HOUSTON — The Patriots continue to be favored by three points against the Falcons in Super Bowl LI, with 67% of public money coming in on New England. The Patriots have been in the Super Bowl seven times with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, including two times in the past three years.
The Falcons were 8–8 a season ago and hadn’t won a playoff game since 2013. Matt Ryan has never been in a Super Bowl, and Dan Quinn has never been a head coach in this game before. And in the previous seven Super Bowl matchups between the No. 1 scoring offense (as the Falcons are this year) and No. 1 scoring defense (as the Patriots are this year), the defense has won all but once (49ers over Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV).
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So, yeah, most people think the Patriots are prohibitive favorites come Sunday, and it’s not difficult to see why: experience, pedigree and history are all on their sides.
But don’t fool yourself—the Falcons definitely have a chance to win this game. If Atlanta pulls the upset, this is how it would look:
1. Continue strong starts: Since their bye in Week 11, the Falcons have scored a touchdown on all eight of their opening drives, which is almost mind-boggling. Most have been long, sustained drives: 11 plays, 72 yards; 10/81; 1/3; 6/47; 8/75; 4/68; 13/70; 13/80. This tells you that offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan does an excellent job scripting the beginning of the game against the tendencies of opposing defenses. In the same timeframe, the Patriots have surrendered just one field goal on opponents’ opening drives and have forced punts in seven-straight games. If the Falcons can score on the opening drive against the Patriots, it will stun them a little bit. Playing from behind is not a familiar position for New England.
2. Make the game uptempo: The Falcons are a team that likes to play fast and get into a rhythm. Patriots coaches have talked this week about not allowing Atlanta to play at the pace it wants, especially Matt Ryan. The Falcons’ offense should at least open up the game in no-huddle. The Patriots love their situational substitutions, and by going fast, Atlanta can limit how much the Patriots can do with their substitutions and setting up coverages and pressures. In addition, the most important players in New England’s front seven (linebacker Dont’a Hightower and tackles Alan Branch and Malcom Brown) are bigger players that tend to get a little winded against tempo. Combine the atmosphere for this game with some pace, and Atlanta has a chance to soften up the middle of the Patriots’ defense to help the running game.
3. Spread the Patriots out: The Falcons don’t mind getting into base personnel (RB, FB, TE, 2 WRs) and fighting it out with good defenses. This is the approach they used in a 23–16 victory over the Broncos, and it was their most frequent personnel grouping during the regular season. However, the Patriots are much better against the run than Denver, and in the postseason, the Falcons’ best personnel grouping by far has been “11” personnel (RB, TE, 3 WRs). They should continue with that group and spread the Patriots out. That will help Ryan decipher coverages and pressures, allowing him to pick out favorable matchups.
4. Julio Jones is not the path to victory: The Patriots are sure to commit resources to limiting star receiver Julio Jones, at least after the catch (New England would be fine with Jones catching 10 passes for 95 yards as long as he never breaks free for a long touchdown). That will leave matchups for the Falcons to exploit, and they can. If the Patriots put Eric Rowe on Jones with safety help, that would leave 5' 11″ Logan Ryan to cover 6' 2″ receiver Mohamed Sanu and Malcolm Butler against Taylor Gabriel. Sanu vs. Ryan is a big-time physical mismatch, although Ryan won’t back away from the challenge. Butler is an outstanding cornerback, but he struggles a bit in the slot (as most corners do) because he doesn’t have the boundary to help him dictate coverage. Ryan and Shanahan can’t be afraid to attack the Patriots, especially deep in the secondary and in the intermediate middle part of the field. New England is very conservative with its safeties, so the opportunity to make plays is there, but only for teams willing to be aggressive and dictate the game.
5. Fight low crossers with collisions: The Falcons will have to play a lot of man coverage, or at least zone coverage with a matchup element. The Patriots like to use low crossing routes to beat this type of coverage, as they did in the Super Bowl victory over Dan Quinn’s Seattle defense in Super Bowl XLIX. Atlanta can’t allow the Patriots’ receivers to run free across the field within five yards of the line of scrimmage. The linebackers must own that part of the field and make Patriots receivers pay a price entering that area.
6. Have a great tackling game: Atlanta was one of the worst defenses at allowing yards after the catch, and New England is the best at getting yards after the catch. If that continues in this game, there’s no way the Falcons win. Their tackling must be top-notch in this game, especially against Julian Edelman. This also goes for kick returns, where the Patriots are dangerous.
7. Hit Brady early: It doesn’t have to be a blitz, because Brady’s the best against them, but Atlanta needs to have some sort of designer pressure on the Patriots’ opening possession with the aim of hitting Brady hard (legally). If Brady feels comfortable to start the game, it’s hard to get him out of that place. Sending linebacker Deion Jones on a delayed pressure, or perhaps a backside slot blitz, could give the Falcons the opportunity to send Brady a message early.
8. Win the turnover battle: This is obvious factor, but a factor nonetheless. The Patriots overcame a turnover deficit to beat the Seahawks (minus-1) in the Super Bowl, but they usually have a problem with turnovers in playoff losses: they are minus-8 (11 turnovers, three takeaways) in their last six playoff losses going back to 2009. The Falcons can’t lose the turnover battle and expect to win this game.
Not many are expecting the Falcons to win this game, but every previous Belichick Super Bowl tells us that opponents can at least hang with the Patriots if they execute. If the Falcons take the path I just laid out, they can do more than just stay close: They can send Brady & Co. home with a loss.
Coming Friday: What a Patriots victory looks like.