It’s grown increasingly difficult in recent seasons to predict the outcome of the Super Bowl. There are a few reasons for this, though the main one might sound a little odd: Good teams are making the big game at a better clip than they have in more than two decades. Seven no. 1 seeds have made the past four Super Bowls; this season’s Falcons are the lone no. 2 seed. The only similar stretch occurred in the early 1980s, when seven no. 1 seeds and one no. 2 seed (the ’82 Dolphins) made the Super Bowl from the 1981 to 1984 seasons. Remember, though, that it was likelier in those days for 1-seeds to make the Super Bowl, since only 10 clubs made the playoffs. When the postseason field expanded, the challenge for top teams did, too — at least for a while. Now, however, the days of wild-card teams making real runs — Hello, 2010 Packers! — feel like a distant memory.
Beyond that, it’s become tough to pick the Super Bowl victor because NFL teams are, en masse, playing closer games. At Roger Goodell’s Wednesday press conference, the commissioner said that the average margin of victory in the NFL this season was the lowest since 1935. It was a season of historically close games — even with the Browns dropping 10 contests by double digits.
Because recent Super Bowls have pitted elite teams against each other, Vegas has started to react accordingly: None of the clashes between top seeds the past four seasons has netted a line greater than five points. To put that in historical perspective, consider that from 1988 to 1999, no line was within six points.
So, what does all of this mean? You’re not going to want to hear this if you’ve got money on the line, but it means that picking the Super Bowl is now a crapshoot. The predictable ’90s were great for picking, because from the 1991 season to the 2000 season, underdogs won just one Super Bowl — and were 2–6–2 against the spread.
Ah, the good old days. And now, with that in mind, on to the Super Bowl LI pick:
New England (-3) over Atlanta
Even by the recent standards of tight matchups, it’s particularly hard to rely on statistics to make this pick. You can bend the numbers to support nearly any argument, then just as easily find a data point to counteract a given point. For example: The Patriots have the league’s best scoring defense … but the Falcons boast the league’s best offense. The Patriots have the best point margin in the NFL … but the Falcons are second. No one has scored more passing touchdowns of 25 or more yards than the Falcons, who have done it 14 times … but the Patriots are tied for allowing the fewest such scores, with one. This game is the football equivalent of the old Shaq vs. Shaq Reebok commercial in which every play was evenly contested and the game went to endless overtimes.
Attempting to pinpoint the decisive factor here requires analyzing every game within the game: Matt Ryan throwing into a stout Patriots defense; Julio Jones contending with Bill Belichick’s coverage plans; Tom Brady trying to get rid of the ball before Vic Beasley mauls him.
But ultimately, studying those showdowns won’t provide the clarity you seek. There are an almost ludicrous number of elite players in this game, but here’s the key piece of data: This will be Bill Belichick’s seventh Super Bowl as head coach and Dan Quinn’s first. There’s not a whole hell of a lot of analysis on that sort of mismatch — because it’s never happened before.
Belichick will be the first coach to hit that mark, and you can tell. The Patriots appear to be ridiculously relaxed and seem nonplussed about the long parade of obligations, delays, and happenings here in Houston. This is pseudoscience at its best, but it matters that the Falcons are new at this, and that they happen to be going against a coach and quarterback who have been here more than anyone.
Knowing how to navigate a Super Bowl is important because it’s so dramatically different from a normal game. The halftime is longer, the pregame warm-ups are longer, the nerves and energy are different. When the teams appear to have equal amounts of on-field weapons, that familiarity becomes the only real tiebreaker. And so this will come down to coaching — and not just the on-field, in-game kind. It’s as much about spending two weeks preparing for a championship game amid the most over-the-top media circus in American sports. It’s hard to practice normally this week, let alone play normally.
I’ll take Belichick’s game plan, both on and off the field, over Quinn’s. (There’s also a massive amount of luck involved in the Super Bowl, but it’s no fun to point that out!) Experience matters. And, hey, speaking of things that do: The Patriots are the best team against the spread in more than 25 years. New England 30, Atlanta 26.
Season picks total: 128–125–10