by Jeffrey Farek
The Atlanta Falcons have, well, flown under the radar all season to make it to their second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. They are still looking for their first championship. The New England Patriots are perhaps America’s most hated team, as their consistent success is often undercut with references of their scandalous past. The most recent of which, dubbed Deflategate, occurred in 2015 and resulted in Tom Brady’s four game suspension to begin this season. (The Patriots went on to win the Super Bowl that same year). Now, they face a formidable opponent who has scored more points than anyone else in the league in the Falcons, creating a good versus evil matchup that has transformed Atlanta into America’s favorite team overnight, as they are the only ones who stand in New England’s way. Will the Patriots capture their fifth title since 2001? Or will they fall to a fresh face on the nation’s biggest stage?
Falcons’ Offense vs. Patriots’ Defense
This matchup will be the seventh time in Super Bowl history that the offense that has scored the most points in the regular season will meet the defense who has given up the fewest. The defense has won five of those six games.
Points can be a deceiving metric when measuring success. Offenses and defenses are typically evaluated on points scored or total yards gained, the fewer the better for the defense, of course. Points are more important, as having more of them than your opponent wins you the game, which is not a guarantee if you have more yards at the end of regulation.
However, yards provide a better indication of success, as yards are impacted by fewer variables. Points, for example, cannot distinguish defensive scores or account for timely turnovers by a defense about to give up points. Yards, on the other hand, are more focused on the specific units on the field, so all team rankings will be in this category.
The best offense the Patriots have faced this season is the Arizona Cardinals in week 1, the ninth best offense in the league. That’s about 50 yards and eight points fewer per game than the Falcons. While still a formidable defense, the Patriots look better on paper than they are in reality.
The Falcons offense has had experience against top defenses during the regular season. Against three of the top 5 defenses, the Falcons have scored just over 28 points per game, winning two of the three contests.
The New England defense has been exceptional against the run, allowing the third fewest yards per game. Statistically, they have been worse when facing the pass, because they force their opponents to throw the ball more and abandon the run in order to extend the game and potentially mount a comeback.
Led by MVP front-runner Matt Ryan, the Atlanta offense is a pass-based offense, but well-rounded, making it difficult to defend. Ryan threw touchdown passes to 13 different teammates this season, an NFL record. The combined efforts of running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman gained more yards and scored more touchdowns than any other duo. Posing so many threats, most notably star wide receiver Julio Jones, the New England defense cannot overlook any player lined up on the other side of the ball, which they have not had to worry about before. Look for Atlanta’s offense to do more of the same against this New England unit.
Patriots’ Offense vs. Falcons’ Defense
The Patriots offense has faced elite defenses, too. Against four of the top 5 defenses they scored about 25 points on average over five games (they played the Texans twice) and were 4-1 in those contests.
Atlanta’s defense has seen a top 10 offense six times this year, allowing just over 27 points on average in those meetings, but only 24 per game in the three most recent matchups. They have won all six of those games, including holding a red-hot Aaron Rodgers and the Packers to 21 points in the NFC Championship game.
New England boasts an incredible offense of their own. They scored the third most points this year and were fourth in total yards. Even though they only ranked 25th in yards per rush, running back LeGarrette Blount led the league in rushing touchdowns, with 18. Like Atlanta, the Patriots’ offense does most of their damage through the passing game, particularly the long ball to receivers Chris Hogan and Julian Edelman. When throwing the ball 11 or more yards down the field, Brady is more accurate than any other quarterback in the league. Only 6 defenses are better than the Falcons at defending such passes. Still, New England has the edge here, but the Atlanta defense has been in better form than New England’s in recent weeks.
Patriots’ head coach Bill Belichick does not only have experience coaching in a Super Bowl, but succeeding in them. This will be his 10th Super Bowl appearance. He’s 2-1 as a defensive coordinator and 4-2 as a head coach. His counterpart, Dan Quinn, has been to two Super Bowls as Seattle’s defensive coordinator. He won one of them, the loss coming against the Patriots in 2015. The Patriots roster has seen more time in Super Bowls, too. 21 Patriots have been in a Super Bowl before, compared to just three Falcons, a clear advantage for New England.
Dan Quinn has also been criticized at times this season for poor game management, possibly contributing to losses against the Chargers and Eagles. Others have criticized his usage of timeouts, even in games the Falcons would go on to win.
Tom Brady is motivated to win this game and stick it to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after serving his suspension to start the year. I’m not convinced his teammates have the same motivation. Boston area sports writers have stated that the matchup against the Falcons is not exciting enough, citing the Atlanta franchise’s lack of success historically in comparison to New England.
But it’s just that. History. Its impact is limited to the players and coaches that still remain from those past championships. This is an advantage that should not be overlooked. However, with recent defensive form complementing their consistent offensive powerhouse, the Falcons will continue to prove elite offensively and the Patriots won’t be able to keep up.
Final Score: Falcons – 31, Patriots – 24
Jeffrey Farek is a second-year student and a sports writer for Infusion Magazine.