After over four months of great gridiron action, the 2016/2017 NFL season comes down to just two teams as the AFC's New England Patriots and the NFC's Atlanta Falcons prepare for an epic clash in Houston for Super Bowl LI. So who will win?
Both teams produced dominant displays of both sides of the ball in their respective conference title games. Atlanta, the league's top scoring offense, shredded the Green Bay Packers 44-21, while the Patriots and their number one scoring defense suffocated the Pittsburgh Steelers en route to a 36-17 win.
The offense is the key strength of both teams, each commanded by superstar quarterbacks in Tom Brady and Matt Ryan. Both defenses have excelled under the radar this season, guided by two defensive masterminds in head coaches Bill Belichick and Dan Quinn. So how do we seperate two very similar teams to find a winner? Let's look at the three keys to the game.
1) Pass defense
Both Brady and Ryan exploited weak zone defenses in their conference tilts, so expect both defenses to play man coverage for much of the game. For the Patriots, they must account for all of Atlanta's weapons. Expect the Patriots to rush four or five, covering the run and generating some pressure on Ryan, while having six or seven defensive backs dropping back into coverage, with double coverage (at least) on Julio Jones.
For the Falcons, they must rush Brady and attempt to catch him off guard, negating his quick release and taking away the short underneath and crossing throws that are New England's bread and butter. With Vic Beasley leading the league in sacks this season, this will be key for Atlanta.
2) The run game
Atlanta's backfield tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman is one of the strengths of the team, taking pressure off Ryan so that he doesn't need to try and carry the offense by himself.
Both are excellent receivers out of the backfield and should be Ryan's safety valves against Belichick's defensive scheme.
For the Patriots, expect to see a larger role for LeGarrette Blount against Atlanta's young defense. The Falcons play fast with their young players, so using a bruising back like Blount should wear them down with sheer physicality, opening up the passing game for Brady
3) Clock management
Atlanta's offense is a powerhouse, and they can score quickly. The key for New England will be to keep Ryan and Co. off the field as much as possible. That means sustaining long drives with quick throws and clock-chewing runs. This would also keep the defense well rested, giving them a better chance of stopping Atlanta's offense whilst also tiring out the Falcons' young defense, as the Patriots did against the Steelers in the AFC title game.
The Falcons must force a lot of three and outs to preserve the clock so that Ryan and his offense have plenty of opportunities to build a commanding lead. The Falcons haven't played well from behind this season.
As we draw closer to a prediction, let's look at some interesting stats that could turn the tide in Houston;
- Tom Brady has never lost to the Falcons in his 17 year career (4-0)
- Offenses that lead the league in scoring are 1-5 in Super Bowls since 2000
- In six Super Bowls played between the top scoring offense and the top scoring defense, the defense is 5-1
So who will win Super Bowl LI? It's a mouthwatering match-up, but to me the Patriots have a slight edge. Belichick and the defense will no doubt have a scheme ready to stop Atlanta's offense. And when the Patriots played Seattle in Super Bowl XLIX a few years ago, whose defense did Tom Brady pick apart to win? Dan Quinn's.
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