Alas, Super Bowl LI is here. So as we wind down the fortnight of football hype, it’s time to shift the focus from how these teams got here to what they’ll do now that they are here.
This Super Bowl isn’t really framed as a difference in talent or temerity, but rather in class and perception. New England and Atlanta are as far apart in history as they are in geography.
The Patriots are the blue bloods, the elites, NFL royalty of the highest order. They are, for lack of a more fitting handle, the first family of pro football. Every summer, while musing over rosters and schedules and fantasy drafts, the Patriots are the only club virtually assured a spot in the playoffs.
So if pedigree is the key, then the Pats are your pick. Out of each team’s respective rosters, a total of 21 Patriots have played in a Super Bowl. Only four Falcons have done the same. Indeed, Robert Alford is the only member of the Falcons’ secondary who has played more than two seasons. Also, Atlanta is the first team in Super Bowl history to start four rookies on defense.
If Falcons fans want some silver lining, consider that head coach Dan Quinn is now in his third Super Bowl in four years, when you consider his time as the Seattle Seahawks’ defensive coordinator.
Both teams flaunt serious firepower on offense. New England averaged 27.6 points per game during the regular season, and have bumped up to 35 points per game in January. And no one questions Tom Brady’s Super Bowl bona fides.
The Pats can somehow post PlayStation numbers by playing musical chairs with their wideouts. They reached a Super Bowl with Deion Branch. They reached a Super Bowl with Wes Welker. Again with Julian Edelmen. And now with Chris Hogan. Rinse and repeat. And if you think they don’t rely on the running game, consider that LeGarrette Blount had the second-most carries in the NFL this season, leading a top-10 rushing offense. New England constantly switches players, formations and game plans. So suffice it to say the Falcons defense has its hands full.
But for all the pyrotechnic passing and running from the Pats, this game might be decided when Atlanta has the football.
The world well knows by now that the Falcons had the best offense in the sport, averaging 33.8 points per game during the regular season. And Atlanta has posted 40 points per game in the playoffs. Of Matt Ryan’s 38 touchdown passes, 13 went to different receivers, an NFL record.
But what should determine this Super Bowl is defense. Just as it determined last year’s Super Bowl and so many before.
If you look at their history under Bill Belichick, New England’s defense travels well. Out of their stingiest defenses — using points allowed as the main metric — three have resulted in a SB victory. Sunday could make four, as this year’s defense is their third-stingiest. They allowed 15.6 points per game this season, and held both their playoff opponents under 20 points.
New England is the chalk almost every time they reach this game. But the Falcons have suddenly become the trendy pick, their bandwagon filling with some big-time ballers, among them Dan Marino, A.J. Green, Donovan McNabb, DeMarcus Ware and Marcus Allen.
To that end, the Falcons have scored an opening-drive touchdown in eight straight games. And nothing will quell the opening-quarter jitters like a quick TD.
Atlanta averages 4.6 points per opening drive, the best mark in the NFL over last 15 years. The Falcons are also 11-1 with 7+ points in their first two drives of a game this season, including playoffs. Julio Jones should get his share of the attention, both from Matt Ryan and the Patriots’ defense, which handled Antonio Brown with alarming aplomb in the AFC title game.
If Jones isn’t his normal volcanic self, the Falcons still have Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel, who scored an astonishing seven TDs on just 54 touches during the regular season. Atlanta also has a potent RB tandem in Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman. Freeman scored 12 of his 14 total touchdowns in the Georgia Dome. So perhaps it’s a good sign that they’re playing this game in NRG Stadium — a dome with a sliding roof.
And, of course, the winner of this game will dictate the nature of the celebration. Will this be a coronation — and redemption — for Tom Brady, who would share the dais with his eternal tormentor, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell? Or will Atlanta and Matt Ryan make the quantum leap from pretenders to contenders to champions in four quarters?
One final stat might jump out and recycle Super Bowl history. Teams that get this far after scoring at least 500 points (Atlanta scored 540) are 4-7 in the Super Bowl. They are 1-5 since 2001. To some of us, it means the right defensive mind, with two weeks to prepare, can blunt the most explosive offense.
No football mind is greater or more accomplished than that of Bill Belichick.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.