Well, we made it. The Super Bowl kicks off in a little more than 48 hours, and for football nerds, it’s the best game imaginable. Along with pitting the league’s no. 1 scoring offense against the no. 1 scoring defense, the clash between the Falcons and Patriots is ripe with tiny matchups worth watching.
Both teams are fueled by dynamic offenses that thrive on pinpointing weaknesses in the opposition and mercilessly attacking them at every turn. Matt Ryan torched the league to the tune of 4,944 passing yards with 38 touchdowns, and he has a cache of weapons that’s scary enough to make even Bill Belichick sweat. On the other side of the ball, Tom Brady looks as lethal as he has at any time in the past 15 years. Atlanta coach Dan Quinn will have his hands full executing a game plan that gives his young defense a chance against the best quarterback in NFL history.
It’s a pairing packed with smaller games inside the larger one, so rather than deliver a massive preview, let’s take a swing at identifying four versions of how the Super Bowl could unfold on Sunday, and the final scores that each might produce.
Version 1: The Patriots’ Ground Game Takes Over, and Atlanta Meets Its Match
Since the Falcons hired Quinn as their head coach in 2015, the team’s mission on defense has been to stockpile speed. An influx of high-octane talent has given Quinn a young, explosive group that’s really put things together over the second half of the season (the Falcons ranked 11th in Football Outsiders’ pass defense DVOA from Week 9 through Week 17), but in prioritizing speed, Atlanta has neglected size.
With linebackers Deion Jones (220 pounds) and De’Vondre Campbell (234 pounds) playing behind defensive tackles like Grady Jarrett (305 pounds), the Falcons are susceptible to opponents who can push them around in the ground game. Quinn’s unit finished dead last in run defense DVOA in the second half of the season, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Patriots line up in heavy sets and try to grind Jones and Co. into dust. When New England played the Quinn-coordinated Seahawks in the Super Bowl two years ago, it used lots of six-linemen sets with reserve tackle Cameron Fleming. A similar approach would make sense against Atlanta, but even looks involving fullback James Develin and two tight ends could be effective. Whether LeGarrette Blount or Dion Lewis is in the backfield, the Pats’ power run game — led by the best, healthiest line they’ve had in years — could offer a path to easy yardage.
Pounding the Falcons into submission could make for efficient offense, and it could prove even more useful for another reason. By controlling the game with its rushing attack, New England could bleed the clock and keep Ryan’s high-flying offense on the sideline. The Patriots certainly have the offensive potency to keep pace with Atlanta, but they wouldn’t mind limiting how many times Ryan touches the ball.
When the Falcons offense hits the field, the Pats have the pieces to force that group out of rhythm. New England’s secondary will throw a variety of looks at coordinator Kyle Shanahan, and all of them should be geared toward slowing Julio Jones. Cornerback Malcolm Butler has been tasked with shadowing no. 1 wide receivers in the past (including in the AFC championship game against Pittsburgh), but he usually fills that role against small, shifty pass catchers. Jones — who, in case you forgot, is a 6-foot-3, 220-pound centaur — will probably draw the big-bodied Eric Rowe on the outside and slot corner Logan Ryan when he slides inside.
No matter who’s lined up over Jones, though, it’s all but a given that he’ll draw safety help over the top. The Patriots played a considerable amount of Cover 2 this season, and it’s reasonable to assume that their coverage-based duo of Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon will fill the spots in the deep half against the Falcons. On the season, New England allowed just five plays of 40 yards or more, fewest in the NFL. After eliminating Jones, the Patriots’ top priority will likely be taking away Atlanta’s shots to guys like burner Taylor Gabriel.
A commitment to stopping one element of an offense can leave a defense vulnerable to another, and if New England sticks with a Cover 2, it would mean depleted boxes ripe for Atlanta to exploit in the running game. That’s where Alan Branch and the Patriots’ front come in. If the Falcons fail to take advantage of two-deep looks by gashing New England on the ground, the group that ranked first in offensive DVOA could be in for a tough day.
Final score: Patriots 31, Falcons 20
Version 2: Brady and His Boys Show Who Really Has the League’s Best Offense
The Falcons boast one of the most prolific units in NFL history on a points-per-game basis, but digging into some more nuanced numbers, the Pats aren’t far behind. New England ranked no. 1 in weighted offensive DVOA (which puts additional stock in a team’s performance late in the season), and if you exclude the four games Brady missed during his suspension, the Patriots take the top spot for the entire campaign.
Other than New England’s advantage with its ground game, there are plenty of other ways in which it may be able to take advantage of Atlanta’s young defense. Like the Seahawks, the Falcons lean heavily on zone defenses; before the NFC title game, free safety Ricardo Allen estimated that Atlanta was in zone on about 70 percent of its regular-season defensive snaps. As Brady showed against the Steelers, he’s going to skewer any team that settles back into soft zones.
The Falcons have shown a willingness to adjust to their opponent, and never was that more evident than in their showdown with Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. Quinn and defensive coordinator Richard Smith deployed a ton of man coverage against Rodgers and his depleted receiving corps, and Atlanta blitzed at a rate that was totally out of character. As ESPN’s Bill Barnwell pointed out in his (essential) Super Bowl preview, the Falcons — who blitzed on just 16.9 percents of snaps in the regular season — have brought heat 36 percent of the time during the playoffs. That latter rate would have been the fifth highest in football over the full 2016 season.
Sending extra bodies has breathed life into the Atlanta pass rush, but against Brady, any blitz attempt can be catastrophic. He posted a 125.7 quarterback rating against the blitz this fall, and his ability to roast opponents who dial up the pressure is a big reason Pittsburgh was content to sit back in coverage and accept its fate two weeks ago. Quinn was extremely reticent to send more than four rushers at Brady in Super Bowl XLIX, and it seems likely that tendency will carry into Sunday. That means the Falcons will rely on their front four to bother Brady, a decision that also could be problematic: While second-year pass rusher Vic Beasley piled up a league-high 15.5 sacks in the regular season, the way he’s used could play directly into the Pats’ hands. Beasley does almost all of his damage as the left defensive end in Atlanta’s scheme. New England’s development of right tackle Marcus Cannon means that side isn’t the weakness it’s been in years past.
There’s a chance the Falcons could try to use Beasley on a series of twists and stunts (which Atlanta did in the regular season) to get him away from Cannon, but those slow-developing tricks would give Brady an extra split second to let the ball loose. Odds are good that the Pats will use their heavy packages as a means of limiting how many snaps Beasley takes. Because of his issues against the run, Beasley often stays on the sideline against heavy packages. If the Patriots find initial success with two–tight end sets, eliminating Beasley’s impact would be an added bonus.
Like the Falcons, the Patriots are most susceptible to pressure coming from the inside, and that’s an area where Atlanta’s injuries on defense — which have gone mostly unnoticed this postseason — may show. Defensive end Adrian Clayborn (who was lost to a biceps injury in the divisional round against Seattle) would have given Atlanta an interior pass rusher with teeth. Without him, Quinn will rely on the likes of Jarrett, Ra’Shede Hageman, and Jonathan Babineaux to create inside pressure.
If Atlanta struggles to get to Brady, we could see Desmond Trufant’s absence hurt it in a significant way. The Falcons pass defense steadily improved without their best cornerback (who went on the injured reserve after hurting his shoulder in Week 9), but an increased reliance on man coverage would put more of a spotlight on their backups in the secondary. New England is excellent at scheming separation for its wide receivers (particularly Julian Edelman) by using stacks and other pick-centric approaches. If the Pats have time to get Edelman open against guys like second-year corner Jalen Collins, they could light up the scoreboard.
Final score: Patriots 37, Falcons 31
Version 3: Atlanta’s Young Defense Shows Up in a Big Way
Of all the ways this game could go, this version seems the least likely. Given how the Falcons defense has played since November, though, it’s a possibility to consider.
Good or bad, Atlanta rookie linebacker Jones — who’s become a vital component of this defense down the stretch — will play a major role in determining how the game goes for the Falcons. In their Super Bowl win against the Seahawks two seasons ago, the Pats threw to running back Shane Vereen a staggering 12 times. Many came on designed plays to exploit the flat against Cover 3, but others involved angle routes against middle linebacker Bobby Wagner in man coverage. With the Falcons likely to play more man than they have in the past, New England should look to backs Lewis and James White to attack Jones in one-on-one situations.
The good news for Atlanta is that Jones is more than capable of holding his own. He led the league in passes defensed among linebackers this season, and has shown on numerous occasions that backs who can typically burn larger backers in coverage don’t enjoy the same success against him. He also made three interceptions in the regular season (and another against Seattle in the divisional round) and is one of several Falcons who embody Quinn’s obsession with creating turnovers. Rookie safety Keanu Neal forced five fumbles in 2016, and Beasley led the league in the same stat (with six). Atlanta thrives on takeaways, and even though picking off Brady is next to impossible these days, the Patriots have shown that they’ll sometimes put the ball on the ground. New England fumbled 27 times during the regular season, tied for most in the NFL, a fact Quinn has assuredly mentioned countless times over the past two weeks.
Ultimately, Beasley may prove to be the Falcons’ most important defensive weapon, even if unleashing him requires Quinn to get creative. The Texans demonstrated in the divisional round that the Pats can be attacked on the interior. The Falcons have borrowed (read: stolen) from their opponents’ foes’ playbooks in previous weeks, namely when they sent rookie corner Brian Poole on slot blitzes against the Packers, mirroring a tactic the Cowboys used a week earlier. Atlanta’s best hope to pressure Brady may be rushing three and using Beasley as a standup linebacker inside. It’s a spot he’s been in before, as a spy. It would be an unlikely wrinkle for both Beasley and the Falcons, but those are the sorts of tactics Quinn could need to implement to have a shot against Brady and Belichick.
Final score: Falcons 31, Patriots 24
Version 4: The Falcons Offense Takes Its Rightful Place in History
It’s been more than 15 years since an all-time dangerous offense propelled a team to a Super Bowl victory. The 2013 Broncos, 2012 Patriots, 2011 Packers, 2007 Patriots, 2001 Rams, and 1998 Vikings all fell short. This season’s Falcons, whose average of 33.8 points per game tied for the eighth-highest mark in NFL history, hope to change that trend. And they have the type of unit to make it happen.
What makes Atlanta so scary is that along with having Jones at receiver, Shanahan’s group can hurt a defense in a variety of ways. Jones would be the focal point of any offense (and as a result, any defense), but teams that dedicate too many resources to stopping him risk getting burned by Atlanta’s other playmakers. Aside from Jones, the Falcons’ top weapons reside in the backfield. Running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are interchangeable and complementary, and both can hurt defenses as runners and receivers from a host of different alignments.
Let’s start with the running game. The Falcons finished seventh in rushing DVOA during the regular season, averaging 4.6 yards per carry. Ryan may be primed to win the league’s MVP award on Saturday, but Shanahan will tell anyone willing to listen that this offense is built on its running game. Thanks to the offseason addition of All-Pro center Alex Mack, Atlanta’s rushing attack has been able to hammer teams the way Shanahan covets. If the Patriots are content to use two high safeties to both bracket Jones and limit Gabriel, the Falcons have what it takes to make them pay.
Part of that has to do with how Atlanta runs the ball. In shutting down the Steelers in the AFC title game (54 yards on 20 carries), Patriots nose tackle Branch controlled the A gaps and simply clogged the lanes that Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams were targeting. Against Pittsburgh’s gap-blocking scheme, effectively controlling blockers and taking up space was enough to torpedo the game plan. But Atlanta’s zone-running scheme presents a different challenge. The Falcons will try to get New England’s interior defenders moving laterally, and in doing so, negate what Branch does best. If they establish a running presence from the start, the play-action passes that made Ryan so great all season should only become more effective.
Both Freeman and Coleman could find success on outside-zone runs, and in terms of overall impact, it feels like Coleman has a chance to swing the outcome. The Patriots ranked 20th in defensive DVOA against passes to running backs during the regular season. In Coleman, the Falcons have a back who can exploit pass defenses in a variety of ways. Shanahan has shown a willingness to use wonky formations if the situation calls for it. If Atlanta chooses to play Freeman and Coleman together on Sunday, it would give it a chance to take exploit New England’s linebackers (such as Shea McClellin and Kyle Van Noy) in coverage while maintaining a threat to run.
The Falcons can always burn a defense with a shot to Gabriel or a gadget play that stems from play-action out of a traditional running formation, but if the Patriots do limit Jones’s impact, Atlanta’s best route to points will probably come courtesy of its two-headed monster in the backfield.
Final score: Falcons 34, Patriots 31