Super Bowl 51: Overview
On February 5 the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons will do battle at the NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas in Super Bowl LI. This will be the first time the South Texas city will have hosted the biggest single sporting game in the world and the two teams’ matchup in a way that should make this clash for the Vince Lombardi Trophy much more exciting than the 2017 NFL Playoffs have been to date.
It is hard to argue that anything other than the two best teams in the NFL this year are meeting in the Super Bowl. The Patriots, led by the wonder combo of head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady, swept all before them in the AFC, while the Falcons high tempo, high scoring offense, tore apart the surging Green Bay Packers and their big game quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the Georgia Dome last weekend.
Super Bowl 51: New England Patriots
For the Patriots, this whole Super Bowl thing is old hat by now. Super Bowl LI will be the ninth appearance in the big game for the team, a mark that is the most in NFL history. It is also the second appearance in the Super Bowl in the last three years for the franchise and, astonishingly, it will mark the seventh Super Bowl each for Belichick and Brady as members of the organization. When Brady takes the field he will become the only player to take part in seven Super Bowls, just like Belichick will become the first head coach to have coached in the Super Bowl on seven occasions. The Falcons, by contrast, have only appeared in the Super Bowl once, a loss to the Denver Broncos back in 1999 at Super Bowl XXXIII.
The Patriots have been outstanding on both sides of the ball this season. Brady is in this weird place where he just doesn’t seem to age. We watched last year how Peyton Manning fell away and declined as his passes lost power, but Brady, in his 17th season, is playing as well as he ever has. Perhaps spurred by the Deflategate scandal that saw him miss the first four games of the year, Brady has thrown for 4,225 yards and 33 touchdowns since his return to the team. Perhaps most impressively for a quarterback who’s arm should be fading, Brady has thrown just four interceptions in 12 regular season and two postseason games.
Oh, and the majority of this work has been done without All-World tight end Rob Gronkowski who was lost for the year after undergoing back surgery.
This team is not just about Brady however. The New England defense was the best in the NFL during the regular season and the unit gave up just 15.6 points per game. This is not a super aggressive defense that will blitz on every down, preferring to use “bend but don’t break” principles to get the job done. The key to this is having a defensive backfield that rarely gives up big plays, instead making teams move the ball down the field in small chunks. By doing this the Patriots either force a turnover through sheer volume of plays or they tighten in the red zone to hold opponents to field goals instead of touchdowns.
Super Bowl 51: Atlanta Falcons
The beauty of this Super Bowl though is that the Patriots unbreakable object will come up against the Atlanta Falcons offense and its irresistible force.
Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan led his team to a league-high 33.8 points per game during the regular season. The team hit 540 points total during the campaign a mark that is tied for eighth best all-time. In the playoffs, when many teams get bogged down due to fatigue and an extra level of coaching, the Falcons have bucked the trend by actually getting better offensively. In their two wins over the Packers and the Seattle Seahawks the Falcons scored 80 points, averaging 40 per game.
As with the Patriots, the Falcons offensive prowess begins with their quarterback. Ryan had just an outstanding regular season where he passed for almost 5,000 yards and 38 touchdowns. His efficiency is what kills teams and his QB rating (117.1) and Total QBR (83.3) were both first in the league. He completes passes at almost a 70-percent clip and (with the exception of a “pick-two” thrown to the Kansas City Chiefs’ Eric Berry), he just doesn’t make mistakes at important times in games. He has earned the “Matty Ice” nickname for a reason.
Of course if you are an elite quarterback it does help to be throwing the ball to one of the best receivers that has played the game in the last quarter of a century. Julio Jones was good enough at Alabama that the Falcons essentially bet the house on him, sending five draft picks to the Cleveland Browns in order to get their guy. Jones had nine catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns against the Packers in the NFC Title Game despite being at less than 100-percent with a toe sprain. Given that he has two weeks to get healthy before the Super Bowl it makes sense that Ryan will look to hit his big target early and often to hit the type of game breaking plays that the Patriots try so hard to avoid.
The Super Bowl has also acted as a catapult to stardom for lesser known players in the recent past. While the Patriots are well known to viewers, the Falcons played just two prime-time games in 2016 before being featured on TV in the playoffs. To that end there are many that don’t know about their young defensive stars like Keanu Neal and Vic Beasley, or their fantasy darling running backs Devonta Freeman or Tevin Coleman. Getting used to those names now will save time when one (or more) breaks out during the big game.
The great thing about Super Bowl LI is definitely the balance and the contrast. It is the team many love to hate in the Patriots against a bunch of young upstarts in the Falcons with an explosive offense and a likable head coach in Dan Quinn. The potential is here for a lot of points and for the sake of the neutral fan (and the NFL) let’s hope that is exactly what happens in Houston.
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