It’s the big game; one game to determine the legacy of all the players and coaches involved. After 522 games this season, we’re down to the last one. This years edition of the game features the New England Patriots, a perennial contender with an experienced, well oiled machine, and the Atlanta Falcons, a young, explosive team.
How They Got Here
With one of the most balanced teams in the NFL, this year’s edition of the New England Patriots can win in so many different ways. They won their fair share of games this year on the strength of their defense which allowed the fewest points in the NFL. This defense has no big name players as they traded LB Chandler Jones before the season and LB Jamie Collins midseason. Once again though, the people who doubted Bill Belichick and his trades were proved wrong when after getting rid of these stars, the defense started playing better. The fast, young, emotional defense has played as a unit and limited big plays holding teams to only 15.6 points per game. This defense is also paired with the third best scoring offense in the league, led by QB Tom Brady and OC Josh McDaniels. This offense has done what it does best this year and brings out the best in players, utilizing their strengths. WR Julian Edelman racked up 1,106 yards on only 98 receptions this year while Chris Hogan is a threat down field averaging over 20 yards per reception this postseason. TE Michael Bennett has also done an outstanding job replacing Rob Gronkowski this season giving the Patriots a stellar run blocker as well as a threat in the pass game. The Patriots also have a dynamic group of RBs helping their offense. LeGarrette Bount, the Patriot’s power back, had 1,161 yards and led all running backs with 18 TDs this season. The Patriot’s also have two change of pace backs, James White and Dion Lewis, who are viable options in the passing game as well as the running game. The offensive line has been the biggest change for the Patriot’s this season. After the Broncos were able to constantly disrupt Brady in last year’s AFC Championship game, the Pats invested in their line through the draft as well as bringing back long time Offensive Line Coach Dante Scarnecchia. This year’s unit has been one of the best in the league in both run and pass blocking. Led by second-year C David Andrews and rookie LG Joe Thuney, this unit has done a great job protecting Brady and opening holes for the Pats running backs. New England was unusually shaky this year on special teams constantly giving Coach Belichick headaches. K Steven Gostowski had one of his worst season in recent memory missing five field goals. While the Pats have played better on special teams lately, a muffed punt or missed block on a return can show up at any time. Finally, as always, this Patriots team protects the ball. Patriots’ QBs threw only two interceptions the entire season, helping the team to a plus-12 turnover ratio, one of the best in the league. This Patriot team has once again won with great offense this season, but they have developed a great defense to back that up.
This Falcons team, who only have one loss since their Week 11 bye, have been unstoppable recently. The team has ripped through the playoffs defeating the Seahawks and the Packers in successive weeks. The Falcons, who seemed to be overlooked all season, had one of the greatest offenses ever with OC Kyle Shanahan, winner of the NFL Assistant Coach of the Year Award, pulling all the right strings. They averaged just over 415 yards per game scoring almost 34 points per game, good for eight best all time. They did this with a balanced offense though. While QB Matt Ryan threw for 309 yards per game and 38 TDs, the team was able to rush the ball effectively in games keeping the safeties closer to the line of scrimmage. One of the big changes for this team this year was the offseason addition of WR Mohammed Sanu, giving the team a secondary option next to Julio Jones, who had another outstanding season with 1,409 yards in only fourteen games. Another big change was the emergence of RB Tevin Coleman in the passing game. Coleman gives the team a second option next to RB Devonta Freeman. These two have wreaked havoc on defenses both in the run game and the pass game. Helping the success of these RBs and Matt Ryan has been the offensive line which was much improved this year especially with the addition of C Alex Mack. The offense has had to be good though as the defense was lacking this season. The young defense, with many first and second year players, gave up more than 25 points per game needing their offense to score upwards of thirty points. Bright spots on the defense were LB Vic Beasley Jr. leading the league with 15.5 sacks and the great coverage from the linebackers. Also, the defense was able to force a lot of turnovers leading to the teams plus-11 turnover ratio. This team has to put up big numbers on offense if they want to bring the Lombardi Trophy back to Atlanta.
#1 Scoring Offense vs. #1 Scoring Defense:
The game will be the sixth time since the NFL-AFL merger that the #1 offense will face the #1 defense in the Super Bowl. The Patriots enter the game with an unusually emotional (by their standards) defense that allowed the fewest points per game this season. They will be pitted against the Falcons who have quietly been one of the best offenses in NFL history. In the six meetings between the top offense and top defense, the #1 defense has gone 5-1, with the lone exception being Super Bowl XXIV in 1990 when the #1 offense of the 49ers, led by Joe Montana, took down the Steelers’ #1 defense. The task is not insurmountable for the Falcons’ historically good offense, but their work is certainly cut out for them in defeating the top defensive unit in the league.
NE WRs vs. ATL DBs:
The wide receivers may be one of the main options for the Patriots’ offense in this game. The Patriots will have four viable options at the wide receiver position against a young, depleted secondary. WRs Julian Edelman, who had 1106 yds. on 98 rec, Chris Hogan, who had 180 yds. on 9 rec in the AFC Championship Game, and rookie Malcolm Mitchell, who was starting to find his place in the offense before he got injured, will have to play well to get the Patriots’ offense going. A good performance is a real possibility for these receivers with the weak Atlanta secondary who were 27th in the league in passing defense giving up 4,267 yards. They have been much better in the playoffs giving up only 238 yards per game in two games. They will have to be this good if they want to stop the Patriots’ wide outs.
NE Defense vs. ATL RBs:
In the past few years, Bill Belicheck has built his defense toward stopping the run, getting bigger on the defensive line and among the linebackers. The Pats premier run defense has not allowed a ninety yard rusher in the past twenty five games . RBs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman will have to play career games if they want to move the ball on the Patriots’ defense. They have both had good years rushing for 1,079 and 530 yards respectively. Rushing is not everything that these RBs offer though. They both can offer a lot in the passing game. Freeman finished this year with 462 yds. receiving, good for fifth among running backs, while Coleman had 421 yards, good for eighth. This is where they may be able to separate as the Patriot’s linebackers are run stoppers and are not able to constantly chase running backs around the field. The Patriots need to shut these RBs down in both the run and pass games to allow the secondary to focus on the wide receivers.
NE RBs and Martellus Bennett Receiving vs. ATL LBs:
The Patriots’ offense once again this year has been defined by its ability to beat teams in many different ways. As was seen in the AFC Championship, they can beat teams by utilizing their wide outs, but in their AFC Divisional Game the offense rested on dynamic RB Dion Lewis. In this game, both RBs James White and Dion Lewis will have a tough time due to Atlanta’s fast, young linebackers who are outstanding in pass coverage. These LBs will also slow down TE Martellus Bennett, who had 701 yards and 7 TDs, putting most of the offensive pressure on the NE wide receivers.
ATL Pass Rush vs. NE OL:
This year, Atlanta has had a mediocre pass rush. Atlanta is lead by LB Vic Beasley Jr., who lead the league with 15.5 sacks. After him, the production drops for the Atlanta team who finished tied with the Patriots in the middle of the league with 34 sacks. The defense will need to get to Brady consistently if they want to stop him. This will not be easy though against the Patriot offensive line which only allowed 23 sacks this season. After a dismal, injury-ridden end to last season for the Pats’ O-line, the Patriots added G Joe Thuney through the draft and allowed their injured players to heal. O-line Coach Dante Scarnecchia also returned to the team this season being a big part of this units resurgence. They will have their work cut out for them keeping Beasley Jr. away from Brady, but that is what they need to do to keep the offense moving.
NE Rushing vs. ATL Rush Defense:
One unexpected aspect of this year’s Patriots team is the emergence of the run game. All of last offseason, the running back position seemed to be one of the main needs for the team, but they never made a move to acquire one. This year, the NFL saw why. The Patriots stuck with RB LeGarrette Blount as their main rusher, and it paid off for them. Blount led the league with 18 TD and finished with 1,161 yards. RB Dion Lewis has also played a part in the run game since his return from an ACL injury from last season. These two running backs will have to perform in order for New England to control the clock and keep Matt Ryan and the Atlanta offense off the field. To keep this from happening, the Atlanta run defense will have to have an outstanding game. They finished in the middle of the NFL giving up just over 100 ypg rushing. It is imperative that they can stop the run in this game for the same reason that it is important for the Patriots. They need to stop the run to make the opposing offense one dimensional. If they can do this, they can focus on Tom Brady and the Patriots’ receivers making it easier on the secondary.
Brady vs. Ryan:
This game will feature two of the game’s best quarterbacks. Both were MVP candidates this year, but Matt Ryan ended up winning it. Brady threw for 3,554 yds, 28 TDs, and only 2 ints in twelve games after sitting out the first four for his Deflategate suspension. Ryan, in a full sixteen games, put up great numbers throwing for 4,994 yds, 38 TDs, and 7 ints. The quarterbacks also had the top two passer ratings, Ryan with a rating of 117.1 while Brady had one of 112.2. It is fitting then that this game will rest, for the most part, on their shoulders. Whichever team wins, it will be behind the quarterback that made less mistakes and thus played a better game.
Despite all of this, the game may hinge solely on turnovers. Whichever team can force more turnovers and take advantage of them will win this game. This is easier said than done though as both teams are at the top of the league in turnover ratio (Patriots are +12 and Falcons are +11). This game will be close throughout with neither team having a distinct advantage, so turnovers may be the spark that separates the two teams.
After the Falcons have their way with the Patriot defense all game, DC Matt Patricia’s unit will do just enough to get the ball back to the Pats offense with just enough time for Brady to lead a game winning drive.
Patriots 34 – Falcons 31
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