It’s officially the week of Super Bowl 51 between the high-scoring Atlanta Falcons and the always-here New England Patriots.
Going into the Conference Championship weekend, I told myself the last matchup I wanted to see was the one we’re getting. Like a lot of people, I wanted to see Aaron Rodgers vs. Tom Brady; I would have even settled for Rodgers vs. Big Ben. But a week later, my excitement has predictably grown and I’m really pumped for this game.
We get to see a historical Falcons’ offense try to bring home their first NFL championship to Atlanta, while Tom Brady and Bill Belichick look to capture their fifth NFL title in seven appearances since 2001. A lot of people are bored of the Patriots, most even hate them, but not me; I appreciate sports greatness when it’s right in front of me, and I look forward to seeing if the Patriots can add more plaque to their decade-plus collection from dominating a league driven by “parity.”
Let’s start with the Atlanta Falcons
Since their week-12 bye (and even before it), the Falcons offense has essentially been unstoppable; they’ve lost just one of eight games while averaging a ridiculous 37.5 points per game since their bye. A big reason why? Their success on third down.
MVP-favorite Matt Ryan has been remarkable in third-down situations this season, especially since that bye week: Ryan has converted 71.2 percent of his third-down passes this season (first in the league), while posting a 112 QB rating (third). The Falcons converted a first down on 41 percent of their third-down passes (seventh in the league). Since the bye, though, those third-down passing numbers have been even better.
Over the last eight games, Ryan has completed 82 percent of his passes while throwing six touchdowns and zero interceptions (and a league-best 134.3 passer rating). They’ve converted for a first down through the air a league-best 52.6 percent of the time, and that success was on full display in the Conference Championship against the Packers, when the Falcons converted 10 first downs on 13 third-down plays.
The Falcons simply have a ton of offensive firepower. Besides having the best receiver in football in Julio Jones, they also have two formidable and versatile running backs in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, a serious red-zone threat in Mohamed Sanu, and a speedy, deep-threat weapon in Taylor Gabriel.
Consider this: Matt Ryan completed passes to eight different receivers against the Packers in the first half alone! Belichick is notorious for focusing on his opponent’s’ best player, but I question if 1. Julio Jones is even containable and 2. if “containing” him will even slow the Falcons down.
Surprising stat: Falcons are 4-0 when Jones is held to 35 or fewer receiving yards, but 4-4 when he has over 100 yards (including postseason). In fact, in the six games Jones either didn’t play or had less than 40 yards this season, the Falcons are 6-0 with an average of 37 points.
My point: The Falcons do in fact have the best receiver in football, but their offense is potent enough to dominate without him posting huge numbers.
Here’s a visual that really highlights the step forward Matt Ryan and the Falcons offense have took this past season:
Jones is obviously their most dangerous weapon, but the Falcons’ 2016 offense has been tremendous with or without him being a main contributor. They will move the ball against the Patriots, but finishing in the red zone will (obviously) be the key factor.
On to the Patriots…
Everybody knows everything about the Patriots at this point; they dominate the AFC year in and year out. They’ve won the AFC East 13 times in the last 14 years, and they’ve reached the AFC title game for six consecutive seasons. But they only have one Super Bowl win to show for their dominance in the past 12 seasons; this one would be special for a number of reasons.
Mainly, and you’ve heard all about it, a Super Bowl win would be a huge slap in the face to Roger Goodell and the NFL after suspending Tom Brady for the first four games of the season. Goodell hasn’t attended a Patriots game since “Deflate-gate,” and it would be quite the scene to watch him hand the Lombardi Trophy to Brady & Co.
But furthermore, and definitely more importantly, the Patriots are itching to capture their fifth title in seven appearances under Belichick and Brady. After winning three titles in four seasons from 2001 to 2005, they’ve only won one in the past 12 seasons (lost two). Another loss would put Brady and Belichick at 4-3 (still remarkable), but a win would more accurately represent their true dominance in the 21st century, while also adding to the already-great legacies of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick respectively.
Like I said, we know about the Patriots; they’ve been here, done that. Brady and the offense will show up, score points, and put the Patriots in the best place to succeed. But how will their defense fare against one of the best offenses we have seen in years?
The Patriots defense has given up the least points in the NFL (15 points per game), but this will be their biggest test of the season by far. They’ve faced the easiest schedule in the NFL and a very mediocre group of quarterbacks. Despite impressive defensive numbers, their defense actually finished just 16th by Football Outsiders’ DVOA, which weighs its ratings based on opponent quality. They’ll face an Atlanta offense that averaged 33 points per game (tied for 8th best in NFL history).
Fun stat: teams that lead the league in scoring are 1-5 in the Super Bowl since 2000. Defense typically wins these games, but the Falcons certainly won’t hand it to the Patriots; they’ve committed only 11 turnovers all season long (tied-fewest in the NFL), and haven’t committed one in four straight games.
Fortunately for the Patriots, they’re the team tied with the Falcons for least giveaways this season. They rarely turn the ball over and usually control the game. They have the experience and coaching to stop this type of high-powered offense in the big game, too; they kept the 2001 Rams, a historical offense, to just 17 points en route to their first title. 16 years later, they play another historical offense en route to their fifth.
The Patriots have 22 players with Super Bowl experience, while the Falcons have just four. Falcons’ coach Dan Quinn was recently a big part of the Seahawks’ Super Bowl appearances as defensive coordinator, but this will be his first go in the big game as head coach. To make matters more difficult, Belichick typically gets the upper hand against head coaches who are coaching against him for the first time (22-3 since 2000).
For both squads, it comes down to the line of scrimmage. Since legendary offensive-line coach Dante Scarnecchia returned this season, the Patriots offensive line has played a lot better than they did without him last year; the Broncos’ pass rush was the main reason they beat the Patriots in the AFC Championship game last year. If the Patriots can protect Brady and open running lanes, which they have been doing all year, it’s pretty much a wrap for ATL. But they’ll have to do so against a defense that boasts the NFL’s sack leader in Vic Beasley.
I think the Patriots will control the line of scrimmage and run the ball successfully. The Falcons allowed 4.5 yards per carry during the regular season, and that number has actually gotten worse in the postseason. I expect that to open up the Patriots offense as the game goes along, and they will keep the Falcons offense off the field as long as possible.
Final Prediction: Patriots 28, Falcons 21