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A Super Bowl breakdown

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Patriots, Falcons meet in Super Bowl LI

Back in September, 32 NFL teams started out on a journey that they hoped would culminate in Houston with a chance to hoist aloft the Lombardi Trophy as Super Bowl Champions.

Now that the day is here, those 32 have become two. The New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons are set to square off in Super Bowl LI. Hundreds of millions of people all around the world are going to tune in to see which team will become champion.

There’s a lot of narrative to unpack surrounding this game. On the one hand, you’ve got the Patriots, one of the NFL’s all-time dynasties, taking the field in hopes of winning their fifth Super Bowl this century. Oh, and there’s also the fallout from the can’t-believe-we’re-still-talking-about-this Deflategate situation. Despite losing Tom Brady for the season’s first four games, New England still cruised to 14 wins, a one-seed and an AFC Championship. In many New England eyes, it’s a chance at a reckoning.

Meanwhile, the Falcons are seeking the franchise’s first-ever Super Bowl win. Atlanta has been to the big game just one previous time – in 1998, they lost to John Elway’s Broncos in Super Bowl XXXIII – so the pressure is one to bring the trophy to the ATL. Quarterback Matt Ryan has had his share of rollercoaster ups and downs during his tenure, but this is a chance for the QB they call “Matty Ice” to lead a team to the promised land for the very first time.

This game has the potential to largely salvage what has been a mostly ho-hum NFL postseason. The Falcons offense just had one of the best seasons on that side of the ball in years, scoring nearly 34 points a game and moving the ball with breakneck pace. However, the Patriots just happened to have the best scoring defense in the league, allowing less than 16 points per contest – though they did also sport an extremely easy schedule. Meanwhile, the Patriots are no slouch on offense either, scoring at a top-five pace; the Falcons defense, on the other hand, rests near the bottom of the league in many respects.

So can the Patriots defense slow down an Atlanta offense far stronger than any they’ve seen this year? Can the Falcons D hold back Brady and the Pats enough to keep that potent unit from simply overpowering them?

Let’s break it down.

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Quarterback

Tom Brady has an argument as the greatest NFL QB of all time. He’s putting a cap on a season that saw him throw for over 3,500 yards with 28 TDs and just 2 interceptions – all in 12 games no less, thanks to his four-game Deflategate suspension. This marks his seventh appearance in the Big Game; he’s 4-2 so far. He’s been fairly strong this postseason, if a touch less accurate. Experience counts for something here, and Tom Brady has been here before.

Matt Ryan had a monster year – nearly 5,000 yards and 38 TDs – and has continued that work on into the playoffs. In his two postseason games, Ryan has 730 yards and seven TDs without a single turnover – he’s looked incredible. And he’s been efficient as well, taking care of the ball. Still, there’s no telling how someone will react to the pressure of their first Super Bowl. Ryan has played it cool, but he’s in uncharted territory now.

They’ll both be great, but Brady will be greater.

Advantage: Patriots

Running Back

New England has long been a place where running backs discover unexpected success. This group is no different. LeGarrette Blount remains the rushing game’s battering ram, the living embodiment of “three yards and a cloud of dust,” while smaller, speedier backs like Dion Lewis and James White occupy vital roles as part of the passing attack. All three have things that they do well; New England does a good job putting them in situations where they can do those things.

Atlanta’s backfield is a good deal less workmanlike than New England’s. Devonta Freeman leads the way – he put up over 1,000 yards rushing and scored 11 TDs – but Tevin Coleman contributed over 500 yards and 8 TDs of his own. Plus, the duo combined for 85 catches for nearly 900 yards and five more touchdowns. In essence, the Falcons have two top-tier backs in their backfield, each equally comfortable in the offense. Freeman and Coleman can do it all.

Advantage: Falcons

Wide Receiver

Julian Edelman is the clear-cut number one guy in New England’s receiving corps. He just missed 100 catches in the regular season and has 16 in two games this postseason, moving the chains with clockwork regularity. And Chris Hogan has had a bit of a breakout in the playoffs, catching 13 balls for 275 yards and a pair of TDs, giving the Pats something of a deep threat. Danny Amendola is here as well, but the majority of the rest of the passing game runs through the running backs and the tight end.

Julio Jones might be the best receiver in the game right now. He leveraged size, speed, good hands and strong routes into a massive season and two playoff games where he managed 15 catches for nearly 250 yards and three scores. Mohamed Sanu has been great as well, with nine catches for almost 100 yards and two TDs. And Roman Gabriel is a burner on the outside, averaging nearly 16 yards for each of his six catches. It’s a talented trio that will prove difficult to adequately cover.

Advantage: Falcons

Tight End

Every Patriots fan is disappointed that Rob Gronkowski is watching this Super Bowl from the seats instead of being turned loose on the field. That said, Martellus Bennett has proven to be a reasonably effective replacement. Bennett is an exceptional blocker while still being a potent threat in the passing game – he caught 55 balls in the regular season and led the team with seven receiving TDs. He’s been relatively quiet in the postseason – just six catches – but he’s a constant benefit to the offense whenever he’s on the field.

Austin Hooper and Levine Toilolo have been the primary tight ends for the Falcons this postseason. Neither one has put together a particularly impressive performance; each man has managed just three catches thus far for 64 total yards. Atlanta’s passing attack features some top-shelf receivers, leaving the tight ends serving mostly as afterthoughts. They’re serviceable enough, but on an offense with so much talent at the skill positions, they’re unlikely to be much more than that.

Advantage: Patriots

Offensive Line

New England’s offensive line work hadn’t been pretty over the past two seasons, but the return of beloved line coach Dante Scarnecchia appears to have done wonders. Left tackle Nate Solder has bounced back in a big way, while Marcus Cannon has shown one of the biggest year-to-year lineman improvements in ages. Right guard Shaq Mason has also taken a big leap forward. These three have led the way – center David Andrews has been OK, while rookie guard Joe Thuney has been iffy in key spots. A good-not-great group.

The Falcons O-line is led by center Alex Mack, who is in his first season with Atlanta following a big free agent signing. All he’s done is be – by some accounts – the best center in the entire league. They’ve been decent at the tackles with Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder and about the same at guard, though Andy Levitre has shown some good work in run blocking. It’s a group that laid the foundation for a great rushing year, though their pass protection isn’t quite as strong. With Mack in the middle, though, they are a force.

Advantage: Falcons

Defensive Line

The Patriots defensive line has served a vital purpose in the team’s success thus far – particularly against the running game. Guys like Malcom Brown and Alan Branch have stuffed the middle, while Trey Flowers was one of the league’s best edge players against the run. It’s a tough unit to run against. However, this group hasn’t gotten after the quarterback all that well; they’ve got just one sack (from Brown) this postseason, while the other numbers are deceptive thanks to playing the hapless Texans in the divisional round.

The Falcons D-line is a fairly mediocre group all around. They didn’t do much against the run all year (though they didn’t really have to thanks to an offense that led to other teams playing catch-up). They’ve been the worst against the run of any team in the playoffs so far, giving up almost 5.5 yards per carry. They’ve stepped up the pass rush in the postseason and put up decent numbers, but playing Tom Brady is a whole different scenario. Guys like Grady Jarrett and Jonathan Babineaux are OK, but no better.

Advantage: Patriots (by a bit)

Linebackers

The Patriots linebackers are led once again by veteran presences Dont’a Hightower and Rob Ninkovich. They’ve served as the anchors of the defense, clogging up running routes and dropping into pass coverage when need be. Guys like Shea McClellin and Barkevious Mingo have also played solid, effective football. They’re not an elite unit, per se – and their numbers aren’t going to look all that impressive – but they know how to play as a unit and have bought in fully to a scheme that highlights their respective skill sets.

Meanwhile, Atlanta linebacker Vic Beasley might be the single most dominant player on either defense. While his incredible regular season – 15.5 sacks, six forced fumbles – hasn’t yet translated to the postseason, he’s a pure force on the field. Deion Jones quietly had a great year in Beasley’s shadow and has managed 11 tackles and a pick in this postseason. The falloff from those two is fairly steep, but a potent one-two punch like that can be scary. If that pair gets going, the middle of the field will be safe from exploitation.

Advantage: Falcons

Secondary

The defensive backfield of the Patriots has been surprisingly good this season. Malcolm Butler has grown into one of the better coverage cornerbacks in the league, with 17 passes defensed and four interceptions on the year. Safety Logan Ryan had a strong season and Devin McCourty offered some elite performance. In the postseason, Ryan has been a force, with 16 tackles and four passes defensed to go with a pick and a sack. If this bunch plays to the best of their ability, they might have enough to slow down Matt Ryan.

Atlanta’s secondary has seen its share of struggles this season. They’re without the services of Desmond Trufant – easily their best cornerback – so they’ve made do with increased workloads for guys like Jalen Collins, who has played very well. Rookie safety Keanu Neal has shown flashes, though he still gives up a number of big plays. As a unit they’ve done solid work – Ricardo Allen has been particularly effective in the postseason – but they haven’t faced anything quite like the New England offensive attack.

Advantage: Patriots

Special Teams

While the air of inevitability has worn away from Stephen Gostkowski, he’s still one of the best kickers around. His only miss this postseason has been an extra point attempt; he’s nailed all five of his field goal attempts. Punter Ryan Allen has put half of his points inside the 20 and minimized returns. Dion Lewis showed gamebreaking kick return work with 142 yards and a TD on four returns, while Julian Edelman has been OK on punts. Coverage has been a strength for New England, minimizing big plays on kicks and punts alike.

Falcons kicker Matt Bryant has made all three of his field goal attempts and gone nine for 10 on extra points. Punter Matt Bosher has dropped three of his five punts inside the 20 and had just one returned. Eric Weems has looked good as the primary kick/punt returner; he hasn’t broken any huge plays, but his general performance has been strong. Atlanta’s kick coverage has been fairly consistent throughout – that trend will likely continue.

Advantage: Push

Coaching

Bill Belichick has been here before. He’s got a chance for a fifth ring and he didn’t climb that mountain accidentally. His understanding of the game remains astonishing. He also has a pair of quality coaching minds – Josh McDaniels on offense, Matt Patricia on defense – as his coordinators. The Patriots are one of the most well-coached teams in the league, ready to throw out all manner of unexpected wrinkles in an effort to catch the opponent off guard.

Dan Quinn is in just his second year at the helm in Atlanta. The turnaround has been rapid; his team was just 8-8 last year before making the leap this season. He’s also got a hotshot coordinator on his side – Kyle Shanahan has turned this Falcons offense into a point-scoring machine that landed a spot on a few all-time lists. Quinn has been here before as a coordinator himself, but never as the head guy. The pressure is on.

Advantage: Patriots

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Ultimately, Super Bowl LI is going to come down to the defenses. Both of these teams are capable of scoring a ton of points – and likely will do just that. Whichever team’s defense proves most able to slow down the other’s high-powered offense will almost certainly win. It’s the best scoring offense against the best scoring defense on one side, but the key battle will probably be Atlanta’s defensive effort against the New England offense. Smart money says that the Falcons can’t quite do enough.

It’s always nice when the homer pick is also the correct one. Patriots win.

Final prediction: New England Patriots 35 – Atlanta Falcons 31

Stella’s bonus Kibbles and Picks prediction – Patriots 38 – Falcons 28

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