Outside of the thrilling games between the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers and the Kansas City Chiefs and Pittsburgh Steelers in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, the rest of the NFL playoffs has been disappointing and snoozers. This year’s Super Bowl participants, the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots, have cruised to easy wins in their two playoff games. Now, the NFL hopes that the two teams will finally play an exciting, close playoff game in the Super Bowl in Houston to salvage a boring postseason. If the Patriots’ Super Bowl history during the Bill Belichick and Tom Brady era is any indicator (every game decided by 4 points or less), we can count on another thriller that comes down to the final minutes.
The most hyped Super Bowl from this season’s postseason teams would have been the Dallas Cowboys against the New England Patriots. As we know, the game is in Dallas’s backyard this year: Houston. Jerry Jones and the Cowboys have been yearning to return to the Super Bowl for over twenty years. The Cowboys were the dynasty from the 1990s. The Patriots reign began shortly after as they were the dynasty in the 2000s that continues to the present. For those reasons, that matchup would have provided the best storylines. The next most exciting matchup would have been the Green Bay Packers against the New England Patriots. Watching two of the greatest quarterbacks ever who have also won Super Bowls in their careers already, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, would have been epic. However, there were no bad potential Super Bowls between the NFL’s Final Four this year. The Patriots are a huge story regardless of who they played since it is their 7th appearance in the Belichick/ Brady era and they are going for their 5th championship. In terms of the Falcons, they have been knocking the door for a while now. Matt Ryan is not Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, or Ben Roethlisberger. However, he has been one of the better quarterbacks in the league. He does not get much attention because he plays in Atlanta and still lacks the elusive Super Bowl ring to top off his resume. Of course, he has the world’s attention now and the stage can be his.
Again, Belichick, Brady, and the Patriots going for their 5th Super Bowl title is the main storyline going into the game. The second storyline is Matt Ryan going for his first Super Bowl win to take his place among the elite quarterbacks in the league. In addition, it would be the Falcons first Super Bowl title in franchise history. Another interesting storyline is the mentor vs mentee aspect of the game. Ryan played his college ball at Boston College at the beginning of the Patriot run. Not surprisingly, he looks up to Brady. The two have kept in touch throughout his career. In the Falcons only other appearance in the Super Bowl in 1998, they were defeated by the Denver Broncos coached by Mike Shanahan. In a twist of fate, Mike’s son, Kye Shanahan, is the Falcon’s offensive coordinator this season and has been critical in guiding the explosive offense. As we know, the Patriots defeated the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl two years ago in an epic game. The defensive coordinator of the Seahawks was Dan Quinn, who is the head coach of the Falcons this year. While we will not get a direct rematch between the Patriots and Seahawks, we get a proxy one through Quinn and his Falcons. Of course, Super Bowl Sunday is the biggest gambling day of the year so there is plenty of material out there about analyzing the spread of the game and prop bets. It is a long two weeks of hype leading up to the Super Bowl. The media will find some storylines. Nevertheless, there are some good ones to explore in the next two weeks. I am most interested in the actual matchup between the two teams.
Atlanta Falcons (11-5)
540 Points Scored (1st)/ 6,653 Total Yards (2nd)
406 Points Allowed (27th)/ 5,939 Total Yards Allowed (25th)
I had Matt Ryan on my fantasy football team and I still did not know that much about the Falcons this year. Nevertheless, their offense has been high powered all season. They have scored 540 points, which is tied for the 7th most ever for a team in a single season. After Ryan’s mediocre season last year when he only threw for 21 touchdowns and 16 interceptions, he rebounded to have a career year with 38 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. The Atlanta offense has everything in addition to a top quarterback. Julio Jones is in the argument for the best receiver in the NFL. Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel have been excellent complements to Jones. They have two playmakers at running back, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Their offensive line is also solid. Kyle Shanahan has done a great job calling the plays. It is the reason he will likely get the San Francisco 49ers head coaching job after the Super Bowl. On the other hand, the Falcons defense is still suspect even though it has played better in the playoffs while they have been front running. It does feature a significant pass rusher though in Vic Beasley Jr., who has 15.5 sacks. Nevertheless, they still surrendered 406 points during the regular season.
The Falcons were a team that I did not really understand. In past seasons, they seemed to just have something intangible (e.g. toughness, perseverance, etc.) missing that kept them from breaking through to a Super Bowl. They had plenty of postseason heartbreak in the Mike Smith/ Matt Ryan era. In 2010, Aaron Rodgers went into Atlanta and shredded the Falcons defense for 48 points in the Divisional Round on his way to the Super Bowl and title. In 2011, they were stifled by the New York Giants defense as they lost 24-2 in the Wild Card round. In 2012, they lost a heartbreaking 28-24 NFC Championship Game against the 49ers. Last season, Dan Quinn took over as head coach. They started out 5-0 then finished the year at 8-8. Based on past failures, it was difficult not to be skeptical about the Falcons until they finally broke through. They definitely deserve to be in the Super Bowl this year based on their offensive prowess. Regardless, things did break their way in a wide open playoff field. In the Divisional Round, they played a compromised Seahawks defense who lost their great safety Earl Thomas at the end of the regular season. In addition, the Seahawks have had trouble scoring on the road all season. In the Conference Championship, the red hot Packers team finally ran out of gas and could not overcome their injuries. In my opinion, the Packers were not that good but were excelling off the brilliance of one of the greatest quarterbacks ever, Aaron Rodgers, playing the best football in his career. After winning 8 straight games and stealing a grueling nail biter against the Cowboys in the Divisional Round, the Packers just seemed to be out of gas and out of players. I can see a lot of fans jumping on the Falcon bandwagon after ignoring them all season then watching them beat down the red hot Packers. Nevertheless, keep the full picture in perspective. The Falcons are a very good team with a powerful offense but they are not a dominant team. Their defense has not been an issue yet. While some may say it is improving and playing better, it has also had the benefit of being staked a big leagues in both playoff games. That defense is still their biggest issue going into a game against Tom Brady and the Patriots.
Super Bowl History
The Falcons only other Super Bowl appearance was in 1998. The “Dirty Birds” were led by head coach Dan Reeves and a superb running back in Jamal Anderson. On route to the Super Bowl, they had one of the biggest upsets in NFL history when they upset the 15-1 Vikings in the NFC Championship Game in Minnesota. During the game, they were down 20-7 early then 27-17 in the last ten minutes of the game. Nevertheless, the Falcons overcame the deficit in a wild finish with the help of Vikings kicker Gary Anderson missing his first field goal of the season. The Falcons would win on a field goal in overtime. I remember being completely shocked that the Vikings blew the game. Unfortunately, I am a Jets fan and that feeling was quickly dwarfed by the pain of the Jets blowing a 10-0 halftime lead in Denver in the AFC Championship Game and missing out on their first Super Bowl appearance since 1969. Of course, I am still waiting and the wait does not seem to have an end in sight. Instead, the Falcons ran into the defending Super Bowl champions, Denver Broncos, who were trying to send John Elway out in style with back to back titles. The Broncos had a great offense with a historically great running back in Terrell Davis rushing for 2,008 yards in 1998, stud wide receivers, an aging but all-time great quarterback, and great offensive minds in head coach Mike Shanahan and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. The also had one of the better defenses in the league. For all those reasons, the Falcons ran into one of the greatest teams ever and never really had a chance in that Super Bowl as they lost 34-19. Unfortunately for the Falcon franchise, they are just a footnote in that Super Bowl since it will always be remembered as John Elway’s last game as he rode into the sunset as a back to back Super Bowl champion.
Super Bowl LI is the Falcons first Super Bowl since owner Arthur Blank bought the team in 2002.
New England Patriots (14-2)
441 Points Scored (3rd)/ 6,180 Total Yards (4th)
240 Points Allowed (1st)/ 5,223 Total Yards Allowed (8th)
The beat just goes on for Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. All the other players on their teams are interchangeable parts. No matter who they put around Brady on the field, they find the right players who play the Patriot way. Patriot players are tough, smart, and versatile. There has never been a chess master as good as Belichick on the field. He adapts his game plans to each opponent every week and he finds players (via draft, free agency, scrap heap) that fits his mold and execute. For example, LaGarette Blount led the NFL in rushing touchdowns this season with 18 touchdowns. With most teams, they would feature him every week. For the Patriots, he may not even be in the game plan week to week. For instance, they featured Dion Lewis heavily in the Divisional Round this year and he became the first player to score a touchdown via rushing, receiving, and return in a single postseason game. Preparing for the Patriots is an impossible task. You have to prepare based on guessing what they will do and hope you guess correctly. Since 2001, the Patriots reign of success and winning is unprecedented. In an age of the NFL when the league is set up for parity and elite teams consistently lose their best players, it is unbelievable that the Patriots have been contenders every year for more than 15 years now. In the Belichick/ Brady era, they have played in 11 Conference Championship Games, 7 Super Bowls, and won 4 Super Bowls (and counting). No head coach has coached in more Super Bowls. No player has played in more Super Bowls.
This season began with the specter of Deflategate as Tom Brady was suspended for the first four games of the season. The Patriots still won their first three games before dropping the fourth. Once Brady returned, every fan knew that he and his Patriots would be on a mission to pay back the rest of the NFL. Not surprisingly, they cruised to a 14-2 record. In the playoffs, the Houston Texans defensive line gave them problems in the Divisional Round by putting immense pressure on Brady. However, the Texans offense is terrible. Their defense kept them in the game into the 4th quarter but it could not overcome the putrid offense as the Patriots eventually pulled away. During the game, three different former Rutgers players made interceptions for the Patriots. It is a great testament to the greatness of the Patriots and Belichick. The Rutgers football program is a bit of a joke right now and completely overwhelmed by the rest of the Big Ten Conference. Nevertheless, three players from the program were picked by and excel in the Patriots system. In the AFC Championship Game, I never really thought the Steelers had a chance against the Patriots. They have never been able to slow Brady down in a big game in the past and it was obvious early that history would repeat itself. Le’Veon Bell’s early exit did not help matters but the Patriots offense was not going to be slowed by the Steelers anyway.
Despite the stellar regular season record and easy steamroll through the playoffs, there were times when it did not seem like it would be their year. After they traded away star linebacker Jamie Collins during the season after he began free lancing on defense and eying a lucrative contract, their defense dipped a little before it gelled again. The biggest blow was the loss of superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski for the season to another injury. Of course, Gronkowski is one of the biggest game breakers and an unstoppable force in the NFL. As such, his loss is a significant one. Nevertheless, the Patriots overcame it. Reliable and steady receiver Julian Edelman is the perfect receiver. He performs flawlessly and quietly. Even without Gronkowski, Edelman is a rock that solidifies the situation. Of course, the Patriots continue to make great personnel moves. Acquiring a second good tight end, Martellus Bennett, definitely helped even though he is dealing with a significant injury now too and playing far less than 100%. However, their subtle moves work out too. Besides Buffalo Bills fans, did anyone really know who Chris Hogan was when the Patriots signed him away from them for a modest contract? I barely knew who he was when he had 9 receptions for 180 yards and 2 touchdowns in the AFC Championship Game last week. With Gronkowski, the Patriots would obviously be more lethal. With a focused Jamie Collins, their defense would be better. Nevertheless, they still have the third highest scoring offense in the league and the defense that has surrendered the fewest amount of points this season. Again, these facts are all examples of how well the machine in New England is run. Moreover, that machine is raging as they are still incensed about the league cracking down on them for Deflategate. Something the Patriots do not need is more motivation.
Super Bowl History
The Patriots are now appearing in its 9th Super Bowl in franchise history, which is a record. The first appearance was in 1985 when they were sacrificial lambs to the 85 Chicago Bears, who are arguably the greatest team of all-time. Not surprisingly, the Bears embarrassed the Patriots 46-10. Nevertheless, at least the Patriots scored some points as the Bears shut out their other two opponents in the playoffs. By the early 90s, the Patriots were a laughingstock in the league. They were revitalized by Bill Parcells, who rebuilt and coached the team. Robert Kraft would also buy the team to provide great ownership. However, Parcells and Kraft clashed and the marriage was doomed. Before it was over, Parcells led the Patriots to back the Super Bowl in 1996 against the Green Bay Packers. They fell behind early but made a comeback in the game. However, a poorly executed kickoff allowed Desmond Howard to return it for a touchdown and ended all hope for victory. The Patriots lost that Super Bowl 35-21. Nevertheless, Parcells built a core that would be critical in future Super Bowls for the Patriots. Gamers, like Troy Brown and Adam Vinatieri, were critical contributors to the 3 Super Bowl wins in the early 2000s. Moreover, Parcells left behind the core of the great Patriots defenses: Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest, Lawyer Milloy, Ty Law, and Ted Johnson.
Since Bill Belichick took over the head coaching reigns, Patriots history has never been the same. Accordingly, here is my ranking of the 6 previous Belichick/ Brady Patriots Super Bowl teams.
- 2004 Patriots (14-2): Points For: 437 (4th)/ Points Against: 260 (2nd)/ +177 Point Differential
As history has shown, great defense has usually beaten great offense in the Super Bowl. Accordingly, I rank the Patriots teams with the best defenses on the top of my list. For me, the choice for best Patriots Super Bowl team is between the 2003 and 2004 versions because they were able to load up their defenses via free agency and acquired draft picks to an already great core. In their 3-4 defensive setup, they had Richard Seymour and Vince Wilfork generating as much or more pass rush in their 3 man fronts as 4 man fronts in the 4-3 sets most other teams in the NFL used. As such, this advantage allowed the Patriots linebackers to wreak havoc in Belichick’s schemes whether it was pass rush, run stop, or pass coverage. In addition, those linebackers were incredible: Bruschi, McGinest, Johnson, and Mike Vrabel. They were perfect football players who were talented, smart, tough, and gamers. Opposing defenses had no idea what the linebackers were doing or where they were going. Even the great Peyton Manning could never solve this group. Behind the great front 7, they also had great cornerbacks in Ty Law and Asante Samuel. If there was an injury, Troy Brown would switch from receiver and play cornerback too. In addition, the 2003 and 2004 defenses featured a mean and great safety: Rodney Harrison. For all these reasons, they were all-time great defenses.
I chose the 2004 Patriots over the 2003 version for a few reasons. First, it had Vince Wilfork who was in his rookie season. Although Ty Law got hurt during the 2004 season and missed the postseason, Troy Brown filled in fine. Next, 2004 had the better offense. Tom Brady had another season of progression. Moreover, Corey Dillon was a huge addition to the 2004 team. He rushed for 1,635 yards and 12 touchdowns. Finally, the 2004 team had the most impressive postseason run of any of the teams. In the Divisional Round, it completely shut down Peyton Manning [his then record setting 49 TD season] and his Colts by holding them to 3 points as they won 20-3. Of course, the Colts argued that “hold” is the appropriate word for what happened as their GM, Bill Polian, went to the league and had the rules changed to stop defenses from holding on to receivers so much which caused the wide open, pass heavy NFL games today. In the AFC Championship Game, the Patriots offense scored 41 points on the Steelers Number 1 defense. In recap, they totally shut down a record setting offense with their defense then destroyed the top defense that season with their offense. Unbelievable. They capped it off by beating a very good Philadelphia Eagles team in the Super Bowl.
- 2003 Patriots (14-2): Points For: 348 (12th) / Points Against: 238 (1st)/ +110 Point Differential
This team actually gave up less points than the 2004 team. It is on par with 2004 because it has mostly the same defense. However, 2004 had Vince Wilfork on the defensive line and Corey Dillon on offense. The second half of the Super Bowl in 2003 was a thriller as they got in a shootout with the Carolina Panthers. After the Panthers tied it up again late, their kicker John Kasay made a fatal mistake of kicking the ball out of bounds on the kickoff and giving Brady an easy, short field to drive for the game winning field goal with no time left. Accordingly, the 2003 team also needed a little more help than the 2004 needed to win the Super Bowl.
- 2007 Patriots (16-0): Points for: 589 (1st)/ Points Against: 274 (4th)/ +315 Point Differential
The 2007 Patriots would have been considered the greatest team of all-time if they finished off the Super Bowl with a win and finished 19-0. They were so heartbreakingly close. Give the New York Giants credit for having a ferocious pass rush that stifled the mighty Patriots offense. Nevertheless, Brady still drove his team to a late lead. Without a David Tyree miracle helmet catch, the Giants may not have completed their game winning drive. In addition, Brady almost connected with Randy Moss on a Hail Mary bomb down the field in the ensuing drive. So close yet so far.
On the other hand, this team also peaked during the middle of the regular season. By the playoffs, they were not as explosive. In addition, the pressure of the postseason and trying to stay undefeated must have been intense. Furthermore, this defense was not nearly as good as the 2003 and 2004 defenses despite the overall numbers. It was relying on players at the end of their careers such as Junior Seau, an older Bruschi, and an older Rodney Harrison. Nevertheless, the 2007 Patriots are arguably the greatest offense of all-time with possibly the most athletic freak at wide receiver, Randy Moss, breaking records with Brady. Wes Welker was an unstoppable slot receiver. Donte Stallworth was an explosive second receiver lining up across from Moss. The team outscored their opponents by more than 2X in the regular season and almost went undefeated. Despite not winning, I still rank it above two of the Super Bowl winning teams.
- 2014 Patriots (12-4): Points for: 468 (4th)/ Points Against: 313 (8th)/ +155 Point Differential
The 2014 team had the best defense since the 2004 team. Darrelle Revis was still in his prime and joined for a season. In addition, it is the Super Bowl team that was able to get a healthy Rob Gronkowski to play in the Super Bowl. He is the most dominating tight end in the history of the NFL when healthy and is one of the biggest nightmare matches ever. Nevertheless, I am not going to rank this team ahead of the 2007 team just because it won. The Seahawks not deciding to run Marshawn Lynch at the goal line instead of throwing an interception does not make the 2014 Patriots better than the 2007 version.
- 2001 Patriots (11-5): Points For: 371 (6th)/ Points Against: 272 (6th)/ +99 Point Differential
It is the team that started it all. They had the core of the great defenses in 2003 and 2004 but not as much talent. They were gritty and willed themselves to victory. Nevertheless, this team got some major luck with the “Tuck Rule” game against the Oakland Raiders or it would have lost in its first playoff game. In the Super Bowl, they also provided one of the greatest upsets of all-time as they were 14 point underdogs to the mighty Rams who were trying to win their 2nd Super Bowl in 3 years. Of course, there are smoking guns that the Patriots recorded the Rams walkthrough and stole some of their plays. Marhsall Faulk has spoken about how the Patriots defense was unnaturally prepared to counter plays the Rams had never used or the Patriots knew what was coming. Regardless, I am not going to take away a Super Bowl win. I do account for it when I rank the 2001 team against the other teams. Overall, the later teams just had more talent. In addition, Brady did not even have a full season underneath his belt in 2001. He has only gotten better over the years.
- 2011 Patriots (13-3): Points for: 513 (3rd)/ Points Against: 342 (15th)/ +171 Point Differential
This team lost but it was also close to winning. If Wes Welker did not drop a key ball when the Patriots were driving to run out the clock, the Giants would not even have had time to drive for the game winner. Nevertheless, this team is the least special of the 6 teams in my opinion. They scored a lot of points and Rob Gronkowski was unstoppable during the season. However, he was severely injured and not the same player in the Super Bowl. In addition, it was the weakest of the 6 defenses.
If it were not for Tom Coughlin, Eli Manning, and the New York Giants, the Patriots would have 5-6 Super Bowl wins already and an undefeated 19-0 season. As much as the Patriots are already a team for the ages, imagine how much more mythical they would be.
2016 Team Ranking?
If it wins, it may have a case for number 4 but I would not rank it higher. Even if it loses, I think it is better than the 2011 team. It has more overall talent than the 2001 team.
Keys to Super Bowl LI
The keys that will determine the outcome of the matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots will be:
1) Pass rush on Tom Brady – If a team allows him to sit comfortably in the pocket, he will pick it apart. The Falcons do not have a great defense so it would extra deadly for them to let Brady sit back there untouched. As the Giants have proven, the key to beating him is an effective pass rush. Unlike Aaron Rodgers, he cannot beat you rolling out. A major pass rush can throw him off his game. Vic Beasley Jr. can have a big game. However, Belichick will probably plan to neutralize him. As such, the Falcons better hope someone else can get to Brady too.
2) Julio Jones – Belichick plans to take away an opponent’s best player. Once Le’Veon Bell left last week’s game, they completely neutralized Antonio Brown. Julio Jones is a physical freak in his own right. He is a bigger receiver too. It will be interesting to see how the Patriots defend against him. However, Jones does not have to go it alone. The Falcons have the personnel to handle the Patriots defense. Tony Gabriel and Mohamed Sanu have been key contributors all season. Matt Ryan will have no hesitation throwing the ball to them all game. In addition, he has two excellent backs in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. If the Patriots overplay Jones, expect Freeman to break a big play or two.
3) Falcons Inexperience – The Patriots have been to the big game many times. For Belichick and Brady, it is business as usual. On the other hand, it may take a drive or two for the newcomer Falcons to get settled. If they spot the Patriots 10 or 14 points in the meantime, I expect their offense to get it going at a point and make it a game but they may not be able to overcome a slow start against the experienced Patriots. More importantly, the Falcons have been criticized for their toughness in the past. The Patriots will probably try to get physical with them by running Blount and having their secondary jam the Falcon receivers. The Falcons need to respond when they are punched.
We will know very early if the Falcons are able to get any pass rush. If they cannot, I expect the Falcons to keep it close but Brady will play a game of keep away by scoring at will. I also think the Falcons will need to get their feet underneath them at the beginning of the game. As a result, the Patriots will probably have an early lead. I can see this game progressing like the College Football Championship this year when Alabama was leading throughout and controlled most of the game but Clemson stayed with them and eventually had a final drive to go for the win. As we know, they did it.
The Falcons definitely have the talent to win the game. For me, the Patriots deserve to be favorites because they are more balanced and have the experience. Nevertheless, it is a toss-up. If you are rooting for the Falcons, pick them. If you are rooting for the Patriots, pick them. Life on the line, I would pick the Patriots. If it is just money, I would put it on the Falcons because it will be more fun to root for Matt Ryan trying to get his first Super Bowl win and the first for the franchise.