A season in review & a Super Bowl preview
Super Bowl LIII is here. Will the Rams or Patriots prevail? What have we learned from the 2018-19 season?
I have a confession. I’m not very excited for the Super Bowl. I dunno why. Maybe it’s because I feel like I’ve already seen this Patriots Super Bowl movie before every couple Februarys. Maybe it feels like the Saints and Chiefs should be here and that we got the least interesting possible matchup from the final four. Perhaps it’s just the polar vortex. Is global warming responsible for the Patriots dynasty? You can’t put anything past Bill Belichick.
Is this Patriots team any different than all the ones before? Tom Brady is the same as ever. Rob Gronkowski showed up just in time for the playoffs. There are scat backs and slot receivers and hand-me-down defenders. Bill Belichick will scheme away the opponent’s best weapon. We’ve seen it all before.
The Rams are new and shiny, but they’re not as shiny as they were earlier this season, and the non-penalty route to the Super Bowl took a lot of the luster off their shine. Todd Gurley isn’t hurt unless he is, C.J. Anderson isn’t fat except he is, and the Rams unstoppable offense hasn’t felt as dangerous since losing their version of Julian Edelman in Cooper Kupp. The most important Rams player is standing on the sidelines in Sean McVay, and we’ve reached McVay saturation now that we’ve hired away his coordinators, his buddies, his college roommate, and his nephew’s dog.
Super Bowl LIII is finally here, but there’s no Patrick Mahomes rise to the top, no last stand for Drew Brees, and no crazy Bears defense, just two teams we knew were good all year. And honestly, that’s okay. The Patriots always give us an interesting Super Bowl. In eight Belichick-Brady Super Bowls, the game has always come down to the final minutes. All eight have been within a score. Unlike the mailman in a polar vortex, a Belichick Super Bowl always delivers.
But it begs the question. If we knew this was coming all long, then what did we actually learn from the season?
The 2018 NFL season in review
Maybe part of the reason I find myself unexcited for a Rams-Patriots Super Bowl is because, even though everyone else expected it, I didn’t. The Rams were my biggest miss in my NFL season preview work. I took the under-10 on wins (they went 13–3) and thought the offense wouldn’t reach last season’s heights, and I didn’t list them among my eight Super Bowl contenders.
The Patriots were. They were my preseason number one and my Super Bowl pick, and I said they had a shot at 16–0. But then they were nothing like I expected. They struggled on the road and needed a Charmin-soft schedule and help from a weak AFC to get to 11–5 and a bye. By the time they got there, I’d turned on them completely. I’m convinced the Patriots are not the best team in the NFL, or even one of the best three or four, and I kept waiting for them to lose. But it’s the Patriots. They’re indestructible. They bend but don’t break, and they bent all the way back to the Super Bowl. Again.
The Rams were my biggest preseason miss. I thought it’d be interesting to look back at all of my preseason over-under picks to see how I did — not just what the results were but how my process was in getting there. Let’s take a look.
My 4 biggest hits
I picked seven locks among 32 NFL team over-unders, and three were overs, teams I was convinced were much better than the public seemed to think. Those three teams were the Patriots, the Kansas City Chiefs, and the Chicago Bears. Winner, winner, chicken dinner.
The Patriots actually pushed their line at 11–5, but considering the fluky way they lost a few games (the Miami miracle comes to mind), I stand by my pick. That team was never winning 10 games or fewer unless Brady got hurt. The Chiefs hit over-8.5 before losing their second game. Andy Reid was terrific as always, and Patrick Mahomes was even better than expected. I recommended the Chiefs at +3500 to win the Super Bowl and Mahomes at +6500 for MVP. The Bears hit their over-6.5 by the midpoint, finishing 12–4. I got help from the Khalil Mack trade, but the coaching and strong defense were always going to keep that team in the mix.
My two best unders were Oakland and Jacksonville. The Raiders were my surest bet on the board. They never had a shot at hitting eight wins, finishing 4–12. I thought they had a chance to be the worst team in the NFL, offering +3500 at them landing the number one pick, and they finished one game out. The Jaguars always looked due to regress from a historic defense with Blake Bortles still at the helm. I said preseason that the Jags had a better chance at finishing last in the division than winning it. I was right. They went 5–11 and came up way short of their 9-win over-under.
I also took the Saints over-9.5 and watched them roll to 13–3, but I can’t take too much credit because I had a lot of belief in the NFC South and thought New Orleans would take a step back but be just good enough to stay ahead of the curve. Still, only three teams won at least 3.5 games more than their expectation, and I picked all three correctly and two as locks.
My 4 biggest misses
The Rams were my biggest miss. I had them #11 in my preseason rankings, and it was clear by about Week 2 how wrong that was. They crushed their over-10 at 13–3. The 49ers were an even bigger miss by the numbers. They never had a shot at an over-8.5 after losing Jimmy Garoppolo and Jerick McKinnon by the end of Week 1. I came up 4.5 wins short and should’ve gone with my second choice for worst-to-first division winner (the Texans), but with all the injuries there, I’m not sure I really had a fair shake.
Speaking of the Texans, I missed on them and the Colts but remember feeling like they were my two most difficult picks on the board. I liked both teams in theory but didn’t think either would stay healthy and figured there were more paths to bad seasons than good ones. I didn’t expect the Colts to improve so much on the line and on defense, and I definitely didn’t think Houston’s key guys would stay healthy all year. The Falcons were another big miss I don’t regret, another team derailed by injuries.
The other big whiff was on Green Bay, where I gave Aaron Rodgers far too much credit. I took the Packers over-10 and included them among my Super Bowl contenders in place of the Rams, and Rodgers was not up to the task.
Anthony Davis wants out, but there are more wrinkles than you think.
How did our 7 locks do?
Pretty great! We already mentioned three of them. Oakland under-8, Kansas City over-8.5, and Chicago over-6.5 were the three teams that finished furthest from their Vegas expectation, and all three were locks. The NFL is unpredictable, and many results could easily swing the other direction. In many cases, there’s precious little difference between a 7–9 season and a 10–6 one, so we can’t tell much off our close calls. It’s the teams that stand out far from expectations where we can learn the most. And we nailed the three teams that finished furthest from expectation. Awesome.
We pushed our New England over-11 lock and pushed Buffalo under-6, too. The Bills got a couple fluke wins but were a bottom-five team and never had a shot at seven wins. The other two locks were Tampa under-6.5 and Dallas under-8.5. Tampa started 2–0, but the Bucs fell apart under bad QB play and an abysmal defense so we got lucky. We got unlucky on the Cowboys, our only lock to miss. Dallas made a season-saving acquisition in Amari Cooper, and even with him, they finished with the advanced metrics of a 7- or 8-win team but lucked into 10 wins instead. I’d take Dallas under-8.5 again, even knowing Amari was coming, but they were a last minute add to my locks and probably wouldn’t be there given a second chance. Alas.
Our locks finish 4–1–2 for the year. Add that to last year’s 5–0 locks and that’s a tidy 90% win rate!
How’d we do overall on the over-unders?
I passed on 17 of the 32 over-unders but made picks on them anyways and went 8–8–1. We played eight teams at 5–3, then had seven best bets that went 4–1–2. Together that’s 17 hits and 12 misses, a 58.6% success rate. Assuming we bet $25 on plays and $100 on locks, we’d have spent $900 at the start of the season and left with $1250, a 39% growth rate.
If we’ve learned anything in two seasons predicting over-unders, it’s this: the surer I’ve been heading into the season, the more certain the outcome. Next year if there are teams I don’t feel great about, maybe we skip them and focus on the sure things.
What about player props?
Player props are always tricky just because there’s so much noise in the numbers. You’re often playing guys at 20–1 or 40–1 odds, which inherently makes them unlikely to hit. If you take a player at 40–1 odds and he almost comes through and clearly should’ve been more like 3–1 but ends up losing anyway, you might feel better about yourself but you still lost the bet.
I expected a big David Johnson season and was disappointed, missing three picks. I thought Todd Gurley would regress and he didn’t, but I split two props thanks to his late injury. Jarvis Landry and Marcus Mariota were other big misses, both in real life and fantasy football. Sony Michel might have been a great pick to win Rookie of the Year and lead the league in TDs if he’d stayed healthy, but he did not — and that’s why he was a long shot to start with.
I expected a big Andrew Luck season, ranking him as my top fantasy QB and taking him at +2500 to lead the league in TDs. Luck was terrific and actually did finish second with 39 TDs, but he was also 11 short of Mahomes so a lot of good that did. Davante Adams was another close miss. I picked him to lead the league in receiving TDs at +1600, and he caught a TD in 11 different games, but a monster final game by Antonio Brown stole the crown. Right process, bad luck. Ezekiel Elliott we got. I nailed him as the NFL rushing leader at +350 while also correctly going under 1575 yards.
But I’ve buried the lede. The thing about player props is sometimes it just takes one hit to cover all the rest, and boy do we have one hit. I made three recommendations for MVP: Brady +700, Philip Rivers +2500… and Patrick Mahomes as a +6500 longshot. BOOM! Mahomes hasn’t officially won the award yet, but it’s all but locked up.
In all, I recommended 20 prop picks and got only six, but remember, these aren’t even odds. If you bet $25 on each prop, you’d have invested $500 and walked away with $1962.50. That’s a 293% profit margin. Thanks, Mahomes!
Add in the team over-unders to the props and we end up playing $1400 and walking away with $3212.50, a 129% growth. Of course $1650 of that take-home is from Mahomes, a huge portion of the winnings, but that’s sort of how long-shot props work. Even without the Mahomes bet, we made 13.6% profit for the year. Heck of a lot better than the fall economy, that’s for sure!
Voters want to reward winning. Selecting All-Star coaches is the perfect solution
And how about all the game picks?
We already tracked our game picks all year, finishing 127–114–10, 52.7% win rate. That’s not terrible, but it’s not great. Last year we hit 52.8%. At least we’re consistent? I typically picked three best bets each week, and those picks finished 27–24–3, so 52.9% success rate. Okay, this is getting annoying.
Luckily, we do have one saving grace: our locks. Last year I was tepid on locks, picking just three and going 2–1. This year we were bolder. We picked six locks and finished a perfect 6–0. Suck it, 52%!
If you figure $25 on each game with $100 on best bets and $500 on locks, we end up betting $12,725 and winning $15,675, a healthy 23% win rate. Turns out sweeping those locks covers a lot of sins. Dig a little deeper, though, and we went just 21–24–3 on best bets outside of our locks. Again, it’s not fair to exclude our biggest wins, but it’s also worth noting.
I see two key takeaways. First, betting on sports is hard. I spend 10+ hours a week on this column considering every angle and consistently get under 53% right, so you might as well flip a coin each week. And second, if you’re betting $12,725 on NFL games, you have a serious problem and need a lot more help than my weekly column.
What have we learned from the playoffs?
I’m cold. I’m technically 5–5, but that record flatters me. I lucked into a couple late covers and blew my only sure bet of the playoffs in Chicago. I picked the Saints and Chiefs in the semifinals and picked against the Patriots both times. I’m running cold, and I need this Super Bowl pick to finish over .500 for the postseason.
Oh hey! The Super Bowl! I almost forgot.
Super Bowl LIII preview
There’s one other reason I’m having a hard time getting excited for the Super Bowl: I find it very hard to believe the Rams will win.
The Rams were the better team for most of the season, but I’m not sure they’re better right now, and I don’t believe they’re better in this matchup. What makes the Rams special? Todd Gurley makes them special, but he’s been M.I.A. since almost Thanksgiving. Three talented receivers made their passing attack special, but they haven’t been the same without Cooper Kupp. And more than anything else, Sean McVay and the coaching staff make them special, out-scheming opponents with motion and speed and coaching, but now he’s up against the greatest coach of all time.
Haven’t we seen this play out before? We already know what happens when a brilliant offense faces Bill Belichick, especially when he has time to prepare. The defense and coach win. Remember that huge 54-point Monday night Rams explosion against the Chiefs? L.A.’s offense hasn’t been the same since, scoring 24 ppg in six meaningful games versus 35 ppg over their first 11. That coincides almost exactly with the loss of Kupp and the period in which Gurley has gone missing. Remember how the Patriots defense bled points to pretty much everyone early? They’ve given up just 18.5ppg over that same time span in which the Rams offense has struggled. Uh oh.
It’s also worrisome that so much attention is focusing on one side of the ball: the Rams offense versus New England’s defense. The Patriots are scoring over 29 ppg during that stretch with a ball control offense featuring a power run game and an endless series of short passes. The Pats keep their 41-year-old quarterback upright letting him hand off or pass quickly, and the defense stays fresh because the offense eats up so much clock. In a year of read options and motion offense, the Patriots are winning by going old school.
Guess which team allowed the highest yards per carry this season? The Rams. Guess who allowed a league-worst 9.4 yards per pass to slot receivers? Rams again. Which team was bad against play-action and downfield passes once they overcompensated to address the poor run D? You guessed it. The Patriots are going to move the ball because defenses can’t take everything away in 2019, and New England has built their offense around players flexible enough to take whatever’s there. If the Rams put extra defensive backs on the field to cover the slot, the Pats will run at them. If they load up in the run game, they’ll dump it into the flats. If the short game gets contained, Brady will throw deep. McVay’s offense is great because he uses the same guys with an endless cadre of motion and looks to create space. Belichick’s is great because he knows you can’t defend everything and he and Brady simply attack the thing you left open. And the Rams leave a lot of things open.
We know how Belichick game plans when he has time — he schemes to take away the opponent’s biggest threat. Against the Chiefs, it was Tyreek Hill. So who’s the biggest Rams threat? Is it former Patriots deep threat Brandin Cooks? Is it Gurley? Is it the power run game and C.J. Anderson? The answer might be none of the above. The Rams biggest threat is motion from side-to-side to confuse the defense. It’s those outside zone runs, the jet sweeps that Belichick will scheme to shut down. Take away that motion and the Rams offense becomes surprisingly vanilla. Belichick isn’t getting beat by C.J. runs up the gut and Goff throws downfield, and he knows it.
10 network TV shows premiere this January. Are any worth your time?
The Rams struggled when McVay lost communication with Goff against the Saints. Look for a lot of late Patriots defensive movement in the final 15 seconds of the play clock once McVay’s radio goes away. That’s one other key difference. The Rams have one super genius; the Patriot have coaches all over the field. When L.A. adds late motion on either side of the field, New England’s players are coached up enough to make a late adjustment. McVay can’t control all the chess pieces against New England’s late movement. One genius can only do so much from the sidelines.
There’s one other thing. The Rams real biggest threat isn’t on offense at all. It’s Aaron Donald, the best defensive player in the world. Donald can change everything. If he gets into the backfield and disrupts the Patriots’ timing, this analysis goes out the window. Donald is the guy Belichick needs to scheme away. He’s the one the Pats will double team, and he’s the reason they’ll run outside and throw quick passes into the flats before Donald can get to Brady.
So what’s the Rams path to victory?
Turnovers would certainly do it. The Rams forced the second most turnovers in the league, and corners Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters tend to gamble and can come up with the big play. One key interception or pick-six can flip the game. Aaron Donald can do it, too, if he gets going. There’s one other guy that can do it: Jared Goff. If Goff hits accurate throws downfield and outplays Tom Brady, the Rams can outscore the Pats. Belichick’s defense can’t cover the whole field either, but Goff is not consistently accurate enough to punish New England. He was early this season but hasn’t been late, nor for most of the playoffs. If the Rams win, it’ll be because Aaron Donald was the best player on the field or because Goff hit eight of ten big throws he had to make.
The more likely outcome looks like a slow start to the game, the way most Patriots Super Bowls start, with New England controlling time of possession and chewing up the clock with long dink-and-dunk drives. The longer it stays close, the more it’s advantage Brady and Belichick — which QB and coach do you want late? — and the more tired the Rams defense will be. The Rams path to victory is getting to New England early by forcing a quick turnover or letting Goff attack downfield from the get-go.
The Rams can win this game. There are plenty of roads to victory. But there are more roads to a Patriots victory, and they’re just a little bit easier to envision. If Brady shows his age and the New England line finally crumbles and McVay outfoxes Belichick, maybe the Rams run away with it. Otherwise it’s at least close, and I’m taking the GOAT coach, quarterback, and tight end with the game on the line late.