NFL Picks - Super Bowl XLVI

Last Updated: 1/31/2012 at 4:00 PM ET
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Super Bowl XLVI Pick: New York +3 vs. New England (Covers 58.3%)

See: Game Summary Matchup Analysis Key Players

Game Summary

When these two teams met in Super Bowl XLII, New England's vaunted offense "featured" Kyle Brady and Ben Watson as its tight ends. New York's offense included Amani Toomer, Plaxico Burress, Steve Smith (not the one from Carolina) and David Tyree at the wide receiver position. These are two very different teams. The Patriots have the best pass- catching tight end tandem in the NFL and the Giants have what appears to be the best trio of play-making wide receivers in the league. A few things are the same though. Obviously, quarterbacks Eli Manning and Tom Brady still lead their teams. Less obvious, is a strong defensive front four for the Giants that should again lead New York to a Super Bowl upset of the Patriots. It may not be as much of an upset as that previous Super Bowl - New York was a 12.5 point underdog that I calculated as having just a 22.5% chance to win outright (still covering the spread in our predictions) - but the Giants have evolved from getting lucky to hit their almost one-in-four chance of winning Super Bowl XLII to now being the favorites to win outright more often than not according to our 50,000 simulations.

Despite both teams having 5,000 yard, elite passers and playing their best recently - New England has won ten straight (their last loss was coincidentally to the Giants), while the Giants have won five straight games - the Patriots and Giants have taken very different paths to get to this point. New England earned the AFC's top seed and homefield advantage in the playoffs by finishing the regular season 13-3. However, the Patriots were just 9-8-1 against-the- spread, have played the 20th toughest 2011-12 NFL schedule, were underdogs only one time (at the New York Jets in Week 10) and did not beat a team that finished with a winning record until Baltimore, 23-20, last week at home in the AFC Championship. The offense was clearly the best in the AFC and one of the top three in the NFL for the entire season, yet the Patriots never earned the number one spot in our NFL Team Rankings due to concerns about the defense (especially as it performed against weak opposition).

The Giants also took advantage of an easy schedule early in the year to start 5-2. Then, they upset the Patriots in New England in Week 9, before losing four straight games and needing two victories over the Dallas Cowboys in the last four weeks of the regular season to sneak into the NFC Playoffs as NFC East division champion and fourth seed. With playoff wins over Atlanta, at Green Bay and at San Francisco, the Giants are now 12-7 overall, 11-8 against-the-spread and have played the second toughest 2011-12 NFL schedule of any team. New York has been an underdog nine times (and is 6-3 straight-up in those games). Similar to the Giants' close loss in 2007 against the then undefeated New England Patriots in Week 17, New York did not really prove itself as a genuine championship contender until a well-fought, 38-35, loss to the then undefeated Green Bay Packers in Week 13 (since that time, the Giants are 6-1 straight-up and 6-1 against-the-spread). In that respect, New York is also very similar to last year's Green Bay Packers, a team that dealt with early injuries and a brutal schedule, yet capitalized on a defense that gained experience, a new-found running game late in the season, an elite quarterback with a bevy of play-making receivers and an excellent pass rush to make it to (and in our expectations win) the Super Bowl. The Giants did not crack the top eight overall in our NFL Team Rankings until that loss to the Packers, yet have been climbing ever since and now find themselves atop our strength-of-schedule-adjusted efficiency rankings for the second consecutive week.

In total, the Patriots have outscored their opponents by an average score of 32.3 - 20.7. The Giants have out-scored opponents by an average score of 25.0 - 22.5. Against common opponents - Washington (twice for New York), Philadelphia (twice for New York), Dallas (twice for New York), New York Jets (twice for New England), Buffalo (twice for New England), Miami (twice for New England) - plus each other, the Patriots were 8-2 straight-up, 4-5-1 against-the-spread and out-scored those opponents 32.4 - 22.7 on average, while the Giants were 7-3 straight-up, 5-5 against-the-spread and out-scored those opponents by an average score of 23.1 - 20.7. The fact that these divisions played each other skews the numbers a little more than it normally would in this comparison, so it is important to note that the NFC East (the Giants' division) ranked as the best division in the NFL, while the AFC East (the Patriots' division) ranked second. Also, no team lost more projected starts due to injury on the defensive side of the ball than the New York Giants - adding much greater weight to recent games considering this is the healthiest they have been since before the season started. In the game that they played against each other, New York won at New England, 24-20.

Using strength-of-schedule-adjusted, play-by-play statistics, the Predictalator has played Super Bowl XLVI 50,000 times before it's actually played. The New York Giants win outright 52.4% of those games and by an average score of 29.8- 28.4. As three point underdogs, who pull off the upset more often than not and win by almost two points on average, the Giants (+3) cover the spread 58.3% of the time, which is a "normal" play that would warrant a $62 play from a normal $50 player. This marks the seventh Super Bowl all-time with exactly a three point line (15.2% of Super Bowls have had three point lines, while 16.9% of regular season games this season had three point lines) and the first since the Baltimore Ravens faced the New York Giants after the 2000 Super Bowl. In the previous six Super Bowls with three point lines, no team has "pushed" (i.e. no favorite has won by exactly three points; just 6.7% of games with three point lines pushed this year) and four underdogs have won outright in upsets. This game should make that five upsets. The money-line for the Giants is +150 (i.e. wager 100 to win 150). This requires at least 40% to play. A normal $50 player with +150 odds on a team winning 52.4% of the time can justify a $103 wager on the team to win. The OVER is 22-14-1 in games these teams have played this season. With two elite quarterbacks, despite the highest total for either team all year and New York's defense ultimately providing the difference, the OVER (55) is a weak, but playable play, covering 54.2% of the time, which would warrant a $19 play from a normal $50 player. Utilizing the Parlay Calculator, New York (+2.5) and the OVER (55) both cover 31.6% of the time.

Matchup Analysis

In analyzing games, the team that wins a game is most often the team that best exploits favorable matchups and generally gets a little "lucky." While luck usually comes from turnovers, especially when the two teams are otherwise evenly matched, balance is critical to success. In this case, balance does not necessarily mean that a team must pass as often as it runs, but that it must find the right mix of decisions to exploit the other team's weaknesses while hiding its own.

Let's take a close look at the matchups in Super Bowl XLVI:

New York's Run Offense vs. New England's Run Defense:
Both of these units have played much better recently - specifically in the playoffs - than they did early in the regular season. This is an important distinction to make as recent performance does not appear to have been inflated by playing easy competition (if anything it may be the opposite). Though defensive tackle Vince Wilfork seems to remain underrated in the run game (that or he could be your classic, 350+ pound NFL player who does not "turn on the switch" against every opponent), the Giants possess the more dynamic and important pieces to this matchup. In the first game that these teams played against each other, New York running back Ahmad Bradshaw did not play. He missed the entire month of November due to injury and clearly needed a couple more weeks to get back to full strength. Since Week 14 though, Bradshaw has rushed for 369 yards on 87 carries (4.2 yards-per-carry) and chipped in 23 receiving yards a game against teams that finished 22nd, 6th, 11th, 4th, 27th and 1st against the run respectively. He has combined with Brandon Jacobs to lead a vastly improved ground attack for the Giants. As presently constructed, the Giants would be expected to gain 3.72 yards-per-carry against an average NFL team, which ranks them 25th in our NFL Team Rankings (up from 32nd for most of the season). New England would be expected to give up 4.47 yards-per-carry against an average NFL team, which ranks 19th in the NFL (when also accounting for the likelihood that the Patriots have to force fumbles and holding penalties on running plays). The Giants ran the ball 41.1% of the time during the regular season, but we expect that number to go down in what should be a shootout through the air where neither team gets up by enough to try/need to run out the clock. In the projected Super Bowl, the Giants running backs combine for 4.00 yards-per-carry.
Edge: New England (barely)

New York Pass Offense vs. New England Pass Defense:
While we would point to the Giants' ability to neutralize Tom Brady and the Patriots' passing offense as the most important element to our projection, Eli Manning against the Patriots' pass defense provides the biggest and most notable mismatch of the game. In 19 games this season, Manning has completed 435 of 712 passes (61.1%) for 5,856 yards (8.2 yards-per-attempt), 37 touchdowns (5.2% TD rate) and 17 interceptions (2.4% INT rate). He has been sacked once every 20.8 dropbacks. Manning, who played five games against teams in our top ten overall in defensive pass efficiency, rose to a level of quarterback only surpassed presently by Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady. New England's defense has allowed opponents to complete 417 of 681 passes (61.2%) for 5,145 yards (7.6 yards-per-attempt), 28 TDs (4.1% TD rate), 24 interceptions (3.5% INT rate) and a sack every 14.2 dropbacks. More importantly, in New England's against-the-spread wins, they faced these quarterbacks: Chad Henne, Philip Rivers, Jason Campbell, Mark Sanchez, Tyler Palko, Vince Young, Tim Tebow (twice) and Ryan Fitzpatrick (once in winning, once in losing). In the Patriots ATS losses, they faced these quarterbacks: Ryan Fitzpatrick (also a straight-up loss), Tony Romo, Ben Roethlisberger (also a straight-up loss), Eli Manning (also a straight-up loss), Dan Orlovsky, Rex Grossman, Matt Moore and Joe Flacco. The competition has not been great for most of the season, but, especially relative to public perception, New England really struggles against teams with above average quarterbacks (only Philip Rivers would be considered an above average quarterback whom New England beat ATS). As presently constructed, the Patriots rank 24th in the NFL in defensive pass efficiency. New York ranks third in offensive pass efficiency. In our projected Super Bowl, New England actually out-gains New York in total yards, yet falls short of the Giants in net passing yards (providing the difference in the score). Eli projects to complete more than 60% of his passes for 9.1 yards-per-pass. And lastly, note that Hakeem Nicks, an elite level receiver for the Giants did not play in New York's win over New England earlier this season. Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez had impressive outputs for the Patriots and still lost. Even if they can do that again, the re-addition of Nicks to a pass catching group that includes breakout slot receiver Victor Cruz, NFC Championship Game hero Mario Manningham (or was that Devin Thomas - the most likely David Tyree of this group?) and a capable tight end tandem of Jake Ballard and Travis Beckum, should keep New York on top.
Edge: New York (big)

New England Run Offense vs. New York Run Defense:
With a 106 yard performance on 24 carries (4.4 yards-per-carry) in the first matchup of these two teams, New England got the better of the Giants on the ground. Five different players carried the ball in the effort. However, this is not a balanced offense with multiple weapons in the backfield like the New Orleans Saints (our top overall offense on the season and a team that ran for 205 yards against the Giants). Running the ball has not necessarily factored strongly into the Patriots gameplans. Even with big leads in many games, the Patriots did not eclipse 125 yards rushing in 12 of their games. Only two of New England's six rushers on the season - Stevan Ridley and Danny Woodhead - averaged more than 3.7 yards-per-carry, and Ridley was inactive for the AFC Championship game. Against an average team, New England would be expected to run the ball about 42% of the time and for 3.91 yards-per-carry. The Patriots' running game ranks 14th in our NFL Team Rankings. With ability to generate penalties and turnovers on running plays considered, New York has also been slightly above NFL average in terms of its ability to stop the run. The Giants run defense, which also ranks 14th in our NFL Team Rankings, would be expected to allow 4.24 yards-per-carry against an average team. In games where the team has allowed greater than 125 yards rushing, the Giants are 7-3 straight-up and 5-5 against-the-spread, further suggesting that this game/pick will not be decided by either running game.
Edge: New England (barely)

New England Pass Offense vs. New York Pass Defense:
Nine percent... Nine percent is the (rounded) frequency of dropbacks that result in sacks that we would expect from the Giants defense against an average team. The NFL league average is 6.1%. In other words, in general, the Giants are 50% more likely than average to sack the quarterback. Guess what happens when they play against each other...

We opened with nearly an identical line when discussing Super Bowl XLV last season and how the Packers' pass rush should be able to disrupt the Steelers' passing attack. Including that game and the two conference championship games before it, we have actually picked the team (to cover) with the higher defensive sack rate (sacks per pass attempt faced) in 14 consecutive NFL playoff games. Those teams are 11-3 ATS over that stretch. Allow me to reiterate/paraphrase some things that I have said recently on this topic...

In a season that has seen the passing game continue to evolve - up to almost 56% of play calls, which is about 1% higher than last season and up from essentially 50/50 twenty years ago - putting pressure on and taking down the quarterback has been of the utmost importance. The absolute best way to counter this NFL era of elite quarterbacking is to get to the quarterback, particularly with multiple elite pass rushers. Look how well Denver played with Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil healthy. The Packers were a completely different team last season with Clay Mathews and Cullen Jenkins on the same front. Houston, Cincinnati and the New York Giants have multiple strong pass rushers on defensive lines that carried them into the playoffs. Pittsburgh has traditionally had at least two pass rushing OLBs. And adding Aldon Smith to Justin Smith in the San Francisco 49ers front seven clearly made a huge difference.

The New England Patriots have only played four teams - Pittsburgh, Baltimore, the New York Giants and the New York Jets (twice) - whose defenses rank in our top 12 pass efficiency defenses on the season. In those games, New England is 3-2 straight-up and 1 -3-1 against-the-spread, with the lone ATS win coming at the Jets in Week 10. They faced four teams - Philadelphia, Baltimore, the New York Giants, Washington and Dallas - that finished in the top 12 in the NFL in sack rate. The Patriots went 4-1 straight-up in those games, yet 1-4 against-the-spread. The Patriots clearly struggle, especially relative to public perception/the line, against elite pass defenses. The Giants currently evaluate as having the fourth best pass defense and the third best pass rush in the NFL.
Edge: New York (barely - this matchup should make the difference)

Special Teams:
In the short-term (i.e. one game, not 50,000), a big special teams play has far more relevance than it does in assessing teams' general strengths and weaknesses. In other words, this will be short because it does not mean too much to this exercise. Furthermore, yuck! Neither team is very good at special teams. Neither team ranks above average in any return categories, though the Giants have the notably better punter and were able to "force" two fumbles last week in the punting game. New England has the better all-around place kicker if comes down to that.
Edge: Push

Misc. - Coaching, Penalties, Turnovers, Crowd
Most of this is either factored in or discussed above. Coaching comes through in the numbers. Both of these coaching staffs have been here for the most part. Bill Belichick has a more proven track record, yet Tom Coughlin got the better of him in Super Bowl XLII. The Patriots are a little more aggressive in general play-calling, fourth down, etc., which does benefit New England in the numbers. The Patriots are also historically better at forcing turnovers, avoiding costly mental errors and limiting penalties. The numbers from this season agree with that, yet neither team is prone to making big mistakes. And, while the crowd may ultimately be in favor of one team or the other, we have not incorporated that into our numbers.
Edge: New England

Based on that information, here are the most important players for each team:

Most Important Offensive Player to a Patriots' Victory: Rob Gronkowski, TE
Clearly Tom Brady and Eli Manning will be of the utmost importance to their team's offensive abilities, but we generally know what to expect out of each. Gronkowski may have had eight catches for 101 yards and a touchdown in the previous loss this season to the New York Giants, but still can do the most to help his team win of any of New England's offensive weapons. Gronkowski does not have Vernon Davis' speed, yet will still eat up single coverage just as easily as Davis did en route to a 112 yard, two touchdown day against New York in the NFC Championship game (I may have yelled, "touchdown" as soon as Kenny Phillips ran up to try to neutralize Davis at the line - that will also be a "touchdown" against either tight end from the Patriots). In addition to being the best weapon New England has, Gronkowski is nursing an ugly-looking ankle injury suffered in the AFC Championship Game and is the better/more powerful blocker at tight end than Hernandez, which just add to his importance for this game.

Most Important Defensive Player to a Patriots' Victory: Vince Wilfork, DT
Choosing Wilfork in this spot may seem as obvious as choosing a quarterback for most teams because he is by far the most recognizable defensive player on the team. In this case, there is good reason. He is one of the few stable and experienced pieces of this defense. In fact, Vince Wilfork is the ONLY player on the Patriots who recorded a tackle in Super Bowl XLII against the Giants and this season against New York. Wilfork factors heavily in the running game and can put inside pressure on the quarterback when he puts his mind to it. He obviously has not carried his team to victory either of the last two times these teams have met, but, for a team with that much turnover on one side of the ball, it is not a fluke that he is the only Patriots' defensive player still around after all of these years.

Most Important Offensive Player to a Giants' Victory: Chris Snee, G
Typically one of the best offensive lines in the league, the Giants have allowed 24 QB hits in the last three games. Eli Manning, even more so than more mobile elite passers like Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees, needs time and often panics as his pocket collapses. As the postseason has progressed, and the value of putting pressure on quarterbacks has increased, New England has shown recent improvement - against some other strong offensive lines - at getting to the passer. A surprising amount of that pressure has come from tackles and inside linebackers. Snee is the team's best and most critical interior lineman, likely their best asset in trying to build a semblance of a running game and the most important piece to keeping Eli Manning comfortable in the pocket.

Most Important Defensive Player to a Giants' Victory: Michael Boley, LB
Chase Blackburn, Chris Canty, Deon Grant, Kenny Phillips and Aaron Ross were all considered, but Boley's versatility is intriguing and will likely put him in more pressure-packed and critical situations than any other player. Boley, typically a weak- side linebacker, is the team's best linebacker in coverage - to the point that he plays in the middle when the Giants go to nickel packages with an extra corner. He has also shown the ability to rush the passer from the second level when teams focus on the Giants' strong front four and/or strong-side linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka. Boley was also the team's second-leading tackler this season, factoring significantly in the running game. He will be out there on almost every, if not every play and will likely be the matchup target of much of the Patriots' offensive scheme. And lastly, Boley is also the signal-caller for the defense, which gains extra pressure when facing a team that plays at such a high-tempo. If he can make a few big plays, it greatly improves the Giants' chances of winning, but it's just as important that he not make any critical mistakes to give up big plays.

Injuries:
For the most part, both of these teams have battled through earlier season injuries and have just recently settled into healthy lineups. All of the players who came out of the conference championship games with injuries, including Rob Gronkowski, returned in some capacity. At this point, the only notable injury involving the Super Bowl is to half-time singer Madonna, who has a "pulled hamstring" and "a little red dot" on her nose where she wounded herself with a microphone... Really.

The update on injuries as of 1/31 is that we still expect Gronkowski to play. Otherwise, the "new" news is that right tackle Sebastian Vollmer may play for the New England Patriots. Vollmer has only played in six games all season, including against the Giants. If he can step into the starting lineup and allow rookie Nate Solder to move around a little more, it helps the Patriots - technically. Our analysis suggests it would only make about 0.3 net points or almost exactly 1% difference in the game. That's essentially the same as the possible randomness when running the game 50,000 different times.

Interesting notes from the Predictalator:

  • The average result is a New York Giants 30-28 victory. A three-point victory by New York is the most likely scenario, occurring 5.9% of the time (1 in every 9 Giants' wins). The Giants are 19.6% likely to win by more than ten points (37% of New York's wins).

  • New York loses, yet covers (i.e. New England wins by one or two points) 5.8% of the time.

  • Though we do not endorse the QB rating, we can calculate it. Eli Manning may throw for 24.2 more yards, but he just barely edges Tom Brady on average with a 102.7 rating to Brady's 102.2. Statistical quarterback battles are just as even. Manning completes 61.6% of his passes for 317.2 yards (9.6 yards-per-pass), 2.3 TDs and 1.1 interceptions. Brady completes 61.7% of his passes for 293.0 yards (9.0 yards-per-pass), 2.2 TDs and 0.9 interceptions. We cannot calculate Total QBR because we are not allowed (fortunately it is useless).

  • Eli Manning, our most likely winning quarterback, is also the only evaluated player for whom our projected MVP chances are greater than the odds needed to wager on him. Manning only wins the award 32.5% of the time, which is enough to justify 9:4 odds (need 30.8%+).

  • Last year, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger combined to win 36.7% of projected MVP awards. This season, the quarterbacks combine to win more than three out of every five simulations (63%). Quarterbacks have won four out of the last five Super Bowl MVPs, yet just 24 of 45 (53.3%) Super Bowl MVPs all-time.

  • Just ten players win the MVP more than one percent of the time (19 did in last year's simulations). The most likely members of the "field" to win the MVP are Michael Boley (LB) and Travis Beckum (TE) of the New York Giants (unless either "offensive line" is honored as that will likely be where this game is won or lost).

  • A late shootout would not be a surprise. These teams combine to score two more points in the second half than the first and 16.8 points in the fourth quarter alone.

  • Pressure on the quarterback will be the key to the game. The quarterback is sacked once every 14 times he drops back in this game. The NFL average is around once every 17 dropbacks.

  • With two strong offenses, a team was shutout just 453 out of the 50,000 games. New York won 270 of those games.

  • The Bovada line for Eli Manning's gross passing yards (315.5) is almost exactly the same as the Predictalator's projection (317.2).

  • Lawrence Tynes has attempted at least two field goals in 12 of the team's last 14 games and is a career 80.9% kicker.

  • Eli Manning has rushed for fewer than three yards in 13 of the team's 19 (68.4%) games this season.

  • In games that Chad Ochocinco has actually played (a prerequisite for value in any player prop wager), he has had at least one reception 66.7% (ten of 15) for the time and always for more than nine receiving yards.

  • Since his amazing start to the season where he threw for over 1300 yards and 11 touchdowns in his first three games, Tom Brady has only thrown for more than two touchdown passes in five of his last 15 (33%) games. While we think this game should be a shootout, Brady has only thrown for more two TDs once against any team that ranks in our top 12 pass defenses (out of five games).

  • Do not be deceived by the fact that there has been a touchdown of more than 49 yards in each of the Giants' last five games. The Patriots have NOT ALLOWED a touchdown of more than 49 yards and have only tallied 4 such touchdown in 18 games on the season. New England has a classic "bend-but-don't-break" defense and lacks an elite deep threat or special teams returner.

  • The lone cross-sport comparison wager that appears to have value is Ray Allen's three-point field goals made being greater than Tom Brady's TD passes thrown. If Allen does not play, the wager is voided. If he does, Allen has averaged 2.8 three-point field goals made in games with at least 15 minutes played this year (he has at least two made threes in 11 of those 14 games). This goes hand-in-hand with our strong opinion that Brady will not throw for more than two touchdowns.

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