Rob Gronkowski’s TD catch, ending an 80-yard drive: The Patriots turned their yards into points.The New England Patriots won Super Bowl XLIX despite committing more turnovers (two to one) and gaining fewer yards (377 to 396) than the Seattle Seahawks. The Patriots became just the second team to win the Super Bowl in that fashion, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. In Super Bowl XL, the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Seahawks 21-10 despite losing the turnover battle (2–1) and yardage battle (339–396).
But don't take that to mean the Patriots were outplayed.
Yards and turnovers are important, of course, but even together they do not capture the complete performance of a team. Points (and, correspondingly, the win column) capture the entire performance of a team within a game, but they can’t be divided up nicely like yards to show which units, plays, etc., really contributed to the final score and the win/loss.
Examining each play's impact
A better way to measure such contributions is by using expected points added, or EPA. The details are explained here, but the crux is that EPA looks at the impact of each play on each team’s point potential.
The number can be aggregated by play type, unit, etc., to look at how many points were contributed to the scoring margin across plays. This accounts not only for the summary statistics of yards, turnovers and red zone percentage, but also for the context around those in terms of their contributions to the scoring margin.
Looking at the Super Bowl, specifically:
• The Patriots' biggest edge was turning yards into points. After their second drive ended with an interception, the other four long Patriots drives (60 or more yards each) all ended in touchdowns – 28 points including the PATs.
The Seahawks’ five long drives (50 or more yards each), on the other hand, resulted in three touchdowns, one field goal and the final interception by Malcolm Butler – 24 points.
Offense in Super Bowl XLIX
• Speaking of that final interception, that is the type of play that goes to show that all turnovers are not created equal. Based on the down, distance and yard line before and after each play, Tom Brady’s two interceptions cost the Patriots 5.3 expected points.
Both came on third-and-long where conversions were unlikely, so the pre-play expectation was already relatively low (especially the second interception, which came on third-and-9 from the Patriots' 32). Russell Wilson’s interception came on second-and-goal from the Patriots' 1, a very high potential situation, and cost the Seahawks 5.0 expected points by itself.
Given the game situation, that final interception could be seen as considerably more costly in terms of its impact on chances of winning, which is better measured using win probability added (WPA).
According to WPA, Wilson’s interception cost Seattle 62 percentage points in terms of winning. Brady’s two turnovers cost New England “only” 18 percentage points of win probability.
• This is a smaller factor, but penalty yards don’t count toward official yardage totals. The Seahawks were penalized for 70 yards compared with 36 for the Patriots (all on offense or defense), so this would even out some of Seattle’s perceived advantage, as well.
Putting everything together, the Patriots' offense contributed nearly 16 points to the scoring margin, compared with about nine for Seattle.
So by looking at the proper context around the yards and turnovers, as EPA does, you can see that the Patriots' offense and defense did, in fact, outplay the Seahawks’ units – at least in terms of their contributions to the point margin.
The advantage wasn’t much, but just enough for New England to take home the title in Super Bowl XLIX.