by Evan Oscherwitz
How They Got Here:
The Atlanta Falcons surprised the football world this year by winning the NFC thanks to a high-powered offensive attack led by NFL MVP quarterback Matt Ryan, wide receiver Julio Jones, and a prolific backfield tandem of Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman.
Coming into the season, more people had bet on the Cleveland Browns reaching the Super Bowl than the Falcons, and it came as a shock to many that the Falcons were able to win the NFC South by a wide margin, over the up-and-coming Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the defending NFC champion Carolina Panthers.
In the playoffs, the Falcons cruised through their side of the bracket, winning both of their games by at least two touchdowns, reaching the big game for only the second time in their history.
For the Patriots, though, the road was much more difficult. The team had to persist through the four-game suspension of future Hall-of-Famer Tom Brady, season-ending injuries to Rob Gronkowski and Sebastian Vollmer, and problems with the strength of the offensive line that were largely responsible for both of their losses.
Thanks in part to a weak schedule, the Patriots were able to secure the top seed in the AFC and record commanding wins over Houston and Pittsburgh, giving Tom Brady and Bill Belichick a chance to win their fifth Super Bowl.
Julio Jones vs the Patriots secondary
This season, Julio Jones has made a strong case that he is the best wide receiver in the NFL,
looking absolutely unstoppable when healthy, and putting up ridiculous numbers against some very good defenses, like Seattle for example, where Jones tallied 139 receiving yards and a touchdown on seven catches in one of the most hostile environments in pro football.
Hampered by a toe injury for the late stages of the regular season and playoffs, the Falcons expect Jones to be at 100 percent for this game, and this will undoubtedly give them a massive advantage on offense.
The Patriots secondary, though, struggled to contain elite receivers like DeAndre Hopkins and Antonio Brown in their first two playoff matchups and experienced similar difficulties against big, physical receivers during the regular season.
At times, New England has looked beatable, and they are going to need to play their best defensive game of the season if they want to win. Malcolm Butler’s coverage style is not ideal for a physical wideout like Jones, who dominates at the line of scrimmage, so expect to see Logan Ryan, who is taller and more aggressive than Butler, get some work on Jones tonight.
Vic Beasley vs. Nate Solder
After a disappointing rookie season, Vic Beasley emerged as one of the premier young pass-rushers in the NFL this year, leading the league in sacks and making left tackles everywhere cringe in fear. Beasley’s combination of athleticism and deceptive strength have made him a perpetual force on an otherwise unremarkable Falcons defense.
Even though the statistics don’t reflect it, Beasley has had a tremendous impact in the playoffs as well, as the Packers and Seahawks made considerable efforts to double-team him, allowing Grady Jarrett and Dwight Freeney to draw one-on-one assignments and disrupt the opposing offense.
On the other side, Patriots left tackle Nate Solder has had a spectacular season after moving over from right tackle to replace Sebastian Vollmer, substantially limiting the impacts of Jadeveon Clowney and James Harrison in the team’s first two playoff games. Beasley, however, is a horse of a different color, and it will be very interesting to see whether or not Solder can hold his ground.
Tom Brady vs Falcons Secondary
Out of the myriad skills that he possesses, Tom Brady’s best attribute might just be his uncanny ability to read defenses and identify coverage schemes. That has never been more apparent than this year, when, despite having a very limited receiving corps in terms of talent, Brady was able to throw 28 touchdown passes in just 12 games, while also only throwing 2 interceptions.
However, against the Texans, Brady looked human, struggling to suppress the rising star of AJ Bouye, and throwing a rare interception. The Falcons possess another such rising star in Robert Alford, who has really come into his own after Desmond Trufant was lost for the season with a torn pectoral muscle.
In the playoffs, despite Trufant’s absence, the Falcons defense held their own against two very prolific offenses, thanks in no small part to the speedy Alford, who will likely see most of his snaps tonight against Julian Edelman.
Additionally, aggressive second-year man Jalen Collins will get the start opposite Alford, and promising rookie Deion Jones will man the middle of the field. Dan Quinn is a defensive-minded coach, so look for him to try and confuse Brady with exotic cover packages throughout the contest.
Players to Watch:
It should go without saying that the No. 1 (yes, No. 1) receiver in the NFL when healthy should be one to watch for in any contest, let alone the Super Bowl, but what makes Jones so noteworthy here is the situation he has been placed in.
None of the Patriots’ defensive backs possess the ideal attributes to cover Jones, and it is not unreasonable to expect a monster performance from him in this game, perhaps even rivaling his 12 catch, 300-yard effort against Carolina earlier this year.
Again, this seems obvious, as Ryan is the NFL MVP, offensive POY, etc. However, after showing tremendous poise against a terrific Seahawks defense in the divisional round, and lighting up Green Bay in the NFC championship, Ryan should have no trouble at all against a New England team that is ill-equipped to handle Atlanta’s passing attack.
Although the defense has not been the Falcons’ forte, Beasley has played at an elite level this year and can impact the game by doing more than just sacking the quarterback. He can defend the run, draw attention away from the other rushers, and even drop back into coverage. The Patriots will have their hands full with him tonight.
Despite not attracting significant attention from the media or his quarterback, Bennett has been an instrumental contributor for the Patriots for much of the season, as Rob Gronkowski missed significant time with every injury under the sun.
Bennett is a great all-around blocker who can also be very dangerous in the passing game if the team decides to throw him a bone. Bill Belichick has implied that he wants to run the ball early, and Bennett will be an instrumental part of doing this.
Last but not least we have arguably the greatest quarterback of all time, a four-time Super Bowl champion, 12-time pro bowler, two-time MVP, and much more. He has carried this team to the Super Bowl yet again, and their fate rests more or less entirely on his shoulders.
The Patriots’ gameplan will focus entirely on Brady and the outcome of the game can be rather simply broken down: if Brady plays like he did in the regular season, the Patriots win their 5th Super Bowl; if Brady plays like he did against Houston, the Patriots lose their 5th Super Bowl.
A second team all-pro selection at linebacker this season, Hightower has responded surprisingly well to the loss of Jamie Collins and has put his ability on full display. A highly versatile and intelligent player, Hightower has helped the Patriots become the best scoring defense in the NFL, thanks to his highly customizable and complete skill set. Used primarily as a run defender prior to 2016, Hightower has become one of the biggest leaders on the team and looks to make a big impact in his second Super Bowl.
Ultimately, the result of this game will come down to which offense is most efficient. Both teams’ defenses are their weak points, and it would be very unlike Matt Ryan or Tom Brady to give the opposing defense an opportunity to be a game changer, so the game will almost certainly be decided by offensive production.
As of late, the Falcons’ offense has looked absolutely unstoppable, and with a healthy Julio Jones, it seems incredibly unlikely that this will change anytime soon. The Falcons also have a backup plan in the improbable event that they are unable to get the passing game going, as Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are arguably the best backfield tandem in the NFL.
The Patriots will need to play their best game of the postseason if they hope to win and will need to get LeGarrette Blount involved early to set up the passing game. Dion Lewis and James White will also see action, likely in the screen game. Atlanta’s offense has been much more effective in the playoffs this year, and as a result, they will win their first Super Bowl.