Super Bowl LI Pick: Can the Falcons upset the Patriots? 1


Another season draws to a close, and it’s been an interesting one for us here at Pickwatch.

 

Truth be told, it hasn’t always been great! We had a few technical issues at the start of the season that frankly, were outside of our control. Essentially, an external contractor had (without any malice intended) pulled the plug on a caching function that allows most websites to serve visitors without pounding the living crap out of the server instances. At one point in that first two weeks, we had roughly 20x the power of last season, and were unable to serve even half of the number of concurrent users without it imploding.

Anyway, long story short, as you all know, it got fixed by week 4, but that really consumed so much time and effort (and required obsessive monitoring during the regular season) that we turned our focus away from doing the ‘new’ things and more on just ensuring every pick was in ASAP and accurate. We were largely successful, and in total we served more visitors this year (2.1m, 11.6m page views and counting) than any other year.

Before I make the pick for this year, I just want to say that this emphasis on ‘the basics’ will again be the case over the offseason. I’m redesigning some elements of the page to fit better on mobiles, which is my big priority. That means if you see ads, they’re going to fit on your screen, and you’ll likely see less of them as a result, but the most important part is that when you do, they won’t cover content. You probably already noticed, if you’re on a mobile that we’ve made all of this text readable, and ensured you don’t have an advert over the header bar and can see the menu. This was of course meant to be done last year, but essentially, I was left with a half finished site in September and had to prioritize fixing existing problems in the back end.

So over the offseason don’t expect me to reinvent the wheel, but do expect me to make the site work better for you in a lot of neat little ways. We might manage a few important surprises, depending on how well the mobile rebuild coding goes.

 

ENOUGH OF THIS.

 

Super Bowl LI Pick

Last year I nailed the Broncos as underdogs beating the Panthers – it was great. So great folks, just the best pick. I used our stats – combined with some choice remarks through the media week – to correctly pin down that the Panthers were heavily reliant on their underdog status. Having said that, this year is a far bigger challenge, because both teams in the Super Bowl are incredibly consistent and really have performed well in a variety of different situations, including the one they find themselves in on Sunday.

As a result, this year’s pick will not only focusĀ on the Falcons and Pats over this season, but on the records of our ‘best’ experts both straight up and vs the spread. I’m going to break down the top 10 experts, their picks, and weight them according to what is important to me.

Let’s break down the two teams vs the expert consensus this year first:

Patriots vs consensus

 

The Pats have been uber consistent. Uber is a good word to use for them, not because they remind me of a taxi company, but because they have the relentless march and determination to crush all opposition that stands in the way, much like the Germans in WW2. In fact, the Pats really only have one blip on their record ‘AT’ (After Tom), and that’s the loss to Seattle at home in week 10 while heavily favored. Since then they have been almost unanimous favorites with the media and the public, and have responded perfectly each time.

Much was made of the lack of quality opposition that the Pats have faced over the second half of the season, and that’s certainly true. Only the Broncos in week 15 posed any real threat, and they were in such a poor state by that point, that it was almost inconceivable they could put up the type of fight to beat New England. Then, finally, last week the Pats faced Pittsburgh and for the first time since week 3, were picked by less than 88% of the experts in the NFL media that we track. Would the Steelers be the ones to prove the notion that Brady and Belichick were overrated based on their dominance of inferior opponents?

Well, no. Prior to the game I said to my Falcons supporting friend that the Pats would only be favorites against Atlanta if they completely destroyed Pittsburgh, which they duly did. I believe that if they’d have shown defensive weakness against Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, we’d be talking about a pick’em or perhaps even -1 Atlanta spread in Vegas, such is the dominance of Matt Ryan and co over the regular season…

Falcons vs consensus

Speaking of which, here’s where it gets interesting. The Pats have responded well as favorites, but the Falcons have performed equally well as underdogs. Incredibly, they beat the expert consensus against them 4 times in a row at the start of the season, and their opposition – while not elite – was not fodder. Once again, Seattle represent the only blemish on their record, a week 6 game they were again marked as ‘dogs and duly were beaten by the Seahawks.

Since then, the Falcons have been favored in every game, winning 9 and losing 3 over that stretch. That means the Super Bowl on Sunday is the first time these Falcons have faced true outside adversity since October. I always like to explain at this point that it’d be easy to write off the media or public perception of a team as favorites or underdogs, but I promise you it makes a difference. Bill Belichick’s teams are used to playing from a position where they are expected to win. It gives them a distinct advantage over the regular season, as Belichick knows exactly how to motivate players to play as favorites and avoid complacency.

Equally, an underdog sometimes thrives on being the team that nobody believes in. Again, harking back to Carolina in 2016, they spent all season moaning to the press that nobody took them seriously, yet it was that desire to prove people wrong that really drove them to greater things than the sum of their parts. There’s a turning point for all underdogs where they have to get used to playing as favorites, and that can often be the moment when teams fall apart, unable to adjust to the expectation that they will win.

The Falcons have thrived as favorites and as underdogs. I always put more stock in the latter, as quite simply, it usually indicates that they have overcome something, rather than met expectations. The problem in this case however, is that the Falcons victories as underdogs came so long ago, that we really don’t know how they’ll respond on Sunday as likely 35% favored by the media.

 

Which way are the experts picking?

This is where it gets interesting. There are a number of different ways we can break down our stats, and that’s something I’m going to take a good look at over the offseason too. I love using a larger sample size after week 9-10 to show where experts have, well, shown their expertise. It helps to follow the right people at the right time.

First of all, here’s the top 10 and their straight up picks:

STRAIGHT UP

The first thing of note is clearly that while the experts as a whole are 64/35 in favor of New England, the top 10 is less equivocal, with only top ranked Sam Farmer and the fans at NFL.com picking Atlanta.

A good – but under-utilized – tool we have is the ability to see which experts pick which team best. In this case, with most of the relevant picks in, it’s easy enough to simply pull out this data and show you who picks the Falcons and Patriots best – and then their picks.

We’ll start with the Pats. Now, the Pats rank as one of the easiest teams (3rd) to pick in the NFL (because they win a lot) which poses another question. Of these two, which will we weight in favor of? Well, because they’re far harder to pick, we’ll go with the Falcons, who were 24th hardest to pick in the NFL. Anyone getting their games right more than 52% of the time is ‘above average’ when picking them.

First, here’s the Pats stats, sorted by their rank picking the Pats, then their season record.

NE STATS SORTED

As you can see, the ‘better’ pickers of the Pats are 72% in favor of them, but the top 10 when then accounting for their season % is a whopping 90% in favor.

How about the Falcons’ best pickers?

ATL STATS SORTED

To me, this is a big one. Almost enough to win my mind on it’s own depending on the two teams…

The Falcons have a much smaller spread of ‘top’ experts, meaning only 10 experts can be pulled out as notably better than the rest. Between them, it’s currently a 50-50 split, yet when we filter to weight this table in favor of those who have had the best seasons overall… well, it very clearly suggests that the people to follow are in favor of New England.

 

Conclusion…

I want to pick Atlanta. I’m like everyone else who isn’t a Pats or NFC South fan – I want them to win and Matt Ryan to give a monotone interview afterwards where he just says he’s really happy and he wants to thank Arthur Blank and the Blank family… you know that’s the script.

But how can you go against New England? They have (TRUMP IMPRESSION) most of the best experts this season on their side and even in the world of #alternativefacts, they are clearly a ridiculous football team, capable of utter dominance. Every time you count them out, they come back and punch you in the face for being so stupid as to bet against them.

Which is why in a fit of pique I have decided to pick the Falcons. I just love an underdog, particularly one that is a legit underdog in this game and has performed incredibly well this season when in that situation. We saw against Houston that the Pats aren’t perfect, and I do truly believe that they have had an amazingly helpful schedule that really offers little or no real insight into their true caliber.

If this game was different and New England had the talent they have had (Gronk, Welker, Moss, Wilfork, Jones) on either side of the ball, I’d probably take the Pats, but I truly believe the Falcons are capable of one of the biggest blowouts the Pats have ever had. They have a great gameplan, a core group of stars on offense that are in a zone unlike many others, and perhaps most importantly, they have dealt with the stage of the Super Bowl without fanfare. The focus has all been on the Patriots and what Tom Brady might do for a fifth time…

So there we go. It’s balls on the line time, and there are… my… balls. I should probably have thought that line through.

Straight up pick: Atlanta Falcons

ATS pick: Atlanta Falcons (+3)

 


About Shaun Lowrie

Shaun Lowrie is the founder and editor of Pickwatch, a site designed to give you a new perspective on experts in the NFL media by tracking their performance when picking games or predicting draft picks, team performance, or player potential. You can contact him at [email protected] or on twitter at @pickwatch

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