Super Bowl LI Preview – New England Patriots vs Atlanta Falcons – I’ve had butterflies in my stomach all week

I’m sat in my room on the Thursday before Super Bowl Sunday. I’m flicking through the game program that came through my door this afternoon (it’s full of nonsense, trust me). And I keep having to remind myself: the Atlanta Falcons are in the Super Bowl. Yeah, it’s been like two weeks since it was confirmed, but the full gravitas of the occasion hadn’t quite washed over me. After all, we advanced off the back of a blowout victory. The Championship game was won by half time. It was just another game.

Paul Worrilow (55) and Jonathan Babineax (95) soaking up the atmosphere on the first night of Super Bowl week. Photo Credit: Bob Levey/Getty Images

Perhaps it’s the daily podcasts some outlets I follow have been putting out, maybe it’s the non-stop media coverage elsewhere. There’s only so many times you can hear Tom Brady and Bill Belichick say the same thing again, but this week it finally became real.  I have noticed something on a personal level, however.

Indulge my emotions for a moment

Now I don’t own a great deal of falcons merchandise, truth be told. At least in comparison to some of the other UK NFL fans. Yeah, I’ve got a couple of jerseys and a couple of t-shirts, but some of the fans out there are mad on it. I can’t afford that, I can barely afford lunch. Of all the clothing items I own, though, I only really get to wear one thing on a daily basis. What with it being sub-zero freezing temperatures in Britain between about October to March, my Falcons bobble hat has seen plenty of use.

It might not seem like much, it probably seems stupid just reading this, but pulling that hat on every day after work has become one of my favourite things. I know exposure of the sport in the UK has grown massively, so you see these bobble hats pretty regularly. The Raiders and the Giants seem to be the most. I’ve been getting a few funny looks over the past few years. Those looks have turned into knowing nods this week. The sheer pride I feel while wearing that hat (again, it’s stupid) is insane. It feels like I’m representing the brotherhood.

Hey look people are covering the Falcons! Oh wait…

It’s a shame it has to end, really. Granted, it’s ending with the second biggest game in pro-sports (after the FA Vase, course), but I’ve truly enjoyed watching professional journos and personalities find new ways to confirm that they have watched very little Falcons football this year. Be it claims we’re “boring”, comparisons being drawn between us and last seasons Panthers (I heard one talk show moron suggest we’re “flashy”), the disrespect is REAL, people!

Unfortunately, the result of having, four years of next to no media coverage means journalists have to make up for lost time. And actually do their jobs. And when journalists do their jobs, they tend to get stories (I mean, that’s their job). Where that leaves us, unfortunately, is in the position where the Falcons have been the subject of some pretty distracting story lines. Most of which came to the fore in the first few days of Super Bowl week.

Distraction #1: Pay the man! Right now!

The first came in the form of Devonta Freeman’s agent. Sunday night, Free’s agent began to lobby the media for a contract extension for the Running Back. The Falcons need to make the extension of Freeman’s contract “a priority this offseason”, apparently. He should be “paid like the elite back” that he is, it was suggested. There were even rumours that Freeman is frustrated sharing snaps with Tevin Coleman, his partner in crime out of the backfield. Timing clearly isn’t a strong point for the woman representing Devonta, apparently.

Freeman, to be fair, deserves a pay rise. But wait until the season is over for Christ sake. Photo Credit: Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

The obvious answer to these calls are “shut up, do your job in the Super Bowl, and we’ll talk”. Something that seems to have gone under the radar in the coverage of this one is that Freeman still has a year left on his current deal. Like, come on, man. I have no doubts that Freeman will be the go to back for Atlanta for years to come, but there’s no major rush. Not from a Falcon point of view, at least.

Distraction #2: Trading places

Part two of Atlanta Amateur Hour came courtesy of Kyle Shanahan. Kyle was particularly popular as a result of his impending career suic-I mean…move to San Francisco. The worst kept secret in football is that the offensive genius will take up the vacant seat at the head of the 49ers table. And, naturally, people wanted some words from the man of hour. And they got some. Shanahan put on his act, and people left satisfied. One reporter, in particular, left very satisfied, after walking away from the booth with Shanahan’s backpack. Which contained the Falcons offensive gameplan for Sunday evening. Oh dear.

Kyle Shanahan pictured here the moment he realised he’d lost his back pack, as well has his entire lifes work. Photo Credit: Tim Warner/Getty Images

Shanahan did get his backpack back, after half an hour of genuine worry. Dan Quinn has shook it off, claiming his first mate left a decoy plan for reporters to find but…who’s buying that? Let’s just hope that particular “San Francisco-based Reporter” doesn’t have ties to the notoriously sneaky Bill Belichick…

Distraction #3: You’re not really hurt if you can’t feel anything

The controversy came from a bunch of emails released from 2010. In a lengthy email chain, General Manager Thomas Dimitroff, Team President Rich McKay, and Owner Arthur Blank, worryingly discussed the sides over-reliance of painkillers. While this appears to be a non-issue, a lawsuit is being brought against the league by a group of lawyers representing former players. The emails claim the Falcons spent three times as much as the average NFL side, and openly advocated playing through serious pain. This issue may be something that is readdressed in the offseason, only time will tell.

Ok, now that those pieces of ugly housekeeping are out the way, let’s get on with the X’s and O’s.

The Greatest of All Time

Meeting for only the third time in the Matt Ryan era, the Atlanta Falcons face the New England Patriots. Additionally, this is only the second ever Super Bowl appearance for the Falcons. Ryan has yet to register a victory over the Patriots, and there’s no better backdrop for it than here. For the Patriots, they will contest their eighth Super Bowl under the stewardship of Bill Belichick, arguably the greatest Head Coach in the history of the game. To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best, and Atlanta certainly have that scenario on their hands this weekend.

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick will go down as the very best in their departments. Photo Credit: Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports

Under centre is an All-Universe quarterback, likely to go down, alongside his coach, as the best to ever do his job. Tom Brady is in a league of his own. The 17 year veteran boasts four Super Bowl victories in seven attempts. Most recently, in Super Bowl 49, the Patriots bested Pete Carroll’s Seattle Seahawks. Dan Quinn, the Seahawks defensive coach that evening, left for Atlanta the next day (or around then). It’s fitting, then, that the second year coach gets a chance to enact revenge for that particularly painful night.

Chemistry is key

What New England seem to do better than anyone is find the right players at the right time. Pound for pound, there are probably more talented sides out there. New England, however, definitely have the right players with the right mentality. Outside of their Quarterback, the closest thing to a healthy, superstar player is Julian Edelman, who’s essentially Brady’s go-to man when they need a completion. Think Julio Jones, but shorter, and whiter.

In addition to an all-white wide receiver unit (not really important, but kinda funny) is a genuine monster out of the backfield. Similar to Freeman and Coleman, New England has LeGarrette Blount, Dion Lewis, and James White. Three great backs with very different skill sets. Blount is the primary back, who can literally carry a defence for about five yards, while White and Lewis tend to be used in more situational passing plays. The three of them certainly have enough to worry the Falcons run defence.

Blont has been exceptional this season Photo Credit: Al Bello/Getty Images

Despite their lack of perceivable talent, New England have a knack for taking guys off the street and making them better. Something incredible is how Brady appears to elevate the talent around him. I mean Chris Hogan mad a name for himself in recent weeks. It would be foolish to underestimate the ability of these players. At the same time, much credit must be given to a combination of Tom Brady and his Offensive Coordinator, Josh McDaniels. The pair share a brilliant chemistry. One that you could legitimately see lasting for another 4 or 5 seasons yet.

They’re quite good on Defence, too

What New England like hang their hat on is their defence, however. Belichick is of a defensive background himself, so it’s no surprise that the New England defence gave up the least amount of points per game out of the 32 sides in the league. And that’s even after giving up, arguably, their most talented defensive player in Jamie Collins. Again, the RIGHT players, rather than the best players.

Belichick is a master schemer, however. He’s built his reputation on nullifying opposition offenses, and he’s proven that once again this season. That being said, the Patriots haven’t come up against anything close to this Falcons offense. The game will be won and lost when the Patriots D is on the field, one imagines.

But are they actually that good?

For the Atlanta Falcons, it’s just another game. What Atlanta benefit from the most, coming into this game, is having played out the toughest schedule in the league. You look at the Patriots “15.6 points given up per game” and be impressed. It’s somewhat less impressive when you notice the Patriots have played out one of the most straight-forward seasons I’ve seen this year. You can only beat what’s put in front of you, sure. But when Ryan Fitzpatrick, Trevor Siemian, Jared Goff, and Matt Moore, are put in front of you, your numbers are inflated.

I am of the opinion that the Falcons have already played, and beaten better defences than this Patriots unit. While both the Broncos and the Seahawks boast supremely talented defences, those sides are let down by their flagging offenses. The same can be said for the Cardinals, who had the league’s best defence heading into Atlanta, and Kansas City, who avoided defeat as a direct result of their defence.

Can Belichick out-scheme Shanahan?

This is why the emphasis has to be on offense. Matt Ryan and friends have flourished this season. And, the reality is, their opposition isn’t much better than anything they’ve already faced, and defeated. Although Shanahan has to take into the “taking away your biggest asset” thing Belichick is so good at, you have to have faith that the young wizard can get it done. Failing that, Matt has so many different options, who really knows what our biggest asset is? Julio has missed games and we’ve won…our running game has been limited and we’ve won…all the best, Bill. So long as Shanahan and Ryan shoot out the gates playing an aggressive, attacking style of offense, there are points to be had off this defence.

Operation: hit Tom Brady

Much has been made of the young defence Dan Quinn has assembled, and their biggest job will be to knock Tom Brady about early and often. You can cover this plethora of “sneaky athletic” receivers all you like, but Tom will find a way to break through. We saw what happened after Brian Poole dropped Aaron “hottest hand in football” Rodgers a few times early. It’s not unreasonable to expect a similar reaction from Brady if the likes of Vic Beasley and Dwight Freeney can get pressure on Brady. If they can do that, the secondary should be capable enough of covering Brady’s receivers for just long enough.

Dwight Freeney is looking to add to his one previous Super Bowl victory Photo Credit: Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY Sports

The core issue at hand is, despite being better than it once was, this defence is still not “good”. Opportunistic, sure. But good? No. Brady has seen, and carved, better defences than ours. This is very much an offensive battle, no matter what people will have you believe. While I have enjoyed the development of Deion Jones and Keanu Neal, there’s still a nagging voice in the back of my mind that makes me believe Belichick can expose their inexperience.

Ultimately, then, it’ll come down to which offense can sustain one drive more than the other. Something that’s changed since I penned my initial thoughts for this sites writers preview is the scoreline. I stated 35-31 in that piece, however I do believe if the Falcons can drop 30, they will win. As has been the case all season, it’ll be up to MattVP to pull the victory out of the bag. Get an early lead, force Brady’s hand and take away the threat of LeGarrette Blount, that’s the best chance we have of victory.

Prediction

It may be the case that experience ultimately wins the day. If Atlanta are too jumpy or too nervous on the night, the Brady bunch might take advantage of that. While Dan Quinn has been involved in 3 of the last 4 Super Bowls, nothing close can be said about any of his playing staff. You’d hope that “just another game” rings true here, but there’s no denying that that stakes are exponentially higher.

Score Prediction: 27-30

I will add this, however: The Falcons have come a long way from where they were back in week one. This is where they want to be. This is where they belong. But, to quote Tom Brady himself: “We didn’t come this far to ONLY come this far”. With one more game to play before the season closes, the Atlanta Falcons have never had a better chance to win it all. I hope you’ll join be in praying I’ve got it wrong again.

#riseup Featured on: atlantafalcons.com

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