In this clash of high-octane offenses, defense will be key—and New England holds the edge there
START WITH the two best quarterbacks in the game, add in multiple receiving weapons with a dash of dual-threat running backs and finish it off with arguably the best game-planners in the league right now, and you have a potentially explosive Super Bowl LI matchup.
No matter which advanced metric you look at, this season Atlanta's Matt Ryan and New England's Tom Brady were the NFL's No. 1 and No. 2 quarterbacks, respectively, combining for 66 touchdowns and just nine interceptions. No question, the Falcons hold a slight edge offensively; their 540 points were tied for eighth-most all time. They are the present-day Greatest Show on Turf, featuring two dominating receivers (Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu), a pair of dynamic run-pass backs (Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman) and viable secondary targets.
But the Patriots aren't exactly shabby (third in the NFL with 441 points despite losing tight end Rob Gronkowski midseason). Julian Edelman drives the offense, but fellow receivers Chris Hogan (below), Malcolm Mitchell and Danny Amendola have big-game potential. And tight end Martellus Bennett, who has reportedly been playing with a cracked bone in his right ankle, will have two weeks to rest. Running backs Dion Lewis, LeGarrette Blount and James White can rival the Falcons' in their ability to make a difference both on the ground and in the air.
But this game will come down to defensive stops. As it stands right now, it's hard to see the Falcons slowing Brady down, but they also have two weeks to plan and the help of a couple of Bill Belichick protégés (GM Thomas Dimitroff and assistant GM Scott Pioli), who can advise head coach Dan Quinn. To beat Brady in the biggest games, defenses have to get him to doubt his coverage reads. That makes him hold the ball, which leaves him vulnerable to the pass rush. This has been true in each of Brady's recent postseason defeats. The Jets, Ravens, Giants and Broncos—all were defenses that could cover receivers long enough to allow a four-man rush to break through. The Falcons do play a lot of man coverage, but without injured corner Desmond Trufant (sidelined since November), Atlanta will need all-time performances from corners Robert Alford, Jalen Collins and nickelback Brian Poole. The Patriots' defense may be stocked with relative no-names, but they will have well-thought-out plans to slow Atlanta, just like New England did in Super Bowl XXXVI against the Rams, the original Greatest Show on Turf.
THE PICK: Patriots 35, Falcons 30.