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Beating the Book: Handicapping Super Bowl 51

Chris Liss

Chris Liss is RotoWire's Managing Editor and Host of RotoWIre Fantasy Sports Today on Sirius XM radio.

I won both the Championship games last week to go 6-4 overall in the playoffs. It would be nice to close things out with a Super Bowl win.

I've actually done well on Super Bowl bets of late, having not lost since I took the Steelers in 2010. Let's try and run it to six straight.

For the podcast version of this column, click here.

Super Bowl LI

Falcons +3 vs. Patriots

One reason I've fared well in Super Bowls of late is I've embraced the adage "defense wins championships" and usually bet on the team with the elite defense. Historically, teams with all-time great defenses like the 2015 Broncos, 2013 Seahawks, 2002 Bucs and 2000 Ravens tend to over-perform the spread, not only covering but winning outright. Even teams without historically great defenses but merely playing at a very high level in the playoffs - think 2007, 2011 Giants, 2012 Ravens - have also provided excellent value against favored opponents. For a more thorough rundown of this phenomenon, click here.

Unfortunately, I have no such crutch on which to rely this year. Neither defense is close to elite, and neither can be said to playing at a level approaching that of the Ravens or Giants on their improbable runs. It might sound odd I'm disqualifying the lowest 2016 regular season points-allowed team (Patriots) under my criteria, but a quick look under the hood counterfeits any claim they might have. While the Patriots allowed a whopping 34 fewer points than the Giants (No. 2) and 156 fewer than the Falcons (No, 27), opposing offenses averaged 5.2 yards per play (YPP) against them (9th), a mere 0.4 YPP better than teams averaged against the Falcons (5.6, 20th.)

Moreover, while the Falcons faced the the Saints twice (6.2 YPP, 3rd), the Packers (5.7, 9th) and the Raiders (5.7, 10th), the Patriots played only one top-10 per-play offense (with its starting QB) all year (the Ryan Tannehill Dolphins, 5.8 YPP, 8th.) The Patriots played the Landry Jones Steelers and the Matt Moore Dolphins, and otherwise the best per-play offense they faced all year was the Bills (5.6, 14th) twice. When the Patriots played the No. 15 offense (the Seahawks), they lost at home (31 - 24), and when they played the No. 18 per-play offense, the Cardinals, they won 23-21, on a last-second miss by Arizona kicker Chandler Catanzaro.

Otherwise, New England's defense matched up against the dregs of the league all year. Their schedule included the Bengals (19th), the Jets (20th) twice, the Ravens (23rd), the Broncos (25th), the Browns (27th), the 49ers (30th), the Texans (31st) and the Rams (32nd.)

In short, nine of their 16 games were against the 19th-ranked or lower per-play offenses, and five against the 25th or worse. Even so, they only managed to have the ninth best per-play defense in the league. The Patriots defense held up fine in the playoffs but home games against the 31st-ranked Texans and the Steelers without their MVP candidate running back and a quarterback who hasn't played well on the road the last three years are hardly ample proving ground for what they're about to see on Sunday (more on that below.)

The Falcons defense gave up the sixth most points in the league (406) and the 20th most YPP, but as noted above only 0.4 YPP more than the Patriots. Moreover, their defense improved as the year went on: after yielding 20 or more points in nine of their first 10 games and 30 or more in five, they allowed 20 four times in their last eight including the playoffs and 30 only once. Moreover, one of those 20-point games included the Packers final garbage-time drive last week. (I'm reverting to the noisier points-per-game numbers than YPP because I had trouble digging up split stats for that.) That the Falcons defense would improve is not surprising given they're starting four rookies who now have 18 games under their belts. While this defense is by no means good enough to shut down a strong offense like the Patriots, it's at least league average at this point and probably better than that. In fact, I'd argue, it's a toss-up between these two teams on that side of the ball. Which brings us to the offenses.

The Patriots have a good offense (5.9 YPP, 5th), but the Falcons have one of the greatest offenses of all time (6.7 YPP, 1st). The Falcons scored 540 points (7th most in NFL history) and did so while playing the league's toughest schedule of opposing defenses, according to Football Outsiders' DVOA. They scored 30 or more points in 13 of their 18 games, including both postseason ones. Quarterback Matt Ryan had 9.3 YPA during the regular season, the highest mark of all time among QBs with 400 pass attempts, and has been even better in the playoffs. The Falcons have two backs capable of running between the tackles or outside and catching passes out of the backfield, and Ryan spreads the ball around to a wide variety of capable targets, including all-time great Julio Jones.

The Patriots offense is similarly diverse with three capable backs providing power, speed and pass-catching ability between them, and several capable receivers from the emerging Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell, to reliable possession-man Julian Edelman to athletic tight end Martellus Bennett. But with defense-tilter and game-changer Rob Gronkowski out, New England lacks the impossible-to-matchup-with player the Falcons have in Jones. As great as Tom Brady is, and as good as coach Bill Belichick is in taking away opponents' most dangerous weapons, it's a major edge for Ryan and the Falcons.

In the end, I see these teams as rough equals defensively, the Falcons as decisively better on offense and also having arguably the league's best kicker other than Justin Tucker in Matt Bryant. As such, I'm taking the points, the Falcons money line (+135) and at minus 7.5 (+335). With two weeks to plan it's possible Bill Belichick can overcome these disparities - the Patriots aren't 58 percent against the spread during his tenure and in their seventh Super Bowl since 2001 for nothing - but I'm betting against it.

Falcons 37 - 27

For the podcast version of this column, click here.

I went 2-0 in the Conference Championship round, 6-4 in the playoffs overall. I was 123-128-5 on the season. I'm 3-2 on best bets. From 1999-2016, I've gone 2,305-2,142 (51.8%), not including ties.