Sunday, Feb. 5
New England Patriots (16-2) vs Atlanta Falcons (13-5)
The Patriots and Falcons will square off on Sunday in a battle that pairs expectation against destiny.
New England is playing in its seventh Super Bowl in 16 years and are in position to win their third title in six seasons.
The Falcons are making just their second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.
The Patriots had 6/1 odds to win the Super Bowl as early as Sept. 5, by far the league favorites.
Longshot Atlanta’s odds were down to 150/1 just two weeks after that.
Experts pegged New England to win at least 12 games this year, even with Tom Brady‘s four-game suspension.
The Falcons were expected to finish between 5-11 and 7-9.
One team followed a familiar script. The other didn’t.
Sunday will feature David versus Goliath, although David is a well-oiled machine that can certainly give Goliath a run for his money.
Atlanta is led, as they have been all season, by one of the best offenses in the history of the NFL.
What makes the Falcons even more dangerous is their exquisite use of role players who play certain spots better than most on any other teams in the league.
Wideout Mohamed Sanu has had at least four catches and a touchdown in three straight games. Halfback Tevin Coleman hauled in nearly 1,000 combined total yards of rushing and receiving to go with his 11 touchdowns this season — as the team’s backup running back.
And 5-foot-8 slot receiver Taylor Gabriel has had at least six catches and 60 yards in three of his last five games.
Atlanta’s offense has little in terms of weakness, but what awaits them on Sunday is a challenge unlike one they have faced this year.
The Patriots quietly possess the league’s top-ranked defense, hidden in Brady’s shadow. While most of the focus when facing the Patriots is on the team’s offense, the defense has played better than anyone expected.
The unit allows only 88.6 rush yards per game (3rd) and has the third-best turnover ratio in the NFL (+12).
But there are cracks in the foundation; cracks that Matt Ryan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan will want to expose early and often.
The Patriots’ secondary allows 237.9 yards per game through the air, an average number that ranks 12th in the league.
Their top corners, Ryan and Malcolm Butler, are both under six-feet tall, giving a significant advantage to Julio Jones’ 6-foot-3 frame.
Jones exploded for 180 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the NFC title game against a Packers’ secondary that featured similarly-sized corners.
But that doesn’t mean Ryan and Butler aren’t up for the challenge.
Still, Matt Ryan has become an expert at picking apart defenses and will likely find ways to spread the ball if the Patriots figure out how to suffocate Jones.
On that note, if there’s anyone in the league that is better than Ryan at dissecting defenses, it’s his counterpart, Tom Brady.
Brady will be playing in his seventh Super Bowl game, an event that has seen him combine for 1,605 passing yards, 13 touchdowns and only four interceptions — and four wins.
The veteran has been playing this season with four weeks’ fewer preparation than anyone else in the league, without Rob Gronkowski, and without a true No. 1 receiver.
But it didn’t stop him from leading New England to their 12th AFC East title in 13 years or their sixth-straight AFC title game. Love him or hate him, Brady is a specialist at finding players to fill the void when defenses aren’t paying attention which often leads to wins.
Just ask Chris Hogan and his 275 receiving yards and two touchdowns in two playoff games this year.
Brady’s experience will do him well in this game and it doesn’t hurt that Atlanta sports one of the worst pass defenses in the league (266.7 ypg, 28th), which is where Atlanta has the most to worry about.
We know their offense will score, but can their defense stop Brady or LeGarrette Blount?
Of course the more exciting matchup will be the reverse — can the Patriots defense stop Ryan’s offense?
Super Bowl LI will mark the sixth time in Super Bowl history that the league’s top-ranked offense and top-ranked defenses square off.
The team with the No. 1 defense won four of the first five times.
Another stat to keep an eye on is that of Brady’s six Super Bowl appearances, none have been decided by more than four points.
New England rarely dominates big games, but they certainly tend to win them.
Q’s Pick: Patriots, 31-27