Here's your first look at Super Bowl LI, a hotly anticipated offensive showdown that will hopefully bring the NFL out of its 2016 playoff doldrums.
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The New England Patriots will face the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI, to be played on Sunday, Feb. 5 in Houston's NRG Stadium. Both teams won their respective conference championships in blowout fashion, with the Pats beating the Steelers 36-17 and the Falcons routing the Packers 44-21. It's the second time in NFL history that both championship games were decided by 19 points or more. (The last was in 1978.) New England opened as 3-point favorites over Atlanta.
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New England was the preseason betting favorite to win the Super Bowl, getting 6/1 odds. The Falcons had the fifth-worst odds, going off at 80/1. Among the many, many teams in front of Atlanta: Jacksonville and the Jets. I'll repeat: Jacksonville and the Jets.
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Super Bowl LI pits the top-ranked scoring offense (Atlanta) against the top-ranked scoring defense (New England). That's happened six times before and the old adage that "defense wins championships" has been validated in five of those games. The last time we saw such a battle was when Seattle thrashed Denver's high-powered offense in Super Bowl XLVIII, winning 43-8. However (there's always a however), the Pats played the easiest schedule of any team in the NFL and hadn't faced much of a quarterback before Ben Roethlisberger on Sunday. Russell Wilson, in an off year, put up 31 points against New England. Andy Dalton was the second-best QB the Pats saw in the 2016 regular season. So there's your grain of salt.
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This is the ninth Super Bowl appearance for the Patriots, the most for any team in NFL history. They're 4-4 in the game and, with a win, would tie Dallas and San Francisco for the second-most titles. The Steelers lead with six Super Bowl wins overall. This is the seventh Super Bowl for Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, who are 4-2, with their wins coming in one of the game's greatest upsets (2001), the last back-to-back wins (2003-04) and one of the greatest finishes (2014). Both losses in the current Pats dynasty came to the New York Giants.
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Atlanta is making its second appearance in the Super Bowl. The Dirty Birds of 1998 advanced to the game after a stunning road upset of 15-1 Minnesota, then lost to a John Elway-led Denver team that won its second consecutive title. This is the first time since then that the Falcons have won multiple playoff games in the same year. This century, the team is 5-6 in the postseason. They narrowly lost the 2013 NFC championship when they couldn't score a go-ahead touchdown after getting inside the 49ers red zone with under two minutes remaining.
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Brady has never lost to the Falcons in four career games, throwing for 9 touchdowns, 1 interception and has his highest QB rating against Atlanta. None of those games are particularly pertinent to the game two Sundays from now - the last meeting was in 2013 when New England went to the Georgia Dome on a Sunday night and never trailed in an easier-than-it-looked 30-23 victory. Matt Ryan and Julio Jones were there for that game but Dan Quinn and Kyle Shanahan weren't.
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Brady will attempt to become the first quarterback with five Super Bowl rings. A win would tie him with Bart Starr for the most NFL titles ever - Starr won three NFL championships with the Packers before the Super Bowl era. He already has a record 24 playoff wins, which is 50% higher than the No. 2 QB on the list (Brady's childhood idol, Joe Montana). Matt Ryan is 3-4 in the postseason. He's had the better season though - even accounting for Brady's four missed games because of his Deflategate suspension - and is the probable NFL MVP. (Brady has won the award twice.) Ryan and Brady finished Nos. 1 and 2 this season in QB rating and yards-per attempt, respectively, while Ryan was second in yards, second in touchdowns and third in completion percentage.
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Atlanta scored 540 points this season, tied for the seventh-most in NFL history and 71 points clear of the next-best team. They were "only" ranked No. 2 in total offense however, which should tell you something about the meaning of those rankings. The defense allowed the sixth-most points of any NFL team and ranked 25th overall. (We didn't say we wouldn't quote said flawed rankings.) The Patriots units were both in the top 10 (fourth in offense, eighth in defense) but were No. 1 in points allowed. In the playoffs, New England has outscored opponents 69-33; Atlanta is at 80-41 (nearly identical point differentials).
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The Julio Jones vs. Malcolm Butler matchup will be the most interesting and pivotal in Super Bowl LI. (Remember, Tom Brady and Matt Ryan don't actually face one another.) Yes, Ryan has actually put up better statistics while throwing to other receivers (though his numbers to the All-Pro Jones are still gaudy) but you could argue that's because Jones is attracting so much attention that it frees up other pass catchers for Ryan. In most situations you'd say "as Julio goes, so do the Falcons." He had 300 yards receiving (!) in Atlanta's biggest offensive outburst of the season. But in his next three highest-yardage games, Atlanta went 0-3. (They won the two games he didn't play, but those were against Los Angeles and San Francisco.) It'll likely be on Butler to hold him in check and keep Jones from opening up the field for deep plays to Atlanta's other receivers. Of course, given the Belichickicity (it's a word) of the Pats defense, New England could put Butler on the other side of the field all game. It's all on the table with the Pats.
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• Brady has never lost in the playoffs to a team he's seeing for the first time that season.
• The best stat of championship Sunday: Julio Jones had nine catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns. Chris Hogan had nine catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns. Just like we all expected.
• An NFL MVP hasn't won the Super Bowl since Kurt Warner in 1999.
• In 13 of the last 14 Super Bowls, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Ben Roethlisberger has been under center for the AFC team. (The lone exception: Joe Flacco in 2012.)
• The over/under is already up to 60 points (after opening at 58). That's the highest in Super Bowl history.