Something about the numbers in Super Bowl LIII doesn’t add up.
The Patriots had 407 yards of total offense. Tom Brady averaged nearly 7.5 yards per attempt on his 35 passes—basically his career (and 2018) average—and was only sacked once. The Patriots carried the ball 32 times for 154 yards, an impressive 4.8 average (and two of those were end-of-half kneeldowns). And they turned the ball over just once. So why did New England only score 13 points?
To put things in perspective, NFL teams averaged about 33 yards on drives that didn’t end in kneel downs. The Patriots Sunday night? A tick over 37, a mark that would have ranked seventh in the NFL. So they moved the ball well, better-than-average even, but they could not turn that into points.
Struggles in Enemy Territory
One reason is because of the Los Angeles defense, which stiffened up as the Patriots entered Rams territory. The Patriots only converted three first downs in Rams territory. Both Brady’s interception and the sack he took were in enemy territory, and he completed only four of 12 pass attempts for 49 yards and only one first down—the key 29-yard completion that set up the game-winning touchdown plunge by Sony Michel. The run game wasn’t much better, gaining 32 yards on 11 attempts with only one first down apart from that TD run. Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman drew only one target on that side of the field, incomplete.
The Patriots drove into Rams territory on eight of their 11 (non-kneeldown) drives. One ended in the game’s only touchdown, three in field goal attempts (one missed), one in a turnover on downs after a fourth-and-one incompletion, one in an interception, and two ended in punts. They drove to their own 49 and punted on one of the three remaining drives. They had only two three-and-outs. New England moved the ball most of the night; they just struggled in Rams territory.
A Hekker of a Performance
Even with drives stalling out on the other side of the 50, the Patriots still should have put up more points, especially with how the New England defense was throttling the Rams offense. In this high-flying offensive era, it’s easy to discount field position concerns as old-fashioned, but the Patriots often turn special teams excellence and offensive consistency into field position advantages that play out as the game unfolds.
To explain how this works, let’s look at a sequence of three drives from the AFC Championship Game between the Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs. The Patriots started their first drive of the second half at their own 25 after a Chiefs kickoff and converted a first down before the drive stalled out at their own 39. That’s not a great drive, but it’s good enough to pin Kansas City deep with a good punt, which is what happened. Punter Ryan Allen booted the ball 43 yards to the Chiefs 18. Excellent coverage, an illegal block penalty, and some ill-advised decision making by returner Tyreek Hill meant Kansas City started with even worse field position than that: their own four yard-line. The Chiefs actually managed to pick up a first down on the ensuing drive, but a penalty and a sack stalled the drive out back at their own 8. Dustin Colquitt then punts 42 yards, which Edelman returned 13—to the Chiefs 37. Even with a costly offensive pass interference penalty pushing them back, the Patriots were then able to set up a 47-yard field goal for a score. The scoring drive was only eight yards, but those eight, plus the 14 from the previous drive, plus all the special teams yardage they picked up in the exchange of punts, was enough to lead to New England points.
This formula didn’t work in the Super Bowl for a simple reason: punter Johnny Hekker. Look at the sequence to start the second half. The Rams drove from the 25 to their own 46, then Hekker booted a 46-yard punt that Edelman had to fair catch at the 8. The Patriots then drove 41 yards, almost to midfield. It should be noted here: 41 yards is a good drive. In the 2018 regular season, teams had 31 drives of exactly 41 yards, and 15 of them netted points, with another five ending in missed field goals. You drive the ball 40 yards, there’s a good chance you score points. But the Patriots had four different drive of 40+ yards that didn’t result in points, in large part because of poor starting field position.
As in the Chiefs game, Allen hit a perfect punt, pinning the Rams back at their own 2. LA went three-and-out, leaving Hekker to punt from his own 6. He angled a kick towards the sideline, landing it short of Edelman (who had to respect Hekker’s big leg), and it struck the ground with wicked topspin, rolling to the Patriots 29. It was a 65-yard punt, the longest in Super Bowl history, with no return. An average punt would have put New England closer to midfield, and any kind of return (as in the Chiefs game) would have put them on the verge of field-goal-range. Instead they had only average starting field position, not even close enough to pin the Rams deep when they went three-and-out. The 40-yard drive, coupled with a quick stop, should have given the Patriots a field position advantage, but Hekker almost single-handedly neutralized the offensive and defensive gains.
This is just one example, but Hekker did this all night. FiveThirtyEight.com’s Josh Hermsmeyer noted that the two biggest positive win probability plays of the first half were Hekker boots. He averaged 46.3 yards on his nine punts, and Edelman—#2 in active punt returners with an 11.2 average—only returned two of them, for a whopping total of one yard. Pro-football-reference had the Rams punt team contributing +6.5 expected points, almost a full touchdown worth of value. (I’d also be remiss not to mention the excellent directional punting of Allen, who three times pinned the Rams inside their own 10, undoubtedly adding to the pressure their offense faced.)
What Might Have Been
There were 96 occasions during the 2018 season where a team put up 400 points of total offense with one or fewer turnovers. In only two did that team score 13 or fewer, and 91 times the offense put up at least 20. Expanding things to at least 350 yards and two or fewer turnovers still only finds four games (out of 219!) that scored fewer than the Patriots did.
The Patriots moved the ball effectively enough to make this more like a 21-3 finish, a score that would have reduced heart rates from Presque Isle to New Haven. Instead, New Englanders will have to be content with a (Patriots-Super-Bowl-best) 10-point win, a score made close by stingy Rams situational defense and outstanding open field punting from perhaps the NFL’s best special teams weapon.
The statistics in this article were pulled from the Drive Finder and Play Finder on pro-football-reference.com.