The big day is here, and despite the myriad of coverage that comes with the Super Bowl, here comes my own thoughts on the season that the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots have had and what we might see in tonight’s/tomorrow morning’s final game of the season. And there will be no discussion of the colour of the team’s jerseys!
The Atlanta Falcons were seeded second in the NFC having won their division with an 11-5 record. Splitting the season into four game sections as the coaches do, we can see that after losing their first game the Falcons won the first quarter by winning the next three games, they then split the next eight games across the middle quarters, but won out through the final quarter of the season and carried that momentum through the playoffs to the Super Bowl.
Their offence has played well all season, reaping the benefits of the blossoming relationship between offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and his quarterback Matt Ryan that led respectively to Shanahan being the expected head coach of the San Francisco 49ers and Ryan being named league MVP. Having focussed on what Ryan did and did not like from their first season together, the offence soared with Ryan throwing for just shy of five thousand yards, thirty-eight touchdowns and just seven interceptions. The offence scored thirty points or more in thirteen of their sixteen regular season games and both playoff games. This year they managed to balance the run game with the pass game, and that if defences focussed on stopping Julio Jones then Ryan was more than happy to distribute the ball with it not being unusual for five or more players to make catches during the game and thirteen different players caught touchdowns this year.
If the offence is what drives this Falcons team, then the defence has managed to do enough to win, which is impressive given the number of rookies and second year players that are contributing on this side of the ball. Their pass defence improved down the stretch despite losing Desmond Trufont to injury for most of the season, but their rush defence ranks only twenty-ninth by DVOA. They had a league leading fifteen and half sacks from Vic Beasley whilst one of their rookies Keanu Neal was second on the team in tackles as he drew comparisons with Seattle safety Kam Chancellor with his physical play. This is a unit that is a work in progress, but the profile of the players they are putting together is beginning to resemble the template of the defence in Seattle, which is hardly surprising given that this is where Head Coach Dan Quinn’s came from.
If the Falcons are melding their experienced offence with a young developing defence, then the Patriots are continuing their constant evolution in the relentless pursuit of excellence. This is the challenge that all NFL teams face, but few if any can match the success of Bill Belichik and Tom Brady, which is even more impressive given that it is taking place in a time of free agency and rules designed to enable all teams to be competitive.
The Patriots may have been missing Tom Brady for their first four games thanks to a dubious punishment from the deflate gate saga, from which I shall spare you a recap, but they still won three of those games including a 27-0 drubbing of the Houston Texans with their third string quarterback. Once Brady returned the offence hummed and the Patriots only lost one more game against the Seattle Seahawks as they went 14-2 and locked up the number one seed.
The Patriots offence is hard to generalise about as their approach changes from week to week depending on the opposition. It is perfectly possible for their incredible quarterback to be handing the ball off for the majority of the game if the plan demands it, or he could make fifty plus throws as the team pass their way to victory. What has been impressive is that they have achieved the results they have with Brady missing the games he did and Rob Gronkowski hardly playing this season thanks to injury. When he is on the field Gronkowski is putting together an argument to be considered one of the best tight ends to have played the game, but free agent pickup Martellus Bennett is a very good tight end in his own right and was second on the team in receiving yards this year and caught seven touchdowns. The other big free agent addition to the offence was receiver Chris Hogan, signed from the Buffalo Bills, who chipped in with nearly seven hundred receiving yards of his own and four touchdowns. It is worth noting that despite varying usage, running back LeGarrette Blount still ran for over a thousand yards this season and I haven’t even mentioned Julian Edelman who caught ninety-eight balls for eleven hundred yards himself.
If the offence was its usual supple and efficient self, the defence was less obviously excellent, but led the league in scoring defence and in the end it is points that really matter. The talk leading into the Super Bowl has been of Belichick’s ability to take away what the opposition does best, and certainly Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia are excellent coaches, but all coaches want to stop what the opposition does best. The question is usually how much of your resources are you prepared to commit to stopping that one thing as due to there only being eleven men on the field, by focussing on one thing you weaken the defence in other areas. One of the Patriots’ tactics that is often discussed has been the way they double the best receiver of the opposition with their second corner back and a safety, whilst placing their best corner man to man on the opposition second receiver to shut him down whilst the double team limits the number one receiver. However, even this is a simplification as what Belichick does so particularly well is place his players in a position to maximise their talent and so whilst Maclolm Butler is the most familiar name amongst the Patriots’ corners, thanks to his five foot eleven frame he tends not to be matched up against big physical receivers such as a Julio Jones.
This leading nicely into the Super Bowl matchup so let’s dive into that and I will start with the matchup I am most excited about, which is the Falcons’ offence versus the Patriots’ defence. The ability of the Patriots’ defence to force their opposition to play the game in a way they don’t want to will be tested by the flexibility of the Falcons’ offence approach. The Falcons are used to teams trying to take away Julio Jones, and with Matt Ryan’s ability to distribute the ball round his skill players and take advantage of both running backs’ ability to catch the ball coming out of the backfield they will feel confident in being able to move the ball. The Patriots run defence was ranked fourth in the league by DVOA and the injury to centre Alex Mack could hamper the interior of the Falcons’ offensive line, but if he gets time to throw the ball it is not hard to see Matt Ryan and his receivers ranked first by DVOA in passing attack take advantage of a Patriots defence that only ranked twenty-third against the pass. However, the Falcons will need to score points against a defence that may have given up yards, but their bend don’t break defence obviously limited their opponents effective, so as is so commonly the case red zone efficiency will be key. One last note on this matchup, this game pits the offence with the best yards after catch in the Falcons against the defence with the best yards allowed after the catch. Something may have to give.
The reason that the Falcons ability to score is so important is that for a lot of the time it has enabled their defence to play with a lead, and this has allowed the defence to rush the passer and do enough to win. However, unlike the Patriots’ disciplined front seven, the Falcons’ defence was twenty-ninth against the run, and what better way to counter act the Falcons high powered offence than for the Patriots to run the ball to control the clock and minimise the time the Falcons have the ball? There are some who are talking about how Belichick will put the ball in Brady’s hands to win the game, but I’m not so sure the ever pragmatic Belichick isn’t perfectly happy to muddy the game and win with defence like he did against the St Louis Rams and their legendary greatest show on turf offence. However, they have plenty of passing options to attack a young defence who might not have the experience to disguise their coverages and pass rushes, and if Brady goes to the line knowing what defence he is facing then he will simply excel. Although his approach is similar to the Seahawks, Dan Quinn and his staff have been more prepared to play man coverage with a single high safety mixed in with the trademark Seattle zone three coverage that also utilises a single high safety, but Brady will know what to look for to take advantage of this. The Patriots’ quarterback is also adept at stepping up in the pocket to avoid edge pass rushers such as Vic Beasley, and the return of line coach Dante Scarnecchia has seen a big improvement in the Patriots offensive line and much steadier play. In their playoff game against the Patriots, the Houston Texans were able to get pressure up the middle and rattle Brady, but whether the Falcons’ will be able to get an interior rush that can affect Brady will be a big question in this game.
Overall, it is hard to be definitive how this game will be played given it features two teams who have a lot of flexibility in their approach. There are a lot of narratives surrounding this game, the Falcons having the better players but the Patriots having the right team, Brady and Belichick’s excellence in the offseason, the supposed extra motivation for particular players which seems to be a bit of a nonsense given they are playing in a Super Bowl. Certainly more players on the Patriots have experience of playing in a Super Bowl, which might help, but this is not Dan Quinn’s first time coaching in a Super Bowl. I can see the Falcons running away with it, or the Patriots grinding out a convincing win, although I confess that with their experience I would favour the Patriots in a close game but not by much. The real x factor is the player we don’t know who will turn the game, Malcolm Butler made his name by his last second gaoling interception against the Seahawks, and you wouldn’t put it past the Patriots to have someone do this again with an unknown player, or for one of the first or second year players on the Falcons’ defence to really announce their arrival.
I for one am just looking forward to watching the game.