Super Bowl LI prediction: Patriots’ stout defense to tip scales against Falcons

Paolo Bandini: New Englands stout defense will make the difference in a mouth-watering matchup between the two best quarterbacks in the league this season

Success is supposed to be fleeting in the NFL. The Atlanta Falcons are a case study in how its meant to be in a league whose structure is designed to promote parity. After going 14-2 and reaching their first Super Bowl in 1998, they failed to even get back into the postseason for another four years. The exact same thing happened after they went 13-3 and reached the NFC title game in 2012.

And now, all of a sudden, they are back in the big dance.

The New England Patriots, of course, do things differently. This will be their seventh Super Bowl appearance since hiring Bill Belichick as head coach in 2000. No other team has played in more than three over the same span.

Does that mean they will win on Sunday? Not necessarily: we have seen Belichick lose on this stage before. Admittedly, only against the New York Giants, but six games probably isnt a large enough sample size to deduce that no other opponent could upset them.

So, lets try and break this one down through the matchups instead. But first, a quick update on our Pick The Playoffs contest, where three readers have called all 10 games correctly so far.

Can mmmbop86, nbcnfl or ShadowWarrior make it a clean sweep? Or will they fall at the final hurdle? Ill post the full standings in the comments section shortly, but if youre within a point of the lead, do include a score prediction for Sundays game – this will be used as a tie-breaker, if required, to determine our winner.

For now, I can announce that castigers is our overall champion for the combined regular season and postseason contests, having built a two-point lead over the rest of the field with only the one game left to play. Do join me in congratulating them on an impressive 72 correct picks out of a possible 112 so far (and lets not forget that two of those games ended in ties ).

Falcons offense v Patriots defense

Atlanta led the NFL in scoring during the regular season, with Ryan averaging a ridiculous 9.3 yards per passing attempt and generally performing at a level above anything he had produced in his (already solid) career. Meanwhile, no team gave up fewer points than the Patriots.

Its worth noting that the Falcons have not just been running up the scores against bad teams. According to Football Outsiderss advanced DVOA metrics, they faced the second-most efficient group of defenses of any team in the NFL this season. Atlanta put 38 points on Arizona, 29 on Kansas City, 23 on Denver and then 36 on Seattle last month in the playoffs.

The Patriots have barely faced a team all season with anything close to this offensive potential. They did restrict the Steelers to a combined 33 points in two meetings, but Pittsburgh were missing Ben Roethlisberger in week seven, and lost LeVeon Bell early in the AFC championship game.

What makes the Falcons so dangerous is the range of weapons at Ryans disposal. Julio Jones is an extraordinary talent quite possibly the best wide receiver in the league but if it was just a question of keeping him in check then I would have no hesitation backing the Patriots to do so, especially after seeing how they contained Antonio Brown using constant double-teams.

Repeating that strategy against Atlanta, however, would appear riskier. The Falcons do not have a standout No2 option in the receiving game, but what they do have is a whole cast of reliable pass catchers and playmakers, from Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel at receiver to Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman coming out of the backfield. Assign two defenders to Jones, and will you still have enough left over?

Julio
Julio Jones, perhaps the NFLs best wide receiver, will offer New Englands defense a stiff challenge. Photograph: USA Today Sports / Reuters/USA Today Sports

The obvious alternative would be to let Malcolm Butler track Jones everywhere. He is one of few players in the NFL who might be capable of holding his own in such a duel. But we have not often seen Belichick make such rigid use of his No1 corner.

More likely, I suspect, is that the Patriots will flood the field with defensive backs, leaving as few as six men in the box and challenging Atlanta to stay patient and run the ball. The Falcons are quite capable of doing so, but would they stay patient enough in that scenario?

And there is at least a possibility that such an approach could play right into Atlantas hands. They have used the play-action more often, (on 27.6% of Ryans passing plays, according to ProFootballFocus) and more effectively, than any other team in the league. Establish the run early on with a couple of scoring drives, and suddenly it gets that little bit harder for defenders to resist the fake.

Otherwise, the one big concern I have for Atlanta on this side of the ball revolves around the fitness of center Alex Mack, who injured his ankle during the NFC championship game. The single most important player on an offensive line that has benefited hugely from being able to start the same five players in every game, he has practiced this week and is expected to start on Sunday, but will he be at 100%?

That ankle is sure to be tested by an encounter with New Englands 350lb defensive tackle, Alan Branch. If it fails, Atlanta might be in big trouble.

Patriots offense v Falcons defense

As brilliant as Ryan has been this season and I have already made my case for why I think he should win the MVP there is at least an argument to be made that Brady, after returning from his suspension, was even better. How do you combat a guy who completes more than 67% of his passes, and who has a preposterous 132.8 quarterback rating on third down?

The obvious answer is to hit him before he gets the chance to throw. Obvious, but incredibly difficult to achieve. Brady took a mere 19 sacks in 14 starts (playoffs included) this season and has excelled against the blitz for years.

Almost every team that has toppled New England in a playoff game in the past decade has been able to generate consistent pressure without sending extra men after him. In theory, Atlanta have the personnel to do the same. Vic Beasley led the league with 15.5 sacks in the regular season, whilst Dwight Freeney remains a highly effective situational edge rusher as well.

In practice, though, I have some doubts. Beasley is yet to record a sack in the playoffs, and you could make a case that his regular season numbers in that department overstate his effectiveness. His 56 total quarterback pressures only ranked 18th in the NFL, and he is likely to spend a significant part of Sundays game lining up opposite New Englands right tackle, Marcus Cannon a man who has not allowed a sack since week one.

Tom
Whether Atlantas blitz can fluster Tom Brady will prove crucial to the Falcons chances. Photograph: Charlie Riedel/AP

Brady should be content to get the ball out quickly, too. The Falcons missed 136 tackles this season, according to ProFootballFocus, and allowed opposing ball-carriers to gain an average of 2.89 yards after initial contact. Those were, respectively, the second-worst and worst such numbers of any team in the league.

A reasonable conclusion for Belichick and his coaching staff would be that it makes more sense to focus on plays that get the ball into receivers hands close to the line of scrimmage rather than taking shots downfield. Nobody executes the simple slant-flats passing concepts better than Brady, who, like Ryan, has a wealth of different targets to aim at.

Chris Hogan has been the star of New Englands playoff show so far, and his size cam be an asset against a defense that prizes speed over power. Belichick might be tempted to soften Atlanta up early, using heavy formations with a heavy dose of LeGarrette Blount and Martellus Bennett. But if not then, hey, Julian Edelman, Dion Lewis and James White all know how to do damage, too.

Special teams

The Falcons might have a slight edge in the third phase, though I dont think its a huge one. Kicker Matt Bryant has put together the best season of his career at 41 years old, the coverage units have been solid and Eric Weems ranked sixth in the league with an 11.4 yard punt return average. The Falcons own punter, Matt Bosher, should be feeling fresh-legged, given hes only had to boot the ball 44 times all season.

New Englands Ryan Allen is solid, as are the coverage units. There have been a few return mishaps over the course of the season, but Dion Lewis ran a kickoff return back 98 yards for a score against the Houston Texans in the divisional round. The only faint red mark is attached to kicker Stephen Gostkowski whose usually high standards have slipped somewhat, with three extra points and four field goals missed over the course of the season.

Pick

What makes this such a fascinating matchup is the fact that, on the surface, you can find so much about these teams that look similar. Brady and Ryan have been the two best quarterbacks in the league in 2016-17, both have benefited from strong pass protection and each has a vast arsenal of varied weapons at their disposal. I expect this to be a high-scoring game.

In the end, though, I do think the Patriots will have an edge on defense. I dont think either team is going to have a great deal of joy rushing the passer unless Mack really does struggle for Atlanta but I do expect Belichick to do a better job of scheming to slow Ryan down, take away the deep ball and test the Falcons willingness to play patiently and chip away.

Perhaps they will rise to that challenge. But Im more inclined to trust the team Ive seen do it before.

Prediction: Patriots 34-28 Falcons

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