It’s been a postseason of blowouts. Just don’t expect another one in Super Bowl LI.
What you should expect is a track meet. Vegas has already set the over/under at 57, the highest in Super Bowl history. The Falcons scored the seventh-most points in league history this season and they aren’t even the favorites. That would probably seem preposterous if Atlanta were playing any other team but New England. This will be the Patriots’ record-breaking ninth Super Bowl appearance and their seventh under head coach Bill Belichick.
As usual, Tom Brady is on the precipice of history. Long acknowledged as one of the greatest quarterbacks ever, Brady can remove the “one of” qualifier and simply become the best ever by winning his fifth Super Bowl, a feat no quarterback has ever accomplished. Needless to say, we’ve got a good one on tap, folks. Set your DVR, pawn the kids off on an unsuspecting relative, reserve your table at a local sports bar—whatever you have to do to be free at 6:30 PM ET on February 5th.
For the Patriots, this confrontation has been building for two years. No, I’m not talking about the Falcons. Roger Goodell has been public enemy No. 1 in Foxboro ever since the Deflategate scandal first broke in January 2015. The commissioner drew a clear line in the sand, ignoring more pressing issues to throw the book at Tom Brady. The investigation, punishment and appeals process dragged on for a year-and-a-half, culminating in Brady’s four-game suspension, which was served at the start of the 2016 season.
Cognizant of the poor reception he’d receive at Gillette Stadium, Goodell has actively avoided the Patriots, opting to attend games at the Georgia Dome each of the past two weeks. If the Patriots can squeak by Atlanta, Goodell will finally come face-to-face with the quarterback he went to war with. Goodell has created his fair share of messes since succeeding Paul Tagliabue as commissioner and many would love to see him sweat under the bright lights, though just as many would prefer to see the hated Patriots fall flat against the upstart Falcons.
New England’s path to the Super Bowl was admittedly much easier than Atlanta’s. They got a cupcake in the Divisional Round, breezing to an easy win over the Texans and human lowlight-reel Brock Osweiler. The Patriots faced a tougher assignment against Pittsburgh in the Conference Championship, but even that was made easier by an early injury to all-world halfback Le’Veon Bell.
The Patriots were up to their usual trickery on Sunday, featuring Chris Hogan when the Steelers were expecting Julian Edelman to be New England’s top weapon. In the end, Pittsburgh couldn’t stop either one and lost handily. As a parting gift for the Steelers, Hogan and Edelman combined for 298 receiving yards, the most ever by two teammates in a postseason game. Hogan’s nine catches, 180 yards and two touchdowns were all career-highs. So much for that limp, huh Chris?
But enough about the Patriots. They’ve been here before. The Falcons haven’t—well at least not under this regime. Atlanta’s last trip to the Super Bowl came all the way back in 1998. Matt Ryan was in middle school back then. Now he’s one of the league’s most feared quarterbacks and a near-lock to claim his first MVP award.
Ryan has been phenomenal, particularly during the Falcons’ six-game winning streak (18 TD, 0 INT, 133.3 quarterback rating). But he certainly hasn’t done it alone. Sunday’s blowout win over the Packers, who hadn’t lost since Week 11, showed just how many ways the Falcons can beat you.
Julio Jones was on another planet, roasting the Packers for 180 yards and two touchdowns. And that wasn’t even Julio at his best. He missed two of the Falcons’ three practices during the week after reinjuring his toe against the Seahawks in the Divisional Round. With two weeks to recover, he should be at close to full strength for Super Bowl LI in Houston.
The Falcons also boast a pair of do-it-all runners in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Both found the end zone against Green Bay, as did first-year Falcon Mohamed Sanu. It was a tour de force by an Atlanta offense devoid of any obvious weaknesses. If there is one, it’s at tight end where the Falcons start rookie Austin Hooper. Even Hooper has had his moments this year, finishing third among rookie tight ends with 271 receiving yards.
One of the most anticipated matchups of Super Bowl LI has to be the battle between Julio jones and Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler. Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown predictably feasted in zone coverage on Sunday but when Butler shadowed Brown, it was a different story. Roethlisberger rarely looked Brown’s way when Butler was on him, instead attacking the middle of the field where Eli Rogers and Jesse James were usually left wide open. When Roethlisberger was daring enough to challenge Butler, Brown caught two-of-three passes for 23 yards.
Obviously Butler has come a long way since last season when Brown torched him for 133 yards in the Pats’ season opener. He graded out as PFF’s fifth-best cornerback out of 120 qualifiers this year while also earning his first All-Pro selection. Butler isn’t usually mentioned in the same breath as shutdown corners like Patrick Peterson, Richard Sherman or Aqib Talib, but maybe he should be. We all know what Butler did the last time he played in the Super Bowl. Now he’ll get to scratch something off his bucket list: covering Julio Jones.
It’s no secret that the workhorse back is an endangered species in the NFL. The position has become much more specialized with multiple backs occupying different roles within an offense. The Falcons and Patriots are two teams that have fully embraced this divide-and-conquer approach to running the ball. Freeman and Coleman have become almost interchangeable within Atlanta’s mile-a-minute offense. Both are capable of pushing the pile while also playing a big part in the passing game. The duo of Freeman and Coleman combined for 85 catches during the regular season.
In New England, it’s a bit more complicated. The Patriots are as game-plan dependent as any team in the league and nowhere is that more evident than in their running game. For example, the Patriots featured scat-back Dion Lewis in the Divisional Round, affording him a team-high 13 carries compared to only eight for LeGarrette Blount. A week later the Patriots went away from the more finesse stylings of Lewis in favor of a smash-mouth approach as Blount led the way with 17 touches (one of them was a catch, if you can believe it). And that still leaves James White, who finished third among running backs in both catches (60) and receiving yards (551) during the regular season. That’s a lot to prepare for if you’re an opposing team. The Falcons have 12 days to get ready and they’ll need every one of them.
The Patriots have been installed as three-point favorites and if history repeats itself, Super Bowl LI will be another nail-biter. Of New England’s six Super Bowl appearances under Belichick, all six have been decided by four points or fewer. Can’t it be February 5th already?
Quick Hits: Jamie Collins agreed to a four-year, $50 million contract with the Browns on Monday, keeping him in Cleveland through 2020. The deal comes with $26 million in guaranteed money. Based on annual salary, Collins is now the fourth highest-paid linebacker in the NFL behind Von Miller, Justin Houston and Clay Matthews … Now that Collins is taken care of, Terrelle Pryor should be the next domino to fall in Cleveland. According to Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports, the Browns are fully expected to use the franchise tag on Pryor. The 27-year-old led the team with 1,007 receiving yards in 2016 … James Harrison said he has no plans to retire. The 38-year-old earned PFF’s eighth-highest grade out of 59 qualifiers at 3-4 outside linebacker this past season … Despite suffering yet another concussion in 2016, retirement hasn’t crossed Ladarius Green’s mind. He’s just hoping for better results next season. "Frustrating season, but everybody has one,” he said. "I'm going to go train as soon as I get home, and hopefully next season works out a lot better.” … The Steelers inked Karlos Williams to a reserve/futures contract on Monday. The former Bill spent most of the year on Pittsburgh’s practice squad. Williams still has four games remaining on his 10-game ban for repeated violations of the league’s substance abuse policy … ESPN Dolphins reporter James Walker believes it’s a near certainty that Miami will move on from Mario Williams this offseason. Linebacker Koa Misi is also a candidate for release … Johnny Manziel offered some advice to Donald Trump before deleting his Twitter account on Monday. He was also in attendance for Sunday’s AFC Championship Game in Foxboro … Kyle Shanahan’s second interview for the 49ers’ head-coaching vacancy is expected to occur on either Friday or Saturday. Shanahan and the Falcons will head off to Houston to begin their Super Bowl preparations on Sunday … After a year off, ex-49ers coach Jim Tomsula has finally resurfaced. He’ll serve as the Redskins’ defensive line coach in 2017. The Redskins also announced that QBs coach Matt Cavanaugh will take over as offensive coordinator, filling the void left by Rams head coach Sean McVay. Kevin O’Connell has been tapped as the Redskins’ new QBs coach … T.J. Lang will undergo arthroscopic foot and hip surgeries on Friday. The 30-year-old impending free agent was invited to his first Pro Bowl this past season … Sam Shields admitted that he still has recurring headaches from a concussion he suffered back in Week 1. The 29-year-old has been concussed at least five times in his career … Doug Baldwin, Drew Brees, Dez Bryant, Kirk Cousins, Andy Dalton, Melvin Gordon, Darren Sproles and Demaryius Thomas headline the list of injury and Super Bowl replacements for Sunday’s Pro Bowl in Orlando. Andy Reid will coach the AFC side while Jason Garrett will lead the NFC squad.