When the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons kick off from Houston on Sunday in Super Bowl 51, all eyes will of course be on Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.
In some ways, the game itself is less interesting than what might happen after the final whistle, if the Patriots manage win their fifth ring and first post-Deflategate title.
What will go down on the podium between Belichick and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell? What if Brady wins the Super Bowl MVP in the same year he was suspended four games? Will he hug Goodell? And hey, how many times over the course of the game will Donald Trump tweet about his very good friends from New England, or call the commish a dope?
But before any of that juicy drama can unfold, indeed in order for it to unfold, Belichick and the Patriots must figure out a way to stop an Atlanta offence that stacks up with some of the best in football history.
This year, the Atlanta offence put up 540 points (505 offensively) during the regular season, which was tied for seventh-most ever. An additional 80 points in the playoffs (in just two playoff games!) puts them at 620, up to fifth in all-time scoring.
Points aren’t the only way to measure a good offence, though, and more advanced metrics bolster the case for Atlanta’s place in the pantheon of great NFL offenses. From Falcons blog The Falcoholic:
“Atlanta averaged 3.06 points per possession this season, which is second among the seven highest-scoring offenses in NFL history. The Falcons scored points on more drives than any other team besides the 2007 Patriots, which averaged 3.37 points per possession.”
Defensively, Belichick and the Pats are known for taking away their opponent’s biggest threat. As former Belichick confidante Michael Lombardi put it this week at The Ringer, “Belichick doesn’t take away what the opponent does best, but what their individual players do best.”
The problem when it comes to Atlanta, though, is that they are packed to the gills with dominant offensive players. Kyle Shanahan’s job as offensive coordinator has likely earned him a head coaching job in San Francisco (he is 37). Matt Ryan is having an MVP season. Julio Jones is the scariest, most physically gifted wide receiver in football, and Mohamad Sanu is no slouch either. And then there are the running backs, Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman, a one-two punch of both speed and power — both as rushers and, crucially, pass-catchers out of the backfield.
It’s this well-balanced approach makes the defensive task on Sunday so difficult for the Patriots.
Here’s how longtime NFL wide receiver and burgeoning football analyst Brandon Marshall explained it:
“It’s a combination between the play-caller, the quarterback, and having a No. 1 receiver. But I have to put this in too, it’s also having a really good No. 2 receiver,” Marshall told Business Insider from Houston, where he is spending the week as a social media correspondent for Audience Sports.
“The reason I say that — and we’re not even talking about the running backs yet! — is when you have that dynamic with those top three guys on the same page, it’s almost impossible for defences to slow down that offence,” Marshall continued. “When you look at a no. 1 receiver, Julio Jones, he demands two or three guys on him at all times. If you don’t then he’s going to go 70 yards for a touchdown like we saw a couple weeks ago.”
As Lombardi noted, Jones is more of a threat for a big play than he is for a ton of catches. From The Ringer:
“Belichick knows that Jones’s number of total catches pales in significance to his number of big plays (anything over 20 yards). When Atlanta lost to Philadelphia in November, Jones finished with 10 catches (his second-highest total all season), 16 targets, and 13.5 yards per catch. Big numbers, right? The Falcons scored a season-low 15 points.”
Still, the simple presence of Jones out wide opens up the rest of the field for everyone else.
“What does [Jones] do?” Marshall said. “He gives favourable matchups to the other wide receivers. If you have a receiver on the other side, and they do in Sanu, that can beat one-on-one coverage, it’s just hard. Sanu’s going against the no. 2 corner, sometimes your number 3, and it’s one-on-one all day pretty much.”
Marshall went on: “And then you have a freaking dynamic running game with that two-headed monster, they demand eight men in the box. Pick your poison. Which person do you want to stop? Which phase of the game do you want to stop?”
There is no easy solution, and like all great offenses, the Falcons are scary in the play-action:
As Lombardi noted, the most important thing for the Patriots is to stop the run game:
“When the Falcons run game stumbles, which rarely happened in 2016, their play-action passes are basically incapacitated. Belichick’s first point will center on setting the edge; the second will be about New England grabbing the lead first, so Atlanta never gets going.”
Of course, if anybody can stop the Falcons, it is Belichick and the Patriots. Plus, on the other side of the ball, Tom Brady ain’t half bad, either.
“I guess the question I want answered is, does New England have enough to stop this high powered offence?” Marshall said. “That’s really what it comes down to. And I guess the other question could be, does New England have enough to keep up with that offence? Does Tom Brady and that offence have enough to keep up with that offence?”
We’ll find out on Sunday.
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