One of these days, Tom Brady and the Patriots won’t be a perennial NFL power. All sports dynasties collapse eventually.
But there’s no end in sight right now in the lead-up to Super Bowl LI on Sunday at NRG Stadium in Houston, where New England will meet the Atlanta Falcons in what looks poised to be a high-scoring affair.
amNewYork spent the week breaking down position groups, the defenses and the head coaches, but there’s more to the Patriots (16-2) and Falcons (13-5) than that.
How they got here
The Pats overcame Brady’s four-game suspension to start the season — stemming from his role in Deflategate — to go 11-1 to close out the regular season.
After tallying at least 14 regular-season victories for the fifth time under head coach Bill Belichick, New England overcame three turnovers to thrash the visiting Texans, 34-16. A week later, the AFC’s top seed held the Steelers’ talented offense in check with a 36-17 drubbing in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
Starting the season 4-3 doesn’t usually instill Super Bowl hopes in a fan base, but the Falcons found their stride with a late-October victor over the Packers to ignite a 7-2 finish to the regular season.
Atlanta torched its final four regular-season foes and their two playoff opponents to the tune of 39 points per game. The No. 2 seed in the AFC sprinted away from the Seahawks, 36-20, then throttled the red-hot Packers again 44-21 in the NFC Championship Game.
How they match up
From Week 5 onward — the week Brady returned to the field — just two teams averaged more than 30 points per game: the Falcons (32.3) and the Patriots (30). Strong quarterback play from Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, an MVP candidate, and Brady keyed both offenses, and Ryan benefits from dominant wide receiver Julio Jones as his top option.
Brady’s offensive line, led by veteran left tackle Nate Solder, ensured he was among the least-sacked QBs in the NFL. The unit, which features three starters who were in college when the Patriots won the Super Bowl two years ago, hasn’t been as sturdy in support of the running game.
The strengths and weaknesses of the Falcons’ O-line are inversed. They lack a dominant blind side protector and are pedestrian pass blockers. But Atlanta’s running game is among the finest in football, in part because of Pro Bowl center Alex Mack’s unit but also because of talented runners Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
The gap between the two teams on offense is small, but the Patriots are leaps better than the Falcons on defense.
Belichick’s defenses are always among the league leaders, but this might be his best collective yet. According to analytics website Pro Football Focus, the Pats’ base 4-3 defense starts “high quality” players at cornerback (Super Bowl XLIX hero Malcolm Butler), middle linebacker (Dont’a Hightower, a Pro Bowler) and free safety (Devin McCourty, also a Pro Bowler). Four more starters graded as “average” or “above average.”
Contrast that with Atlanta, which boasts NFL sack leader Vic Beasley Jr., and it’s clear which team is more talented. None of Atlanta’s starters were better than “above average,” according to PFF.
A more traditional stat is even more telling: The Falcons surrendered 9.8 points per game more than New England this season.
Who will win
The Super Bowl rarely turns into a closely-contested shootout. Only five out of 50 were decided by seven points or less with at least 55 total points scored. Such high-scoring affairs tend to turn into blowouts because one team’s defense is simply better at stemming the tide.
And that’s what should play out in Houston, with the Patriots eventually pulling away.
Two weeks ago, New England neutralized a Pittsburgh team that is built similarly to the Falcons. Both feature elite weapons all over the offense, but defenses that leave much to be desired.
Belichick is a master at game-planning, and the only coach to outfox in the big game is Tom Coughlin. Nothing against Falcons head coach Dan Quinn, but he’s not working with the same talent the Giants had when they pressured Brady throughout their two upsets of the Pats.
Super Bowl LI will be fun for awhile, but the Patriots will assume control, deny the Falcons their first championship and claim their fifth Super Bowl victory in 16 seasons.