“That's the biggest gap in sports, the difference between the winner and the loser of the Super Bowl.”
- John Madden, Hall of Fame head coach and NFL broadcaster
If you’re like me, the media information in the days leading up to the Super Bowl are an incredibly mind-numbing display of staid comments and canned quotes presented in deadpanned delivery. By the time the game finally rolls around, you’ll be amazingly well-versed in which players like garlic on their artichokes, and you might even be aware that ‘Matty Ice’ isn’t a new brand of beer in the cheap aisle of the grocery store. But you’ll know very little, if anything at all, about how any particular player feels about the game.
“The (other guys) are really good.”
“They wouldn’t be here if they weren’t playing at an elite level.”
“We have to be very prepared for these guys.”
“We have a lot of respect for them.”
“Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah.”
Lately the best quote we’ve been presented with was Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch mumbling, “I’m just here so I won’t get fined,” while offering literally nothing more prior to Super Bowl XLIX.
It makes me miss the days when Dallas Cowboys linebacker Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson famously said that Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw couldn’t spell ‘cat’ if he was spotted the C and the T. (Side note: After Bradshaw then threw for four touchdowns in Super Bowl XIII to beat the Cowboys 35-31, Henderson said “I didn’t say he couldn’t play, just that he couldn’t spell.”)
Or how about when Washington Redskins offensive lineman Russ Grimm said, “I’d run over my mother to win the Super Bowl,” only for Oakland Raider linebacker Matt Millen chime in with, “I’d run over Russ Grimm’s mother, too.”
Or even the (postgame) resoluteness in his tone when Larry Csonka (my favorite Dolphins player of all time) sat in the locker room after a 24-3 pounding in Super Bowl VI, and said the Dolphins wouldn’t forget this feeling, they’d be back, and they’d win that game. (And I spent that entire next school year strutting around, chest puffed out, as my team won. Every. Single. Game.)
Ah, the good old days.
But back to the present, where I ask, if you were to bet your entire paycheck on the Super Bowl, which team would you pick?
The New England Patriots are favored by a Stephen Gostkowski field goal to beat the Atlanta Falcons, and they bring a wealth of history, experience, and knowledge of all the intangibles associated with a championship game played on the largest stage in all of sports.
Meanwhile the Falcons have the best offense in the league, with quarterback and MVP candidate Matt Ryan leading the best running back corps in the league, along with one of the NFL’s top wide receivers, Julio Jones, leading a potent trio of pass catchers. The Falcons also have the only offensive line in the league that has remained intact for all 18 games they’ve played this season. That’s not a small feat in today’s NFL, where injuries are a weekly occurrence, and the ever-omniscient ‘next man up’ mentality prevails.
So what to expect in this game?
As is the staple of every Bill Belichick team, look for the Patriots defense to try and eliminate one of the tools in quarterback Matt Ryan’s toolbelt in the opening drives, forcing the Falcons to look to their secondary weapons early on. And as always, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia’s defense will note what works for the Falcons in those early drives, and then switch their focus as the game wears on.
The trick for offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s offense will be to outguess where the Patriots’ initial focus will be, and find ways to exploit other areas early on. It will be crucial for the Falcons to find the end zone early in their opening drives. I have no doubt that the Falcons can score in this game, as long as Ryan and his teammates (especially the receivers) avoid any early game jitters.
No one knows how things will ultimately unfold, but my guess is that the Patriots will focus on shutting down the running back tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman early on, then shift added attention to shutting down the lethal trio of Julio Jones, Taylor Gabriel, and Mohamad Sanu in the second half. Of course that strategy is more ideal if the Patriots are playing with a lead, something they’ve done almost all year – they have only spent 12% of the season trailing their opponents.
The Patriots have faced very few dangerous (and fully healthy) offenses this season, and while Belichick will find a way to disrupt things, Matt Ryan has a lot of weapons at his disposal, and he’s smart enough to use them all.
The Falcons are no strangers to leads themselves, having averaged a league-leading 33.4 points per game this season, and scoring 80 points in their two postseason games leading into the Super Bowl. And while their defense hasn’t gotten the press that the Patriots' has, that unit has steadily improved under head coach Dan Quinn as the season progressed.
Is the Atlanta defense good enough to stop the ever-methodical Patriots offense? In a word, yes. But the key will be to bring pressure early and often, and find ways to get their hands on quarterback Tom Brady. As Dolphins fans well know, Brady can be rattled if he is pressured. And the Patriots typically offset the early rush by quick reads of the defense and quick passes behind the blitz, something at which Brady excels.
And to offset that, the Falcons defensive backs cannot afford to play a passive zone defense. They’ll need to disrupt the receiver routes at the line, and eliminate those timed throws that Brady loves. Otherwise they’ll be eaten alive.
So how does the winner prevail?
I fully expect a high-scoring game with both sides trading leads throughout the game. The deciding factor will likely be which defense makes a crucial stop at opportune times, setting the course for that team to utilize ball control, as both teams would like nothing better than to grind the clock with their running games. My hope/guess/prayer (because I am a Dolphins fan after all), is that team is the Falcons.
My head says this is going to be a close game and the Patriots will be tough to stop. And my heart says:
This article was written by Eldon Jenson. Follow him on Twitter @EJFootball
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