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Patriots sandwich: 3 trends heading into Super Bowl LII vs the Eagles

Not an analysis of sandwich trends. Rather, an analysis of recent trends using the sandwich method.

NFL: AFC Championship-Jacksonville Jaguars at New England Patriots Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

If you’ve ever held a corporate job, you’re probably painfully aware of the feedback sandwich method. If not, here are some helpful illustrations. The idea is to sandwich bad news in between two slices of positive news.

Why not apply the same method to football analysis? Let’s look at trends in the Patriots’ recent performance in the form of a trend sandwich. I’ve listed three trends: the first and third are positive, the second is not so great.

Good Trend: Run Defense

Statistically, the Patriots run defense wasn’t very good in 2017. Despite finishing 5th in run DVOA in 2016, New England finished 30th in 2017. They also finished just 31st in yards per carry, giving up an average of 4.7 yards. Not having guys like Dont’a Hightower (injury), Rob Ninkovich (retirement), and Jabaal Sheard (free agency) certainly hurt, but the Patriots’ still have enough talent to make such a steep decline surprising.

However, over the last five games, the Patriots run defense looks a lot more like the stout 2016 unit. The Patriots have given up only 3.5 yards per carry over that period, including holding Derrick Henry and Leonard Fournette to 2.9 yards per carry.

The improvement is especially significant on the interior. Through the first 13 games of the season, the Patriots’ gave up 4.8 yards per carry on runs between the left and right guard, per Sharp Football Stats. Over the past 5 games, New England has surrendered just 3.8 yards per carry in the same space. Obviously, much of the credit goes to the interior linemen. Malcom Brown and Lawrence Guy are both playing at high levels, and Ricky Jean Francois has emerged as a key contributor.

The Patriots are still vulnerable in areas, particularly on the edge, where they are giving up 5.5 yards per carry over the last five games, per Sharp. Expect Philly to attack the edges with Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement. But New England is healthy and playing well heading into the Super Bowl. They have the talent to slow down the Eagles rush attack and force Nick Foles into 3rd-and-long situations.

Bad Trend: Slow Starts

The Patriots are infamous Super Bowl slow starters, failing to score in the 1st quarter of any Super Bowl during the Bill Belichick era. That streak may continue if the recent five games are any indication. The Patriots have averaged just 4 points per game in the 1st quarter over that stretch, finishing with a -3 point differential.

New England’s slow starts have been especially acute in the playoffs. The Patriots have scored only one touchdown during their first three offensive possessions in either game while giving up three touchdowns on defense.

Luckily, no team is better at overcoming deficits than the Patriots. They lead the NFL in 2nd quarter points per game and have outscored opponents 74-26 in the 2nd halves of the last five games. They also have Tom Brady.

But, at some point, a slow start will be too much to overcome, especially against an Eagles team that not only finished 3rd in 1st quarter points per game, but also 3rd in 2nd half points per game. In other words, the Eagles get early leads and then make them bigger. While Nick Foles is no Carson Wentz, Foles showed the ability to put points on the board quickly against an elite Minnesota defense.

Both teams would prefer to play the game on their terms, so establishing an early lead is critical. Creating a 1st half turnover, something the Patriots haven’t done since December 3rd, would certainly help.

Good Trend: Tom Brady

It was doom and gloom surrounding Tom Brady after week 17. Critics feasted on Brady’s December struggles. Every missed throw or sack was an indication that his age had finally caught up with the 40-year-old. Legions of pundits cited Brady’s final five-game sample as evidence that something was ominously wrong.

Two playoff games later and Brady looks better than ever. Through the two games, Brady has completed 67% of his passes with 5 touchdowns and no interceptions. His playoff passer rating is 105.

A cynic would argue that two games are too small of a sample size, and they’d be right. So, let’s look at the previous five games. From week 15 in Pittsburgh through the AFC Championship, Brady completed 64% of his passes with 10 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, and a passer rating of 97.5. Those aren’t vintage Brady numbers, but they are very good. But why stop at week 15? Over his last 10 games (starting in November) Brady has completed 66% of his passes with 21 touchdowns, 6 interceptions, and a passer rating of 100.1. All great numbers.

The risk with citing small sample sizes is that one or two terrible games can skew the data. I realize the irony of saying that as I write an article using small sample sizes, but this especially true when using small samples as evidence of a great player’s demise. Did Brady have a great December? No. But he was never as bad as critics made it seem. The recent playoff games show that Brady is just as good as ever, and his 10-game sample indicates his “drop-off” was overstated.