For a Super Bowl team ranked 3rd in scoring offense to be lauded far less than their opponent’s is rare. When that offense is ran by a 4-time Super Bowl winner coming off of the best statistical playoff game of his career, it’s downright odd.
Yet as odd as it sounds, it seems to be the case this week in Houston as Atlanta’s top-ranked scoring attack squares off against New England’s top-ranked scoring defense.
Every nook and cranny of the past week’s national coverage has inundated us with “Julio Jones this” and “Matty Ice that”. In the media, in casual debates between fans, even among the time-killing watercooler run-ins at the office... the Falcons offense is everywhere. Is there only room for one offense at NRG Stadium on Sunday?
The Patriots would have it no other way.
The uncanny abilities of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick to forge an “us against them” mentality in the Patriots locker room have been well documented throughout the years. An opposing player sounds off in the media about the Patriots? – Bulletin board. An opponent’s city is getting a early jump on planning their parade route? – Bulletin board. And although Tom and Bill certainly would never acknowledge it publicly, the overwhelming acclaim for Matt Ryan and the Falcons offense has to stick in their craws.
So just how large is the gap between Super Bowl 51’s two offensive units? And what about this Falcons offense makes them so statistically superior? Is it possible that they have been overrated? If the answer to that last question is yes, then how would the argument be made that the better offensive unit in Super Bowl 51 resides on the New England sideline? Let’s look at a few numbers.
- Yes, the Falcons offense is exceptional, but they are not otherworldly. Of the top-ranked scoring offenses in the past 10 seasons (3 of which were units led by Tom Brady), Atlanta’s attack ranks 5th in points scored per game (33.8). So yes, they are overrated when being compared to other “all-time great” offenses.
- Atlanta’s defense ranks 27th in scoring this season, allowing 25.4 points per game, more than any of the teams possessing top-ranked offenses in the past 10 seasons. The point? They simply score in bunches because they have to.
- According to figures assembled with data from Pro Football Reference, the Falcons ran 645 plays with the lead in 2016, the 2nd highest total in the NFL. This accounted for 57% of their offensive plays. The NFL average was 35.1% in 2016, and the average playoff team’s total was 44%. Sounds impressive right? The Patriots led football with 838 plays while leading. That’s an incredible 70.2% of their total offensive snaps, double the league average. That total also translates to 12 more snaps per game than the Falcons. In fact, that total is also higher than any of the aforementioned teams with top-ranked scoring offenses in the past 10 seasons, which includes arguably the two greatest offenses of all time, the 2007 Patriots and 2013 Broncos.
- The percentage of Atlanta’s plays executed while their win probability was 60% or higher in 2016 was 67.2% (761 snaps). The Patriots? 85.3% (1,018 snaps).
A few other critical in-game offensive statistics in which the Falcons simply do not measure up include...
- 3rd down conversion percentage: The Patriots rank 4th (46%), Atlanta 11th (42%).
- Time of possession: The Patriots rank 6th, Atlanta 19th.
- Sacks allowed: The Patriots rank 5th (24 allowed), Atlanta ranks 12th (37 allowed).
- QB hits allowed: The Patriots rank 10 (73 allowed), Atlanta ranks 27th (106 allowed).
None of these numbers or metrics are meant to be taken as attempts at devaluing an Atlanta offensive group that lit up scoreboards all season, but to provide some context. The Falcons needed to keep the pedal down to finish its games, thus generating elevated yardage and point totals.
The Patriots offense, ranked 3rd in scoring and 4th in total yards in 2016, is every bit as potent. Sunday’s contest will showcase the only two teams owning a top 10 ranking in rushing and passing offense, but New England’s ability to craft and execute a personnel-specific game plan is unparalleled (see: week 15 in Denver or the AFC title game against Pittsburgh).
New England’s detractors will point to the ease of their schedule. But when those “easy” opponents are dispatched in a systematic manner nullifying the need to produce points and yards for a large portion of their 4th quarters, the opportunity to accumulate eye-popping numbers takes a back seat to rest and health of their offensive personnel.
A thought-provoking question remains: If the Patriots received 16 games worth of production from Tom Brady this season, which offense would be #1?