Patriots, Rams has a familiar feel

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The long journey that began last July in training camp for all but two of the NFL’s 32 teams has ended.  The remaining two teams will take their final steps this Sunday in Atlanta when the New England Patriots face the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl 53.

In some respects, both teams are fortunate to be here. In other respects both teams earned their way here, taking advantage of the opportunities presented and ultimately each prevailing in overtime in the respective conference title games.

The point spread, which opened at pick ‘em or either team -1, quickly settled in with New England a 2-point favorite at most books within the first 24 hours of betting action, rising to minus 2.5 by midweek. Late in the week and over the weekend New England -3 began to show and hold at a number of books and the prevailing thought was than the line would flip between – 2.5 and -3 for most of the second week leading up to kickoff.

The total, which opened at 58, has pretty much settled into the range of 56.5 to 57.

The public is expected to greatly prefer betting on the known entity, New England, due to familiarity and notoriety, with more well known names than the Rams. The professionals are more evenly split but offer this sage advice to all bettors – if you want to bet New England, be sure to lay -2.5 and not -3. If you want to back the Rams, be sure to take +3 and not 2.5.

Three is the most common margin for NFL games, occurring roughly 15 percent of the time. And when a game lands on three more than half of the time (roughly 60 percent) it is the favorite that wins by 3. With both 2.5 and 3 readily available there should be no problem with playing the more favorable line for at least most of the week before, if it occurs, the line stabilizes at either number in the hours just prior to kickoff.

As to the matchup itself, New England has a considerable edge in overall experience, playing in its ninth Super Bowl in the era defined by the presence of both QB Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick that began with their win as 14-point underdogs in Super Bowl 36 against the then-St Louis Rams, 20-17.

In their prior eight Super Bowls the Patriots are 5-3 SU but just 3-5 ATS. Of their five wins, the first three were each by exactly a FG (vs. the Rams in 2002, Carolina in 2004 and Philadelphia in 2005). Their two most recent wins were by four and six points.

The four-point win was against Seattle in Super Bowl 49, in a game they arguably should have lost but for a questionable play call in the waning moments by the Seahawks that resulted in a goal line interception by the Pats.

The six-point win was their overtime win against Atlanta two seasons ago in Super Bowl 51 when New England overcame a 28-3 deficit that also required a pair of two-point conversions to force overtime. 

The point to be made is that despite all their success over the past 18 season, New England has been far from dominant in the Super Bowl. And, of course, that includes their first of two losses to the New York Giants in Super Bowl 42 when the undefeated 18-0 edition lost 17-14. That was a season in which they won 13 of 16 regular season games by double digits and had an average margin of victory of 19.7 points per game.

That also marked my worst Super Bowl prediction of all time for which I called for a Patriots rout to cement what would have been the first perfect season since the 1972 Miami Dolphins went 17-0. Oops!

I do not expect a rout in this Super Bowl. Whereas the Patriots do have that huge edge in experience the Rams have one of the best defensive coordinators of the modern era, Wade Phillips. More successful than he is generally given credit for (82-64 with five playoff appearances) Phillips has made his mark as an outstanding DC in his NFL coaching career that began in 1976.

He already knows something about preparing a defense to face Brady and the Pats, having been in Denver when the Broncos defeated the Pats 20-18 to advance to Super Bowl 50 in which Denver defeated Carolina.

Led by Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh, the Rams have a defensive front that can apply pressure on Brady, who has finally shown signs of aging this season. He tossed 11 interceptions for his highest such percentage since 2011 and his touchdown percentage was his lowest since 2013.

The Rams also have a dynamic and well-balanced offense with a pair of quality running backs in Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson. It may well be that if that tandem gains more rushing yards than the Patriots’ RB duo of Sony Michel and James White, the Rams have an excellent chance of pulling what would be considered only a mild upset.

In Jared Goff the Rams have a QB who has made great strides since a poor rookie season. But perhaps the greatest offensive strength lies in the aggressive and innovative philosophy of head coach Sean McVay. He took over a team that had finished 4-12 in 2016 and had not had a winning season since 2003. As a rookie head coach he led the Rams to an 11-5 record in 2017 (and a Wild Card playoff home loss to Atlanta) and followed up with a 13-3 record this season and playoff wins over Dallas and at New Orleans.

He’s not afraid of taking chances and going against the grain. 

Statistically, these teams are very similar. Including playoff games, the Pats average 143 rushing yards per game, the Rams 132. Defensively the Pats allow 5.73 yards per play, the Rams 5.87. Both teams have lost the same number of turnovers, averaging 1.1 lost per game.

The Rams do have edges in two key stats. On a yards-per-rush basis, the Rams have a 4.9 to 4.2 edge while both allow an identical 4.8 yards per rush defensively. An area I include in my analysis is yards-per-pass completion. Yards-per-pass attempted is meaningless in that in includes incomplete passes. That comparison can be measured by looking at completion percentage.

The Rams average 12.8 yards per completion, more than a yard per completion better than New England’s 11.5 yppc. Defensively the teams are virtually even with the Pats allowing 11.7 yards per completion versus the Rams allowing 11.8.

Could this be the coming full circle event for both teams? New England’s long run of excellence began with their 20-17 win over the then St Louis Rams nearly two decades ago in Super Bowl 36. Brady is nearing the end of his Hall of Fame career and it’s been often speculated that coach Belichick would retire when Brady does the same.

The Rams seem poised to be a contender for years to come with an energetic, aggressive and offensive minded head coach in McVay and a QB who, after struggling as a rookie, has played like a No. 1 overall draft choice would be expected to perform. 

The numbers suggest this is basically an even game based on fundamentals and statistics. The intangibles, most importantly the experience factor, greatly favor the Patriots, explaining why the line has moved in their direction.

At lines of a FG or less if you prefer the underdog Rams you might consider making part of your play on the money line, looking for the Rams to win the game outright. A week prior to kickoff had the Rams in the +120 to +125 range.

And please, whichever side you prefer, don’t forget the advice discussed above from professional bettors about the importance between the numbers 2.5 and 3 when it comes to betting the point spread.

Note that only three of the last 21 Super Bowls (including this one) have had point spreads of more than 7 (there have been three at exactly 7). The last time there was a favorite of -7 or more was in Super Bowl 42 when New England was a 12.5 favorite to complete that 19-0 season.

It is also worth noting that seven of the last nine Super Bowls have been won by the underdog, including five straight between Super Bowls 46 through 50. And the team that won the Super Bowl SU has covered nine straight and 12 of the last 13.

Of course, that streak also includes New England’s overtime win against Atlanta in which the Pats covered by virtue of scoring a touchdown.

My forecast is for the Rams to pull the minor upset and defeat the Patriots by a score of 30-20. So take the underdog and look for the game to go below the total. RAMS and UNDER

Season: 132-137-6

About the Author

Andy Iskoe

Owner and author of “The Logical Approach,” Andy Iskoe has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football.

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