The last meaningful game of the 2016-17 NFL season will take place on Sunday, as the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots will collide in Super Bowl LI. After nearly two weeks of hype, you probably think you’ve heard just about everything there is about this one.
And you’re probably right. But we’re going to go ahead and make our selections here anyway.
I’m going to get things started, and some of our other writers are going to add their contributions and picks over the course of the next day or two. So, with no further delay, let’s get going.
This game has all the makings of an outstanding Super Bowl. On one side, we have the Falcons and the #1 offense in the National Football League, averaging 33.8 points/game. On the other side, the Patriots’ defense was #1 in the league in points allowed, giving up just 15.6 points per contest. This will be the eighth time in NFL history that a Super Bowl has seen the #1 offense and the #1 defense get together on the same field. Of the previous seven, the team with the #1 offense has won only one time, that coming when the San Francisco 49ers throttled the Denver Broncos to the tune of 55-10 in Super Bowl XXIV.
While I do think this is going to be a pretty good game, and as much as I appreciate the Falcons doing us the service of ensuring that Green Bay was not a part of this contest, I’m just not sure if I can see a scenario where the Patriots don’t win this game. Honestly, giving Bill Belichick two weeks to prepare for an opposing offense is sort of like giving Albert Einstein two weeks to prepare to be on Celebrity Jeopardy. The Falcons have been lighting up scoreboards all year, but if anyone can concoct a plan to slow them down, it’s Belichick.
On the other side, there’s Tom Brady, who has been putting together what Bill Simmons would likely call a “f*** you” season after coming back from his four-game suspension. Counting the Patriots’ two playoff games, Brady has thrown 33 touchdown passes and just four interceptions. Those are insane numbers. Sure, Matt Ryan will likely end up being the MVP this season because he played all 16 games and put up insane numbers of his own, but it’s hard not to give the Patriots the advantage at quarterback in this one.
New England has a bunch of guys that have been in this spot before, while the Falcons are a pretty young team. They’ve responded well to the spotlight in the playoffs thus far, but we’ll have to see if the Super Bowl’s bright lights end up being too much for them.
This one’s going to be close, I think, but in the end I think that the Brady/Belichick combo gets it done again and stakes their claim to being the best quarterback/coach combo in NFL history.
Patriots 34, Falcons 27
Christopher has teed it up pretty well, so I won’t repeat his analysis. But I do disagree with his prediction. The Patriots have been impressive all year for the most part, but they haven’t faced an offense as strong as the Falcons all year, and Atlanta is peaking at the right time. Belichick will do his best to take away Julio Jones and slow down the Falcons’ potent passing attack, but will that be enough, and do the Patriots’ have the personnel to get it done?
The Patriots’ will have to counter with a less impressive set of receivers, but then again Atlanta’s defense is not as impressive either. Especially in the red zone. If my prediction is wrong, it will be because the Patriots did a better job in the red zone than Atlanta. But I could see Atlanta blitzing a LB occasionally in key situations that puts Brady off his game just enough to make it difficult for the Patriots to match the Falcons’ offensive production.
But the risk for the Patriots is that they fall behind, especially early, and just can’t do enough to keep up with a Falcons offensive that can beat you so many ways. I expect that may be what happens, and the game isn’t as close as most predict.
Atlanta 34, Patriots 20.
Unfortunately, I don’t get to write about how the Vikings have a shot to win the Super Bowl and obviously this isn’t the Super Bowl matchup I was hoping for. Heck, it’s not even my second choice for matchup as I would have enjoyed a Texans-Seahawks Super Bowl (I know, most probably think I’m crazy). But despite that, I think a Patriots/Falcons game should provide an entertaining, high scoring affair. We’ve got two top notch quarterbacks leading two balanced and potent offenses that should give us plenty of touchdowns. Chris already gave us the basic analysis, and I pretty much agree with all of his points.
If I had to pick a team to win, I’m going to have to go with the team that has the best chance to stop the opposing offense. And in that case, I give the defensive edge to the Patriots. To add to what Chris pointed out, not only do the Patriots have the #1 defense in “Points Allowed” during the regular season they also ranked 12th in total defensive DVOA from Football Outsiders and 8th in total yards allowed. They excel at stopping the run, ranked 3rd in rushing yards allowed, but have been vulnerable at times to the pass ranked only 12th in total passing yards allowed. The Patriots should be able to keep Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman in check. They will have their hands full with Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu and all their other young speedy receivers, but like Chris, I am confident that Bill Belichik can scheme against them with an extra week to prepare, especially given his previous experience in the Super Bowl. Also consider that the Falcons have really only played two decent defenses all year: Seattle and Denver in weeks 9 and 10. They scored less than 30 in both of those games losing one of them. Those were also 2 of only 3 games all year where the Falcons failed to score more than 28 points on offense (the other being against the Eagles week 7). While the Falcons did beat the Seahawks in their rematch in the playoffs (and put up 36 points in a dominant game), there is some precedence of the Falcons struggling against good defenses.
Contrast that with Falcons defense which is ranked 22nd in overall defensive DVOA from Football Outsiders, 25th in total yards allowed and 27th in total points allowed. Given Tom Brady’s acumen as a precision passer and the Patriots #3 scoring offense this year I see the Patriots being able to keep pace with the Falcons pretty easily. The Falcons have been able to win games because of their potent offense being able to outscore their opponents to make up for a relatively weak defense, but this will be a very tall order against Patriots. Predicting the winner of football games is very tough to do, but because of that defensive advantage, not to mention Super Bowl experience, I’ll have to pick the Patriots to win a close, high scoring game. I may not enjoy that outcome, but that’s what I think will happen.
Patriots 30, Falcons 26
We’re almost there, everyone! We are nearly to the end of the nonstop predictions and talking heads beating the big game to death for two weeks! And now allow me to add my two cents to the beating. This should be an amazing matchup, and dammit, we deserve it after three rounds of mostly clunkers leading up to Super Bowl LI.
This game has been summarized as “best offense vs. best defense,” which is factually correct but probably a bit of oversimplification. Atlanta’s defense was pretty terrible at the beginning of the season but they have definitely improved over the stretch run. They proved in the NFC Championship Game that they can get to the quarterback against a solid offensive line (and holy hell did I ever enjoy Brian Poole pummeling Aaron Rodgers). Former Gopher Ra’shede Hageman, senior citizen Dwight Freeney, and the rest of the Falcons front seven can help mask some of the deficiencies of the young secondary. Seven of the twelve starters (if you include the nickel corner that plays the majority of the snaps) on the Atlanta defense are first- or second-year players, so it makes sense that they would improve with experience as the season wore on.
Creating pressure on Tom Brady will be key—we saw what happened to the Steelers when they inexplicably decided to rush three for most of the game and allow Brady to dissect them. If you look back at the nine playoff losses Brady has suffered in his career (out of THIRTY-THREE games...that’s just stupid), there’s one common theme in most of those games: Brady got knocked around. Matt Ryan will be named the MVP Saturday night, and deservedly so, but Brady is operating at another level this year. If you can’t consistently knock him off his spot, it’s your funeral.
As great as Brady is playing, I would imagine that the Patriots are going to emphasize running the ball quite a bit on Sunday. Controlling the clock, shortening the game, and keeping Atlanta’s ridiculous offense off the field will likely be a high priority. The versatility that LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis provide against a pretty weak Falcons run defense will be important to New England’s success.
Don’t forget about Atlanta’s 1-2 punch at running back though. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are matchup nightmares, especially catching passes out of the backfield. The Patriots will likely do everything they can to stop Julio Jones, which should create some opportunities for yards after the catch underneath.
I’m interested to see exactly how the Pats defend Jones, Mohamed Sanu, and Taylor Gabriel. I think we might see Malcolm Butler cover Sanu one-on-one and double Jones with safety help on the other side most of the time. Bill Belichick’s teams are notorious for taking away the other team’s most effective weapon, but I’m not sure we have seen a team with as many effective weapons as Atlanta in the past decade.
I think we’ll see a great back-and-forth game that might be a little lower scoring that people think, and in the end we’ll see Belichick and Brady get their fifth Lombardi trophy. Normally I wouldn’t be too thrilled with yet another Pats Super Bowl win, but the chance of Brady yelling “hey Roger, deflate THESE balls!” while grabbing his crotch is actually pretty exciting.
Patriots 29, Falcons 24