Whilst Christmas may be over, and the routine of term-time upon us, there is still hope on the horizon. Because on Sunday 5th February the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons will face off in Houston for Superbowl LI. The Superbowl is a spectacle that extends well beyond the NFL and acts as a US national holiday. Whether you are most excited about the adverts, the food, the beer, the half-time show or merely the game itself, then there is only one place to be.
For those who are unaware, the basis of the Superbowl is entrenched in the very working of the NFL. The league itself is split into two conferences named the AFC and the NFC (American and National Football Conference respectively). The Superbowl is merely the deciding game between the winner of each conference, which is itself determined via a series of play-off games. In effect, it is the equivalent of the Premier League and the FA Cup rolled into one, only there aren’t any small teams to start off with, except the Cleveland Browns that is.
The favourite has lost the last five Superbowls, so who the hell knows what’s going to happen!
For the Atlanta Falcons, going to the Superbowl is a relatively novel experience. Since their founding in 1965 the Falcons have made it to the big game just once, in 1998, when they went on to lose to the Denver Broncos. It isn’t as if they haven’t been close though. Since drafting Matt Ryan third overall back in 2008, the Falcons have made the play-offs five of the last nine years, but have always fallen short along the way. However, this year could well be the one as they have shown significant improvement on both sides of the ball.
The Falcons have been comfortably the best offensive team in the NFL this year. They rank first in scoring, second in total yardage, third is passing yardage and fifth in rushing. In other words, they are really good at pretty much everything. Some of this must go down to the additions of receiver Mohammed Sanu and centre Alex Mack during the offseason. Mack has allowed the Falcons offensive line to make the step between being serviceable and being good whilst Sanu has offered a viable second receiver option opposite Julio Jones. Another large ladle of credit must go to Offensive Co-ordinator Kyle Shanahan. In just his second season as the Falcons OC, Shanahan has been able to transform Ryan into a far more efficient player. By utilising running backs as receivers out of the backfield and establishing a running game early, Shanahan has taken the pressure off Ryan and allowed the offence to flow. It is no surprise that on the back of this he is the clear favourite to take over as the Head Coach of the San Francisco 49ers after the Superbowl. No description of the Falcons offence would be complete, however, without describing Julio Jones more fully. Jones is the best receiver in the NFL, and those who deny this are made to look more foolish by the week. Jones is a huge man with the speed to run away from almost anybody and the technique to lose his defender underneath. Oh, and he can catch anything in his postcode and is a nightmare to tackle. If the Falcons are going to put up points on the Patriots, it will likely be on the back of Julio Jones.
For those who are unaware, the basis of the Superbowl is entrenched in the very working of the NFL. The league itself is split into two conferences named the AFC and the NFC (American and National Football Conference respectively). The Superbowl is merely the deciding game between the winner of each conference.
The Falcons haven’t just got better offensively. Defensively, under head coach Dan Quinn, they have seen real improvement. The addition of rookie safety Keanu Neal to the secondary has given that unit a bit more bite and fellow rookie Deion Jones has been a stand-out at outside linebacker, especially in space. Where the biggest change has been though, is with the pass rush. 2015 first round pick Vic Beasley was seen by some as a bust after his first season failed to live up to the hype. But his emergence was worth the wait. In 2016 Beasley led the NFL with 15.5 sacks and has merited some Defensive Player of the Year discussion. Whilst this Falcons defence is not the elite unit that we have seen from some Superbowl contenders in previous years, it has been good enough to allow them to compete at the highest level. The question will be, are they good enough to slow down, let alone stop, Tom Brady?
There was a point in time when I thought Tom Brady was overrated. I thought that he had been given too much credit for the success of the Patriots during his early years. And in my defence, he had largely been the game manager for a team based on elite defence. To compare him favourably to Joe Montana, a man who had been the driving force behind four Superbowl champion teams, seemed sacrilegious. However, since then Brady has continued to win and continued to show how offensive efficiency can dominate. How much is the offensive scheme and how much is Brady is hard to tell, but it is fair to say that no quarterback has been as dominant over a period of fifteen years as Brady. Many believed that when Rob ‘Gronk’ Gronkowski was lost to injury the Patriots offence would struggle. However, whilst no one player has stepped-up to completely fill the void, no offence is better prepared to deal with such a loss, and that fact has been made evident over the last month.
The Patriots offence relies on spreading teams out and forcing opponents to defend five receivers all over the field. Brady’s arm strength and ability to process complicated read progressions has made this approach devastating. Add in capable receivers like Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Michael Floyd, Malcolm Mitchell and Chris Hogan and you have a death-by-a-thousand-cuts offence to rival anything in history. It should also be noted that Atlanta’s defence, whilst generally decent, has really struggled in preventing yards after the catch, a key to limiting the Patriots. This is because the real strength of this team is, and has been for some time, in their use of running backs as receivers out of the backfield. Atlanta is another team that has made this approach successful but they are still a way off competing with the Patriots in this regard. This approach works so well because it prevents an opponent from being able to blitz by forcing them to drop linebackers into coverage.
The Patriots offence relies on spreading teams out and forcing opponents to defend five receivers all over the field.
Additionally, by combining this with a combination of man and zone beaters you hinder a team’s ability to blitz whilst also punishing them if they simply allow Brady to drop back unhindered. Whilst this might seem a bit much for the casual observer, the key to it is this; that the only teams that have been able to really get the better of Brady in recent years have been those who have been able to get pressure on Brady without having to blitz. Denver did it last year (and then repeated the trick on the Panthers in the Superbowl) and the Giants were able to do it two in a pair of memorable Superbowl victories. Without that, Brady really is about as good as there has ever been.
Defensively, the Patriots have been statistically excellent this year, leading the league in scoring defence. Whilst they have been less stingy with yards, they still rank in the top half in both pass and rush defence and eighth in overall yardage. It must be noted though, that the Patriots have not had to face many great offences, certainly in the latter half of the season. They did manage to hold a sometimes explosive Steelers’ offence to modest gains in the AFC Championship game, but that was after the Steelers’ star running back, Le’Veon Bell, went down injured in the first half. If there is a weakness in the Patriots’ defence, at least on paper, it could well be stopping the inside running game. In the Patriots two losses this season they gave up an average of over two-hundred-and-forty yards on the ground at a clip of 8.5 yards per carry. If this Falcons team are looking for encouragement, that is quite a lot right there.
The Patriots enter the Superbowl as worthy favourites. They have lost just two games all season, one of which without Tom Brady, and have a quarterback with four Superbowl titles to his name. For Brady to add a fifth title to his résumé he will have to rely on his defence to stop the Falcons’ two-headed running attack. If they can do this, then Brady will have every chance of keeping pace with the Falcons’ explosive offence. In return, the Falcon’s will have to rely on their pass rush, and Vic Beasley in particular, to apply pressure to Brady without having to blitz. Unless they are able to do that then they could well spend the game being meticulously picked apart, or ripped to shreds whenever they bring pressure. With all that said though, the favourite has lost the last five Superbowls, so who the hell knows what’s going to happen!