Atlanta Falcons vs. New England Patriots: Super Bowl 51 Preview

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Bill Belichick is the greatest coach in the history of professional football, and Tom Brady is arguably the best quarterback to play the game, but the Atlanta Falcons may be a better a team than the New England Patriots this season.

When assessing which teams are capable of winning the Super Bowl, you have to start with the three most important aspects of the game today. There are three requirements teams must meet in order to WIN a Super Bowl in today’s NFL:

  1. Super Bowl winning teams must have a good quarterback.
  2. Super Bowl winning teams must be able to pressure opposing quarterbacks.
  3. Super Bowl winning teams must be able to protect their own quarterback.

Make no mistake about it: those three criteria are all that is necessary in order to win a Super Bowl. Of course, there are plenty of additional things that HELP teams win – for example, a good running game, a stud WR, great special teams, a great coach, etc… can all be beneficial. However, the three elements listed above are the only REQUIREMENTS. You may notice the common denominator within the criteria: the NFL is a quarterback-driven league, and each requirement listed above directly affects quarterback play.

I’ve lived by this mantra for at least 10 years now. And while it’s not a foolproof theory, it rarely fails and is by far the best, simple determination of teams capable of winning a Super Bowl. Accordingly, I’ll break down each of these three requirements and apply them to the Falcons and Patriots in order to make my prediction.

  1. Super Bowl winning teams must have a good quarterback.

Since the NFL has become centered around the passing game, you may notice that EVERY Super Bowl winner has had either a great quarterback, or at least one playing at an extremely high level at the time.

Look at the last 13 QBs to win a Super Bowl (since 2003): Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Joe Flacco, Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, and Ben Roethlisberger

These are all elite names, with the exception of Joe Flacco and arguably Eli Manning. Yet, even the ones who were not future Hall of Famers were riding a hot streak or PLAYING like a top-10 QB (see Joe Flacco – 18-2 TD/INT ratio in final 7 games the year Baltimore won). Typically, teams that win the Super Bowl nowadays have a great quarterback or one who is playing great at the time.

Here, satisfying this quarterback requirement won’t be a problem. Matt Ryan and Tom Brady rank at or near the top of the league in every metric imaginable.

Matt Ryan:

  • 46-7 TD/INT in 18 games (2nd)
  • 309 YPG (2nd)
  • 123 QB Rating (1st)
  • 9.3 YPA (1st)
  • 18-0 TD/INT ratio in his last 6 games

Tom Brady:

  • 33-4 TD/INT in 14 games (1st)
  • 296 YPA (4th)
  • 109 QB Rating (2nd)
  • 8.2 YPA (2nd)

What’s more?

Atlanta scored on 55.8% of their offensive possessions in the regular season, which led the NFL. That mark is also the second-best percentage for any offense since 2000, only bested by the 2007 Patriots, who scored on 57 percent of their drives. NE under Tom Brady has scored on 48.7% of their drives this season, second in the NFL. In addition, Football Outsiders DVOA metric supports the notion that these are the two best offenses in the NFL by a generous margin.

2. Super Bowl winning teams must be able to pressure opposing quarterbacks.

This means teams must boast a strong pass rush capable of disrupting opponents’ passing games. While it’s no longer necessary to have a good defense in order to win a Super Bowl (despite what your father may tell you), teams must be able to put pressure on opposing passers.

Both teams in this game fit this second criteria, as well. The Falcons rank 4th in QB hurries with 122 and the Patriots rank 10th with 109. Atlanta and New England both finished near the middle of the pack in sacks (16th with 34 each).

The Patriots have five rock-solid defensive linemen who have all graded out well via Pro Football Focus this season:

  • DE Trey Flowers (80.5 PFF grade)
  • DT Malcom Brown (78.0)
  • DT Alan Branch (80.8)
  • DE Jabaal Sheard (79.0)
  • Reserves: DE Rob Ninkovich (49.9), DE Chris Long (69.5), DT Vincent Valentine (44.7)

Meanwhile, the Falcons have DE Vic Beasley, who led the NFL with 19.5 sacks (but only finished 16th in total QB pressures). The rest of their D-line is shown below:

  • DE Vic Beasley
  • DT Grady Jarrett (77.8)
  • DT Jonathan Babineaux (47.5)
  • DE Brooks Reed (76.9),
  • Reserves: DT Ra’Shede Hageman (74.5), DE Dwight Freeney (75.7), DE Adrian Clayborn (72.3 – I.R.)

Beasley will get all the accolades as the NFL sack leader, but as you can see, the Falcons also have a deep defensive line rotation aside from Beasley that graded out comparably to New England.

3. Super Bowl winning teams must be able to protect their own quarterback.

Lastly, teams need a competent offensive line that can keep their QBs upright and give them time to throw. And sure enough, the Atlanta Falcons and Patriots both possess this as well.

Atlanta’s offensive line, in particular, has had a remarkable season.

In fact, all five starting offensive linemen for the Atlanta Falcons have played in EVERY game this season.

PAUSE, AND REREAD that sentence ^^^

If you’re an NFL fan, this fact should be eye-opening. Please allow me to explain…

I’ve been tracking missed time and health regression along the O-line for 6 years, and I’ve never once seen a flawless bill of health. Each year, the absolute healthiest offensive line will make about 75/80 possible starts. Last season, the Carolina Panthers’ O-line made 77/80 possible starts.

The vast majority of teams have AT LEAST 1 significant, multi-week injury to a lineman that causes him to miss time. Not only does the injured player’s backup typically represent a steep downgrade in performance, but the change also messes with the unit’s chemistry as a whole.

Continuity along an O-line is king, so you can imagine when teams have injuries to MULTIPLE starters along the O-line, as most teams do throughout the course of a 16-game season, it really has a negative impact on an offense. Alarmingly, the majority of teams in a given season do not finish the season with the same starting five players they opened the year with (in other words, no starter was benched or landed on injured reserve).

Therefore, for all 5 starting offensive linemen to make 80 of 80 possible starts (90/90 including playoffs!)… that’s EXTREMELY RARE.

The free agent addition of center Alex Mack, combined with unprecedented health, allowed this offense to remain in sync all season long, even when the Falcons were without RB Tevin Coleman for 3 games and WR Julio Jones for 2 games.

Keep an eye out for the availaibility of aforementioned anchor, center Alex Mack, who is battling a leg injury that reportedly would have sidelined him for about 6 weeks had it occurred in the regular season. Mack is attempting to play through the ailment for the game’s biggest stage. It will be interesting how his absence could affect a unit that has not had to deal with any injuries this season.

New England lost starting RT Sebastian Vollmer in the preseason, but in true New England fashion, the next man up was Marcus Cannon, who seamlessly slid in. Cannon hasn’t surrendered a sack since week 1.

If you exclude Vollmer’s absence because his loss occurred in the preseason, the Patriots made a remarkable 87/90 possible starts, clearly ranking second in the NFL this season. New England only gave up 28 sacks all season – that’s only 1.5 sacks allowed per game.

In sum, not only did Atlanta and New England’s O-lines each grade out with high marks per PFF, but they also had two of the healthiest seasons the league has seen in several seasons!

SIDE NOTE: The Importance of Health for Super Bowl Teams:

The lack of games missed by the offensive lines in this game (only 3 total among 10 combined starters along both O-lines for the entire season) highlights how HEALTH is such a major factor for Super Bowl teams. Though the Patriots have missed all-world TE Rob Gronkowski and RB Dion Lewis for significant stretches this season, the team’s unbreakable health on DEFENSE has more than made up for these losses.

Diving deeper: New England has 16 players on defense who play significant snaps each week (~35+ snaps per game). These 16 players have missed a TOTAL of 17 games all season. That means that

Patriots defenders have played 271/288 games this season!

That’s an amazing bill of health for that side of the ball, and it certainly contributes to the Patriots’ #1 ranked defense in total yards allowed (but we’ll get to why that ranking is flawed in a moment)…

Unfortunately, it’s clear that New England AND Atlanta both possess all three requirements I believe are necessary to winning a Super Bowl. Alas, my theory holds true for another year.

Now, Let’s take a look at some other things you NEED TO KNOW before watching this game:

New England’s “#1 Defense” is Likely a Mirage

Speaking of New England being labeled as having supposedly “the best defense in the league,” let’s analyze why that #1 ranking is likely a sham. The Patriots have had a historically favorable schedule consisting of the worst quarterback slate I can remember. In the last 14 games, the Patriots have had the luxury of playing against a comical list of atrocious quarterbacks, almost exclusively.

Take a look at the Quarterbacks New England has faced in the last 14 weeks:

  • Charlie Whitehurst
  • Andy Dalton
  • Landry Jones
  • Tyrod Taylor
  • Russell Wilson
  • Colin Kaepernick
  • Ryan Fitzpatrick (x2)
  • Jared Goff
  • Joe Flacco
  • Trevor Siemien
  • Matt Moore
  • Brock Osweiler
  • Ben Roethlisberger

There are 13 names listed here, representing 14 games that Tom Brady has played.

  • Eight of them are quarterbacks who rank in the bottom-10 (23rd-32nd) among the league’s 32 starting QBs.
  • Four of them are actually backup quarterbacks.

And two of them – Roethlisberger and Wilson – are good quarterbacks. But let’s break those down further…

  • Russell Wilson torched the New England defense when he threw for 348 yards, 3 TDs, and 0 INTs en route to a 31-24 win in Foxboro.

This leaves us with the only remotely decent quarterback Tom Brady’s Patriots beat this season: Ben Roethlisberger.

However, those who follow fantasy football as much as I do, his road game struggles have been documented and ongoing for three years now. Big Ben is a completely different QB away from home. New England got to play Roethlisberger on the road, where he sported an abysmal 9-8 TD/INT ratio and 78.4 QB Rating in 2016. In other words, Roethlisberger was just as bad as the other QBs on this list in road games this season.

In sum, the Patriots have rode an extremely fortunate schedule consisting of minimal competitive QBs to the Super Bowl, and now they face the league’s BEST (AND MOST VALUABLE) QB THIS YEAR, Matt Ryan.

The Patriots’ defense ranks 11th in Football Outsiders advanced DVOA metric, which takes into account recent strength of schedule. This is a FAR MORE ACCURATE DEPICTION THAN TOTAL YARDS of where this defense should be ranked. It’s worth noting, however, that according to Football Outsiders, the Patriots defense still has the edge over the Falcons’ (22nd).

This also means that aside from beating Ben Roethlisberger, who was notoriously bad on the road all season, Tom Brady has not BEATEN any quarterback better than… Tyrod Taylor?… in 14 games this season.

By comparison, here are some of the Quarterbacks Matt Ryan and his Falcons have beaten:

  • Jameis Winston (would be the 2nd best QB Brady would have beaten on that list) on the road
  • Derek Carr (an MVP candidate ¾ through the season) on the road
  • Cam Newton (last year’s MVP) TWICE
  • Drew Brees TWICE
  • Russell Wilson (who Brady couldn’t beat) by 16 points, marking the only second time in the Russell Wilson era that Seattle has lost a game by 8+ points. That’s right: since 2012, the Faclons were one of two teams to beat the Seahawks by double digits. Think about that.
  • And Aaron Rodgers (40-7 TD/INT), TWICE

This is very concerning for New England, to say the least, and ultimately it’s really all the evidence one needs to say the FALCONS ARE THE BETTER TEAM AND SHOULD BE FAVORED IN THIS GAME.

So why aren’t they? The answer is simple: Bill Belichick and Tom Brady

Just take a look at the results of their last 14 seasons together:

  • 2001: 11-5           Super Bowl victory
  • 2002: 9-7
  • 2003: 14-2           Super Bowl victory
  • 2004: 14-2           Super Bowl victory
  • 2005: 10-6           Divisional Round appearance
  • 2006: 12-4           Conference Championship appearance
  • 2007: 16-0           Super Bowl appearance
  • 2009: 10-6           Wild Card appearance
  • 2010: 14-2           Divisional Round appearance
  • 2011: 13-3           Super Bowl appearance
  • 2012: 12-4           Conference Championship appearance
  • 2013: 12-4           Conference Championship appearance
  • 2014: 12-4           Super Bowl victory
  • 2015: 12-4           Conference Championship appearance
  • 2016: 14-2           Super Bowl ?

Excluding 2008 when Brady missed the entire season with a torn ACL (and the Patriots somehow STILL went 11-5), Belichick, Brady, and the New England Patriots have amassed the following accomplishments in the last 14 seasons…

  • The Patriots have made it to the Conference Championship game (the NFL’s version of the Final Four) 11 times in 14 seasons that Belichick and Brady have been together.
  • The Patriots have played in 7 Super Bowls together in the last 14 years (that’s HALF!).
  • The Patriots haven’t been worse than 12-4 in EIGHT YEARS.
  • The Patriots have gotten to the AFC Championship game for the LAST SIX YEARS IN A ROW.
  • The Patriots have missed the playoffs just ONE time in 14 years.
  • The Patriots have earned a winning record in EVERY SEASON since 2000. That’s 14 straight seasons winning seasons.

In the age of a salary cap limit and modern free agency system designed to promote parity, what Belichick and Brady have done on an annual basis for as long as they have is nothing short of legendary. The New England Patriots of the 2000s is unquestionably the greatest dynasty in the history this sport. And unfortunately for the rest of the league, it’s STILL ONGOING.

The fact that New England is favored by 3 in this game is based entirely on the theory that giving two weeks of preparation time to the greatest coach in NFL history and arguably the greatest quarterback of all time can overcome any potential discrepancies between the two teams.

But let the record show that Atlanta has the better team (though it may not even matter).

THE MATCHUPS – When the Falcons have the ball:

I fully expect WR Julio Jones to be the center of Bill Belichick’s attention all week. As great as he is, I’m fairly confident New England can craft a game plan that will slow him down. When Belichick schemes to eliminate a team’s top offensive weapon by using bracket or double coverage, it forces the other team to step out of their comfort zone because they now have to find another “go-to” target, who is usually plan B.

The question then becomes: who will step up?

Falcons’ offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has done a masterful job installing this running game and utilizing Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman to the best of their abilities.

Shanahan is one of the big reasons the Falcons were unstoppable on offense this season, and Saints fans should be thrilled that he’s leaving Atlanta to become the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.

Now, New England has been stellar defending the run lately, allowing only 3.9 YPC on the season. In addition, Falcons’ center Alex Mack may not be at full strength, which would also hurt the Falcons’ run-blocking. That means Matt Ryan will have to find success in the passing game if the Falcons are to win this game. Luckily, the Falcons’ running backs are very versatile.

Shanahan likes to find mismatches with Tevin Coleman, who ran a 4.39 ’40-yard dash at the NFL Combine two years ago. The Falcons use him as a receiver, and linebackers who follow him often cannot keep up with Coleman’s speed. Meanwhile, the quick-twitch Devonta Freeman is one of the NFL’s most elusive and shifty players in space.

The Patriots allow the most receptions (6.6) and receiving yards (51.8) per game to opposing running backs. This will need to be corrected.

Ultimately, if the Patriots allocate all of their resources to prevent Julio Jones from beating them, Atlanta is balanced enough to beat New England in other ways. It will be a very difficult task to stop BOTH Julio Jones AND the Falcons’ explosive running backs.

Because the Falcons attempt so many quick passes short of the sticks to a variety of players, the Patriots’ ability to stop the Falcons’ offense (so, basically this entire game) will come down to tackling. New England has been a very strong tackling team this season, and they will have to tackle well tonight in order to limit yards after the catch. This will force Atlanta to face longer, less manageable third downs.

THE MATCHUPS – When the Patriots have the ball:

There are a few different approaches Tom Brady and company can take to this game, but the one I keep coming back to is countering Atlanta’s speed-based defense with strength and power.

I know the Patriots have Tom Brady, and he’s been terrific, but based on the matchup, the Patriots should try to ride bruising RB LeGarrette Blount in this game.

Atlanta is 29th in rush defense DVOA and their 4.5 YPC allowed ranks 26th in the NFL. Additionally, the Falcons have yet to face a competent running game in the playoffs, seeing Seattle and Green Bay’s broken running games in the last two weeks.

The Falcons’ defense isn’t great, but they are VERY FAST. Dan Quinn, who was a defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks before taking over head coach duties in Atlanta, has copied the blueprint that set the Seahawks up for defensive success. He drafted two of the fastest linebackers available in Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell. They are quick and athletic, showing the ability to cover the field in the molds of Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright (though not as sound of tacklers).

That said, both the Falcons’ interior and their LB corp are undersized, and they would likely be out-matched from a physicality standpoint. I’m looking for the Patriots to go old-school approach against the softer Atlanta defense to mitigate their team speed. Look for FULL BACK James Develin to play more snaps than usual, as he could lay a few key blocks for LeGarrette Blount.

A run-based approach that eats up clock will keep Atlanta’s historic offense off the field, and it should create more manageable opportunities to convert on third downs.

While the ground-and-pound philosophy seems promising on paper, there is one caveat: Blount has worn down as the season has progressed from an efficiency standpoint. Blount, who averaged more than 5.0 yards per carry during the first half of the season, has rushed for only 210 yards on his last 75 carries, plodding his way to a paltry 2.8 YPC mark in his last 7 games. Perhaps the 2 weeks of rest will be beneficial, but if the running game is working, look for Belichick to employ versatile RBs Dion Lewis and James White out of the backfield. Lewis is an exceptionally elusive receiver who is used often as a mismatch when New England is in the hurry-up. Atlanta has allowed 6.4 receptions and 51.7 receiving yards per game to opposing RBs, one of the worst backfield coverage marks in the NFL.

When the Patriots throw, I expect the target area to be between the hash marks. Although the Falcons’ linebackers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell have high marks in coverage this season, they are also rookies. SS Keanu Neal and NCB Brian Poole are also rookies.

As a result, Tom Brady should be able to exploit Atlanta’s inexperience in the middle of the field. I would assume Julian Edelman and TE Martellus Bennett, will be the safety net in this game, more so than Chris Hogan and other WRs.

Another reason the Brady should attack the middle of the field is because the Falcons have a quality group of outside cornerbacks. Despite losing their best cover corner, Desmond Trufant, to an season-ending pectoral injury midway through the season, the Falcons have not missed a beat. Robert Alford (a local product who went to Hammond High School and Southeastern University), former LSU Tiger Jalen Collins, and Brian Poole have all stepped up impressively following the loss of Trufant.

 

My Predictions & Bets:

HEADS OR TAILS: Tails. You’re a degenerate if you’re betting on the coin toss.

WHICH TEAM SCORES FIRST: I’ll take New England here, despite the fact Altanta has scored on its opening drive in eight straight games. It’s reasonable to expect the Atlanta offense to be feeling more nervous seeing as they are not accustom to this stage like New England. Belichick may elect to receive the kickoff (he usually defers) because he knows the importance of not letting Atlanta jumping out to an early lead.

SUPER BOWL MVP: If Atlanta is going to win, Matt Ryan will have to have a great game. There’s no way around this, so if you have the Falcons in this game, I’d take Ryan as MVP. If you’re taking New England, I think Julian Edelman and LeGarrette Blount will be the featured players on offense, so they could be MVP values.

STRANGE PROP BETS:

TE Martellus Bennett and WR Julian Edelman should hit the over on this catch-total prop bet for reasons stated in the matchup section above.

Also, Matt Ryan hasn’t thrown an interception in seven consecutive games, but I’d bet he throws a first half pick tonight.

I could see WR Mohamed Sanu being involved if the Pats do everything in their power to stop Julio Jones. Sanu used to play quarterback, and I expect him to get a few carries in the wildcat formation and possibly throw the ball once on a trick play. Finally, no one is talking about the two elite kickers in this game.

The high over/under and potent offenses suggest there will be plenty of kicking opportunities in this game. These games rarely miss. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a combined 4-5 FGs in this game.

POINT TOTAL OVER/UNDER of 60: UNDER

This year’s Super Bowl features the highest over/under in Super Bowl history (60 points) and it’s easy to see why that is as the Patriots and Falcons have been two of the league’s premier offenses in the NFL all season long. I’m taking the UNDER here. These are two offenses that like to dink and dunk their way around the field, and we could see more running than usual in this game as the teams attempt to keep the opposing offense off the field. The longer drives could kill the clock.

SCORE PREDICTION:

Falcons 33, Patriots 23

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably seen about 200 predictions from various analysts, celebrities, or friends. Even then, it’s unlikely you’ve seen anyone dumb enough to predict the Patriots will lose to the Falcons by double digits. Well here I am!

The Vegas line on this game is Patriots favored by 3, which is “safe” considering all four of the Patriots’ Super Bowl wins were decided by 3-4 points. I have all the respect in the world for Belichick and Brady, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they handle Atlanta easily. That said, I’m taking the Falcons to cover 3 points and win straight up in this game. I believe the Falcons are the better team, and I can’t get over the fact that they have beaten A LOT more quality opponents AND quarterbacks.

I expect New England to jump out to an early lead similar to the way the Colts did against the Saints in Super Bowl 44, but eventually I believe the Falcons will find that same unstoppable groove they’ve rode all season, and they’ll be too much to for New England to handle in the second half.


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