It all comes down to this—the Patriots against the Falcons in the final four quarters of the NFL season. In the wake of a rather lackluster group of games throughout the playoffs—save for Packers-Cowboys, of course—expectations are high for this clash between stellar offenses in Houston.
New England has once again earned a spot in the big game, going 14–2 this season (and starting 3–1 as their quarterback served his suspension, in case you forgot) en route to the AFC’s No. 1 seed. After rolling through the Texans and the Steelers this postseason, Tom Brady’s and Bill Belichick’s team is chasing their second title in three season, and fifth since 2001.
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Atlanta, in their second ever Super Bowl appearance, put up double-digit wins for just the ninth time in team history, finishing 11–5 with the NFC’s No. 2 seed. The Dan Quinn-led group stomped the Seahawks and the Packers, and their hopes are set on hoisting the Lombardi Trophy for the first time ever.
So what can we expect from two teams that scored no fewer than 34 points in the playoffs so far? SI’s NFL writers and editors make their predictions for the winner, the game score, the game’s most valuable player and favorite prop bets.
It’s just about impossible to pick against the Patriots in a Super Bowl when they are playing any team that is not named the New York Giants. There seems to be a growing belief this week among fans and pundits that New England is going to win in a blowout, but I think that continues the season-long lack of respect for just how good this Atlanta offense is. But Belichick and Co. have a history of halting record setting offenses (see Greatest Show on Turf, Super Bowl XXXVI) and will find a way to force a receiver other than Julio Jones to beat them. I think the Patriots will pound LeGarrette Blount early and often, against a smaller Falcons defense, control the clock and win a close one with some more late-game Brady heroics.
MVP: Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots
Prop bet I like: Will the call be heads or tails on the coin toss? I doubt you’ll be able to find this prop bet in any places that have done their due diligence, but maybe your naive friend or co-worker will take the bait. Why? It’s a lock. The Patriots are the “visiting team” so they will call the toss. And the Patriots always choose heads on coin tosses. Always. I doubt Belichick will change that strategy now.
Start with the two best quarterbacks in the game, add in multiple receiving weapons with a dash of dual-threat running backs and finish it off with arguably the best play-callers in the league right now, and you have a potentially explosive Super Bowl LI matchup. No matter which advanced metric you look at, this season Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and New England’s Tom Brady were the NFL’s No. 1 and No. 2 quarterbacks, respectively, combining for 66 touchdowns and just nine interceptions. The Falcons hold a slight edge offensively; their 540 points was tied for eighth-most all time. But the Patriots aren’t exactly shabby (third in the NFL with 441 points despite losing tight end Rob Gronkowski midseason). But this game will come down to defensive stops. As it stands right now, it’s hard to see the Falcons slowing Brady down, but they also have two weeks to plan and the help of a couple of Bill Belichick protégés (GM Thomas Dimitroff and assistant GM Scott Pioli) who can advise Dan Quinn. The Patriots’ defense may be stocked with relative no-names, but they will have well thought-out plans to slow Atlanta.
MVP: LeGarrette Blount, RB, New England Patriots
Prop bet I like: Total points after the first quarter—under 13.5. The Patriots haven’t scored in the first quarter of any of their Super Bowls. Tom Brady always gets off to a dicey start in these games. Falcons might score first, but I can easily see a 0–0 first quarter, or 3–0.
Since this never happens it’s worth noting that when we filled out our playoff brackets a few weeks back that I had New England and Atlanta in the Super Bowl and only missed one game—the Packers win over the Giants. Anyway, my pick then—and now—is New England. The Patriots have rolled all year. They have an underappreciated defense. They have a versatile collection of skill players. But mostly they have Tom Brady, and it seems like the universe has decided that Commissioner Roger Goodell will have to hand the trophy to Brady, the player he suspended, in Houston on Sunday night. That would be rich. And that's the bet here.
Prop bet I like: Will Luke Bryan be wearing a hat when he appears on screen before singing the U.S. National Anthem? For my super scientific answer here, I started by Googling “Luke Bryan.” The fact that he’s a country singer makes this likely. But most pictures don’t show him wearing hats, so I’m betting no.
Neither defense will have an easy time finding stops, but the Patriots are one of the rare teams with the pieces to—at least, potentially—match up with the Falcons’ explosive, wide-open offense. Malcolm Butler can hang with Julio Jones, Logan Ryan and the safeties are all movable parts, Dont’a Hightower is among the league’s better linebackers, and so on. It may only take one or two timely stops to get the job done Sunday. And on offense, we all know what the Patriots are capable of doing.
MVP: Julian Edelman, WR, New England Patriots
Prop bet I like:Total punts by Ryan Allen—under 3.5. If the Falcons do force four Allen punts, they probably win this game. The Patriots aren’t considered a grind-it-out offense, but they can chip their way down the field for extended drives. If they’re on, they’ll keep both Allen and the Falcons’ offense off the field.
There’ll be plenty of X-and-O talk this week, but most predictions boil down to a simple question: Do you believe? In Bill Belichick’s ability to outsmart the league’s hottest coaching candidate and cool off its most explosive attack? In his staff’s capacity to find more offensive success against a rising Falcons defense than Aaron Rodgers could? In the power of a dynasty and the benefit of experience?
For me, it’s a different question. Not Do you believe, but—when you’re looking at a coach who could own 14% of the Super Bowl ring collection by Sunday—How could you not?
MVP: LeGarrette Blount
Prop bet I like:Largest lead of the game by either team—under 16.5. Clearly I think there’s some value with LeGarrette Blount for MVP sitting at 12/1. But if you’re feeling more adventurous, I’ll recommend this one—it always feels better to have a rooting interest in a competitive game.
My pre-playoffs prediction was Patriots over Packers, but I’ve seen enough from Atlanta this postseason to switch my pick away from the Pats. The Falcons can put up points with anybody, and I don’t think the Gronk-less Patriots will quite keep up. The Falcons will spread it around to all their offensive weapons and Matt Ryan will take home MVP honors for orchestrating the show. Patriots fans will finally see Roger Goodell, but not in the way they want.
Prop bet I like:Players who throw a pass—Over 2.5. I can’t root for an injury or count on a blowout, but I’m pulling for some trickery. Can somebody dial me up a fake punt? Or, perhaps more likely, let’s see a pass from either Julian Edelman or Mohamed Sanu, who both have NFL gadget play experience.
Besides the karmic Deflategate saga coming to its rightful end, the matchup mostly favors New England. The Patriots have a history of neutralizing big, explosive receivers like Julio Jones. But the big x-factor will be the much improved offensive line under Dante Scarnecchia—New England’s line ranks sixth in adjusted sack rate, according to Football Outsiders. Tom Brady with time to throw is as dangerous as they come. He should have a field day against a vulnerable Falcons secondary. Oh, and about Kyle Shanahan’s schematic genius. This is no alternative fact, but as Greg Bedard noted, Shanahan's heart is already partially in San Francisco.
MVP: Tom Brady
Prop bet I like:How many times will Trump be said on TV during the live broadcast? Under 1.5. Amid rumors that the NFL asked Lady Gaga not to invoke politics during her performance (the league denies this), I think Trump is far too polarizing to mention during the broadcast. But if he must be mentioned, there are other ways to say his name like: the President, POTUS, Commander-in-Chief and maybe a few more not appropriate for this space.
The Falcons are averaging 40 points per game in the playoffs, and though the Patriots have the No. 1 scoring defense in the league, they haven’t faced an offense like Atlanta this season. Tom Brady will be Brady, but his receivers will let him down with drops (and a deflected interception) and Kyle Shanahan’s offense will hum one last time before he goes to San Francisco.
MVP: Matt Ryan
Prop bet I like:Will there be a safety? Yes +600. I’m gonna take a yes on that. The last time the Pats lost a Super Bowl, they opened the game with a safety thanks to a Brady intentional grounding in the end zone. In some way, history will repeat itself Sunday.
This is the Super Bowl we all deserve after a lackluster collection of playoff games all month. Seventy-three points scored (which would make the game the second-highest scoring Super Bowl ever) doesn’t even seem all that ridiculous when you consider that the Falcons and the Patriots were two of the top three scoring offenses this season. Matt Ryan and Tom Brady, who averaged the two highest QB ratings for starting quarterbacks this season (though Brady with just 12 games, of course), will no doubt show off their offenses in Houston, both throwing upwards of 300 yards and at least three touchdowns. Matt Ryan’s MVP-caliber season won’t culminate in lifting the Lombardi Trophy, but it won’t be a runaway victory for the Patriots, either. New England has never won a Super Bowl by more than four points, and that’s not going to change this year.
Prop bet I like:Lady Gaga’s opening halftime song—Edge of Glory 3/1, Perfect Illusion 7/2, Born This Way 4/1, Other 2/1. Lady Gaga has been promoting her new album Joanne relentlessly, so there’s no way that she doesn’t start with ‘Million Reasons.’ But she’ll definitely play the other three songs during her performance, closing with an all-time crowd favorite, ‘Bad Romance.’
It is always risky to pick against the Patriots in the Super Bowl and even riskier to do so in a year when they actually have a strong defense to take pressure off Brady. But the Seahawks, who had the No. 3 scoring defense in the NFL this year, (18.3 p/g) gave up double that to the Falcons in the divisional round. While Atlanta’s defense just faced a red-hot offense in the NFC Championship Game and handled the task quite well (two sacks, one pick and a whole lot of relentless pressure on Aaron Rodgers in a defensive performance that was reminiscent of Jadeveon Clowney’s performance in the first half of the Texans’ divisional round loss), the Patriots haven’t come close to facing an offense like Atlanta’s all year. The Falcons are healthy. They’re loaded. They have the likely MVP as their quarterback, arguably the best receiver in football, a lethal running back tandem that splits carries and still finished No. 6 and 7 in rushing yards this season and the 2016 sack leader who would likely love to make Tom Brady look like… well, a 39-year old quarterback. But any team facing Bill Belichick’s Patriots in the Super Bowl will be labeled as the underdogs. They don’t deserve to be, and I think they’ll prove that on Sunday.
MVP: Matt Ryan
Prop bet I like:Will the word “lacrosse” be said on the broadcast? Yes, 1/3. Hey guys, did you know Chris Hogan played lacrosse in college?! Well, he did! And he was good at it! You haven’t heard the story yet?! Oh, don’t worry. You will on Sunday.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick will find ways to pick apart Atlanta’s young defense. Just a hunch, Patriots will attack first with the running game, likely LeGarrette Blount, and then spread the field and hope Tom Brady can pick apart the Falcons D. Atlanta will move the ball, but the Patriots’ red-zone defense will do just enough for the close win.
MVP: Tom Brady
Prop bet I like: Will “Houston, we have a problem” be said on TV during live broadcast? Yes, 5/2. Tom Hanks’ character’s words from Apollo 13 have morphed from a famous movie line to an overused sports cliché. It fits for everything from Brad Lidge blowing a save to Brock Osweiler throwing an errant pass to the entire Dwight Howard era with the Rockets. I’d bet a finsky FOX drops it.
In defense of my pick: In personnel, gameplan and overall cohesion, the Falcons are miles ahead of any offense Brady or the Patriots’ defense has squared off with this year, and it all starts at QB. At its best, Atlanta can chew some serious clock—go back and watch the beginning of the first quarter against Green Bay for proof. At its other best, Atlanta can demoralize you with one shot to Julio Jones—go back and watch the beginning of the third quarter against Green Bay for proof. New England’s wily defense won’t be able to stop both bests. This is a moment the franchise has built towards since Matt Ryan’s first NFL pass, a 62-yard touchdown to Michael Jenkins in 2008. It won’t be wasted.
MVP: Matt Ryan
Prop bet I like:Tiger Woods birdies in the fourth round of the Omega Dubai Classic vs. total field goals made—pick ‘em, both outcomes -110. Yes, I know Tiger missed the cut at Torrey Pines last week. But how many times in this late stage of his career has he turned in a perfectly decent final round after falling well off the pace? Both New England and Atlanta should be loath to settle for field goals in what has the makings of a shootout, so Tiger may not have to go very low to prevail.