It wasn’t easy, but the New England Patriots managed to hold off the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC championship game, earning them a chance to win back-to-back championships for the first time since they did so in 2003-04.
The key to beating the Patriots is multifaceted. A team must be able to create pressure with four pass rushers on defense and use play-action on offense to get the quarterback easy throws that don’t overburden the passer. This is how the New York Giants upset New England in Super Bowl XLII and XLVI. The same blueprint can also be found in the Patriots’ losses at home to the Baltimore Ravens during the 2012 playoffs and New York Jets in the 2011 playoffs.
As such, Bill Belichik and Tom Brady would much rather face the Philadelphia Eagles than the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl LII.
The Vikings are one of the most-balanced teams in the NFL this season. According to Football Outsiders, Minnesota’s defense ranked second in defense-adjusted value over average, which measures a team’s efficiency by comparing success on every single play to a league average based on situation and opponent, during the regular season. Per the game charters at Pro Football Focus, this is the most-talented run-stopping unit still alive in the playoffs. Led by star defensive tackle Linval Joseph — ranked eighth out of 49 defensive tackles by PFF with 35 stops at or behind the line of scrimmage — the Vikings ranked first in goal-to-go defense (53 percent conversion rate, playoffs included) and fifth against runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, allowing just 55 percent to convert a first down or score a touchdown. The league average is 64 percent.
The Vikings pass rush is also formidable. Joseph was credited with 30 sacks, hits and hurries in 2017, showing his versatility as a defender, while defensive end Everson Griffen had 13 sacks and 51 total pressures during the regular season and finished as the 10th-best edge rusher per Pro Football Focus.
|2017 Vikings||Total sacks, hits and hurries||Pressure rate|
Philadelphia’s defense was good, too. They ranked third against the run and seventh against the pass in 2017 per DVOA and Pro Football Focus gave high marks to Brandon Graham (ranked seventh out of 57 edge rushers), Vinny Curry (No. 18 among edge rushers) and linebacker Mychal Kendricks (sixth out of 58 linebackers). Cornerback Patrick Robinson ranked fourth at the position among 83 qualified players.
Philadelphia used the blitz against Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons just eight times (out of 39 drop backs, 21 percent) in the divisional game while the Vikings relied on it more heavily in their divisional game against the New Orleans Saints (16 out of 42 passing plays, 38 percent). Although, the Vikings only blitzed Drew Brees six times out of 38 (16 percent) attempts in their Week 1 matchup during the regular season.
The biggest advantage in the Patriots facing the Eagles in the Super Bowl, however, can be found on the offensive side of the ball.
Minnesota’s offense ranked fifth per DVOA. Vikings quarterback Case Keenum was the second-most valuable passer during the regular season per ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating. He also excelled in play-action situations, completing 69 percent of his passes while producing a 110.8 passer rating. His performance on non play-action passes was also solid: 66 percent completion rate with a 92 passer rating.
Eagles quarterback Nick Foles wasn’t nearly as effective. His 27.9 QBR during his three starts in relief of Carson Wentz placed him sixth out of six starters in the NFC East, implying that his team would be expected to win about 28 percent of time given that level of performance. His 41.1 QBR in the playoffs ranks 11th out of 12 qualified passers. Foles’s passer rating on play-action passes in 2017, including the playoffs, is 61.9, significantly lower than his rating on non-play-action attempts (95.9).
Another key factor is how each quarterback performed under pressure. Keenum managed an above-average 74.0 rating under pressure in 2017 while Foles saw his passer rating plummet to 34.0. It’s worth noting that an incomplete pass produces a passer rating of 39.6, showing just how bad Foles has managed with a collapsing pocket this season.
|2017 Passer rating||No pressure||Plays under pressure||Difference|
|Case Keenum||110.1||74.0||36.1 points|
|Nick Foles||106.3||34.0||72.3 points|
Using the win rates that fuel our weekly power rankings, which take into account a team’s actual record and what its record should be based on points scored and allowed — also known as its Pythagorean win percentage — and simulating the playoffs 5,000 times, New England has a 53 percent chance at beating the Vikings in the Super Bowl, which is being played at Minnesota’s home field, U.S. Bank Stadium. It has a 65 percent chance at defeating the Eagles for Belichick and Brady’s sixth championship ring.