Sunday’s Super Bowl contest between the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons could turn out to be no contest at all.
With most experts and wanna-be-experts predicting a fifth title for the Patriots, it would seem the Falcons — who have yet to win a Super Bowl — are dead meat.
But wait, this game is at a neutral site, Houston, that doesn’t automatically favor the Pats’ game, as good as it is.
The Falcons, who made one trip to the big game in 1999 and lost to the Denver Broncos, are on an offensive roll, outscoring Seattle and Green Bay in the NFC playoffs 80 to 41. The Pats, a defensively superior squad, limited Houston and Pittsburgh to 33 points, while scoring 70 of their own.
There are many match-ups and scenarios that could play out, and just as many that may not factor in at all. One thing is for certain, the outcome of this game, whether it’s a barnburner or a blowout, is very much up in the air.
Here are 10 things that could come into play and alter the course of the game.
10. Red Zone Play
Go big, or go home will be the mantra on Sunday. According to a well-informed source, the Patriots offence is ranked eighth in red-zone offence, which isn’t surprising considering the weapons at hand. Which makes the Falcons’ 29th ranked red-zone defence appear to be on shaky footing. This gap ultimately could tip the balance in favor of New England. On the other hand, the Falcons, who scored the most points between the two teams (620 in 18 games vs. New England’s 511 in 18 contests), are ranked just 14th in red-zone offence (kinda surprising) and the Patriots defence is ranked 12th. Which points to Atlanta’s proclivity for making the big play. All things considered, New England’s red zone play is far superior to Atlanta’s.
9. New England Injuries
With injured go-to tight end Rob Gronkowski already a definite no-show for Super Bowl LI, the Patriots could have a slew of other players missing out or playing with pain. This is in stark contrast to Atlanta, which lists just high profile wide receiver Julio Jones as questionable with a toe injury. On that note, there is no indication that the elite wideout won’t play. In addition to the Gronk, New England might be even thinner at the TE position, with Martellus Bennett still nursing knee and ankle injuries that will either prohibit him from playing or limit the effectiveness that saw him haul in 55 passes for 701 yards and a team-high seven receiving TDs this season. Wide receivers Malcolm Mitchell (32 receptions, 401 yards, 4 TD) and Danny Amendola (23 catches, 243 yards, 4 TD) are also “questionable” with knee and ankle ailments, respectively. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower is also nursing a shoulder injury.
8. The Running Game
Lost in all the hoopla of this year’s Super Bowl, particularly where the dynamic offences of these two teams are concerned, are the running backs. With quarterbacks Tom Brady and Matt Ryan flinging balls helter skelter to all-star wide receivers like Julian Edelman and Julio Jones, the grunts in the backfield get short shrift. However, the Falcons two-headed backfield monster of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman have combined for 173 yards on 50 carries and scored a touchdown apiece in this year’s playoffs. QB Ryan, for good measure, ran in a 14-yard score of his own. On the Patriots’ side of the ball, LaGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis have been nearly as good, with Blount scampering for 78 yards and a TD while Lewis ran for 52 yards and a score. Brady, though, was negative on yardage in two games. The edge, if there is one Sunday, goes to Atlanta’s backfield.
7. Turnovers And Penalties
Intangibles don’t always come into play in Super Bowls, yet, when the penalty flags get thrown or balls pop out of normally sure-handed offensive stars, the tenor of a game can change in a heartbeat. A look over the 2016 season saw the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons had nearly as many takeaways (23 to 22 respectively) and the same number of giveaways (11). Of note, the Pats faced more interception-prone QBs than the Falcons and should have recorded more takeaways. In the post-season, the Falcons have not turned the ball over at all and have four takeaways. As for penalties, New England’s net penalty advantage was 20 penalties and 111 over their foes, while Atlanta held a nine-penalty, 127-yard edge. The Pats were flagged for more holding infractions than Atlanta (35 to 26), but Falcons’ corner Robert Alford could be targeted by Tom Brady, as he had 12 penalties in the regular season and two more in the playoffs so far. There is no clear edge here.
6. Early Game vs. Late Game
If one of the two combatants wants to double-down and make the game a foregone conclusion before the first half is out, both teams have the ability. The Patriots, according to Football Outsiders, are ranked first in first-quarter offence and sixth in first-quarter defence. They have outscored their opponents 130-32 in the opening 15 minutes. The Falcons, conversely, are ranked second in first quarter offence (outscoring foes 139-68), but just 21st in in first-quarter defence. When it comes to the closing 15 minutes of games, the Patriots and Falcons are second and third in late-and-close offence, according to those same folks at Football Outsiders. Their defences haven’t been as stout, with New England ranked 28th and the Falcons 23rd, overall. Based on the numbers, the Pats have the slightest of advantage, overall.
5. New England Patriots Defence
Taken as a whole, the Patriots’ defence is a stingy bunch and they have proved it, all year. In the regular season, they gave up a league low 250 points, while yielding just 5,223 yards total offence to their opponents. They sacked opposition QBs 34 times, forced 16 fumbles and picked off 13 passes. In two post-season games, New England’s defence has given up 653 total offensive yards, made three sacks, forced a fumble and picked off another four passes. Leading the charge in the regular season were CB Logan Ryan (team high 92 tackles), DE Trey Flowers (team best seven sacks) and CB Malcolm Butler (four interceptions). In the post-season, Ryan again leads the team in tackles with 16, as well as being the co-leader in sacks with one. They have the ability to melt “Matty Ice.”
4. Aerial Battle
The Atlanta Falcons offence has been running in high gear all season and into the playoffs. And no one can discount the job Tom Brady has done in 14 games running the Patriots’ attack. The premier battle on Sunday, could — and should — be in the air. The Falcons, led by strong-armed QB Matt Ryan, were third in passing yards in the regular season with 295.3 yards per game, followed closely by Tom Terrific and the Pats in fourth at 269.2 (and Brady missed the first four games). In the post-season the Falcons and Pats are one-two in average passing yards (357.5 to 326.5). Key targets for Ryan are of course Julio Jones (1,409 yards and six TD regular season, 247 yards and three TD in the post-season) and Mohamed Sanu (653 yards and four TD regular season and 96 yards, two TD in the playoffs). Brady’s go-to guys are Julian Edelman (1,106 regular season yards and three TD, 255 yards and one TD playoffs) as well as Chris Hogan (680 yards and four TDs in the regular season, team high 275 yards and two TD in the post-season). Edge, ever so slightly, goes to the Falcons in a knock-down passing dog fight.
3. Special Teams
Should the vaunted offences of the Patriots and Falcons falter, special teams may have to pick up the slack. Focusing on the kickers, the Falcons’ Matt Bryant was lethally effective in the regular season, hitting on 34 of 37 field goals, including 9-for-9 from 40-49 yards and 6-for-8 from 50+. In the post-season, he’s a perfect 3-for-3. New England’s Stephen Gostkowski wasn’t as proficient, but still put 27 of 32 through the uprights, including 9-for-10 from 40-49 yards. Neither team scored a touchdown of kick or punt returns in the regular season, but the workhorses are Atlanta’s Eric Weems (17 kick returns, 391 yards) and New England’s Danny Amendola (five kick returns, 129 yards, including a 73-yarder). The Patriots did have one kick return TD in the post-season, courtesy of speedy Dion Lewis, who cracked off a 98-yarder. There is no edge for either team.
2. Bill Belichick vs. Dan Quinn
Call this one the master vs. the neophyte. New England Patriots wily head coach Bill Belichick, in his 17th season with the team, guides his charges into his seventh Super Bowl. His playoff record is a sterling 24-9 and should the Pats prevail Sunday, it will be his unprecedented fifth title. The greatest coach of the modern era, and one of its great practitioners of trickery, will surely add a few new wrinkles for his counterpart Dan Quinn to try and counter. As for Quinn, he is in just his second season and is 19-13 overall in the regular season and a perfect 2-0 in the post-season. A long-time defensive line coach and defensive coordinator, Quinn has paid his dues in the NFL. Before being named to the Falcons’ post, he spent 12 seasons in defensive roles with San Francisco, Seattle, Miami and the New York Jets. He has a tough road to hoe against Belichick and we have to give the edge to the latter.
1. Inexperienced Matt Ryan vs. Playoff Hero Tom Brady
All of the media attention and hype invariably points to the Super Bowl’s marquee players, in this case Falcons pivot Matt Ryan and Patriots QB Tom Brady. While the two are prolific passers on the field, they are quite different off of it. Ryan is the humble and unassuming passer and Brady is the league’s poster boy with a resume full of accomplishment and a suspension for cheating. The biggest storyline is Brady’s long and illustrious history in the post-season, in direct contrast to Ryan limited exposure in the playoffs, much like the two coaches facing each other. Up until this season, Ryan’s record in the post-season was a dismal 1-4, his only victory coming during the 2012 playoffs. Yet, he lugs in an astounding 132.6 rating into this game, with 730 yards passing in two games and a whopping seven TDs. Brady, meanwhile, is 24-9 in the playoffs under Belichick and is a three-time Super Bowl MVP. A big edge here goes to Brady, but Ryan could surprise.