Tom Brady is incredible. At 39 years old, he’s thrown 28 touchdowns and just two picks this season, leading the New England Patriots to his record seventh Super Bowl. He’s a four-time Super Bowl champion, a three-time Super Bowl MVP, and a two-time league MVP. He’s probably the greatest quarterback ever. (We can argue about that another time.) And yet, despite all those accolades, Brady serves as an ancillary story line to the most important matchup of Super Bowl LI: the no. 1 scoring offense in the NFL vs. the no. 1 scoring defense in the NFL.
Even after losing superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski to a back injury, Brady’s offense was efficient and enterprising en route to finishing the year third in scoring — but it’s stuck in the long shadow of the Atlanta Falcons juggernaut. This time around, New England’s success hinges not on Brady making big plays — that will help, of course — but on whether or not the defense that gave up the fewest points this year (15.6 points per game) can do anything to slow up an Atlanta squad that tied for the eighth-most points per game (33.75) of any team in NFL history.
We’ve been waiting all season, but we’re about to find out whether this Patriots defense is for real.
Atlanta’s offense channels Mike Tyson in his prime, unleashing overwhelming force from the opening bell. After doing it again against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, they’ve scored on their first possession for eight straight weeks.
It doesn’t stop there. The Falcons score at an incredibly consistent rate, turning drives into touchdowns a league-leading 34.9 percent of the time. In turn, they’re better than anyone else at taking advantage of opposing miscues. With a missed field goal, an Aaron Ripkowski fumble, and a stalled drive on their first three possessions, the Packers quickly found themselves behind 17–0 before they could get themselves off the ropes. That put Green Bay into comeback mode; the Packers had to abandon their original game plan and go to a sped-up, pass-heavy approach, allowing Atlanta pass rushers to pin their ears back and rush Aaron Rodgers with abandon. They sacked him twice, hit him seven times, and with an escalation in blitz frequency, overwhelmed a normally stout Green Bay offensive line. After months of God mode, Rodgers’s first touchdown pass didn’t come until the score was 31–0 and the game was basically over.
The Patriots are going to have to withstand Atlanta’s opening salvo to avoid falling into the same early hole; Rodgers was playing as well as any quarterback ever has, and even he couldn’t do it. That’s where the resistance of New England’s D will be key — except resistance from coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia’s group is anything but a given.
New England’s title of “no. 1 scoring defense” comes with an asterisk. After facing the easiest schedule of any defense in the NFL — a lineup led by an astoundingly mediocre group of quarterbacks — the Patriots defense entered the playoffs essentially untested by any of the league’s best offenses. Despite the impressive raw numbers, New England’s defense finished the year just 16th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, which, among other things, weighs its rating based on opponent quality.
In a perfect sequel to the regular season, all the Patriots had to do to advance to Sunday’s AFC championship game was beat Brock Osweiler, who might be the worst quarterback they played all year. However, the way New England dispatched Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers’ high-octane offense helped to erode the idea that the Patriots don’t deserve to be counted among the best. They stifled Roethlisberger for most of the game, and he finished with 314 yards, an interception, and a garbage-time touchdown as Pittsburgh scored just 17 points. But even in resounding victory, a caveat exists: New England may have finally shut down a top-tier quarterback, but that quarterback went without one of his favorite targets and one of the best players in the league, Le’Veon Bell, who left early in the second quarter with a groin injury, a factor that taints what could’ve been a statement performance by New England’s defense.
A matchup with the mighty Falcons offense offers no such stipulations. Devin McCourty, Malcolm Butler, Dont’a Hightower, and the Patriots defense will face what is objectively the league’s best offense, and it gives them their chance to put to rest any doubt regarding their place among the elite. Moreover, it’s a test that New England must pass if the Patriots have any hope of winning it all.
The defining question for Super Bowl LI isn’t whether or not Brady has what it takes to take down Atlanta’s defense. (Hint: He does.) It’s whether or not the Patriots defense can slow the fully laden freight train of a Falcons offense that’s hurtling toward them. If they can, Belichick and Co. can take that asterisk off of their title of “no. 1 scoring defense.” But at that point, they probably won’t care: They’ll be lifting a trophy and celebrating a title that sounds even sweeter.