Playoff Record: 2–0 last week and 7–3 overall
Super Bowl LI is an incredibly intriguing matchup between the up and coming Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots who have earned the right to be among the NFL’s aristocracy. Since Tom Brady and Bill Belichick teamed up in 2001, the Patriots have been AFC Champions seven times and Super Bowl champions four times. This will be Belichick’s tenth Super Bowl as a coach including two Super Bowl titles in which he served on Bill Parcells’ staff with the New York Giants. Belichick’s defensive game plan in Super Bowl XXV is now in the Hall of Fame. Most people remember the Bills as the team that lost four straight Super Bowls. However, in their first appearance, their no huddle K-Gun offence looked unstoppable just like the Falcons appear to be this season.
That season the Bills posted a 13–3 record, had the number one scoring offence in the league, and hung 44 points against the Dolphins in the divisional round. Then they thumped the Raiders 51–3 in the AFC title game. In that game, Belichick told his team that he was going to allow Bills running back Thurman Thomas to rush for 150 yards because the team’s priority was shutting down the Bills’ high powered passing game. The other side of this defensive game plan was an offensive philosophy which believed that the best way to slow down the Bills’ offence was to keep them off the field — with long suffocating drives, featuring a pounding ground game that ate up the clock. As a historian, I believe that this game plan will be resurrected this week.
As such, look for Patriots bruising tailback LeGarrette Blount, who rushed for 1161 yards and 18 touchdowns, to be the key player for the Patriots’ offence in this game. The Patriots’ offence has centered around future Hall of Famer Tom Brady for much of the last two decades. Brady had an outstanding 2016, throwing for 28 touchdowns with just 2 interceptions. He also led the league with the quickest release time per pass attempt which makes him incredibly difficult to pressure. For the last two weeks, the dominant narrative of this Super Bowl has been that this game is the quest for Brady’s revenge against commissioner Roger Goodell and his crusade to suspend Brady. Brady allegedly instructed a Patriots’ stadium staffer to deflate the footballs in what would be a lopsided playoff victory over the Colts. Brady escaped suspension last year because of a judge’s injunction and numerous legal challenges. However, once Brady finally lost his case in court, the suspension was applied for the first four games of this season.
This will go down as the most ridiculous suspension in league history. Multiple quarterbacks have come forward and said that they have altered footballs to get the grip they like. This included Brad Johnson, who said he did it in a Super Bowl. In addition, the league suspended Giants kicker Josh Brown this year for one game for domestic assault. The logic behind these penalties is unexplainable. Brady’s storyline is fascinating, but the last thing the Patriots want to do is run a spread offence and get in a shootout with the Falcons. That is why the bruising and methodical Blount will see the bulk of the work in the Patriots’ backfield and not the speedier and more dynamic tandem of James White and Dion Lewis. It is also why Blount is my early selection for game MVP. When the Patriots do elect to pass, they will be able to move the sticks based on Brady’s ability and the presence of solid possession receivers in Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, and tight end Martellus Bennett. Hogan emerged last week with a monster game against Pittsburgh with nine receptions for 180 yards and two touchdowns. The Patriots will also be playing without superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski, although I do not see this being a major factor.
On defence I expect the Patriots to play a lot of nickel defensive looks on first and second down and dime looks in passing situations. To translate, a standard NFL defence has a seven-man front with four defensive backs. A nickel look utilizes five defensive backs and a dime look utilizes six. Don’t be surprised if the Patriots run some quarter looks as well with a seventh defensive back on the field. Offensive coordinators throughout the history of football want to run the plays they have had success with in the past, and believe are their best scoring and yardage-accruing options. Through pride and stubborn conviction, they will call these plays and not take what is given to them. I suspect that Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia are going to dare the Falcons to run the ball against nickel and dime defences. The Falcons have thrived this year on offence with a high-flying passing game featuring quarterback Matt Ryan and stud receiver Julio Jones. Ryan is one of the front-runners for this year’s MVP award which will be announced Saturday. The Boston College grad and pride of Philadelphia, PA, had a career year in this his ninth season in the league. Ryan completed 69.9% of his passes for 4944 yards, 38 touchdowns, and just seven interceptions. All are seasonal bests. Atlanta also has one of the best offensive lines in football and all five starters have played together and started every game this season. They are led by pro-bowl free agent signee Alex Mack. The skill position players get all the press, but the Falcons are great on offence because of their line play.
Tendency wise, the Falcons will not be content handing the ball off over and over again and will look to strike downfield with Ryan, Jones, and company. The question in this game is whether the Patriots’ defenders will be able to stop the Falcons’ passing game even if they have eight or nine men in coverage. Jones might just be one of the most unstoppable players in NFL history. There is Super Bowl precedence for this, too. In Super Bowl XXXIX the Patriots defeated the Eagles 24–21, despite Terrell Owens posting an impressive stat line of nine receptions for 122 yards.
What makes the Falcons’ offense so dynamic is that it is not just Jones that is the lone threat. Matt Ryan really does not care whom he throws to and frequently utilizes and targets all of his receivers. His number two receiver is the very capable Mohamed Sanu, who came over from the Bengals in the offseason and has big play ability. The running back team of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman is also a main reason for the Falcons’ offensive surge this season. The duo are capable runners, but also highly skilled receivers — both lining up out wide and releasing out of the backfield. That is the challenge for defences, because if they blitz Ryan, they leave these backs uncovered. That is why the Patriots will focus on neutralizing Jones with double coverage, ensure that they have speedy coverage players locked on the running backs, and hope they can get pressure without blitzing. That places the onus on the front four, especially defensive linemen Trey Flowers and Malcolm Brown. Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler will also be counted on for a big performance. You may remember, Seahawks fans, that Butler had one of the greatest defensive plays in Super Bowl history two years ago with his last-second interception of Russell Wilson.
The Falcons’ defence has been the biggest reason for doubt about this team’s Super Bowl prospects. As I mentioned last week, they have improved greatly as a unit in the latter part of the season. Last week, they held the Packers and Aaron Rodgers to just 21 points and actually pitched a shutout in the first half. However, they still struggled to stop the run for the balance of the season, finishing a middling 17th in the league in this category. Their ability to stop the run and force the Patriots into a wide open game will be critical if they are to win the Super Bowl. The key player for the Falcons’ run defence will be middle linebacker Deion Jones. This aggressive, athletic, and speedy player will need to have a big impact on the game and be able to neutralize Blount. Of course, the superstar on the defensive front is edge rusher Vic Beasley. Beasley was Atlanta’s first round pick in 2015, going eighth overall, and had a fantastic season leading the league with 15.5 sacks. Beasley must pressure Tom Brady and be a factor for the Falcons’ defence to have success. The Broncos last season, and the Giants in their two Super Bowl wins over the Patriots, demonstrated that Tom Brady can be harried and neutralized with an effective pass rush. The Falcons must be able to play with a seven-man box to stop the run and use their linebackers in coverage without blitzing. This means they will have to get to Brady with a four-man rush on passing downs. Blitzing will open them up for big gains on the ground, if the Patriots can block the point of attack and give Brady and his quick release single coverage in the passing game. Keep an eye on soon to be 36 year-old Dwight Freeney in what may be his last NFL game. Freeney is a situational pass rusher with a great deal of experience against Brady through his many years with the Indianapolis Colts.
Coaching is a key component to any football game. The obvious edge goes to New England and coach Belichick as Falcons’ head coach Dan Quinn is only in his second season at the helm. Quinn made some crucial errors earlier in the season, including going for it on fourth down in overtime in his own end. The Falcons got stuffed and a few seconds later watched the Chargers celebrate victory on their own field. Critical decisions will be made in this game and the defense-minded Quinn has very little experience making these calls. In fact, Quinn never served as a head coach at any level prior to last year. No matter how much experience you have watching others make decisions, there is always a learning curve when you have to make them yourself. If this game is close, advantage New England.
When I started writing this column, I thought the Falcons was a team of destiny that would throttle down and expose the Patriots as a mediocre team playing in a terrible division and weak conference. However, the Patriots have the talent and personnel to execute the gameplan of the greatest coach in football history against a team that has never played with this level of pressure and is led by a man who has very little experience. Tom Brady has played in six Super Bowls and the entire Falcons roster has only played in five. This is still the Falcons team that started last season 5–0 and then crashed and burned to an 8–8 record. They have had a fantastic season and that offence has been a pleasure to watch. However, they are about to slam into a grizzled veteran team of winners who know how to get the job done in big games. The Falcons are akin to a beautiful Titanic that is about to smash into the cold jagged ice of a Patriots squad that is going to tear their ship apart and sink their Super Bowl aspirations. Brady will become the first quarterback in Super Bowl history to win the big game five times, passing Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw. He will cement his legacy as the greatest of all time and will have a big hug for LeGarrette Blount after the game.
Prediction: Patriots 20 Falcons 19