Atlanta Falcons (13-5 SU, 12-6 ATS) vs. New England Patriots (16-2 SU, 15-3 ATS)
2017 Super Bowl LI
Date/Time: Sunday February 5th 6:30 PM EST
Where: NRG Stadium
by Mike M, Expert Football Handicapper, Predictem.com
Point Spread: ATL +3 / NE -3
Over/Under Total: 58.5
The Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots will battle it out at NRG Stadium in Houston for Super Bowl 51 in a showdown of two prolific offenses that has in turn led to the highest over/under in NFL title game history with the total currently sitting at 58.5. This will be the second time ever in The Big Game for the Falcons after having previously lost to Denver back in Super Bowl XXIII, while for New England this will be their NFL record 9th SB appearance as a franchise, head coach Bill Belichick’s NFL record 11th as a coach and Bob Kraft NFL record 8th as an owner.
Atlanta punched their ticket to the Super Bowl after beating Seattle 36-20 in the divisional round and then Green Bay 44-21 in the NFC Conference Championship. Led by 1st team All-Pro quarterback (and likely league MVP) Matt Ryan, the Falcons and their high powered offense enter the game ranked 2nd in the league in total offense, 3rd in passing, 5th in rushing and 1st in scoring. Ryan deserves a lot of the credit after throwing for 4,944 yards and a 38/7 TD-INT ratio in the regular season and a stellar playoff line of completing 70.7% of his passes for 7 touchdowns, 0 interceptions and QB rating of 132.6 in the playoffs, but he is far from alone on the offense.
Ryan’s favorite target and likely the league’s best wide receiver is Julio Jones, who is coming off of a dominant NFC title game performance in which he hauled in 9 passes for 180 yards and 2 touchdowns as he constantly befuddled the Packer defensive backs who were left near helpless in attempting to cover him. The Falcon passing game gets a lion share of the spotlight, but the backfield combination of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman is at or near the top of any ground game duo in the league and should play a key role against the Patriots. Freeman had over 1,500 yards of total offense and 13 touchdowns in the regular season with Coleman contributing 941 yards of offense and 11 touchdowns. They have seen that success continue in the postseason with Freeman and Coleman each having scored touchdowns against both the Seahawks and Packers, though both will have their work cut out for them against a Patriots run defense that hasn’t allowed a back over 100 yards rushing in their past 25 games in a row.
Much has been made about the quarterback battle between Ryan and Brady, which some NFL prognosticators (many of those with an axe to grind against the Patriots) insisting that Ryan is the better quarterback of the two, which if you look at the statistical history of Matty Ice, really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense considering this is his first season of playing at a consistent elite level. Ryan has routinely struggled throughout his career in road games and has a barely winning record of 37-35 in them to show for it, but it goes farther than that. Up until this season you would have to go back to week 5 of the 2012 season as the last time Matt Ryan beat a team on the road that ended the year with a winning record and even further to 2010 for the last time he led the Falcons to a road victory after October against a team that finished the year with a winning record. While his away from home stats improved this season, his play in the 4th quarter continues to be far from elite. Many will point to his league leading 117.1 quarterback rating as one of the reasons he deserves to be league MVP, but what you don’t ever hear them ever bring up is a far more important stat, as that same QB rating plummets to just 54.3 in the 4th quarter (in comparison, Brady’s 4th quarter rating is 82.7).
The Falcons offense has gotten a lot of attention this season, and rightfully so considering the point and stat totals they have put up throughout the year, but the Patriots offense wasn’t that far behind, finishing 4th in yards per game, 4th in passing, 7th in rushing and 3rd in scoring. And considering they played without Brady for a quarter of the season and didn’t have Rob Gronkowski for over half of it, those numbers become that much more impressive. Their backfield can go in multiple directions, either with bruising running back and NFL touchdown leader LeGarrette Blount or the speediness of Dion Lewis and James White, with Lewis now gaining more of a pronounced role after returning late in the season from an injury and especially after his touchdown laden day against Houston in the divisional round when he scored on the ground, through the air and also on special teams. Wide receiver Julian Edelman remains Brady’s favorite option amongst the receiving threats, with double-digit targets in seven of his last eight games and at least 70 yards receiving in every game since October, though fellow wide receiver Chris Hogan is quickly moving up the charts after the Steelers strategy of leaving him completely uncovered on multiple plays in the AFC Championship led to a 9 reception/180 yards/2 touchdown statline for the former lacrosse standout who also led the NFL in yards per catch this season with 17.9.
One unheralded area that the Patriots shine in that could have a major effect on the outcome of the game is special teams. Matthew Slater was just elected to his 6th consecutive Pro Bowl for his play this season and is another player featured in this game that you could easily say is one of if not the best at his position in the NFL, though surprisingly it was second team All-Pro and former US Olympian in rugby Nate Ebner who led the Patriots in kick coverage tackles this season with nineteen. The kicking game has played a crucial role in two of New England’s previous Super Bowl victories, with them winning on game ending field goals against St. Louis and again against Carolina two years later, and while Stephen Gostowski has had a problem with the yips this season (which cost him a chance at his 5th consecutive NFL points title that was instead won by Atlanta’s Matt Bryant), one player who could have a big impact on the game is New England punter Ryan Allen. Dealing with an offense as explosive as the Falcons is never easy and putting them on a long field and not giving them a chance to start a drive with advantageous field position will be critical toward the Patriots success, and Allen has been on point all season in that regard, most notably in recent weeks as no team in has scored a touchdown against New England off of an Allen punt in their past six games.
The Falcons and Patriots enter the Super Bowl with similarities on both sides, and it’s not just on the field. Three members of the Falcons front office, director of pro personnel Joe Collier, assistant general manager Scott Pioli and general manager Thomas Dimitroff all once worked for the Patriots in one capacity or another. Both team owners are beloved by their cities, with Robert Kraft bringing much success and initial stability to a team that would have moved out of state if it wasn’t for him and Falcons owner Arthur Blank well known for his charitable endeavors, and that was before it was announced he was taking every employee in his organization to the Super Bowl. The Patriots are also familiar with Falcons coach Dan Quinn, who was the defensive coordinator for the Seahawks when New England beat them two years ago to win Super Bowl XLIX. Quinn will be looking to avoid back-to-back losses to New England, though a certain trend is very much not in his favor, as coaches facing Belichick for the first time in their careers are just 3-22 in their last 25 chances against the cut-sleeved legend.
While much has been debated about the old mantra that ‘defense wins championships’, the statistics do seems to back it up as the team with the higher ranked total defense has gone 29-17 over the past 46 Super Bowls. The Patriots and Falcons both may be near the top in every offensive category, but defensively they couldn’t be much farther apart, with New England outranking Atlanta convincingly in all four major categories – total defense (NE 8th, ATL 25th), passing defense (NE 12th, ATL 28th), rushing defense (NE 3rd, ATL 17th) and scoring defense (NE 1st, ATL 27th). Teams that rank at least ten spots higher on total defense are 9-4 in the last 13 Super Bowls, and two of those losses were handed out by New England when they were able to get past the Rams in SB XXXVI and Seahawks in SB XLIX. With all the talk about how the Patriots can slow down Matt Ryan and the Falcons offense, the question that matters most is how can the 28th pass defense in the league try and keep up with a quarterback like Tom Brady who now has his sites on not only a 5th Super Bowl championship but also a chance for some karmic icing on the cake to be handed the Vince Lombardi Trophy from the gutless hypocritical coward the NFL calls a commissioner. In what promises to be a high scoring affair, the Patriots will get the win and cover against the Falcons and Super Bowl LI, cementing not only their dynastic status but also the Greatest Of All Time titles for both Brady and Belichick.
Mike M’s Pick to Cover the Point Spread: New England -3
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