The New England Patriots will enter the Super Bowl as favorites – likely somewhere around three points. They’ve been the better team all year and haven’t wavered from being the NFL’s top squad since the season began, but the past 18 games mean close to nothing. It all comes down to Super Bowl Sunday when all previous stats and records are thrown out the window and anything can happen.
The Falcons are an aggressive bunch with a superior offense, and it’s no sure bet that the Patriots will be able to stop them. That, along with several other potential issues, could ruin the big day for the Patriots and allow a Super Bowl to slip through their grasp.
Mohamed Sanu having an Antwaan Randle El moment
Mohamed Sanu is an X-factor in this game for more reasons than one. Not only is he a playmaking wide receiver for the Falcons, but he’s the main guy who could have an Antwaan Randle El moment in the Super Bowl. You remember, right -- when he threw a touchdown pass in Super Bowl XL against the Seahawks to help the Steelers win a ring? Sanu is quietly one of the best trick-play artists in the NFL, having completed all five of his career pass attempts for 177 yards and two touchdowns. If he’s able to hit on a trick play to change the balance of the game, it could doom the Patriots, and Bill Belichick is well aware of that.
“Look, you can draw up any gadget play you want,” Belichick said. “In the end, it comes down to the basic fundamentals of your defense. So, every defense is designed to defend the perimeter, defend the deep balls, whether that’s man-to-man or zone, or four-man line, three-man line or two-man [line], whatever it is.
The Patriots don’t turn the ball over. They set an NFL record with just two interceptions all season, while also doing a good job of protecting it in the running game. However, when it rains it pours for New England. They’ve only had four games since Week 7 in which they turned the ball over. In each of those four games, though, they turned it over more than once – or a total of 10 times. The Patriots haven’t had a game in which they gave it away exactly one time since Week 4, which is good but it’s also worrisome.
If the Pats don’t protect the ball early and commit a turnover or two, the floodgates could open. The Falcons will smell blood in the water and play with greater intensity and aggressiveness, should they intercept Brady early or force a fumble. New England won three of the last four games in which it had more than one turnover – and four of five, overall – but the Patriots simply can’t afford to commit multiple turnovers in this one and give the Falcons extra possessions.
Not being able to stop the Falcons’ dynamic RBs
The Falcons have one of the best running back duos in the NFL with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Both run with good physicality while maintaining elusiveness and speed, which will be a challenge for the Patriots’ defense. They were able to shut down Le’Veon Bell last week, but he was playing through obvious pain and wasn’t himself. Can the Patriots stop not one of the Falcons’ running backs, but both? That’s a big question for this game.
And it’s not just on the ground that they have to contain Atlanta’s running backs. Freeman and Coleman are both key contributors in the passing game, whether it’s running routes out of the backfield or splitting out wide as a receiver. Dont'a Hightower is one of the best linebackers in the game, but not having Jamie Collins and his range could hurt the Patriots in this one when trying to cover running backs.
Marcus Cannon failing to block Vic Beasley
Marcus Cannon will have his toughest test yet when he faces the NFL’s leading sack artist in Vic Beasley. Beasley hasn’t been on as much of a tear of late as he was earlier in the year, but he still poses a serious threat to the Patriots’ passing game. If Cannon struggles early, the Patriots will have no choice but to send help his way. Whether that’s with an extra tight end on the right side of the line or a running back staying in to block, the Patriots will limit their targets in the passing game to do so.
That’s the sort of attention Beasley can command if he gets off to a hot start. And when it comes to late-game situations, Beasley can be a closer if the Patriots are forced to turn to the pass more often. Beasley can be a disruptive force for the Falcons and alter the timing of the Patriots’ passing game.
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Julio Jones dominating Malcolm Butler
Julio Jones proved last week against the Packers that he has the ability to bully defensive backs and take over a game. Malcolm Butler will be a much tougher test for Jones, but he’s no Richard Sherman. Bill Belichick will certainly devise a plan to give Butler help in coverage against Jones, but if he can’t take care of his assignment in one-on-one coverage, the Patriots could be burned for big gains.
Jones has outstanding speed and agility for a receiver his size, and even with Butler being as physical and tough as he is at the line of scrimmage, don’t be surprised to see Jones to get a good release against the press and make the Patriots pay to the inside. The Falcons are deep at receiver, so shading Jones’ way will be tougher than it was against the Steelers.