Before the playoffs started, I picked Atlanta to beat New England in Super Bowl LI. I’m 9-1 this postseason, and have found the games to not be very enjoyable for the most part. This is the first time since 2002 Raiders-Buccaneers when both teams entered the Super Bowl after winning each of their playoff games by 16+ points. Yeah, that 2002 postseason was a bit of a bore too outside of wild-card Sunday, and the Super Bowl was a joke.
Super Bowl LI should be a competitive game, because I see two great offenses that are never out of a game, and two vulnerable defenses. In fact, this is probably the most offensive-oriented in Super Bowl history, so the record-setting O/U makes sense. I don’t think the score will be really high, but we could see long drives and a high points per drive average in this game. The Patriots deserve to be 3-point favorites, but don’t play that “Atlanta has no shot” noise. This game is a pretty strong step up in competition for both teams, and both teams belong in this year’s Super Bowl.
Film Room: Receiving Backs in Super Bowl LI – a look at every pass thrown to a RB in games with NE and ATL this year
Sneaky stats that could swing SB LI – ESPN Insider article that basically serves as a mini-preview from me on things like the scoring defenses, blitzing the QBs, YAC and comeback ability/holding leads.
Super Bowl LI Preview – Aaron Schatz’s game preview at FO
Super Bowl LI in a Nutshell
The wrong framing for this game is to call it the No. 1 offense (ATL) vs. the No. 1 defense (NE). We had that in Super Bowl XLVIII, and Dan Quinn’s defense (Seattle) prevailed in a big way over Denver. We had the same thing last year, but I thought Carolina’s offense was a fraudulent No. 1 scoring offense, and Denver’s defense was very legit. I see the same thing this year, but flipped around. The Falcons are a strong No. 1 offense, but the Patriots might be the biggest frauds to ever claim a scoring defense title. That matchup is likely going to determine who wins this game, which is really a meeting of the top two offenses. However, while the Patriots may not be a great D, they are clearly better than the Falcons on that side of the ball, and that is why you should trust the Patriots more to win this game. Well, that and the better head coach. While both offenses can be great, there’s just an easier path (of less resistance) to success for the Patriots, who can get big games from a variety of players depending on how they choose to attack a young defense. With the Falcons, guys like Taylor Gabriel, Mohamed Sanu and Tevin Coleman are going to have to deliver, because I don’t think it can just be a big Julio Jones and/or Devonta Freeman evening. When both teams should score a good amount, it’s a game that comes down to turnovers (both very good here), red zone (advantage: NE) and third down (advantage: NE).
It will be very difficult for Atlanta to win this game without a stellar offensive performance, and while the offense has been so good this year, we have seen so many top offenses crash and burn on this exact stage through decades of NFL history. I don’t think that will happen, but I think you’ll be hearing at the end of the night how “defense wins championships” even if there was no such thing as a truly great D in this postseason. It’s just going to come down to being the best on Sunday night, and that should be New England again.
That’s really my summary of the game, but continue on reading if you want to see the statistical support and research, as well as some ranting about legacies, weapons and such bullshit. If not, then scroll down to the bottom to see my final score.
New England’s Misleading Defense
The Patriots allowed the fewest points in the NFL this season. Fewest per drive too, though this was nowhere close to the caliber of your usual No. 1 scoring D. The Patriots only ranked 16th in DVOA, which is a far cry from where No. 1 scoring Ds have ranked in the previous 19 seasons.
Since 1997, a total of 60 teams have ranked in the top 3 in Points per Drive allowed. Only the 2007 Patriots (11th) and 2016 Patriots (16th) ranked out of the top 10 in DVOA. This is Bill Belichick’s bend-but-don’t-break shining through. Fundamentally, it’s a flawed, if not illogical style of playing defense, but the Patriots tend to make it work. It’s even easier to pull off when you play the easiest schedule of offenses in the league, and then you draw the worst offense in the playoffs (Houston), and then you get a team that’s been leaning heavily on Le’Veon Bell, only to see him go down after six carries in the first quarter. The Patriots also lucked out in the postseason when Brock Osweiler finally threw a great pass, only to see Will Fuller drop a touchdown in the end zone. Ben Roethlisberger’s best throws down the field in the AFC-CG were also not caught by Sammie Coates and Cobi Hamilton. If the Falcons can get their skill guys to make the big plays that Matt Ryan should find down the field, then the offense is going to continue scoring as it has all season.
Credit to Denmark NFL writer Soren Hygum Hansen for sharing with me weeks ago that the Patriots are the first team since the 1970 merger to make the Super Bowl without playing a QB that finished the season ranked in the top 10 in passer rating. They’ll get the best QB in 2016 in Ryan, so if they want to make their mark defensively, they’re certainly going to get a shot with the Falcons coming in hot. The Falcons do have some banged up players in Julio Jones and Alex Mack, but neither injury appears to be a serious one in the vein of what Dwight Freeney (2009), Rob Gronkowski (2011), or the whole Legion of Boom (2014) went into past Super Bowls with, limiting their effectiveness. All of those teams lost by the way, because an injured star isn’t much help.
Matt Ryan’s 2016 vs. “Curse” of MVP/500-Pt Club
Matt Ryan has been playing the best football of his career, and you could see it from an early point in the season.
Well, three months later, here we are. Ryan has been phenomenal and consistent. His YPA has been at least 7.91 in all 18 games — the previous benchmark for every game in a season was 6.87 by Kurt Warner in 2001. It’s that consistency that makes Ryan’s season one of the best in NFL history by a quarterback. Yes, it’s been that good. He does have the benefit of using the most play-action passing in the league, but he has been great in almost every situation this season, and has done so against a schedule that ranked as the second toughest in the league defensively. In the playoffs, the Seahawks were missing Earl Thomas and the Packers were really banged up in the secondary too, but again, Atlanta has been more battle tested than NE this season. The game is a step up in competition for both sides though.
Ryan is trying to become the first MVP winner since Kurt Warner in 1999 to win the Super Bowl in the same season. The Falcons are also trying to become the highest-scoring team to ever win a Super Bowl with 540 points. Only four of the NFL’s 500-point club has won a Super Bowl. The losers averaged 16.7 PPG in their playoff loss. “We’re only going to score 17 points?” indeed. Big-time offenses tend to fall apart in the playoffs.
Now these MVPs and high-scoring teams aren’t cursed. It’s actually a simple explanation for why they keep losing in the playoffs. The team is not balanced enough, and too much reliance is put on the quarterback to play great. In the playoffs, you usually can never get a quarterback and offense that play at a high level in each game. There’s usually that one off game, and these teams tend to not have the defense or running game or special teams to save their bacon when those off-days occur.
Atlanta is a perfect example of imbalance. The 11 wins were the most ever for a team that allowed 400 points in a season. The six wins in games where the Falcons allowed at least 28 points are another single-season record. These reflect well on the offense Ryan was able to lead this season, but it’s not a good sign for him to pull out a high-scoring win over the Patriots, a defense that rarely ever allows a 30-point game, especially without return scores involved. In fact, just look at the MVP race this year where Brady was the runner-up. NE did allow the fewest points and still went 3-1 without Brady. Do you see Atlanta going 3-1 without Ryan? Of course not. The Patriots could still beat Houston by 18 points with a subpar Brady performance, but if Ryan has a game where he throws two picks and completes fewer than 50 percent of his passes, then you can bet the Falcons are getting their ass kicked. OK, maybe it wouldn’t happen against Houston, but if Ryan is just “alright” on Sunday night, the Falcons will not win this game. He has to be great; one of the best games of his career.
Yet, in keeping with my 2006 Peyton Manning = 2016 Matt Ryan comparison, I think Ryan is going to have to probably lead a high-scoring comeback win to knock off these Patriots, much like Manning did in the 2006 AFC-CG and the 2009 “4th-and-2” game. In fact, in his last game against NE in 2013, Ryan nearly led a Manning-like 17-point comeback in the final 6:18. He trimmed a 30-13 deficit to a 30-23 game, and the Falcons reached the 10-yard line in the final minute. Belichick had his defense double team Tony Gonzalez, basically holding him out of the play, and the Falcons failed in the red zone again (shades of 2012 NFC-CG loss vs. 49ers). That game is ultimately meaningless to Sunday night, but I just think Ryan is going to have to throw for at least 350 yards in this game and be on point.
New England’s defense ranked 28th in DVOA in Late & Close situations, so if he can get the opportunity, then we know he’s good at delivering in these moments. We also know the Patriots are the best at preventing comebacks, though not quite as good at it away from home.
The Falcons had more than one turnover in just one game this season (at Seattle), though technically Ryan did throw two picks to Eric Berry, including a pick-two that provided the winning score for Kansas City, the last time the Falcons lost. Still, I always get nervous with these low-turnover teams imploding in the playoffs. 11 giveaways in 18 games is crazy low. The Falcons will have to win the turnover battle here to win this game. The Patriots probably capitalize on mistakes better than any team.
Simply put, the Falcons are in the conversation for the worst defense to reach a Super Bowl.
Before the season, I did a three-part study on building a Super Bowl winner, looking at balance since 1989.
The conclusion was that balance is a little overrated, and it doesn’t hurt to have one really dominant unit (offense or defense). Well, the Falcons would be the most imbalanced SB winner yet with the No. 1 offense and No. 27 defense. Yes, that’s DVOA, but the Atlanta defense also ranked 27th in points per drive allowed. They were dead last in red zone TD%, and 29th in red zone DVOA. They were 27th on third down, while the NE O was No. 1. This is a huge problem.
Even without Rob Gronkowski, the NE offense is still scoring at a high level. They can beat the Falcons in a variety of ways. Brady has eaten up the blitz this season, but I don’t think Quinn will blitz him much at all. Seattle didn’t, and was able to get decent pressure in the only win over the Pats with Brady this season. Quinn likely studied the heck out of that tape, and the only issue is that his D just isn’t as good as Seattle’s. Vic Beasley had a lot of sacks, but overall it’s not that strong of a pass rush. The Falcons will have to tackle well, which has not been a strength for them, and mix things up against Brady.
In a game like this, it’s about getting timely pressure. We can reasonably predict that the Pats will hold up pretty well against Atlanta’s rush, but it’s going to come down to when the Falcons can get pressure. They got Aaron Rodgers on some key third downs last time out, but that was also their most aggressive (read: blitz happiest) game of the season. They can’t afford to do that against Brady, but they have to pick some spots. Atlanta was 7-1 when getting a pass pressure rate of at least 30 percent.
Let’s say the Atlanta defense registers five pressures all game. Not a good number by any means, but what if one produces a takeaway, one produces a drive-killing sack, one forces a field goal attempt, one brings out the punting unit on fourth down, and one makes it third-and-10? That’s all extremely helpful to a defense that will need a lot of help in this game. So it’s about timely pressure.
Also, the Atlanta defense has improved in the second half of the season. In starting four rookies, gains in experience should matter. After allowing 26+ points in eight of the first nine games, the D has only done so in one of the last nine games, and that needed a late Drew Brees TD drive to happen in Week 17. Kansas City scored 29 points, but that was 9 points by Eric Berry on pick returns. Now you can choose to look at the whole season as being more telling, but the Atlanta defense has gotten better.
I’ve tried to avoid a lot of the pre-game coverage for the last two weeks. Namely, I don’t leave NFL Network on as much as I usually do, because I’m sick of hearing about the underdog Falcons against the planned coronation ceremony for the Patriots. Yes, we get it, the Patriots have a lot more experience at this sort of thing than Atlanta.
But I still had the TV on enough to hear Deion Sanders talk about how Ryan has the Julio’s and “the Gabriel’s” while Brady has the “Edelman’s, the Hogan’s, the Amendola’s.” Yes, Deion is the kind of guy who wants you to think Brady still doesn’t know who Hogan is, while at the same time praising Brady’s leadership and work ethic. Well, if he was that hard of a worker, wouldn’t he be getting on the same page with his new teammates in the offseason? It’s a contradiction, as well as a lazy narrative that “Brady makes his receivers better.” As if he’s the only QB capable of doing this.
Meanwhile, apparently the Falcons signed two mega stars this offseason known as Tyler Gabriel and Mohamed Sanu. The state of Ohio wasn’t interested in keeping them around, and while neither has ever cracked an 800-yard receiving season, apparently they give Ryan a cast better than when he had Tony Gonzalez and Roddy White.
Huh? Since when is Taylor f’n Gabriel a gem to have?
Oh, but what this really is is nothing more than the way quarterbacks get perceived differently based on playoff success. If you win a ring early as a starter, like Brady did, you get a pass for failures and extra credit for your team’s success. If you take too long to win a ring, like Ryan in his ninth season and first Super Bowl, then you have years of blame being placed on your shoulders for not getting that done. Without question, Ryan’s career season is fueling this offense more than the supporting cast, which I wouldn’t rank that high at all among QB MVP seasons.
Sure, Julio is great, but he also was the target of more than half of Ryan’s picks this year, including some pretty big drops in key moments.
This is really old hat. Star receivers are put on this pedestal, and it’s as if they can do no wrong, and people refuse to credit the QB when playing with one of these guys. Meanwhile, Ryan had better stats when throwing to players not named Quintorris in 2016. He had two awesome games, albeit against weak competition, when Julio was out entirely. Sure, then it turns to “oh, but Kyle Shanahan!” but we can save that for another day. Yes, Shanahan has done a great job for his career this season, but Ryan is the one driving this offense at a historic level. He has a lot of good guys along for the ride this time, but he is still the driver.
We know if Gabriel was in NE, Brady would get all the credit for his season. Same with Sanu. It’s basically the David Givens and Deion Branch thing there, yet Ryan won’t dare get that kind of credit just because his team hasn’t won a Super Bowl yet. It’s nonsense, and we need to stop acting like one great receiver dictates everything in this game. Matthew Stafford, as I predicted, just had arguably his best season without Calvin Johnson. There’s an advantage to playing with several good receivers that the defense can’t key on versus that mega-star who runs the deeper routes down the field, draws the toughest assignments and faces the most complex coverages to beat. Try forcing that guy the ball when you need to versus throwing to a guy that’s so wide open just because the defense doesn’t understand he should be respected.
And the Patriots make a killing out of those types (the Edelman’s, the Hogan’s, the Amendola’s). They take talented players inferior franchises discard, and use them properly to maximize their talent. You can add LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis to that list too. Hogan had Julio-esque stats in the game against Pittsburgh, because it looked as if the Steelers had no clue how to defend the guy. He was wide open all night, and it was all about scheme and defensive breakdowns more than the talent of the passer and the receiver himself. Without Gronkowksi, the Patriots don’t have great weapons right now, but they have a lot of very good ones who can do a variety of things.
Sunday night is an opportunity for the non-Julio players on Atlanta to step up and prove that they can be as good as advertised. I’m not of the belief that Belichick will be able to take Jones away. The Patriots were just 20th in DVOA against No. 1 WRs this year. Jones can do a lot of things from different spots on the field to have an impact. Still, even if he is contained, the Falcons were 4-0 this season when Jones was held to 35 yards or fewer (6-0 counting the games he missed entirely). In fact, domination by Jones might be a bad thing for Atlanta if it means his teammates aren’t stepping up. Atlanta was 2-4 in Jones’ top six receiving games this season.
X-Factor: The Running Backs
The running backs could be huge in this game for both teams, and that’s why I spent time doing a Film Room study of them in the passing game in particular. With the Patriots, it could be LeGarrette Blount on the ground AND Dion Lewis/James White through the air. You never know with NE, but the Falcons need to tackle much better than they have this season. Still, Atlanta is 8-2 when allowing 100+ rushing yards this season, which is a very good record in that situation. Obviously they have the firepower on the other side to counter.
If Tevin Coleman, who led all NFL backs with 3 catches of 40+ yards, doesn’t go deep against these linebackers at least once, then I don’t know what Kyle Shanahan was watching the last two weeks. 49ers lowlights? The LBs are a weakness in this defense, and I would be using Freeman and Coleman together (only played 5 pass snaps together in 2016) to exploit that. I really do like that matchup more than one of the non-Julio wideouts against an Eric Rowe or Logan Ryan. Freeman could be good on the ground too, but I really think this game is about Ryan and the passing game, and I would be making sure the backs are a huge part of that.
The Forgotten Tight Ends
Without Rob Gronkowski, this position is a bit of a dead zone in this matchup. The Falcons’ best tight end is whichever one is open, and there’s not much attention drawn to Levine Toilolo or rookie Austin Hooper. Now Hooper might turn into a good player down the road, but he’s not really established yet. I feel like Kyle Shanahan does a really good job of scheming these guys open more than their own skills, but they have to get them involved at some point here. I still think it’s asinine that the Seahawks did not throw a single pass to a TE in SB XLIX even though the NE D was 32nd in DVOA against tight ends. Can’t ignore the position even if most of American can’t even guess a name of a TE on Atlanta. No, Jacob Tamme is on IR.
As for Martellus Bennett, he’s only surpassed 35 receiving yards once in his last nine games since Gronk got hurt. That’s surprising, though it seems like he has to scrape himself off the field once a week, so health is an issue. Is this the game where he explodes for 100 yards? Doubtful, and the Falcons were a solid 11th in DVOA against TE, but you never know with the Patriots.
Protection, Blitzing and YAC
Talked about NE O/ATL D earlier on this, but the Patriots might want to consider blitzing Ryan, who had the third-highest pressure rate when blitzed this season. Of course, he still killed it with 9.5 YPA, but he took 15 sacks vs. blitz compared to two for Brady. Performance under pressure is a tricky thing. We know guys like Ben Roethlisberger and Russell Wilson are usually good each season in a messy pocket, but a lot of performance under pressure is inconsistent. After all, pass pressure leads to chaos on the field with QBs scrambling, receivers making new routes on the fly, improv plays, backyard football.
Ryan has been great this year when pressured, and it’s the highest pressure rate of his career. Yes, the OL is quite good for Atlanta, but that’s moreso in the run blocking department. Ryan has seen his share of pressure even though the Falcons still have him get rid of the ball quickly as he always has. So if the Patriots can get some timely pressures of their own, they might get a game-changing turnover out of it. Sometimes, it just takes one of those to decide a game. So it’s a fascinating chess match with how these defensive coaches will approach these varied offenses, but aggression is going to have to come into play at some point. You can’t just sit back the whole game, though the Patriots were far and away the leaders in 3-man rushes this season. It just so happens that Ryan was below league-average against such rushes, so maybe that’s the strategy again to maximize the defenders in coverage against these receivers. You know Belichick likes to have his defenders get grabby with great passing offenses, and I’d expect that again on Sunday.
Ryan and Brady led all QBs in YAC per completion, though Ryan did throw deeper passes. Both offenses have a lot of skill with the ball in their hands, so tackling is crucial. This is just another area where I see an advantage for the Patriots. Including the playoffs, Atlanta was 10-0 when allowing less than 4.2 YAC per completion, but only 3-5 when quarterbacks surpassed that mark. Brady has surpassed that YAC mark in 12 of his 14 games this season, and in 83.0 percent of his games since 2011.
Brady Legacy Rant
My thoughts on this are really the same exact thing they were two years ago. There’s really nothing that Brady could do on Sunday evening to change my opinion on his place in history. He can’t go up or down with this one game. Why should he, or any player be judged so strongly by one game’s outcome? You already should have known going into Sunday night where you had Brady ranked all time, and I still think I’d have to put him fifth all time behind Dan Marino, Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana and Peyton Manning. I can definitely see myself putting him ahead of Marino after some offseason reflection, but I doubt I’d go any higher than that unless he really does continue playing at a high level into his mid-40’s. That would be a first.
Now there are definitely degrees of how impressive a win here could be. I don’t think 5 SBs free of context proves anything. After all, Bart Starr won 5 championships as a starter, yet we don’t hear about that just because three weren’t called Super Bowl. It was still the same decade though. But obviously playing a huge game and winning a high-scoring game will reflect better on Brady than slumping to a 21-14 win just because the D’s were unexpectedly great, and Brady’s D was again the best on the field. Maybe he does get the Montana treatment here. Montana twice played against MVP QBs on the No.1 offense in the league, but Marino’s 84 Dolphins and Boomer Esiason’s 1988 Bengals failed to crack 17 points in the Super Bowl. Montana, dropped pick in the red zone aside, was great, but didn’t even need to score many points to get those wins. If the Patriots shut down Ryan and this prolific offense, then I think that’s a much stronger statement for Belichick more than anyone here.
After all, Belichick is constant that has been there for every game during this run for the Patriots, not Brady. If anyone should be cemented with GOAT status from one game, it could be him on Sunday night. Of course, you should already have strong feelings about this either way and one game against Atlanta shouldn’t be your last needed piece of evidence.
Both units are pretty solid here, and not spectacular on returns. I trust both kickers, though I like Matt Bryant a tad more with the game on the line. He is 35-of-40 on clutch field goals in his career. He just has to hope that Belichick doesn’t have a voodoo doll prepared for him to add to the collection with Scott Norwood and Billy Cundiff.
Atlanta has scored an opening-drive touchdown in eight straight games, which is a very impressive streak. If the Falcons can do it again to get an early lead, it would be New England’s first deficit since Week 12 against the Jets, the longest span in the NFL without trailing by a team since the 2005 Colts. Of course, the Patriots haven’t been challenged much in that stretch, but it’s an impressive streak since even a 3-0 deficit would count for ending it. The Falcons need a good start here, and New England has historically had very slow starts in Super Bowls under Brady and Belichick. Of course, even a 10-0 start by Atlanta would be far from game over like it technically was for Carolina against Denver last season.
I post this table in every SB preview, because no team has won a Super Bowl after trailing by more than 10 points.
This could be the matchup for it to happen, and you can see several New England games already on this list. Twelve of the last 13 Super Bowls have had a 4QC opportunity. The Falcons have also blown four 4Q leads this season, so keep that in mind.Brady has the best active 4QC/GWD record at 50-37 (.575), but Ryan is fourth at 34-37 (.479), and Ryan has the most one-minute drills (5) to win a game in NFL history. This is the kind of game where you definitely want the ball last.
And you want to run the f’n ball from the 1-yard line, four times in a row if you have to. Hopefully Dan Quinn has learned that the hard way.
I see another precarious New England lead hanging in the balance in the final minute, and while no Malcolm Butler interception this time, a stop in the red zone happens again. Because you know who willed it to happen.
Final: Patriots 28, Falcons 24