Super Bowl LI is finally here! The highly anticipated matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots promises to go down in history. Regularly rated as the most-watched television event in U.S. history, the big game will feature two high-octane offenses battling with young, athletic defenses. The world will see which of the two perennial MVP candidates, quarterbacks Matt Ryan and Tom Brady, will receive that award on Saturday night. However, you can bet they’re looking forward to a much more coveted prize on Sunday. Let’s take a look at what each team needs to do to hoist the prestigious Lombardi Trophy.
The Falcons are looking to give Atlanta its second national championship. So far, the Atlanta Braves’ 1995 World Series victory stands alone in the Atlanta championship trophy case. But coaches Dan Quinn and Kyle Shanahan have an excellent chance to vanquish their opponents this weekend and open up the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium next season with a championship banner.
Their plan shouldn’t deviate from the success they’ve had so far, albeit with a few tweaks. First, it goes without saying, but they have to stay hot on offense. A two-week lull always calls in to question whether or not a team can keep momentum like the Falcons have had. However, they’ve already proven that extra time to prepare is not a problem when they rolled over the Packers in the Divisional Round. That was also after 2 weeks off earlier this postseason. In fact, the time off could help heal any injuries and make sure everyone is 100% healthy for the last game of the season. In particular, receiver Julio Jones has been dealing with a small toe injury, and he has enjoyed the time to heal and mentally prepare for the Patriots’ defense. Meanwhile, Matt Ryan and the rest of the offense haven’t taken much of a day off either.
The Falcons have shown the importance of being prepared for their opponents, and the results speak for themselves. It’s especially important to consider that the Patriots are the best in the business at formulating specific game plans to exploit opponents’ weaknesses. Assuming this game comes down to the final drive, whichever team can prepare most effectively will know what to do in crunch time.
Speaking of crunch time, keeping calm in the larger-than-life environment will be crucial for Atlanta. This is brand new territory for all but 4 players on the Falcons roster. They must try to play like it’s any other game, and run through their normal progressions. Getting caught up in the hype can only lead to disaster, and they’re already a step behind New England in that aspect. I have no doubt that the Falcons are ready to do just this, as it’s been business as usual in the practice facilities.
While Atlanta’s #1 offense should continue to put up points, so can Tom Brady. If only there was a way to stop him… Oh wait! There is! Pressure. I cannot stress this enough. While it probably won’t be the sole factor in determining the victor, it can go a long way to bettering the Falcons’ chances. The defensive line must put pressure on Brady. I’ve already discussed this matter a few times when the Steelers had their chance to knock New England out of the playoffs, but the Patriots tend to struggle when the pocket collapses around Brady. I wouldn’t recommend blitzing every play, but the Falcons should be close; disguising a few blitzes or faking the rush can help just as much. It’s been a proven formula in all of the Patriots’ losses that Brady does not do well when he is blitzed.
Also, Atlanta better avoid playing zone defense. Brady loves to torch opponents by finding holes in zone coverage. Luckily, the Falcons defensive backs have the speed and stamina to hang with the Patriots quick receiving core. I would expect a lot of man-to-man, and any time the Falcons fail to recognize what makes the Patriots’ offense click is just putting themselves another step behind. However, I have full confidence in Quinn’s coaching staff to dissect every aspect of the AFC Champs.
If there’s one thing the Patriots have going for them (and there’s more than that), it’s experience. Tom Brady alone has more Super Bowl appearances than the entire Falcons’ roster. The Falcons players have combined for 5 title chances, while Brady enters his 7th Super Bowl. This will also be New England’s 7th Super Bowl as Brady’s and head coach Bill Belichick’s dynasty lives on. Here is how they can add a 5th ring to their collection.
It starts with offense. The Patriots are used to being a juggernaut in the AFC, but they haven’t seen an opponent as explosive as the Falcons yet. In order to stay close, the Pats will need to keep pace with Atlanta. Any stop they can produce on defense would be icing, as they’re incredibly hard to come by.
Depending on the Falcons’ defensive scheme, Brady can still continue to pick apart the inexperienced secondary. He’s a veteran, perhaps the greatest quarterback of all time. No matter what the Falcons do on defense, Brady will find success. I expect at least 3 touchdowns to a couple different receivers. Even if the Falcons show the worst, man-to-man and blitzes, Brady can rely on his arm to pinpoint the ball through even the tightest coverage. The main concern would be for receivers Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan to avoid dropping passes. Mistakes like these in the past have resulted in multiple blown opportunities, so working on improving their hands over these past two weeks would have been time well spent. However their talent and speed is unquestioned, so never fail to underestimate anyone Brady is throwing to. In any case, it’s no doubt New England will score, but will they score enough?
Depending on whether or not the Falcons apply pressure to the pocket, the Pats may be limited on the scoreboard. The defense has a tall task ahead of them when trying to slow down Atlanta’s blazing offense. Belichick’s formula is well documented- take out the #1 man. Week in and week out, New England effectively eliminates the #1 offensive threat. This postseason, former opposition stars such as Deandre Hopkins, Le’veon Bell, and even Antonio Brown have all had subpar performances due to the extra focus from the Patriots. For the Super Bowl, the challenge will be tougher.
It’s fair to say Julio Jones is the guy to watch out for. He’s explosive and he can catch anything thrown to him within a 5-mile radius. He’ll still get his fair share of catches, but I expect Belichick to make sure his defense never lets Jones get too much open space. That said, quarterback Matt Ryan should be named MVP on Saturday night. This title will be well-earned, as he has put up astounding stats. He completes over 2/3 of his passes, and will eclipse 5,000 yards on Sunday. Not to mention, his 117.1 QBR leads the league this season. My point is, even if Jones is limited, Ryan will still complete passes to other options like Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel.
It gets even scarier when you mention the duo in the backfield. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman have been a force for the Falcons all season. The Patriots defense has its hands full with so many speedy playmakers to cover. The secondary has the skills to match Jones, Sanu, and Gabriel, but because most of the defensive backs will be stuck in coverage, the linemen will need to hold their ground and stop the Falcons running backs from getting into space and coming up with big chunks of yards.
All and all, this will be an offensive show. The Falcons and Patriots are the #1 and #3 highest scoring offenses in the league respectively. Both defenses have a ton of pressure and will need to stay focused and use every ounce of energy they have to stay on their assignment. Again, the Falcons must, must, must bring the pressure on Brady while the DBs play man-to-man on the receivers. The proven formula to stop New England is pressure, period. Meanwhile, the Patriots should double-team Jones and try to neutralize his productiveness while the D-line limits the run game. It’ll be much easier to frustrate the inexperienced Falcons than vice versa. However, I don’t expect anyone to get flustered in the heat of the moment, and it may very well come down to whose game plan is better, and who can execute it more effectively. The common adage is appropriate for this one… defense wins championships.
Prediction: Falcons celebrate, they win 31 – 27.