FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Super Bowl LI, please save us.
With the Falcons’ 44–21 beating of the Packers, and the Patriots’ 36–17 destruction of the Steelers in Sunday’s conference championship games, the country has seen just two competitive playoff games out of the 10 played to this point.
Will the Houston Super Bowl on Feb. 5 be any different?
For that answer, let’s get an early look at the factors that will determine the winner of Super Bowl LI.
Go crazy, folks
It’s all about the quarterbacks: Just about any way you slice it, this is a matchup between the top two passers in the league. Whether you look at passer rating, QBR, yards per attempt or FootballOutsiders.com’s DVOA efficiency ratings, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and New England’s Tom Brady ended up No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in the stats department. They are masters of their craft, have plenty of weapons around them, and have two of the best playcallers (Kyle Shanahan and Josh McDaniels) at their disposal. To beat Brady, you have to disguise and change up both the pressure and coverage looks on just about every snap. The Falcons, to this point, have not shown the ability to do that. That will be an important factor in the game. Ryan has trouble with tight, disciplined coverage. With Malcolm Butler locking up either Julio Jones or Mohamed Sanu, and Logan Ryan on the other with safety help, Ryan may have to make a living throwing to the running backs and TEs Levine Toilolo and Austin Hooper. The Patriots have had more issues with supporting actors than those in starring roles. The Falcons have the ability to exploit that.
Running backs will be a huge factor: Sure, the quarterbacks may get all the attention, but the running backs from each team are used to taking advantage of the shortcomings on opposing defenses. The Falcons have one of the most talented duos in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Freeman is the better runner, but Shanahan loves to use both to exploit mismatches in the pass game. McDaniels likes to use Dion Lewis and James White in a similar fashion via the pass, and Lewis has taken over as the every-down running back. LeGarrette Blount is the short yardage and finish-the-game bruiser.
What’s in common?: The Falcons and Patriots each had five common opponents (Denver, Seattle, Arizona, Los Angeles and San Francisco) and went 4–1 (each team lost to the Seahawks, with Atlanta losing on the road and the Patriots at home). The cumulative scores were 168–88 for Atlanta; 119–82 for New England. The Falcons had an average margin of victory of 20.5 points, and the Patriots were at 11.0. The Patriots didn’t have Tom Brady in their two-point victory over the Cardinals, a team the Falcons beat by 19.
Atlanta’s offense is exceptional: Under the spotlight of the Super Bowl, this Falcons offense may finally get its due. We’re talking about a unit that can rival the Greatest Show on Turf Rams for explosiveness. They scored 540 points this season, which is tied for eighth all time with those 2000 Rams. Sure, the team is uber-talented with WRs Jones, Sanu and Taylor Gabriel, and RBs Freeman and Coleman, but don’t underestimate the job coordinator Shanahan has done. At this point, everyone thinks it’s all about the talent. But remember, Sanu was an underachieving No. 2 with the Bengals and Gabriel was a Browns castoff before this season. Freeman and Coleman were thought to be nice players, but not game changers. That all changed this season because of the way Shanahan designs plays and attacks defenses. There are few better at taking an opponent’s tendencies and using them against them.
The Patriots defense will have a say: New England’s defense certainly proved its “best scoring defense” was no fluke in the win over the Steelers. And remember who put an end to those 2000s Rams teams (Spoiler Alert: It was the 2001 Patriots). New England may not have many big names on defense (Dont’a Hightower, Devin McCourty and Malcolm Butler are about it), but the sum is better than the parts. Certainly the Falcons will be a huge challenge, but everyone knows Bill Belichick and his staff can defend anything with two weeks to prepare.
The Patriots’ offensive line should have an advantage: After a shaky outing against the Texans, the Patriots’ offensive line completely dominated the Steelers. The Falcons’ unit is certainly solid but it’s not quite as good as the Patriots. The Patriots have the edge at left tackle (Nate Solder), right guard (Shaq Mason) and right tackle (Marcus Cannon), while the Falcons have an advantage at center (Alex Mack) and left guard (Andy Levitre).
Slow your roll
Experience doesn’t matter: Expect a lot to be made this week about how this is Matt Ryan’s first Super Bowl appearance vs. Tom Brady’s seventh (with four victories). Certainly the disparity is notable, but it ignores the fact that several passers have beaten those with more experience in recent years. Some of those on the list: Russell Wilson over Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers over Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning over Brady and Brady over Kurt Warner.
You have to stop more than one guy: Each QB has a security blanket. For the Patriots, it’s Julian Edelman (158 targets in the regular season). Atlanta has Jones (129). Certainly a lot of attention needs to paid to each of those players, but both quarterbacks are deft at distributing the ball. The Patriots had seven players catch at least three touchdowns (TE Martellus Bennett led with seven), and so did the Falcons (Jones and Gabriel tied with six). In the postseason, both Sanu (Falcons) and Chris Hogan (Patriots) had two touchdowns receiving.
Where’s the pressure?: It looks like the opening over/under line for the Super Bowl is an astounding 59 points. No shock there, considering these two offenses. But it also says something about the defenses, which were both great on Sunday but don’t exactly get a lot of pressure on the quarterbacks. The Patriots didn’t affect Roethlisberger that much and don’t have a dominating rusher, although Trey Flowers is solid. And the Falcons’ only true pass rushing threat is Vic Beasley. The game may very well be determined by which team is able to dial up the most pressure and make that top quarterback move off his spot in the pocket.