Super Bowl LI is finally upon us. We’ve got one last game, before we head into the abyss that is the NFL offseason. Thankfully, this one last game — to borrow from the legendary Keith Jackson — “should be a dandy.”
In the two-ish weeks leading up to Sunday’s game, I don’t think i’ve heard a single person say they’re picking Atlanta to win this game. That’s probably because: 1) I don’t live anywhere near Atlanta, and 2) I can’t really think of anyone I know that fervently roots for the Falcons to begin with. But, while you’d be hard pressed to disagree with anyone who thinks New England will win on Sunday, it would seem dangerous to quickly dismiss the Falcons themselves, at least initially.
For someone who was HIGHLY skeptical of this team for the vast majority of the year, I will readily eat my crow: Atlanta isn’t a good team; they’re a great team, and they’re playing their best football right now. The Falcons finished the year with a total of four losses in 18 games, including the postseason. Since their bye in in Week 11, Atlanta has gone 7-1 in their last eight games (including the playoffs), averaging 37.5 points per game. Their only one loss was the 29-28 loss to Kansas City, in which they actually scored the go-ahead touchdown with 4:32 left in the game, giving them a 28-27 lead, but they got cute and tried for a two point conversion (to extend their lead to three points), and Chiefs’ safety Eric Berry intercepted the football and took all the way back the other way, giving Kansas City the game-winning score.
Historically, the Falcons have always been known for being a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”-type team, in terms of when they’re playing at home versus on the road. But not this year. In 2016, they were actually 6-2 on the road this year. One of those two losses was the 26-24 defeat in Seattle, which could’ve very easily had a different outcome if the refs actually called the blatant pass interference on Richard Sherman.
Oh, and there’s also the fact the Falcons are the team that has the league MVP at quarterback (as opposed to their opponents in this game). As i’ve mentioned before: Matt Ryan finished among the top three quarterbacks in the league in completion % (#3), passing yards (#2), yards per attempt (#1), touchdown passes (#2), and passer rating (#1) this year. He led the Falcons offense to a franchise high in points (540) while reaching career highs in touchdowns, yards, average yards per pass, completion percentage and a career-low in interceptions. He threw touchdowns to a league-record 13 different receivers.
In the postseason, Ryan is averaging 365 yards passing and 3.5 touchdowns per game. Since the start of December, which is going back seven games for Atlanta (including the postseason), Ryan has thrown only one interception. In that same span, he’s also thrown 19 touchdown passes. He’s basically like a world-class conductor leading a symphony composed by Mozart; that’s the job that Kyle Shanahan has done with the Falcons offensive scheme. If you’ve watched Atlanta this season, and especially the postseason, you can see the way the methodically — if not surgically — move the ball up and down the field on nearly every single possession. They force you into a tit-for-tat, pressuring you to score every time you have the ball, otherwise they will.
It’s no surprise that the Falcons finished the 2016-2017 season ranked #1 overall in offensive DVOA, with the #1 ranked passing offense in DVOA, along with the 7th ranked rushing offense.
And that’s exactly why I think they’re going to lose this Sunday.
Of all the things I truly hate in life — a list of which includes the Dallas Cowboys, the University of Virginia, all cephalopods, peas, air conditioning, the Kardashian family, and cheap ballpoint pens — one of the things I hate most is using trite and tired clichés as part of any semi-intelligent sports discussion. With that being said, there’s a reason why the following cliché exists: offense wins games, but defense wins championships.
Over the past decade, the team entering the game with the higher-ranked offense (in terms of overall DVOA) has gone 2-8 in those 10 Super Bowl games. Let’s take a stroll down memory lane, and see if any of these scenarios sound familiar to you, especially in the context of this year’s game:
- Super Bowl XLVIII (2014): the Denver Broncos were coming off a season in which they scored an NFL-record 606 points during the season, with quarterback Peyton Manning smashing a whole bunch of passing records that year, en route to winning the NFL MVP award. The Broncos get to the Super Bowl, and were totally embarassed by the Seattle Seahawks, losing 43-8.
- Super Bowl XLVI (2012): the New England Patriots finished the regular season ranked #3 overall in offensive DVOA, including 2nd overall in passing offense DVOA, and 3rd overall in rushing defense DVOA. Tom Brady was coming off a year in which he threw a career-high 5,235 yards and 39 passing touchdowns (the 2nd highest total of his career). But the Patriots fell short (again) to the New York Giants, losing 21-17.
- Super Bowl XLII (2008): the New England Patriots spent the entire year obliterating everyone that stood in their path, getting to the Super Bowl with a pristine 18-0 record. They set a single-season scoring record, putting up 589 points that year. Tom Brady broke Dan Marino’s single-season touchdown pass record, throwing 50 touchdown passes. The Patriots offense featured the unstoppable future-Hall-of-Famer Randy Moss, and a smörgåsbord of other receiving options at Brady’s disposal. But, playing against a team that nobody believed stood a chance in this game, the Patriots were held to only 14 points in the game — after averaging just under 37 points per game all year long — and lost to the New York Giants by a score of 17-14.
As prolific as the Falcons offense was this past season — and, again, it really was one of the most prolific units we’ve seen in years — they’re running into one major problem in this upcoming Super Bowl.
That problem is Bill Belichick.
It might be coming up on two decades since the game took place, but this is still the same Belichick who devised the plan to have his defense batter, bruise, and bully an offense that we used to refer to as “The Greatest Show On Turf,” en route to the Patriots win in Super Bowl XXXVI. That game still remains one of the greatest upsets in Super Bowl history. It might be coming up on three decades since the game took place, but this is still the same Belichick who devised the plan to stop the pass-loving offense that we used to refer to as “The K-Gun,” daring them to run the ball against his defensive fronts that sometimes featured as few as two defensive linemen, en route to the New York Giants win over the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV (when Belichick was the defensive coordinator in New York).
As others have said: give Belichick a week to game plan against you, and you’re in for a tough game that upcoming weekend. But give Belichick two weeks to game plan against you, and he might find a weakness in your offense that you didn’t even know you had.
Atlanta is the team most worthy to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, as New England is representing the AFC. But this isn’t just Falcons playing against the Patriots in some type of historical vacuum. There are other, bigger forces at work here. There’s Bill Belichick cementing his legacy as the greatest head coach in the history of the game. There’s Tom Brady cementing his status as the best quarterback to ever play the game. There’s the Patriots almost feeling like “the good guys” in this game, putting themselves in the position to force Roger Goodell — one of the most despicable and disliked figures in professional sports today — to hand them the Vince Lombardi Trophy, if New England wins.
Unlike what took place during the vast majority of the 2016-2017 NFL postseason, i’m looking forward to what should be a very entertaining game. I’m anticipating something that should be a lot more exciting than the rest of the lopsided snoozers we saw this past January. But, i’m still expecting the same outcome that everyone else is expecting.
Prediction: New England over Atlanta, 27-23.