The Super Bowl is only a few days away. I thought I would therefore post some end-of-the-year thoughts, and my takeaway from the playoffs. Let’s get started.
The Super Bowl teams
The Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers were my favorites to make the Super Bowl so I obviously am not surprised by the outcome of the playoff tournament. I mentioned numerous times that the Chiefs were lying in the weeds, the product of some injuries, but I was confident that as long as they got the players back healthy they would be a force. The Baltimore Ravens were the popular pick to win the AFC, but after seeing the Chiefs beat them decisively early in the season I felt good about their chances.
The Chiefs’ lightning strike offense was the perfect counter to the run-dependent Ravens. It proved to be the same for the Tennessee Titans. I didn’t think the Titans had a defense that could stand up to Kansas City’s aerial attack and when Derrick Henry was taken away, Tennessee would be doomed. It is one thing to believe in a rushing offense with Tom Brady behind the wheel, but quite another to envision that Ryan Tannehill could go blow-for-blow with Patrick Mahomes.
The 49ers, meanwhile, were the analysts’ pick to represent the NFC for obvious reasons. They had a bye, home field advantage throughout the playoffs, the most dynamic combination of offense and defense, and they had been battle tested by great teams all season long. There really isn’t a lot to analyze here. They were clearly the best team so it was just a matter of whether the several other strong NFC teams could play the game of their lives or catch San Francisco on a bad day. The team I thought had the best chance to upset the 49ers were the New Orleans Saints, who were themselves upset by non other than Kirk Cousins. So much for that.
I am extremely excited for the Super Bowl and I think it will be an excellent consequence of an extremely forgettable championship weekend. I thought both games were a total snooze but I think Sunday’s matchup could be one of the best. Both teams have two of the top five offensive coordinators in the NFL at the helm. Both teams are balanced, with the 49ers being stronger on the defensive side and the Chiefs stronger on the offensive side of the ball. I think the way the 49ers ran against the Green Bay Packers is going to be a little scary if you are a Chiefs fan but I think San Francisco’s pass defense is in for an equally uncomfortable surprise when they face a loaded offense and Andy Reid with two weeks of preparation.
In terms of matchups I think the 49ers have the edge but not enough to make them the substantially better pick. The Chiefs are the superior passing threat: they have the better quarterback, better weapons, and an offensive line that is comparable in pass protection. San Francisco’s passing offense is very good, but the quarterback and receivers cannot compete with Kansas City’s. The 49ers also have a superior passing defense but both teams are excellent. I would say the difference between the passing offense on both teams is bigger than the difference between the passing defenses.
The big disparity comes in the run game. The 49ers’ offensive line is clearly superior at run blocking and they also benefit from the best fullback/tight end combination in the league. San Francisco also has had plenty of success at stopping the run mostly due to its dominant defensive linemen. To contrast this, the Chiefs’ offensive line has generally graded poorly when run blocking and the team has struggled mightily to wrap up running backs who reach the second level. The 49ers are clearly superior on both sides of the football in this area.
In terms of players returning from injury, the Chiefs and 49ers both got key players back. Chris Jones is a monster pass-rushing defensive tackle and Joe Staley has long been seen as the best run-blocking left tackle in the NFL.
That all being said, I’m afraid of what the Chiefs might do to the 49ers’ zone defense. The Chiefs have devoured zone defenses and it is hard to believe San Francisco will have success without mixing in man coverage. Whether the 49ers’ coverage can hold up effectively in man will be interesting to see. Their ferocious pass rush will help, but as we mentioned the Chiefs’ pass protection is very good. Likewise, I think the Chiefs should be extremely wary of the 49ers exploiting their weakness against the rush. Unlike the Titans I think San Francisco has the defense and passing attack to supplement a dynamic rushing attack.
I expect the game to start a little slow, the 49ers probably strike first, but quickly pick up steam. All in all, though, I’m going to pick the Chiefs to win but I’m not particularly confident about it. I think they have the better passing weapons and quarterback and that ends up being the decisive factor. But the 49ers are probably the better overall team so it really feels like a toss up.
I will be rooting for the Chiefs, although I am sure the vast majority of New England Patriots fans will be rooting for the 49ers.
I think as sports fans it is easy to get passionate about our beliefs. With the internet we have plenty of data to pull from to justify whatever we happen to believe. I wanted to take a moment to recount my biggest hits and misses during the Patriots’ regular season.
Miss: The Patriots don’t need Antonio Brown
Yikes! In my defense, Isaiah Wynn had not gone on injured reserve yet and the common conception was that Josh Gordon would provide New England’s offense with a legitimate outside threat. The Patriots had just dropped 33 points on a respectable Steelers defense even without Brown active yet. I don’t think it was an unreasonable take at the time but it was definitely wrong.
Hit: The Patriots defense was not as good as people thought
I got quite a bit of push back on this but I think the record substantiated my fear. The Patriots tomato can schedule was inflating perception of the team and making it look better than it really was. I can’t even count how many times I insisted the defense wasn’t historic.
(Note: Historic in this sense was strong enough to carry a bad offense to the Super Bowl or even a single playoff win.)
Miss: Signing Antonio Brown had minimal risk
Wow, was this a mistake. Simply put, I thought it would be easy for the Patriots to revoke the guarantees in Brown’s contracts. This just came down to my ignorance of how contract disputes work in the NFL and if I had been more knowledgeable I could have predicted the danger of Brown tying up cap space in arbitration.
Hit: Recognizing the offense was in serious trouble early on
I might not have thought New England needed Antonio Brown but I was one of the first to recognize how flawed that logic was. This hit is just the offensive half of the same concept I raised with the defense. Even when the offense ranked well statistically it was disturbing how much it struggled against bad teams and seemed to be reliant on special teams and defensive playmaking.
Hit: Jamie Collins would be the best move of the offseason
Nailed this one. Collins was returning to the franchise that had developed him into a Pro Bowler, he was young enough to maintain his special athletic gifts, was signed for peanuts, and would have all the motivation in the world to change the narrative surrounding him.
Hit: Chase Winovich was the best value pick of the 2019 draft
I said Winovich was my favorite selection of the draft because he was picked in the third round, flashed some high-end ability, could contribute right away, and came at an area of weakness. Time will confirm if he was truly the best value selection but he was by far the most productive player of the Patriots’ 2019 draft class.
Hit: My trepidation surrounding N’Keal Harry’s ability to separate
I raised his issues with separation during my draft profile and discussed why they were potentially a fatal flaw of the Patriots’ first-round draft pick. Harry is going to have a great chance to prove himself and we cannot ignore that he was placed on injured reserve for half of the season and missed a chunk of training camp. I’m not burying him by any means. But according to Pro Football Focus he created the least amount of separation of all ranked wide receivers. The separation is a serious issue just as I expected.
Miss: Underestimating the Ravens
I underestimated the Ravens at the quarter mark for the season. I should have been less judgmental of the team’s early losses to the Chiefs and Browns. They would go on to get the top seed in the conference and beat the Patriots on their way to doing it.
Hit: Doubting the Ravens
I still thought Baltimore was going to be in deep trouble the moment it faced a team that could force Lamar Jackson to throw the football. He had been making tons of high percentage throws and most of his deep bombs came against terrible defenses. I’m not saying Jackson cannot become a better passer because its definitely possible. With his legs he also does not need to be the best passer in the world. But he has to be a better passer than he is right now for me to take the Ravens seriously as a Super Bowl favorite.
Miss: Stephon Gilmore for Defensive Player of the Year
I did not think Gilmore could win the award, especially after he appeared to struggle in the final two weeks of the season, but it certainly looks possible at this point in time. If he indeed is named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year on Saturday, Gilmore would become one of only three defensive backs in NFL history to win the award — an incredible accomplishment that would dramatically increase his chances of maybe even going to the Hall of Fame one day.
Hit: Having faith that the Chiefs were the best team in the conference
The Chiefs were largely passed over by the Ravens in media narratives of greatness but I always thought Kansas City was just lying in the weeds. That prediction proved true.
Hit: Tom Brady was not the problem, the offense was
I think I nailed my regression prediction on Brady last year and this year I nailed my maintenance prediction. I maintained all season the problem was the Patriots’ offensive supporting cast not Brady and the mainstream consensus seems to reflect that thinking.
Julian Edelman is a Beast
I know I have dragged Edelman several times for being a slot receiver and leading the league in drops but I want to make it clear that he is freaking phenomenal. He probably had his most productive season ever in spite of overwhelming odds.
He was the focal point of every defensive plan.
He was forced to play on the boundary more than normal.
Oh, and he was playing through two separate injuries that may be season ending for some players.
Yes, he benefited extra targets and — yes — he had more drops. However, this guy had an absurdly impressive season that will largely be forgotten because of the Patriots’ early postseason exit.
Props to Benjamin Watson
Watson was 38 years old, playing with a season ending injury, and he was still arguably the Patriots’ best tight end, or at minimum, the only one that showed up for the playoffs. It’s a damn shame he didn’t get a ring in his second stint in New England.
Credit to Steve Belichick and Jerod Mayo
The younger Belichick has been developing as a coach for years and Mayo was the field general for the Patriots’ defense before injuries slowed him down late in his career. Together, the two reportedly shared play-calling responsibilities in 2019 and the Patriots defense was one of its best in years. Both stepped up in a big way this season and so far it seems to have worked out well for the Patriots.
Good wishes to Dante Scarnecchia
For my money, Scarnecchia doesn’t just belong in the Patriots Hall of Fame: he belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as well. All-time great assistant coaches have gotten into the Hall of Fame before and Scar absolutely qualifies as one. Is it improbable? Sure. But I still think it is worth mentioning because he was that caliber of a coach.
The 71-year-old has been with the dynasty from the very beginning and was present for five of the franchise’s six Super Bowl wins. There is a compelling argument to be made that the reason the Patriots lost in the 2015 AFC Championship Game — an atrocious performance from the offensive line — could have been solved by Scar’s presence. Scarnecchia reputedly came back from retirement partially because he saw the telltale signs of inadequate coaching and knew he could be a difference maker.
I would not go so far as to say he has had as big of an impact on the organization as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, but I would argue his presence off the field was the equivalent impact of having a Pro Bowl player at any position except quarterback. His loss may not be devastating, that would (probably) be dramatic, but it is absolutely significant. For example, Marcus Cannon was universally reviled by Patriots fans for his pathetic performance in the 2015 AFC title game, and there were some calls for the former fifth-round pick to be cut. After one year under Scar’s tutelage, however, he had earned a second team All-Pro nod and contract extension worth millions of dollars.
That is the impact of Dante Scarnecchia. A lot of times the work of assistant coaches is difficult to detect but his influence was self-evident. You could make an argument that without him the Patriots would be short more than a few Super Bowls.
In both 2017 and 2018, you saw New England’s offensive line perform their best football at the very end of the season. It’s worth recalling how nervous fans were about the facing “Saxonville” — the league leading Jacksonville Jaguars pass rush — in the 2017 AFC Championship. But the Patriots O-line played one of its best games of the season and helped the Patriots reach the Super Bowl. The very next season, it would transform from good to dominant just in time for the postseason and played a massive role in the team earning a record-tying sixth Vince Lombardi trophy.
Getting players to play their best football when it matters most is the hallmark of great coaching and Scarnecchia always did. He was a remarkable coach, and he will be missed.
I have already made my expectations for the near future of the Patriots clear and they are not particularly sky high. That doesn’t change the fact that this team won 12 games and is fresh off winning the Super Bowl. The Patriots haven’t followed the normal rhythm of teams for 20 years, if that changes for a time, it’s really okay. If we’re lucky we’ll still get one or two more years of the greatest quarterback-head coach combination ever.
Regardless of what happens during that time I will consider myself blessed.