Usually, the coronation of each conference champion takes only a few minutes after the game. On Sunday it felt like the ceremonies started much earlier, as the Falcons and Patriots mostly dominated from start to finish. Both teams had a win expectancy exceeding 75 percent by the end of the first quarter and never fell below that mark the rest of the way.
Both rode a bit of luck. The Falcons recovered all three of the fumbles in their game and saw the Packers drop two would-be Matt Ryan interceptions inside their own 10-yard line, while the Patriots had to face Le’Veon Bell for only 11 snaps before Pittsburgh’s superstar back went down with a groin injury. But even with those factors tipping in their favor, both were dominant from start to finish, to the point where analyzing what they did almost seems wasteful.
Let’s instead take a look forward to the newly revealed Super Bowl matchup.
It feels like a 180-degree spin from last year’s Broncos-Panthers matchup, which reinforced the traditional notion of “defense wins championships” — or at least gets you access. Denver and Carolina finished the year first and second in DVOA and then turned off the spigot during the playoffs, holding four of the league’s top five offenses per DVOA to an average of 18.3 points per game. Those same four offenses averaged just over 28.1 points per game during the regular season.
In 2016, though, offense is king. The Falcons and Patriots ranked first and second in offensive DVOA, advancing to the Super Bowl despite finishing 27th and 16th, respectively, on the defensive side of the ball. They’ve continued to score at will during the postseason, racking up 150 combined points across four games, a whopping 37.5 points per game, more than any other pair of conference champions have averaged through that stretch since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.
I suspect you don’t need me to tell you the Falcons and Patriots are good at scoring points. The Vegas total for their matchup in two weeks is 58.5 points and rising, which would be the highest pregame total in the history of the event. What might be useful, though, is putting what we’ve seen during the regular season and playoffs with these two teams in context. Where does this rank in terms of great offensive matchups in history? What happened in those games? And have we learned anything new about these two offenses in the postseason?
Offensive Super Bowls
It’s not uncommon for one high-octane offense to make it to the Super Bowl. I mentioned that the Panthers were a defensive juggernaut last year, but they also scored a league-leading 500 points. It is rare, though, to see two offenses as dominant as those of Atlanta and New England make it to the big game. The Falcons and Patriots finished first and third, respectively, in points scored this season.
Is this the best offensive Super Bowl of all time? To figure that out, I used the standardized score methodology I mentioned when I wrote about how the Falcons were flying underneath the national radar at the end of December. I compared Atlanta’s points per game to those around the league in 2016 and then to teams from every other year since the 1970 merger using standardized score. (I’ll translate those scores into a percentile rank which incorporates all teams from 1970 through to 2016.)
My previous piece came before Week 17, but the Falcons unsurprisingly dropped 38 points on the Saints during the final week of the regular season to improve even further. They finished with the eighth-best offense since the merger, at 2.66 standard deviations over the mean, equivalent to the 99.4th percentile. You’ve heard of the teams just ahead of these Falcons: the 2013 Broncos, 1999 and 2001 Rams, 2007 Patriots, 1997 Broncos, and both the 1993 and 1994 49ers. It’s rarefied company. You’ll note three of those seven teams won Super Bowls, although the best offense of the bunch, the 2013 Broncos (analyzed in a similar fashion at the time here), were blown out in a bad style matchup.
The Patriots were a step below the Falcons, but they’re still better than most offenses. They finished in the 87.7th percentile in terms of league-adjusted points per game. If we include the 70 points they’ve scored in two playoff games and compare it to what the rest of the NFL did on an annual basis through the conference championships, they jump up to the 91.3rd percentile, while the Falcons hit 99.5, bumping them ahead of the 1993 49ers into seventh best all time.
The average percentile rank between these two teams is the 95.4th percentile, which is remarkably high. It’s not the best we’ve ever seen, but it’s the best matchup of offenses we’ve seen in 20 years, when the Super Bowl at the end of the 1997 season matched up the Broncos and Packers, who were the only two teams in the league to score more than 400 points. The most impressive offensive matchup, meanwhile, is the 1991 game between Washington and the Bills, who each scored in excess of 450 points in a league where nobody else hit 400.
By this measure, we’re looking at the eighth-best matchup of offenses in Super Bowl history. Here are the seven higher-octane matchups and what happened when they suited up for the Super Bowl on game day:
They weren’t all close contests, but at least one of the two monoliths inevitably got their points. Each winning team scored at least 30 points, with the seven winners averaging 38 points. It’s a small sample, but there’s little reason to think the Patriots and Falcons are suddenly going to turtle up in Houston and play a low-scoring contest.
You also don’t need me to highlight Tom Brady‘s postseason résumé. It’s great (although perhaps inflated by the fact that Brady enjoyed his best success early in his career, as Jason Lisk noted in 2011 and I brought up a year later). Even while throwing two interceptions to the Texans last week, Brady generally has been excellent this postseason.
There were concerns about how Brady would perform once Rob Gronkowski went down with a season-ending back injury, given how his numbers had dropped off in the past. From 2010 through 2015, including the postseason, Brady posted a 102.1 passer rating with Gronkowski in the lineup and an 85.6 passer rating with Gronkowski out. This isn’t subtle — that’s Hall of Famer numbers with Gronk and a decent starter while Gronk was injured or taking a breather.
Brady actually declined in a similar manner with Gronkowski out this season, but he was starting from a much higher baseline, which makes it look like he hasn’t missed a beat. With Gronkowski on the field, Brady was completing 70 percent of his passes and averaging an absurd 9.9 yards per attempt, which helped push him to a passer rating of 122.8. After adding a 384-yard, three-touchdown performance to the ledger, Brady has now thrown 358 passes without Gronk this season and spun gold. His passer rating with Gronk on the sideline in 2016 is now up to 104.8, better than Brady’s numbers with his star tight end in the lineup during the first six years of Gronkowski’s career.
Julian Edelman has picked up much of the slack with Gronkowski missing, but on Sunday, the lead contributor was very clearly Chris Hogan. The Bills import terrorized a Steelers secondary that fell for play-fakes and flea flickers before blowing coverages, catching nine of the 12 passes thrown to him for 180 yards and two touchdowns. Hogan got 10 targets over his final six games combined with Buffalo last season, and he wasn’t exactly playing behind the league’s best wideout corps. Brady had a field day hitting Hogan on dig routes, where he could catch passes behind the dropping Steelers linebackers and run at a Steelers secondary that has its tackling issues after the catch. By the second half, Pittsburgh was just scared of Hogan beating them downfield, with William Gay playing several yards off of Hogan on second-and-13 and allowing him an easy release on what ended up being his final catch of the day, a 39-yarder. Hogan still managed to accelerate past Gay after the catch, too.
One of the expected storylines of this postseason, predictably and disappointingly, was supposed to be about how Matt Ryan would fall on his face in the playoffs after an incredible regular season. Ryan was my pick as regular-season MVP, but the argument against Ryan was that he couldn’t be trusted as a “true” superstar quarterback because of his 1-4 record in the playoffs. Never mind that those losses had come with a dramatically shifted roster and an entirely different coaching staff, or that Brady had lost three playoff games in a row (including one to Mark Sanchez!) in the middle of his career. Ryan wasn’t supposed to have the mettle to play well when it mattered.
Of course, Ryan has been spectacular so far in the playoffs. He has posted a 94.0 QBR through the conference championships, the best mark for any quarterback through the conference championship games going back to 2006. His 132.6 passer rating also paces all signal-callers over that time span in the playoff run before the Super Bowl.
We’re getting to a point where Ryan is simply impossible to deny. How good has Ryan been? I’ve mentioned over the past two weeks how Ryan’s numbers over the Packers’ “run the table” stretch have actually been better than Aaron Rodgers‘ stats, a pairing that was rendered moot by how Ryan played Sunday. Let’s look for even more rarefied air. Here’s Ryan’s past six games, including the final quarter of the regular season and his first two playoff games. Remember that Julio Jones was missing for two of those contests, too. I’m going to throw in a mystery comparison for good measure:
Ryan’s past six games — two of which have come in the postseason — are entirely comparable to the six-game stretch compiled by Player B, which represents the best six-game stretch of Tom Brady’s career. These are Brady’s stats from Week 2 through Week 7 of the 2007 season, which was the otherworldly autumn when Brady seemed to get eight seconds to throw on every down before finding Randy Moss for a touchdown to end every drive. People aren’t supposed to be able to do that without a freaky set of receivers like Moss and Wes Welker.
Ryan hasn’t had him all of that six-game stretch, and Jones is still reportedly struggling with three different injuries to his foot, but it’s terrifying to think about what a fully-healthy Jones might have done to the Packers on Sunday. The Packers have struggled mightily at cornerback all season without Sam Shields, who went down with a season-ending concussion in the opener. His replacement in the lineup has been second-year undrafted free agent LaDarius Gunter, who has spent most of the season covering No. 1 wideouts with help.
Gunter was stretched beyond his abilities Sunday, but he’s going to be chasing Jones around in his nightmares for the next six months. Jones abused the overmatched Packers secondary, which got little help from a pass rush that failed to sack Ryan even once. Ryan did an excellent job of spreading the ball around to open receivers, but he was downright unstoppable going after Jones. The Alabama product caught nine of the 12 passes thrown at him for 180 yards and two touchdowns, including a 73-yard catch-and-run off of a drag route in which Jones stopped to extract Gunter’s soul before turning upfield for a touchdown.
There’s chatter now about how Ryan needs to beat Brady in the Super Bowl to truly join the ranks of the elite passers, but that’s a lazy, disingenuous argument and subject to perennially moving goalposts. Once a quarterback gets the reputation as being disappointing in the playoffs, critics will argue how he needs to win a playoff game to justify his success. Then, it will be two games. A Super Bowl. A Super Bowl win. And then a return Super Bowl trip.
Spare yourself that story and look at how Ryan is playing. He has been a wrecking ball over the past month and a half, comparable with the greatest active quarterback at his absolute peak. That other star is coming to face Ryan in Houston.
This is going to be fun.