Super Bowl LI Preview: Who Claims The Trophy?
Will Brady & Belichick claim their fifth Super Bowl title? Or will the Falcons get their first? Here’s a preview of Super Bowl 51:
Sunday, February 5
Super Bowl LI: Atlanta Falcons vs. New England Patriots
NRG Stadium, Houston | 6:30 p.m. (ET) on Fox
How They Got Here:
The AFC champion New England Patriots (16–2) earned their record ninth Super Bowl appearance by steamrolling through the regular season and the AFC playoffs. Even though quarterback Tom Brady was suspended for the season’s first four games, New England went 3–1 without him. Upon Brady’s return, the Pats rolled to the NFL’s best record and the AFC East title. As usual, Brady has triggered the New England offense, throwing to nearly everyone on the field with a Patriots helmet and making very few mistakes. Head coach Bill Belichick’s underrated defense helped New England beat the Houston Texans, 34-16, in the divisional round and stopped the dangerous Pittsburgh Steelers, 36-17, in the AFC Championship. This team has yet to lose outside of Foxborough this season.
The NFC champion Atlanta Falcons (13–5) advanced to their second-ever Super Bowl because very few teams in the league could figure out how to stop the NFL’s highest scoring offense. MVP candidate/quarterback Matt Ryan had a career year, leading his team to the NFC South title while throwing to receivers Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu and running back Devonta Freeman. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan dialed up even bigger plays in the team’s easy wins over the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round and their 44-21 rout of the seemingly unbeatable Green Bay Packers in the NFC title game.
History: The teams didn’t meet this season and haven’t faced each other since the Patriots beat the Falcons, 30-23, in Week 3 of the 2013 season. They’ve never met in the postseason. New England is 4–4 in Super Bowls. Atlanta is 0–1.
When the Falcons Have the Ball:
Ryan and Shanahan run a fast-break offense that puts a lot of pressure on the defense. Jones and Sanu are tough assignments for any secondary, and Freeman and Tevin Coleman can run the ball both inside and outside the tackles. Ryan knows how to check down to his backs and tight ends. He keeps drives alive with his field vision. The Falcons rank 10th in red zone efficiency, scoring a touchdown on 63 percent of their trips inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.
While Atlanta has figured out how to move the ball and score on nearly every defense they’ve faced, they have stumbled against several lesser teams: the Buccaneers, Chargers and Eagles. The point? The Falcons can be beaten if the defense can pressure Ryan and lock down the wideouts.
Belichick will have had two weeks to game plan for Ryan & Co. That’s bad news for Atlanta.
Patriot cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan are good enough to keep Jones and Sanu from having huge games. The Falcons’ offensive line can be porous; Ryan was sacked 37 times this season, tied for sixth-most in the NFL. The New England defensive front must pressure him and force him to throw to his secondary receivers. Every Atlanta punt or forced field goal is a positive for the Pats.
When the Patriots Have the Ball:
New England’s Tom Brady is at his best on the big stage. One of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, he’s two Eli Manning Hail Mary passes from being a six-time Super Bowl champ. This middling Falcons’ defense isn’t going to fluster him, but they must pressure him to get the ball back to their prodigious offense. If Brady has time, he’ll find receiver after receiver and open the defense up for the running game. Tight end Martellus Bennett could be key.
New England’s offensive line protects Brady well. He was sacked just 15 times in 12 games. They dominated the Steelers strong defense in the AFC title game. If they repeat that performance against Atlanta, the Falcons won’t win. Atlanta pass rushers Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett and Adrian Clayborn must get some pressure up the middle and on the edges.
LeGarrette Blount’s powerful running may allow the Pats to control the tempo and the clock. Long scoring drives could wear down the Falcons. Dump passes to backs Dion Lewis and James White can be killer third down plays. New England is experienced and will not likely wilt in a close game, even if it is a track meet.
Unlike most of the other NFL playoff games this postseason, Super Bowl 51 should be a close game featuring high-scoring offenses led by Brady and Ryan. If the quarterbacks can stay mistake-free, this shootout could be determined by which team gets the ball last. It’s hard to think that Brady, Belichick and the Patriots won’t do enough to beat the Falcons and claim their record fifth Lombardi Trophy together. We’re already anticipating the awkwardness of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s speech after the game.