• FINALLY, it's time for football in Houston. And when it comes to these two high-powered, multi-faceted teams, any player can rise up to be the star on Sunday.
By Chris Burke
February 03, 2017

HOUSTON — Finally, football.

The two weeks between conference-title weekend and the Super Bowl can feel interminable, but it’s almost time for the Patriots and Falcons to line ’em up. Who has the edge Sunday? Breaking down Super Bowl LI:

Four-Man Front

A quartet of players who could be key to Sunday’s matchups:

1. Ra’Shede Hageman, DT, Falcons: The Minnesota product turned in arguably his most impressive performance of 2016 during the NFC championship. He, Grady Jarrett and veteran Jonathan Babineaux are the anchors for the Falcons’ interior. Jarrett is good enough now to warrant double teams, be it from a guard-center combo, a fullback or a motioning tight end, which means Hageman should find himself in one-on-one matchups.

2. James Develin, FB, Patriots: Fullbacks are a dying breed? Don’t tell the two teams left standing. The Falcons work Patrick DiMarco in as a blocker (and occasional pass catcher), and the Patriots are just as aggressive with working in Develin. New England can use Develin on all three downs, which is just another piece of their multi-faceted puzzle. One trick New England likes: showing run with a back lined up behind Develin, then motioning to a spread field, so it can create mismatches.

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3. Andy Levitre, G, Falcons: The arrival of center Alex Mack was a significant turning point in the development of Atlanta’s offense. Levitre is not a Pro Bowler like Mack, but he has started every game at guard since joining the Falcons in 2015. He often is the hole-creating pulling blocker when the Falcons use their Power-O, while he and Chris Chester have been steady in general alongside Mack. Atlanta has to get its run game established Sunday, and Levitre’s blocking will be key.

4. Kyle Van Noy, LB, Patriots: Leave it to the Patriots to add another team’s cast-off midway through the year and turn him into a contributor. Van Noy, a Lion until late October, has 29 tackles, a sack, interception and forced fumble since jumping into the New England lineup. He’s still a player the Falcons may try to exploit—at least when compared to teammate Dont’a Hightower—but he’s also at least usable in coverage. His snap count will be interesting to track Sunday, as the Falcons spread the field.

The NFL’s top scoring offense vs. its top scoring defense. The likely MVP vs. perhaps the greatest of all-time at QB. Two teams that have steam-rolled through the playoffs with a combined 19-point average margin of victory.

What more could you want in a Super Bowl matchup?

“I tell guys, ’You are going to have a hard time keeping your emotions inside,’” said Falcons veteran pass-rusher Dwight Freeney. “Saturday night is going to be tough to fall asleep, it 100% will. You better take whatever you have to take—Ambien, Tylenol PM—whatever it is, to get yourself to knock you out ... you are just going to be living the dream.”

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The showdown between Atlanta’s high-powered offense and New England’s stingy defense is the headline act. The Falcons averaged 33.8 points per game during the regular season, and they’ve scored a combined 80 in their two playoff victories over Seattle and Green Bay.

The production has elevated QB Matt Ryan as the favorite to take home MVP honors Saturday night. It also directly led to the 49ers’ interest in Atlanta offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan for their vacant head-coaching position—Shanahan is expected to take over, alongside new GM John Lynch, following Super Bowl LI.

Ryan’s preferred (and most dangerous) target, of course, is Julio Jones, who finished the regular season with 1,409 yards receiving and just torched Green Bay for 180 and two TDs.

What really makes this Atlanta offense difficult to defend, though, is that teams have at times been able to limit Jones ... and the Falcons almost seem to invite that extra attention paid their top receiver. When defenses have rolled help Jones’s way, Ryan has found room elsewhere via Taylor Gabriel, Mohamed Sanu and his RBs, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Six of the seven times Jones was held to fewer than 70 yards this season, the Falcons won.

“I have my job cut out for me,” Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said. “This is a great offense, very explosive and very dynamic. They have a lot of great skill players that they can throw the ball to. ... I think they’ve really kind of mastered who they are. They understand what they’re strengths are and what their best at winning. I think their attacking defenses is one of their strengths. They find where maybe you have disadvantages.”

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The Patriots tend to hold up well against No. 1 receivers—Antonio Brown had just 77 yards in the AFC title game, most coming after the game was out of reach. The question is how they plan to defend Jones. Will they give Malcolm Butler a shot one-on-one, so they can maximize their numbers elsewhere? Or will it be Eric Rowe, with safety help?

The latter would be the setup for heavy targets to Atlanta’s other options.

“[Ryan] has Julio Jones, he has Gabriel, he has Sanu,” said Butler. “He has a lot of weapons out there, including the running backs—they can go out to the wide receiver spot also. It helps him out a lot.”

Yes, let’s not forget about the run game. The Falcons averaged 4.5 yards per attempt on the ground this season, utilizing a mix of their wide-zone scheme and the occasional power look. Freeman paced the rushing attack with 1,079 yards and 11 TDs, but he and Coleman also combined for 85 receptions during the regular season. Not many teams were able to figure out the Falcons’ offense when both were healthy. In particular, Coleman’s speed when matched up with linebackers often proved too much.

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The Patriots’ own defensive versatility could help them counter Sunday. Between star linebacker Dont’a Hightower, in-season add Kyle Van Noy and safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung, New England at least has options when attempting to cover the Freeman/Coleman combo.

“Everyone kind of just does what they do,” Shanahan said. “You don’t want to reinvent the wheel. This is such a sound, good scheme that we’re going against with very good players that you have to take what they give you and see how it works out. People overrate all of this. It’s not as complicated on both sides of the ball as people make it out to be. It’s going to be a tough game, both from the run game and in the pass game.”

Also certain to be tough for the Falcons? Defending Tom Brady. The Patriots’ QB came back from his season-opening suspension to turn in one of his most impressive seasons ever—he averaged 296.2 yards passing per game during the regular season, with 28 TDs and two INTs.

His worst outing of 2016—and lone two-interception game—actually came in the divisional round vs. Houston. He bounced back by torching Pittsburgh for 384 yards and three touchdowns in the AFC title game.

“[Brady’s] very intelligent,” said Atlanta rookie safety Keanu Neal. “That comes with experience. He’s been in the NFL for so long, he has that understanding of defenses and what he’s going against, whatever scheme.”

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The Falcons’ youth has been key to their resurgence, but this is a different stage and different challenge. Neau, Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell all have logged heavy minutes as rookies; second-year defenders Grady Jarrett, Vic Beasley and Jalen Collins all will start Sunday, too.

Beasley led the league in sacks this season with 15.5. The Falcons’ line will be bookended on the other side by veteran Dwight Freeney, who already owns a Super Bowl ring. It will be the interior defenders, though, who will have to set the tone.

That means Jarrett and Hageman will need to hold up against the Patriots’ guard-center trio of Joe Thuney, David Andrews and Shaq Mason—all rookies or second-year players themselves. The Falcons allowed their opponents to average 4.6 yards per carry and allowed six straight teams to top 100 yards before holding Green Bay to a mere 99.

The Patriots are a mysterious team when it comes to game planning, because they can bounce between feeding power back LeGarrette Blount or the shiftier Dion Lewis, or simply bail on the run altogether in favor of Brady’s arm.

“There’s a lot of nuances,” said Brady of his team’s offense. “I think the thing is we have a volume of plays. I’d say it’s a pretty big library at this point, me being in the system for 17 years and having the relationship I have with Josh [McDaniels]. ... You have to have flexibility within your system, within your call sheets to be able to withstand things that you’re going to have to change or adjust.”

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Lewis and James White can pick up yards inside, but they tend to do their better work outside. Blount is the downhill hammer, the punishing runner who can wear down opposing defenses. Sunday, if Blount is the go-to choice for McDaniels and Bill Belichick, Jones will be on the tracks quite a bit. Can he hold up one-on-one in the hole against New England’s 250-pound back?

“Blount is more of a first- and second-down guy,” Falcons defensive coordinator Richard Smith said. “First of all, as a runner, he runs very, very hard. He has really good vision, he can jump cut you, he is a physical runner. He also is really good in protection, so they do a lot of play-action passes with him in.”

Which brings us, finally, back to Brady. Even after losing Rob Gronkowski to injured reserve with a back injury, Brady has kept right on cookin’. Julian Edelman was his target on a whopping 159 pass attempts during the regular season—Edelman caught 98 of them for 1,106 yards.

But, again, who’s going to be the focal point? In the AFC title game, it was Chris Hogan (180 yards and two TDs), who happened to lead the league in yards per catch during the regular season with 17.9. Early in the year (and then at various points from there), it was TE Martellus Bennett.

As is the case with Atlanta’s offense, it could be almost anyone on Sunday.

An underrated element, on both sides of this game, is the offensive line.

The Falcons has earned its fair share of praise during the playoff run, both because of how its athleticism sets up the run game and how it protects Brady. The Patriots’ line tends to fall deep down the pat-on-the-back depth chart, but it can move people up the gut and has two veteran tackles (Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon).

No one needs a reminder of what happened in last year’s Super Bowl, when the Panthers’ O-line was completely overwhelmed from start to finish. There shouldn’t be a repeat of that Broncos beatdown Sunday, but a dominant game by Beasley or Freeney or the Patriots’ dynamic Trey Flowers could be a deciding factor.

Saving that, the offenses are the show. Brady’s presence alone makes it tough to bank on the Falcons creating too many stops; the Falcons’ myriad of playmakers does the same.

After what’s been mostly a boring, non-competitive playoff season, the Super Bowl should be tight. Brady orchestrates a late drive to capture another Patriots title.