Monday, Jan. 29, 2018 | 2 a.m.
The point spread on the Super Bowl extends a record by falling below a touchdown for the ninth consecutive year in local sports books.
The New England Patriots opened as a 5.5-point favorite against the Philadelphia Eagles ahead of Super Bowl 52 at 3:30 p.m. Feb. 4 in Minneapolis. And while having a competitive matchup improves the action — five of the previous eight games in the span ended up being decided by less than a touchdown — some would argue it makes it more difficult to bet.
Here are six of the most important factors to consider in trying to select a winner, along with our pick.
Patriots’ offense vs. Eagles’ defense
Talk about strength versus strength; these are the sides of the field where both teams thrive. No unit in the league has played as well as the Eagles’ defense lately. Philadelphia has given up less than five yards per play in the playoffs, effectively harassing Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan and Minnesota quarterback Case Keenum with a ferocious and deep pass rush. The Eagles’ defense scored the team’s first points in its 38-7 NFC Championship Game win against the Vikings when Patrick Robinson returned an interception for a 50-yard touchdown. It also had a key first-half takeaway that amounted to as much as a 14-point swing when Chris Long recovered a fumble on a Derek Barnett strip-sack of Keenum inside the red zone. Philadelphia’s offense was able to turn the takeaway into a touchdown of its own.
It’s harder to get those opportunities against the Patriots, though. New England has shown a preternatural ability to avoid turnovers with Tom Brady at quarterback. It has a plus-6 turnover margin this season — and that’s a down year by its standards. The 40-year-old Brady continues to marvel, as his 32 touchdowns and 7.88 yards per attempt could earn him a third MVP trophy this year. The Patriots have the NFL’s best offense by Football Outsiders’ DVOA, an advanced metric that factors in every play of a team’s season. The Eagles are third in defense.
Eagles’ offense vs. Patriots’ defense
This is another tight battle — just for the opposite reasons as the first category. Both units have concerns. The Eagles have been anemic at times since losing starting quarterback Carson Wentz to a torn ACL in December. And just because backup Nick Foles torched the Vikings for 352 yards and three touchdowns, it doesn’t mean all his shortcomings are resolved. In his four other starts combined, Philadelphia averaged only 4.2 yards per play, which would rank as the worst in the league for the season.
Meanwhile, New England could stake a claim for one of the worst defenses in the league. For much of the year, the Patriots led the NFL in yards per play allowed, before hunkering down the last month of the season. They’re now at 5.7 yards per play allowed, which ranks 28th. Although the Jaguars didn’t upset the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game defeat, Blake Bortles exposed them. In a 24-20 defeat, Bortles threw for 291 yards at 8.1 yards per attempt. Even at its best, the Patriots’ defense appears average. The Eagles’ offensive ceiling is much higher. They led the league in several categories before Wentz down. Foles might not have the ability to recreate those numbers, but with all the help around him, all he needs to be is above average. What if he just needed some time to integrate himself into the system?
Philadelphia nearly gave away its divisional round game against Atlanta by muffing two punts in the first half. Those are the types of mistakes that New England rarely makes. The Patriots have one of the most respected special teams coaches (Joe Judge) and kickers (Stephen Gostkowski) in the league, with the numbers to show for it. New England rates third in the league by special teams DVOA, with Philadelphia trailing at No. 16.
Philadelphia hired Doug Pederson because he was a protégé of former coach Andy Reid. Through two seasons, he’s lived up to both Reid’s best and worst characteristics. Pederson, whose teams always look prepared, can dazzle with play calls and flummox with game management all within a couple minutes. He’s got a long way to go to catch up with New England’s Bill Belichick, the rare NFL coach who appears to be without weakness. Oddsmakers sure can’t figure Belichick out, as he’s 187-130-5 against the spread lifetime as the Patriots’ coach.
Usually, this would be a spot to side with New England without any further thought, but this appears to be a unique year in its dynasty, with reports of dissension between Brady and Belichick. Both of the Patriots’ coordinators, Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia, are on the way out of town, expected to take the Colts and Lions head coaching jobs, respectively. The Eagles, meanwhile, appear much more unified. They’ve rallied around being underdogs in two straight games despite earning the NFC’s No. 1 seed, and have a rowdy, success-starved fan base that should outnumber New England’s contingent at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Season-long betting value
No one who bet the Patriots or the Eagles consistently this season is complaining. Including the postseason, they’re tied for the NFL’s best record against the spread at 12-6 apiece. But it’s clear the betting market has struggled more to catch up with the Eagles, and not just because of their recent two-game winning streak against the spread. The average Philadelphia game this season ended with the Eagles covering by eight points. The average New England game ended with the Patriots covering by 1.5 points.
ThePick: Patriots minus-5.5 (or 5 if you got it)
The edges may be even at 3-3, but New England won its categories more emphatically. And when the spread is this tight, it’s comforting to go with the coach and quarterback combination that’s been to eight Super Bowls and cashed in each of its last two appearances.