Two months before the Super Bowl, during week 13 of the regular season, was the last time either of the National Football League’s two finalists lost. That week, the Atlanta Falcons lost by one to the eventual American Football Conference West division winners, the Kansas City Chiefs. Since then, Atlanta has won six straight games, its last of which was a rout of the previously red-hot Green Bay Packers in the National Football Conference Championship Game on Sunday, January 22. That being said, they are not the betting favorite to win the Super Bowl–the AFC champions of the New England Patriots are. New England has even more momentum than the Falcons. Since losing to the Seattle Seahawks in week 10 of the regular season, the Pats have won nine games in a row by an average of more than 16 points. Last week’s AFC Championship Game was perhaps New England’s finest performance of the season as quarterback Tom Brady threw for 384 yards and three touchdowns. The Patriots’ defense stifled the Pittsburgh Steelers potent, star-studded offensive attack, holding them to just 17 points and taking the ball from them twice. These two teams certainly proved last weekend that they are without a doubt the best two in the league. The question is, will the Patriots dynasty earn a fifth championship in the last 16 seasons and add further evidence to the argument that it is the greatest ever, or will the Atlanta Falcons, in their first Super Bowl in nineteen years, walk away with their first Lombardi Trophy?
The Patriots defense, led by astute defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, an RPI alumus, has allowed the eighth-least yards per game, 326.4 yards, and the least points of any team in the league, 15.6. They have only allowed 20 or more points one time during their winning streak and just five times all season. When they have allowed 20 or more points, the Patriots offense, which has scored 27.4 points per game—the third-best in the NFL— has stepped in to pick up the slack, scoring more than 20 points in each of those five games as well. The Patriots only defeat during those five games was to Seattle, a tight 31-24 finish in which the Seattle defense stuffed the Patriots on four straight plays from inside the Seattle five to preserve the win. That game also marked the only time the Patriots lost this season with quarterback Tom Brady in the lineup.
Brady was suspended for the first four games this season due to his role in the alleged deflation of footballs prior to the 2015 AFC Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts. The Patriots won the first three of those games on the strength of their defense and backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo but fell 16-0 to the Buffalo Bills in a week four game in which New England managed just 277 yards of offense. Fortunately for the Patriots, that was the last game of Brady’s suspension and they have scored more than 20 points in all but one game since.
Brady has performed magnificently since his return, throwing for 4,225 yards, 33 touchdowns and just four interceptions. Running back LeGarrette Blount rushed for over 1,161 yards this season and scored 18 touchdowns. Wide receiver Julian Edelman caught 98 passes for 1,106 yards. In addition, like many other postseasons, less heralded players have stepped up in these playoffs for New England. In the Patriots divisional round matchup against the Houston Texans, running back Dion Lewis scored three touchdowns, one rushing, one receiving, and one kick returning. Then, in the AFC Championship, wide receiver Chris Hogan caught nine passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns to give the Patriots a needed offensive lift. Indeed, while the loss of star tight end Rob Gronkowski to a back injury back in week 12 seemed like a severe hit to the Patriots title hopes, their offense has once again shown its versatility and resilience in the weeks leading up to the big game.
While the Patriots come into Super Bowl 51 with the league’s best defense, the Atlanta Falcons enter Sunday with the NFL’s most prolific offense. The Falcon offense is led by Matt Ryan, their quarterback and presumptive NFL Most Valuable Player front runner, who has put together his best season. He has thrown for 5,674 yards, 45 touchdowns, and only 7 interceptions in 18 games thus far. While those numbers are great, he has elevated his game even further during the Falcons current six-game winning streak, throwing 18 touchdowns to zero interceptions in that span.
Ryan isn’t the only star on the Falcons offense, though. Wide receiver Julio Jones put together another Pro-Bowl year with 1,409 receiving yards during the regular season and has 247 more in the postseason, including a 180-yard outing in the NFC Championship despite a toe injury. At six feet, three inches in height, he is a matchup nightmare for every opponent, even the Patriots solid defensive backfield. The Falcons also have two other receivers who surpassed 500 receiving yards this season. Mohamed Sanu, a solid mid-range passing game option who has caught a touchdown in each of Atlanta’s last three games, and Taylor Gabriel, an explosive deep threat option who is always a big play waiting to happen.
Behind Ryan, the Falcons have one of the best running back tandems in the league in Devonta Freeman, a powerful runner who rushed for 1,166 yards and 12 touchdowns this season, and Tevin Coleman a speed back who surpassed 600 yards rushing last week against the Packers. Another impressive characteristic of this backfield is both rushers can also run solid receiving routes out of the backfield and in the slot. The two of them have combined for over 1,000 receiving yards this year. If there is an offense that can break through the Patriots stalwart defense, it’s this one, arguably the league’s most versatile.
The trouble for Atlanta will be slowing down the Patriots offense, which scores the third-most points of any in the league. This matchup will likely determine the outcome of the Super Bowl. While the Falcons’ defense ranks 27th in points against with 25.4 and 25th in yards allowed with 371.2, they have done a terrific job of forcing turnovers to stop drives. A forced fumble by defensive back Jalen Collins in the NFC Championship last weekend stopped a Packers drive that likely would’ve resulted in a touchdown for Green Bay and a shrinking of Atlanta’s lead to three. Instead, the Falcons took the turnover, drove the ball 80 yards, and went up 17-0 in route to a 44-21 win. In total Atlanta’s defense has forced four turnovers in the playoffs as well as a safety while the Falcons’ offense hasn’t turned the ball over so far. This will be the key for Atlanta on Sunday. Their best hope for stopping the Patriots dominant offense will be forcing turnovers. They will not shut down Brady or the Patriots running corps. But, if they can force turnovers and give Ryan and the rest of the offense good field position, then they stand a chance.
No team reviews game film as thoroughly and effectively as the New England Patriots. They find their opponents weaknesses and exploit them. The pressure will be on Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and Patricia to figure out how to make Ryan uncomfortable in spite of his sturdy offensive line which has only allowed three sacks so far in the postseason while at the same time committing enough defenders into pass and run coverage. The game plan will likely rely on confusing Ryan with a number of different blitz packages and press coverages. They won’t be able to stop the Falcons offense like Denver stopped the Panthers in last season’s Super Bowl, but they will be able to slow them down in the red zone and force them to kick a few field goals.
On the other side of the ball, Brady should have little trouble moving the Patriots down the field. The issue will be not turning the ball over and making the most of their offensive opportunities, given the large time of possession the Falcons have a tendency to accumulate.
The game should be close, the Patriots’ Super Bowls always seem to be nail-biters, but in the end, the experience and confidence of New England should be enough to carry them past the Falcons. The final score: Patriots 31, Falcons 30.