Super Bowl LI is just days away as both teams are in Houston preparing for the big game. They’ve gone through opening night, fielded questions from the media and all that’s left to do is remain focused and build a game plan to win the Lombardi Trophy.
There will be 22 players on the field at any given moment, but not all of them will be as impactful as the guy next to them. There’s a select group who will decide the outcome of Super Bowl LI on Sunday (6:30 p.m. ET on FOX). There are the obvious players on the list, but a handful of unheralded names also will play key roles in Sunday’s game.
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Mohamed Sanu, WR, Falcons
If the Patriots opt to double-team Julio Jones on one side, Sanu’s play will become even more important. He’ll see one-on-one matchups, likely against Logan Ryan, which he has to win. The Falcons have to make the Patriots pay for sending extra coverage Jones’ way, and they can do that with Sanu on the opposite side. As a strong-handed receiver who can elevate, Sanu has the build and athleticism to win jump-ball scenarious, which he’s proved in the past.
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Julian Edelman, WR, Patriots
Edelman has been on an absolute tear, playing like one of the NFL's best receivers. He’s amassed 406 yards on 24 receptions in the past three games, adding a pair of touchdowns. His role has been increasingly important with Rob Gronkowski injured, and he’s made the most of every opportunity that’s come his way since Gronk went down. Chris Hogan’s emergence as an over-the-top receiver has opened up underneath throws for Edelman, which is a key part of New England’s offense.
Deion Jones, LB, Falcons
The Falcons added a great deal of speed to their defense this offseason, mainly by way of the draft. Jones is at the center of the Falcons’ rebuild, and his speed is what makes him such a dynamic player in the middle of the defense. He has the agility to hang with quicker running backs and the size to take on tight ends in the open field. Considering how important Dion Lewis and Martellus Bennett are for the Patriots, Jones can have a significant impact on this game if he can limit their production.
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LeGarrette Blount, RB, Patriots
Blount quietly had one of the best 2016 seasons by a running back, rushing for 1,161 yards (eighth in the NFL) and a league-high 18 touchdowns. He shares the backfield with Dion Lewis, but it’s Blount who will get most of the carries, as he should. He can provide an added element of physicality for the Patriots, who like to finesse their way down the field.
Marcus Cannon, RT, Patriots
Cannon was vaulted into the starting role at right tackle before the season began when Sebastian Vollmer was placed on injured reserve. Since taking over, Cannon has done a great job protecting Tom Brady’s front side, preventing pressure from getting to him off the edge. Vic Beasley will be his primary opponent in this one, though he’ll also have to account for stunts and blitzes from the Falcons.
Vic Beasley, OLB, Falcons
If the Falcons win this game, it’ll probably be because Beasley was able to generate a good amount of pressure on Brady. Rushing four and making Brady uncomfortable is a big key to beating the Patriots, and that all starts with Beasley on the edge. Cannon has done a great job at right tackle this season, filling in for Vollmer, but Beasley’s quickness and speed off the left side of the line will be difficult to handle.
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Devonta Freeman, RB, Falcons
The Falcons aren’t a run-heavy team, but that doesn’t devalue their running backs. Both Freeman and Tevin Coleman are undeniably important to Atlanta’s offense because they’re able to do a multitude of things. Freeman, however, is the more valuable piece. He’s the top back for the Falcons and can impact the game on the ground and in the passing game. We saw that against the Seahawks when he turned a check-down into a huge gain, making Steven Tyrell miss in the open field. Freeman can shift the balance of this game with big runs and receptions.
Julio Jones, WR, Falcons
Yes, we’ve all heard it before: The Falcons scored 42 and 41 points against the Rams and 49ers, respectively, without Jones. But neither of those teams boasts the top-ranked scoring defense that the Patriots have. The Falcons have a bevy of weapons at their disposal, but need him to make big plays with the ball in his hands, and make the Patriots send extra attention his way. If nothing else, his ability to be a decoy will open up opportunities for other receivers, though he’s much better when he catches five or six passes.
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Malcolm Butler, CB, Patriots
The guy who will be shadowing Jones for most of the game will play a huge role in this one, and it won’t be easy. Butler has only gotten better by the year and has a chance to win his second Super Bowl ring – though probably not in such dramatic fashion. Butler will get help from safeties Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon over the top, but the more he can succeed in one-on-one coverage, the better off New England will be. Doubling Jones is difficult with the number of receivers Atlanta has.
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Matt Ryan, QB, Falcons
There are many reasons the Falcons are in position to win their first Super Bowl, but the biggest is because of Ryan’s play. The top candidate to win NFL MVP had not just the best season of his career, but also one of the most outstanding campaigns the league has seen from a quarterback. The Patriots will be his toughest test yet, but as long as he spreads the ball around, doesn’t commit turnovers and plays within himself, the Falcons will be in great shape.
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Tom Brady, QB, Patriots
It should come as little surprise that Brady is the most important player in Super Bowl LI. He’s been the most important player on the Patriots all season, so why would that change now in the biggest game of the year? Without Gronkowski and with a relatively new cast of receivers, Brady hasn’t missed a beat. He put together a terrific regular season and played arguably his best postseason game ever against the Steelers. If he puts on a show like that against the Falcons, Atlanta will be in trouble.