By Andrew Foerch
Over 111 million Americans tuned in to CBS for last year’s Super Bowl 50 between the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers. Nielsen ratings were even higher the year before, when Super Bowl XLIX drew 114.4 million viewers, the largest audience ever recorded in domestic broadcast television. In fact, Super Bowls hold 19 of the 20 most watched TV broadcasts in American history. According to the National Retail Federation, an estimated 43 million Americans plan to host some type of watch party for the game and another 20 million are expected to flock to local bars and pubs on the big day. If history is any indication, chances are you’ll be watching the Atlanta Falcons take on the New England Patriots this Sunday. Here’s everything you need to know.
The obvious story is the battle between the two best quarterbacks of the 2016 regular season – Matt Ryan versus Tom Brady; David versus Goliath. This will be Brady’s NFL record seventh Super Bowl appearance (he won MVP in three of them), so even though the Falcons have a technical home field advantage, Brady and his Patriots are right in their comfort zone. Brady thrives on the biggest stages under the brightest lights, and he’s shown time and time again why he deserves to be called the greatest of all time. Super Bowl LI is just another day at the office.
This is absolutely not the case for Matt Ryan. He’s been sensational this season; he’s a fan favorite to win the first MVP campaign of his career and he led his team to their second Super Bowl in franchise history at the helm of the seventh-highest scoring offense (33.75 points per game) the NFL has ever seen, yet the guy is still the underdog. After overwhelming victories against two of the NFC’s best teams, the Seahawks and the Packers, Ryan has begun scraping away at his reputation for crumbling during the playoffs. This is the deepest playoff run in his career, and the world is waiting to see whether or not he deserves to be considered a top-tier quarterback.
Though it’s an interesting story on paper, the quarterback matchup won’t be the biggest factor come Super Bowl Sunday. Ryan and Brady blew out two of the best teams in football two weekends ago in the Conference Championships and made it look easy – we know how capable they both are.
For New England, the asterisk comes with their league-leading defense. This unit has been wildly successful all season, giving up an NFL-best 15.6 points per game with relative ease. Trouble is, they put up these numbers against the fairly indisputable easiest schedule in the AFC. The most difficult opponent they faced was Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks in week 10, a matchup the Pats lost. They dispatched Ben Roethlisberger and the high-powered Steelers in comfortable fashion in the conference round (halfway through the third quarter, the Steelers longest play of the game was 19 yards), but they did it in the absence of Pittsburgh’s superstar running back Le’Veon Bell. This Falcons offense is ranked the best in the NFL and the Pats haven’t been tested by an offense this good all season.
Still, there’s no doubt the Pats defense is strong. Head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia are famous for taking away the opposition’s biggest weapons and forcing teams to operate outside of their usual game plan–number one Pittsburgh receiver Antonio Brown was limited to just 77 yards in the AFC championship, with zero catches longer than 20 yards. The Falcons’ most powerful weapon is Julio Jones, basically an offensive nuclear bomb. The 6-foot-3 receiver hauled in nine receptions for 180 yards and two scores against Green Bay, stiff-arming safeties to the ground and leaving the Packers secondary looking like swiss cheese, and he did it with three separate injuries in his foot. Jones is one of the most feared receivers in the league and a total monster, so expect the pats to cover him with Malcolm Butler, their top corner, plus safety help on any deep routes. On the other side of the gridiron, you’ve got talented cornerback Logan Ryan helping to shut down the pass.
The problem is the Pats haven’t faced an offense as dynamic and multifaceted as this before. Atlanta has more weapons than just Julio Jones, and if they want to win their first Lombardi trophy, Matt Ryan had better use them; he’s going to need his supporting cast to carry the weight of the offense. With consistent double coverage on Jones, it will be up to secondary receivers like Mohammed Sanu and speedy Taylor Gabriel to gain big chunks of yardage. The dual threat backfield of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman should offer an additional point of attack, opening up room for screens and swing pass options. Matt Ryan has done a good job spreading the ball around so far, hitting an astonishing eight different targets in the first half against Green Bay. He’ll need to continue in similar form to compete against New England.
The fact that it’s Brady and Belichick makes the Patriots the automatic favorites in this Super Bowl. That’s just the way it goes in this era of football. They’ve brought the Pats to 11 AFC Championships in their 15 seasons together, an unprecedented level of dominance. If they fall into their mechanical rhythm of brilliance, the Falcons defense won’t last and Brady will become the winningest quarterback ever. Instead, Atlanta needs to attack first and keep the Pats on their heels. It’s what they did against Green Bay, and they were able to totally stifle Aaron Rodgers, one of probably two active quarterbacks that can be mentioned in the same breath as Brady (the other being Saints gunslinger Drew Brees).
The Falcons cannot allow the Patriots to control the pace of the game and to keep the ball in Brady’s hands. The pass rush needs to disturb the Pats offensive line and quickly collapse the pocket to put pressure on Brady. This has been a huge area of improvement for Atlanta this season, and this is where outside linebacker Vic Beasley will be a difference maker. He’s had a breakout year and led the NFL with 15.5 sacks in the regular season. If he and his defensive linemen can stuff the Pats long enough for Matt Ryan to make a handful of drives (the Falcons are at eight straight games with opening drive touchdowns), they’ll have a far better shot at lifting the trophy.
New England’s offense cut through the Pittsburgh zone coverage like warm butter, so Atlanta should play man coverage. Houston did in the divisional round, and was able to pick Brady off twice. With man coverage, Brady will be forced to throw riskier passes into tighter seams and the Falcons’ secondary will have a better chance at making it 11 straight games with a takeaway. The Pats don’t make many mistakes, so any lapses whatsoever will have huge implications for Sunday’s outcome.
If the Falcons can do all of these things through four quarters of football, and I believe they can, they’ll win their first Super Bowl. I think Matt Ryan and his offense will put up points consistent with what we’ve seen the entire season, and I think the Falcons have a better shot at beating the Patriots than any team in football. The overwhelming perception that one adversary is unbeatable can overshadow the major disadvantages that make the same adversary vulnerable – when adjusted for opponent quality, the Patriot defense is ranked just 16th in the league according to statistical analysis publication Football Outsiders. It’ll be a close game with potential for a dramatic end, but my money’s on the Falcons to ride their momentum to a Super Bowl victory. In the fable, David just strolls up to Goliath and shoots him right between the eyes.