The Atlanta Falcons are heading into Super Bowl LI as a confident bunch, and they have every right to be. They were the league’s best offense this season and haven’t turned the ball over once in the past four games.
They’re well aware of the challenge they face in the New England Patriots, and there are five issues that could potentially give them some trouble on Super Bowl Sunday and ruin their remarkable season.
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Matt Ryan reverting back to his 2015 form
Ryan had what many would call the worst season of his career in 2015. He threw just 21 touchdown passes and was turnover-prone with 16 interceptions. In fact, his poor play had some wondering if he was truly a great quarterback. He silenced all of those doubts this season, but that doesn’t mean he won’t have a poor game against the Patriots.
If Ryan reverts to his 2015 tendencies of not protecting the football, making mental errors and throwing inaccurately downfield, the Falcons will be in for a long day. There are almost no indications that he’ll have a game like that, but considering how much he previously struggled in the postseason, it’s impossible to rule it out.
That being said, expect Ryan to use his weapons the way he always has. He’ll get the ball into the hands of his playmakers on short-to-intermediate passes, allowing them to get yards after the catch. That’s when he’s at his best.
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Atlanta’s rookies playing like rookies
The Falcons have a chance to become the first team in NFL history to start four defensive rookies in the Super Bowl: Keanu Neal, Deion Jones, De’Vondre Campbell and Brian Poole. All of them play key roles on defense, particularly the first two, but this is a game in which the spotlight may be too big for them.
The Falcons can’t afford to let their youth show up on the field next Sunday, especially with Tom Brady on the other side. Mental mistakes can’t happen, otherwise Brady will capitalize on them and expose lapses on the defensive side of the ball. If Atlanta’s rookies play the way they have all season, it’ll bring a substantial amount of speed and aggressiveness to the defense. They just have to make sure that aggressiveness doesn’t get too out of hand and cause them to play outside of their boundaries.
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Vic Beasley struggling to pressure Tom Brady
The Falcons will be without Adrian Clayborn, so most of the pressure (no pun intended) will be on Beasley to get after Brady. That’s the one aspect of the game that can rattle Brady and make him frustrated. If Beasley can’t bend the edge against Marcus Cannon on the left side of the defense, the Falcons will be forced to blitz.
In that scenario, Brady’s windows to throw will widen, making it easier for him to complete passes and get the ball in the hands of his receivers. The key to beating Brady is generating pressure with just four pass rushers, particularly with one dynamic player – much like the way the Broncos beat the Patriots with Von Miller last year. Beasley can’t afford to struggle in the biggest game of his life.
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Tom Brady playing like he did against the Steelers
Brady is a great quarterback. We all know that, your mother knows that, and so does the biggest Falcons fan. However, he’s beatable. The only time he’s not going to be beat is if he plays the way he did against the Steelers. In that game, which landed his Patriots a spot in the Super Bowl, Brady completed 32 of 42 passes for a postseason career-high 384 yards and three touchdowns. His passer rating was 127.5, which is the fourth-best of his playoff career.
If Brady continues to play the way he did in that game, the Falcons are in trouble. Deep, deep trouble. Most quarterbacks who complete 76 percent of their passes and average 9.14 yards per attempt are going to put their teams in position to win with a victory happening more often than not. Atlanta’s defense is better than Pittsburgh’s, but that may not matter to Brady.
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Bill Belichick figuring out how to lock down Julio Jones
Arguably the biggest matchup of this game is between Malcolm Butler and Jones. Both are among the best at their respective positions with Jones possibly being No. 1 in that regard, and it will take an awful lot to shut him down. However, if there’s one team in the league that can create a game plan to stop Jones, it’s Belichick’s Patriots.
They did a great job against Antonio Brown, bracketing him with Butler and help over the top. Jones is a different physical specimen who plays with greater physicality, so Butler will need to jam him at the line and knock him off his route.
If Belichick devises a plan to stop Jones and it works as he expects, Matt Ryan will be forced to go to his other weapons rather than his top guy. That could pose serious problems for the Falcons.