Data Trends

Super Bowl (LI): Analyzing the Battle Between Two MVP-Caliber Quarterbacks

In just over a week, the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots will square off at America’s most popular perennial event—the Super Bowl. This year’s matchup features two high-powered offenses, both with quarterbacks worthy of the 2016 NFL Most Valuable Player award. New England is the favorite, as Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady has the clear advantage of experience. He is a two-time MVP looking for his record 5th Super Bowl victory in 7 appearances. Meanwhile, Atlanta Falcons’ quarterback Matt Ryan, frequently omitted from the discussion on elite NFL quarterbacks, is fighting for his first Super Bowl ring.

It’s not a controversial statement to say quarterback play will be a significant determinant in the outcome of Super Bowl LI. Slightly more controversial is determining which statistics to look at to predict the winning team. We aren’t trying to predict the winner with statistics here (though we will make our pick at the end of this post!). Rather, we wanted to assess Brady’s and Ryan’s performances this past season to see if we could dig up some interesting insights. So we decided to drop some NFL stats into ThoughtSpot and ask a few questions of our data!  

Search #1: Total Passer Rating by QB by Week

When we look at Ryan’s and Brady’s passer ratings by week over the season, we can see that Ryan has been steadier. Both quarterbacks have been incredibly steady, but the edge goes to Ryan. Not only did Ryan have a higher season rating (Ryan’s 117.1 vs. Brady’s 112.2), but Ryan was also more consistent. He had a 100+ QB passer rating in 75% of starts, while Brady had a 100+ rating in only 67% of starts. Still, each QB had only one truly mortal outing this year: Ryan’s with a 78.7 rating in November vs. the Eagles and Brady with a 68.2 rating against the Broncos in December.

Search #2: Total % Pass Yards by QB by Week     

When we look at the total yards each quarterback passed to his star receiver by week, we see that Ryan is far more dependent on his than Brady is. Matt Ryan has one of the most dangerous weapons in the league, 4-time Pro Bowler Julio Jones; whereas Tom Brady lost his star pass catcher, Rob Gronkowski, midway through the year to injury. Some felt Patriots fans should have been very worried, but take a look at Brady’s stat lines with and without Gronk in the lineup:

In past seasons, the Patriots saw a drop in production without Gronk. This year, Brady has found a way to maintain success without the best pass-catching tight end in the league. I give credit to the coaching staff for making the adjustments to allow Brady to continue to be successful. Julian Edelman has been Brady’s #1 target all year, and the 3rd most targeted wide receiver in the NFL.

It’s striking how consistent Brady is at ball distribution, particularly to Edelman. Most weeks, Edelman accounted for 20-30% of passing yards. In fact, only in week 17 did Edelman account for greater than 30%. Brady leveraged talent all around the field, with significant contributions coming from his tight ends and running back James White. The screen game was a big part of the Patriots’ game plan during the regular season, with White having 60 receptions for 551 yards—98% of these yards coming after the catch.

Julio Jones was much more up-and-down throughout the season than Edelman. His yards as a percent of Ryan’s total yards ranged from 10% to 61%. He had a 300-yard game sandwiched between a 29-yard and 16-yard game! Jones has been struggling with a toe injury, but it didn’t seem to affect him too badly when he dismantled the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship. With two weeks’ rest before the Super Bowl, the Patriots have to expect him to be a major challenge for their defensive backs.    

Search #3: Total Yards Allowed by Team by Week

Search #4: Total Points Allowed by Team by Week

When we look at total points allowed and total yards allowed by our respective teams’ defense each week, we can see that Brady benefits from a better defense than Ryan. While most expect a shootout between two great quarterbacks, New England’s defense doesn’t seem to be getting the media attention that top-rated defenses typically get heading into the Super Bowl. The Patriots’ defense was #1 in fewest points allowed (15.6), and #8 in yards allowed (326) this season.

Helping the defense, both teams win the turnover battle—Patriots +12, and Falcons +11 in turnover differential—largely because neither QB throws interceptions. But with Atlanta’s defense ranked 27th in points allowed per game (25.4), I think the Patriots stand a better chance of slowing red-hot Ryan.    

My Super Bowl LI Prediction: New England Patriots beat the Atlanta Falcons, 31-24.