
You may notice that the Rams pass offense started well and finished well, but had a pretty poor run in October. I hate to reduce it all to one factor, but the chart really lines up pretty well with the presence of star cornerback Aqib Talib.
Talib suffered an ankle injury in Week 3 that required surgery. He was forced to go on IR, but when he came back in Week 13 (vs. Lions) we can see on the chart the immediate impact his presence on the field had.
With the team at full strength, they’ve been a solid, but unspectacular pass defense. Los Angeles ranks 17th in passer rating allowed (93.8), t-23rd in yards per attempt (7.7), and 20th in completion percentage (65.1).
However, their disruption numbers are through the roof. They’ve pulled in 18 interceptions this year (t-third) and 41 sacks (15th). That’s where this team makes its impact felt, as they’ve also scored four defensive touchdowns this year (t-third).
Player to watch: Aaron Donald. I don’t need to explain, right? The Patriots excellent offensive line will have their hands full against the generational talent.
Advantage: Patriots +1.5. New England is just a well-oiled machine on offense, and I will never count out Touchdown Tom, even if the unit struggled two weeks ago against a mediocre-to-bad Chiefs defense. I’ll blame it on the cold and the away crowd. Put Tom Brady indoors on a neutral field and I’m giving him the advantage nearly every single time.
Patriots’ run offense (9th) vs. Rams’ run defense (28th)
The Patriots’ rushing attack seems to change week-to-week. Any given week, they seem capable of putting up 150 yards and at least 4.5 yards per carry, but they were also held below 90 rushing yards five different times this year. Unsurprisingly, they went 1-4 in those five games.
However, there’s very clearly more good than bad with the Patriots’ rushing attack. Though the Patriots rank just t-17th at yards per attempt (4.3), they’re earning first downs on 27.4 percent of their rushes (seventh).
Rookie Sony Michel is having an impressive rookie season, rushing for 4.5 yards per carry this regular season and six scores.
Perhaps the most surprising part of this matchup is just how bad the Rams’ run defense has been all season long. Despite having two of the best defensive tackles in football, Los Angeles, for whatever reason has had trouble stopping opposing running backs.
They gave up a league-high 5.1 yards per carry in the regular season, and it’s pretty surprising to see a team that was so dominant offensively this year give up so many rushing yards to teams that were playing from behind so often.
But we have to talk about their playoff performance, because up against two of the best rushing attacks in the NFL, the Rams have been on lockdown mode. Ndamukong Suh is playing like he did back in Detroit, and Los Angeles has become the defense everyone expected them to be all year.
Player to watch: Suh.
Advantage: Push. Obviously, without the postseason numbers, this is a +1 or 2 in favor of the Patriots, but it’s hard to ignore just how dominant the Rams defense has been in the past two games. This is the Rams defense we’ve been expecting and I believe that it’s for real now.
Rams’ pass offense (5th) vs. Patriots’ pass defense (14th)
Jared Goff, while still prone to the occasional head-scratching game, has enjoyed his most successful season yet. He set career highs in completion percentage (64.9), yards per attempt (8.4), touchdowns (32) and passer rating (101.1). It hasn’t been the best of playoffs from Goff, but he’s done just enough to get by when the team has needed him.
That being said, there are some very, very minor reasons for concern. Goff threw 12 interceptions this year (career high) and his 2.1 interception percentage was significantly higher than last year (1.5). He was only sacked 33 times, so it’s not like he was facing a lot of pressure.
Still, this is a top-five passing offense, and despite Goff’s youth, he’s still playing lot a top-10 quarterback.
The Patriots’ pass defense has been pretty average all year, both capable of allowing 100+ passer ratings on the regular (five times) or holding a team below 75 (eight times). Part of this speaks to the Patriots’ always-changing gameplans. Part of this is just honest-to-goodness inconsistency.
The raw stats actually paint a pretty good picture of this pass defense. They allowed just an 85.4 passer rating (seventh), 6.9 yards per attempt (fifth), and a 61.2 completion percentage (second). However, that’s going to happen when you play against the Dolphins, Bills and Jets twice in a season.
Still, this is an above average defense and deserves some respect for improving after a shaky 2017 season.
Player to watch: Trey Flowers. Pressure can throw off Jared Goff’s game, and Flowers is the guy that can bring it consistently:
Trey Flowers ranks first among edge defenders this postseason – with 10 pressures through 2 playoff games pic.twitter.com/FxCu1Q3CqY— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) January 29, 2019
Advantage: Rams +1. The Rams’ offense is prone to some inconsistencies, which is to be expected of a young quarterback, and that should have Los Angeles fans worried this week. However, the overwhelming evidence that Goff can execute a Sean McVay game plan well is enough for me to believe they can (and should) win this matchup.
Rams’ run offense (1st) vs. Patriots’ run defense (19th)
Jared Goff and the Rams’ passing attack has garnered all of the headlines and storylines for the 2018 season, but their rushing attack may really be the key to it all. Todd Gurley may have been invisible during the conference championship game, but if not for his 1,251 yards and 5.1 yards per carry in the regular season, the Rams probably wouldn’t have been playing in this game.
Los Angeles was only held below 4.0 yards per carry three times during the regular season, as the Rams rank third in yards per carry (4.9) and second in rushes earning first downs (29.2 percent). They may have struggled against an extremely underrated Saints defense last week, but they are for real.
Much like the Rams, the Patriots’ run defense wasn’t all that good during the regular season, but they’ve been absolutely stellar in the playoff against two phenomenal run-heavy teams.
It’s a little harder to make sense of New England’s improvement than the way Los Angeles turned things around. New England’s run defense was horrible during the season. They ranked 27th in yards per carry allowed during the season (4.9) and 22nd in percentage of rushes allowed that earned a first down (25.3). As usual for a Patriots defense, they stiffen up in the red zone. They’ve only allowed seven rushing touchdowns (t-seventh) and 4.86 points per red zone trip (t-14th).
Player to watch: Gurley. Gurley said all the right things after being a no-show at the NFC Championship Game, but something tells me he’s going to be extra motivated this week. The Rams running back makes a living breaking tackles, but unfortunately for him, the Patriots don’t miss many.
Advantage: Rams +1. Normally, I’d give the Rams a huge advantage here, but like with Los Angeles’ run defense, I can’t ignore how the Patriots are playing right now. This is going to be an epic battle in the trenches, but I still have to give an edge to literally the best rushing attack in the league.
The Rams come out with a +0.5 advantage. It’s hard to argue anything other than the Los Angeles Rams being the better team on paper. The purpose of this preview has always been to ignore the incalculable intangibles and narratives, and just look at the numbers. The numbers favor the Rams, that much is clear—although not by much.
So by On Paper law, I have to pick the Rams in this game. However, I feel like I need to also admit I think the Patriots will win this game. New England is a chameleon of a team, and I believe there is no team that goes into a game more prepared than the Patriots. Coaching has a huge impact on games, and while I respect the hell out of Sean McVay, he has a long ways to go to prove he’s at Belichick’s level.
With that aside, let’s put coaching aside and look at the number. The Patriots defense isn’t statistically good enough to hang with the Rams offense. You could say the same about the Rams defense, but they’re cooking right now with Aqib Talib back and Ndamukong Suh playing at the top of his game. 31-28 Rams.