He’s led his team to the playoffs multiple years. He’s hosted multiple conference championship games. He’s been to several Pro-Bowls and is a First-Team All-Pro performer. He’s among the all-time leaders in touchdown passes.
Yet the focus of Super Bowl LI isn’t on Matt Ryan.
It’s true. All of the above accomplishments Ryan has compiled over an exceptional nine-year run. His 240 career TD tosses ranks 25th all-time, ahead of hall of famers such as Jim Kelly, Steve Young, Terry Bradshaw and Roger Staubach. He’s split two NFC Championship Games in the Georgia Dome. And he’ll (probably) officially edge out Tom Brady for MVP on Saturday night. Even with all that, and leading an offense that racked up the seventh most most points in NFL history in 2016, Sunday’s contest has nothing to do with Matt Ryan.
As we reach The Revenge Tour Part Deux’s final act, it has everything to do with Tom Brady,
And you know what? That’s right where the Atlanta Falcons wanna be.
(#1) New England Patriots (-3) vs. (#2) Atlanta Falcons
Sidebar: Went 1-1 on picks last week (despite noting the Falcons should beat the Packers…had to roll with the preseason pick though, you understand), 0-2 against the spread. That leaves ya boy with a 7-3 overall record in these playoffs, a 5-5 conference championship round record, and when you add a 2-2 Super Bowl mark, a 36-18 record picking NFL playoff games in the history of this site.
If by the grace of God my team (the Cleveland Browns…don’t laugh) ever made the Super Bowl, I’d be praying they came in flying under the radar like Atlanta. The Falcons are getting respect, but not so much that most would believe they could overcome their 80/1 preseason odds to win Super Bowl LI. But nobody was talking about Denver going into the big game last season. Nobody was talking about the Cavs entering last season’s NBA Finals. Nobody was talking Clemson heading into the college football National Championship. There’s precedence for teams who are, or just feel like massive underdogs, coming up large on the largest stage.
The glaring difference here though lies in the prior exposure to the highest level of competition in each respective sport. The Clemson Tigers and Cleveland Cavaliers each faced the same opponent in the championship round the year before. The Broncos were making their second Super Bowl appearance in three years when they upset the upstart Carolina Panthers last year. The Falcons have no such experience. In fact, Tom Brady has more Super Bowl experience than the entire Falcons team!
It may seem like shallow analysis— so be it. Consider the ticket requests, the hangers on, the media attention, the Houston strip club scene, the pressure; how is a team that’s never dealt with this kind of attention going to handle all this? We don’t know. It wouldn’t be as bad if Atlanta was taking on a team that had maybe one more championship game’s worth of experience on them. Or if the Falcons themselves had reached Super Sunday three or four years ago. But they haven’t, and this is the Patriots, dawg. The Patriots. This team was just here 24 months ago. The two most important members of the team (the quarterback and the head coach) are on the seventh title trip together. The six previous games were all decided by four points or less, and they have a 4-2 record in said games. This really doesn’t seem like a fair fight.
If you’re banking on an upset, you’re banking on New England’s league-leading scoring defense being as fugazi as CNN (well, according to some). They played Russell Wilson and Ben Roethlisberger once each, splitting the two contests. After that, the next best quarterback the Pats faced is…Tyrod Taylor? Flacco? Andy Dalton? The drop-off is even more precipitous after that.
It’s a valid argument (and Ryan’s ability was noted at the top of this piece), yet it fails to account for the job New England has done against running backs (as dissected here last round). Atlanta’s ground game is a major reason for their success. More specifically, the versatility of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman provides a threat unique to every other team (as mentioned here three weeks ago). ATL had the fifth highest rushing yards per game average in the NFL, but that will likely get shut down by a stout New England front. Overall, Atlanta’s team speed is believes to have a decided advantage in the eyes of those who smell an upset. However the combination of James White and Dion Lewis will allow the Pats to practice against the Atlanta tandem’s pass catching prowess. Furthermore, Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia’s defense is chameleon-like in nature. Even without Jamie Collins, the athletic outside linebacker Belichick jettisoned to Cleveland midseason in an effort to balance the books, this defense is as versatile as they come.
Malcolm Butler (who also has some big game experience) is as good of a cover corner as there is, but even he can’t do anything with Julio Jones if Julio Jones is feeling like Julio Jones. A 100-yard performance should be in the cards for Julio, but just for fun, lets take a look at what the Patriots have done against other elite receivers this season:
Larry Fitzgerald: 8 catches, 81 yards, 2 TDs
A.J. Green: 6 catches, 88 yards
Demaryius Thomas: 7 catches, 91 yards
Brandon Marshall: 8 catches, 95 yards, 1 TD (2 games)
DeAndre Hopkins: 10 catches, 121 yards (2 games)
Antonio Brown: 14 catches, 183 yards (2 games)
One more game of note: In Julio Jones’ one career game against the Patriots in 2013, he hauled in 6 catches for 108 yards. It’s evident that New England will be damned if they let a top wideout destroy their defense. Conversely, what are the odds the Falcons win WITHOUT Julio Jones having a monster game?
There may be some slight fugazi-ness to New England’s league-leading scoring defense, but this defense is still pretty damn good. How many times have we seen the league’s top offense and top defense meet up in the Super Bowl? It’s happened six times actually, with the top defense winning five of those games. Knowing this, can you really pick the Falcons to beat New England?
Sidebar: Of the other nine teams in top 10 scoring all-time, only one of them won the Super Bowl. The 1999 Rams.
Can you pick Atlanta knowing the Patriots are literally undefeated when Dion Lewis is in the lineup (16-0 over two seasons)? Can you pick Atlanta knowing young teams in particular seldom play as well away from home, and (while this game is being played on a neutral field) the Patriots are 8-0 on the road this year? What about knowing their head coach (Dan Quinn) was the defensive coordinator of the team against whom Brady threw four TDs and authored the best fourth quarter in Super Bowl history? Can you pick Atlanta knowing every football fan who follows the NFC South closely will go to the end of the earth to tell you the Falcons are not to be trusted? You’d think the Clippers had traded in their sneakers for shoulder pads. Can you pick them knowing they’re up against the quintessential winners in football? The Patriots are blue bloods. Royalty.
If “The Greatest Show on Turf” Rams — with Super Bowl experience from two years prior — couldn’t throw up 18 points on Belichick, why do we believe the Falcons can? NFC opponents are averaging 21.5 points versus Belichick in the big game, which is 12.3 points fewer than Falcons’ 2016 scoring average (33.8). Atlanta averaged 24.2 in L’s this year, which means we should know early on if they’ll put up enough points to have a shot. If the dirty birds are hanging out around 20 points, they’re in trouble.
No, it’s not impossible for Atlanta to win. They’re extremely fast and extremely talented. And conventional wisdom of intelligent football fans says that if the majority of fans are going one way, you should go the other way (this may be ATL’s best hope actually). But at the risk of the cliché police arresting me on five counts of aiding a football column, everything mentioned above leads this intelligent football fan to think the Patriots win handily in the easiest of their seven Super Bowl trips.
Need more convincing?
Once again, this is the culmination of The Tom Brady Revenge Tour. Brady has had two years stew over the shaft job that was Deflategate. In preparation for this moment, he’s played some of the best football of his career.
Here’s Tom Brady’s numbers since the second half of the 2015 AFC Championship Game:
33.5 games, 847-1,298 (65.3%), 10,066 yards (300.5 yards per game) 78 TDs, 15 INTs, Avg. QBR 72.4, Avg. Passer Rating 105.0
Bear in mind those statistics include playoff games against the likes of the Broncos, Chiefs, Texans and Seahawks defenses. Also bear in mind the Falcons will start four defensive rookies on Sunday and have the second-youngest defense in football. Even without Rob Gronkowski (which should only further enhance Brady’s legacy, even though he spent his first three Super Bowls throwing touchdowns to linebackers), Atlanta will likely struggle to hold the Patriots under 30.
Playing away from home, on this stage, with a HUGE experience disadvantage, with a worse defense, against the greatest QB & coach tandem since Graham & Brown and…the Falcons have no clear path to winning. Furthermore, are Brady, Belichick, Kraft and the Patriots really gonna come all this way for vengeance just to be denied by the Atlanta Falcons??
I don’t see it. But I did see the New England Patriots being NFL champions before the season.
Kenneth’s Super Bowl Champion: New England Patriots
Anthony’s Super Bowl Champion: Atlanta Falcons