It is no surprise that the New England Patriots made it to Super Bowl 51. Well, maybe a little. Quarterback Tom Brady was suspended for the team’s first four games of the season, but head coach Bill Belichick did what he always does and won three of those four games without his future Hall of Famer. Then Brady returned. With a vengeance. The result is a record ninth Super Bowl appearance by the franchise that has set the standard in the NFL.
The Patriots opponent, Atlanta, is somewhat of a surprise to represent the NFC in Super Bowl 51. After the Falcons started the season 4-1, they promptly dropped two straight to fall to 4-3 and bring back memories of head coach Dan Quinn’s first season in Atlanta. Remember, Quinn and company started the 2015 season 5-0 but would win just three more games and finish 8-8. But this Falcons team was different. A high-flying offense led by QB Matt Ryan, WR Julio Jones, a pair of stud running backs, and one of the game’s youngest and brightest offensive minds led Atlanta to seven victories, including the last four straight, in its last nine games.
The Falcons led the league in scoring during the regular season averaging 33.8 points per game. They have continued in the playoffs lighting up a very good Seattle defense for 36 points and put up 44 against Green Bay in the NFC Championship game. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is just 37 years old but was mentioned in relation to every head coaching vacancy this season. He still may wind up as the next head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.
So, where does that leave us in Super Bowl 51? Both teams have great offenses led by two of the best quarterbacks in the game. Ryan led the NFL with 4,944 yards passing and 38 touchdowns. Brady, who played in just 12 games, threw for 3,554 and 28 TDs. Brady set a franchise playoff record last week when he threw for 384 yards and three touchdowns in the win over Pittsburgh in the AFC title game. Ryan was equally impressive throwing for 392 yards and four touchdowns against the Packers. He also scored on a 14-yard run.
Super Bowl 51 pits two very good offenses against two very different defenses. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, also a candidate for some of this year’s head coaching vacancies, has put together the NFL’s best defense. During the regular season, the Patriots gave up just 15.6 points per game. Last week in the AFC championship, New England held a very good Pittsburgh offense to just nine points for most of the game before a fourth-quarter touchdown and two-point conversion.
The Falcons are nowhere near being in the same league as New England on defense. Atlanta gave up 25.4 points per game, 27th in the NFL. They were 25th in total defense and a measly 28th against the pass (266.7 yards per game). One thing that Atlanta does well is rush the passer thanks mostly to DE Vic Beasley. The former Clemson star recorded an NFL-best 15.5 sacks this season. He was one of the reasons that Atlanta was able to rattle Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers last week.
In considering past Super Bowls, it has normally been the better defensive team that has prevailed. The Falcons offense is something special but Quinn is going to have to come up with the perfect defensive game plan to slow down the Patriots offense.
Bing and Cortana’s NFL Super Bowl pick – Patriots to win (52% chance)