By Neil Dutton/ Derek Guilford. And then, there were two. The 2016 NFL season reaches its final act this Sunday as the AFC Champion New England Patriots lock horns with the NFC Champion Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI in Houston, Texas.
Entering the post season, the Patriots were the number one seed after claiming yet another AFC East title, finishing the regular season 14-2. They have faced, and defeated, the Houston Texans and the Pittsburgh Steelers on their way to the Super Bowl, their seventh trip under head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady.
The NFC South champion Falcons were the second seeded team in their conference after an 11-5 season, and have seen off the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers in their two playoff games this season. Head coach Dan Quinn is in his second season at the helm of the Falcons, but has Super Bowl experience of his own. He was defensive coordinator of the Seahawks when they beat the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII, and was on the losing side the following season as the Seahawks lost in devastating fashion to . . . the New England Patriots.
The Patriots will open the game as a three point favorite, with the points over/under for points scored sitting at 58.5. This the highest such total in Super Bowl history, beating the 57 predicted for Super Bowl XLIV between the Indianapolis Colts and the New Orleans Saints.
The Patriots are playing in an NFL best ninth Super Bowl, with four wins and four defeats while the Falcons are making their second appearance, with the last being Super Bowl XXXIII when they were defeated 34-19 by the Broncos.
The two teams last met in Week 4 of the 2013 season with the Patriots running out a 30-23 victory at the Georgia Dome. Tom Brady passed for 316 yards with touchdown passes to Kenbrell Thompkins (who finished with 127 yards receiving) and Matthew Mulligan, while Matt Ryan finished with 421 yards and two scores. Tight end Tony Gonzalez snared both touchdowns on his way to a 12 catch, 149 yard outing, while Julio Jones also went over the century mark, chipping in six grabs for 108 yards.
What the Patriots must do to win
Tom Brady has once again played at an MVP caliber-level even at 39 years of age. In his seventeenth season as a pro, Brady threw for 28 touchdowns and two interceptions on his way to 3,554 passing yards. He even boasted the highest Pro Football Focus season grade for a quarterback in their history. In the Patriots pair of playoff games, “Tom Terrific” was mediocre against the Texans but near perfect against Mike Tomlin and the Steelers. He remains the key to making New England’s offense click. This Sunday, Tom Brady will look to expose the Falcons “bend-but-don’t-break” pass defense with his weapons over the top.
The Falcons boast high-flying offensive firepower ranking first in scoring with 33.8 points per game and second in total yardage with 415.8 yards per game. However, on the other side of the football, the Falcons defense ranks twenty-fifth overall in yards allowed (371.2 YPG). The defensive unit lacks a few playmakers outside of this season’s NFL sack leader Vic Beasley and linebacker Deion Jones. The front seven ranks twenty-fourth overall.
Look for Tom Brady to expose the Falcons weak secondary by tossing to playmakers Chris Hogan and Julian Edelman out wide. Chris Hogan has emerged as a big play threat in his first season with the Patriots. Over the past several weeks, he’s been playing as a makeshift Rob Gronkowski lining up in similar spots on the field and running similar routes. Don’t sleep on Edelman who put up 109 yards receiving in Super Bowl XLIX two years ago against the Seattle Seahawks.
Dion Lewis is a wild card in this game. The Patriots will use Lewis in space with check downs and screen passes. Martellus Bennett has been banged up with a knee injury the past few weeks, but will remain a red-zone threat.
After only 27 snaps against the Houston Texans in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, LeGarrette Blount was the feature running back against the Steelers with 17 touches (16 rushes, 1 reception). The Patriots dependence on the running game is hard to predict (as many fantasy football team owners can attest) and is largely game-flow dependent. Lewis took over the Texans game scoring three touchdowns while Blount took the reins in the following week. With the Super Bowl matchup potentially high scoring by way of the passing game, Patriots running backs may well play second fiddle to their other playmakers.
The Patriots defense was ranked eighth in the league this regular season even after dealing Pro Bowl linebacker Jamie Collins midseason to the Cleveland Browns. To limit the Falcons opportunities to pass down field or utilize their pair of prolific running backs, the Patriots will want to put pressure early and often on MVP candidate QB Matt Ryan. They’ll need to do this by shooting the “A gap” with defensive tackles Alan Branch and Malcolm Brown and also by blitzing defensive ends Jabaal Sheard, Chris Long, and linebacker Rob Ninkovich. Donta Hightower must play effectively too, especially in coverage against Atlanta’s running back duo. He’ll need to shut down the short passing game before the Falcons running backs can create plays in space.
As for the Patriots secondary, Logan Ryan will be matched up against All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones. This is a crucial matchup. Head coach Bill Belichick is known for scheming in such a way as to neutralize an opponent’s best offensive threat. This leaves Malcolm Butler matched up against Mohammed Sanu in the slot and Eric Rowe or Justin Coleman matched up against Taylor Gabriel out wide. Devin McCourty may have to provide double coverage against Jones when called upon and come up to prevent Freeman or Coleman from breaking long runs.
What the Falcons must do to win
If the Falcons are to prevent Tom Brady winning a 5th world championship, much will be expected of Kyle Shanahan’s offensive game plan, and quarterback Matt Ryan’s ability to execute it.
Matt Ryan has been the picture of efficiency in the Falcons playoff games completing 53 of his 75 pass attempts (70 percent completion percentage) for 730 yards and seven touchdowns with no interceptions. Ryan also evoked memories of former Falcons quarterback Michael Vick with a scamper for a touchdown against the Packers in the NFC Championship game. The Falcons signal caller, who tossed touchdown passes to an NFL record 13 receivers during the regular season, has continued to share the wealth in the post season, with nine players catching at least one pass.
The leader has been the beastly Julio Jones who followed up a six catch, 67 yard outing against the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round with a mesmerizing aerial display against the Packers. Jones turned his nine catches in the game into 180 yards and two touchdowns. Mohamed Sanu, a free agent signing from the Cincinnati Bengals in the spring, has been a solid second option, with nine catches for 96 yards in the two games plus a touchdown catch in each game.
Running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman have also been featured in the passing game with Freeman logging eight catches for 122 yards and a score and Coleman chipping in six catches for 57 yards and a touchdown.
Tight ends Austin Hooper and Levine Toilolo have alternated box scores with Toilolo snaring two catches against the Seahawks and one against the Packers, while Hooper was held to a single catch in the divisional round before posting two for 23 yards in the title game. The Falcons use two men in their backfield more than most NFL teams. While fullback Patrick DiMarco is primarily a blocker, he can also chip in with receiving work. DiMarco snared a 31 yard pass against the Packers.
The secondary players in the passing game hold the key to the Falcons success as the Patriots allowed the eighth fewest receptions to wide receivers during the regular season. They allowed the seventeenth most receptions to tight ends with 74, and only one team allowed more receptions to running backs this season than the 102 the Patriots gave up. In their AFC Championship game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Patriots allowed seven receptions for 51 yards to running back DeAngelo Williams, while tight end Jessie James picked up five receptions for 48 yards.
A staple of a Kyle Shanahan run offense, the Falcons also make use of several players running the football. DeVontae Freeman has rushed for at least 1,000 yards in two straight seasons and has been the leading rusher in the postseason for the team. His 28 carries across two games has seen him total 89 yards (3.17 YPC) and one touchdown. Tevin Coleman has seen his share of the football too, with 11 carries in each game for a combined 86 yards (3.9 YPC) and a score of his own. The Patriots have been stout against the run all season and allowed the fewest rushing touchdowns in the league. While the Falcons are not likely to abandon the run, they would make best use of their running backs in the passing game.
If the Falcons are to score points, and establish a strong position in the game, they will need to keep drives alive, and ensure they come away with points whenever they have the football. The Falcons led the league in the regular season with an average of 39 yards per offensive drive. The Falcons converted an astonishing 76.9% of their third downs against the Packers. On average, teams playing the Patriotsy began their drives from around their own 26 yard line. So, the Falcons must exceed their own average yards per drive to ensure that at the very least, kicker Matt Bryant has a chance at a field goal, never mind scoring touchdowns.
On defense, the brief for the Falcons is simple: stop Tom Brady. Teams that have enjoyed success against the Patriots in recent times have ensured that Brady is not allowed the chance to step up into the pocket as often as he’d like, with pressure primarily coming up the middle. This is not an area of strength for the Falcons pass rush, and Coach Dan Quinn must come up with a way to make it happen. When Brady gets the ball into the hands of his receivers, the message will be swarm to the ball. The Patriots pass catchers average 6.34 yards after the catch, so the Falcons defenders must limit these extra yards. That is not something they did especially well during the regular season, as they allowed 2,126 yards after the catch, most in the league.
And, the winners is . . .
Derek says… “Patriots win!”
The offensive firepower and defensive mind of Bill Belichick are simply too much for Dan Quinn and the Atlanta Falcons to overcome.
Neil says . . . “Falcons win!”
Despite the recent dominance of the number one defense beating the number one offense in the Super Bowl, the Falcons are well equipped to flip this trend on its head. Matt Ryan and Kyle Shanahan have too many tricks for the Patriots. While the Falcons cannot fully shut down the Patriots, Tom Brady’s team will simply run out of time as they attempt to keep pace with one of the modern eras most underrated offensive juggernauts.
The Fantasy Greek’s Bold Prediction: Patriots 34 | Falcons 27