ORLANDO, Fla. — When it comes to the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots, there are few in the NFL who know firsthand what’s required to take them down. Of the five teams that faced both conference champions this season, only one claimed a win against each, and even that team, the Seattle Seahawks, got its comeuppance in the divisional round of the playoffs.
Still, Seahawks players contend there are ways to attack the few vulnerabilities present in both the Falcons and Patriots, who will meet at Super Bowl LI in Houston on Sunday. The problem is that exploiting those weaknesses is easier said than done.
“It’s all about who can stop the offense from scoring on even one possession,” Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett told FOX Sports last week at the Pro Bowl. “How many times can you make these teams punt? Because both these teams can score on every drive.”
To that end, few teams in league history have scored more often than Atlanta, which averaged 6.7 yards per play this year and led the NFL by a wide margin with 540 points during the regular season. And while the balanced Falcons weren’t the league leaders in total offense — that would be the New Orleans Saints — they still finished in the top five in both rushing and passing yards, making them the first team since the 2004 Kansas City Chiefs to accomplish that feat.
“You’re not going to stop Julio (Jones) forever, but you can contain him to a degree if you guard him right and understand the concepts and understand what they’re trying to do,” Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman said. “But he’s a dynamic player and (the Patriots) will have to design their game plan around stopping him. Then Devonta Freeman is no slouch, and he’s going to make his impact in the game, too.”
When the Seahawks beat the Falcons 26-24 at home in Week 6, Seattle ran out to a 14-point halftime lead before Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan threw three third-quarter touchdown passes to put his team back ahead. A late fourth-quarter rally put the Seahawks on top, and Seattle sealed the game by forcing four straight incomplete passes on Atlanta’s final possession.
In the rematch at the Georgia Dome on Jan. 14, the Seahawks once again took an early lead, but a 29-3 Falcons run — one that featured a safety, a pair of field goals and touchdowns from three different offensive players — turned the game into a runaway.
“They just capitalized on some of the plays they didn’t make the last time,” Bennett said when asked whether Atlanta seemed like a different team the second time around. ”They made the plays we didn’t, and that’s what happens with great teams.”
For their part, the Patriots were surprisingly balanced on offense, as well, and finished fourth in passing and seventh in rushing this season. But when asked to pinpoint what makes New England tick, few Seahawks had to look further than the man under center.
“Tom Brady, he’s just the GOAT, man,” Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril said. “He demands (a lot) from those guys. He demands that whoever is in there — ’If you can’t give it to me, we’re going to get you out of here.’ The guys that they keep are the guys that can make things happen, and it’s a great recipe for winning. I mean, the man has been killing it for 15 years.”
In addition, the Patriots’ unpredictability makes them a difficult opponent to scout.
“You really have to be on your stuff,” Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner said. “One year we were playing them, and their four-game breakdown, it was like one game they ran the ball 50 times, the next game they threw the ball 60 times, then the next game they were 50-50. It’s like you never knew how they were going to come out and attack you.
“You almost had to pick up on what you didn’t do great in the last game, because that’s probably what they’re going to come back to,” Wagner continued. “So if you weren’t as crisp on your run defense, maybe they’ll attack you in the run a little more. If you weren’t as crisp against the pass, maybe they’ll go that way. It’s like a chess game. You didn’t really know. You just had to know, ‘All right, this is where I messed up, so that’s probably what they’re going to attack.’”
When New England and Seattle met in Foxborough in November, the Seahawks got some payback for their heartbreaking loss to the Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX with a goal line stand of their own to preserve a road win. However, Pete Carroll’s team knows as well as anyone that counting on New England mistakes is typically a poor recipe for victory.
“They don’t get shaken by the situation,” Avril said of the Patriots and their coach, Bill Belichick. “No matter what the circumstances are, they’re going to keep calm and stay on pace with what the game plan is. Sometimes you get down by 14 points and you change things up, but not them. They stay the course, and that’s a hard thing to do, but I think that’s why they’re so successful.”
And as is so often the case in Patriots’ Super Bowls, their latest appearance may very well come down to which All-Pro QB has the ball last.
“With both quarterbacks, it’s about getting pressure and getting hits on them,” Avril said of the biggest key to Sunday’s game. “No quarterback likes that, and if you can do that consistently throughout the game, obviously that’ll give you the edge. But actually doing it is hard.”