Matt Ryan has been on fire this season and has so many receiving weapons. His 117.1 rating was the best in the NFL. Julio Jones finished second in the NFL with 1,409 yards receiving, Mohamed Sanu is terrific in the red zone, and Taylor Gabriel has scorching speed. The Patriots are in good shape at cornerback with the excellent Malcolm Butler and the underrated Logan Ryan. Eric Rowe is the team’s biggest corner, but he doesn’t have the speed to hang with Gabriel in the slot. Watch for Butler on Sanu, and over-the-top help elsewhere.
Atlanta has two burners in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. They are dangerous as runners and receivers. Because the Falcons have so many receiving threats, the Patriots could be in nickel and dime packages a lot, utilizing extra defensive backs. That will allow for more running. The New England run defense has been stout lately, and is anchored by 350-pound Alan Branch , who might not have stunning stats but is a beast at shedding blocks. Others in the defensive front — Rob Ninkovich , Jabaal Sheard , Chris Long — can hold their own.
Even by his lofty standards, Tom Brady was exceptional this season with 28 touchdowns and a scant two interceptions. Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan have accounted for 79% of Brady’s passing yards in the playoffs. and have been dominant, even with Rob Gronkowski out. Hogan is a surprisingly effective deep threat, and Edelman has that short-space shiftiness. Martellus Bennett is a decent target at tight end, but is no Gronk. The Falcons’ defense shows its cards and challenges teams to beat them. Unless they incorporate some wrinkles, Brady will shred them.
LeGarrette Blount is a pounder who led the league with 18 rushing touchdowns this season. He’s been a bit less effective later in the season, and we might see more of the speedy Dion Lewis , especially because Atlanta’s front four likes to get up the field quickly. That can create running lanes for smaller, faster backs, as opposed to plodding punishers. James White is a good receiver out of the backfield, and considering how great a game Shane Vereen had as a pass-catching back in the Super Bowl two years ago, White could be in for a big day.
The Falcons have a money kicker in Matt Bryant , who consistently delivers under pressure. He’s got the club’s all-time scoring record with 892 points. Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski used to be better, being somewhat unreliable this season. The Patriots have a Pro Bowl special-teamer in Matt Slater , a team captain and the son of Hall of Fame Rams tackle Jackie Slater. Punters Matt Bosher of Atlanta and Ryan Allen of New England are decent, but with those quarterbacks and their team’s ability to make first downs, they have not had to work much this season.
This is the 10th Super Bowl for New England’s Bill Belichick, meaning nearly one out of every five of the NFL’s biggest games have included him. He is much more involved in the Patriots defense, even turning his back to the field and working with that group when the offense is out there. The Falcons love Dan Quinn, who is a Pete Carroll acolyte and has really engaged with his players. He was defensive coordinator for Seattle’s two most recent Super Bowl teams, including the last-minute loss to New England two years ago. Still, Belichick is a lock for Canton.
This is Ryan’s year. He has too many weapons, and the Patriots won’t be able to generate enough pressure from their defensive front to derail him. It was huge in the NFC championship game when he pulled the ball down and ran for a touchdown. Getting someone in Brady’s face is key to beating the Patriots. The Falcons will be able to turn up the heat with Vic Beasley and Dwight Freeney. Brady will keep it close, but Atlanta will have the final word, especially if it comes down to Ryan with the ball in the waning seconds and Bryant ready to make the kick.