The NFL’s last chance, Matt Ryan’s shot at glory, and Tom Brady’s quest for redemption.
Editor’s note: Welcome to Super Bowl Week on ChinMusicPod.com. Like our All-Baseball Update back in July, we’re going to sharpen our focus a little bit with this week’s edition of the Update. To kick off our week of haphazard takes, predictions, and previews, here are the nine biggest storylines to watch during the Big Game.
This season has not exactly been kind to the NFL. While it was devoid of any season-defining scandal like the Ray Rice tape, Deflategate or any other unseemly business, that doesn’t mean it was a rosy season for the NFL. Quite the opposite, actually.
As we, and any other website with sports in its name, has covered almost ad-nauseum, NFL ratings were down this year, way down. The quality of play, while less objectively confirmable, was agreed to be lackluster as well. Pair that with the ever-increasing scrutiny the league (fairly) faces on everything from concussions to domestic violence to breast cancer month and the NFL did not have the best start to its season, or middle for that matter.
And the playoffs have not helped their case. While many were ready to finally see some high-level competitive football as the calendar turned to January, we’ve instead mostly been treated to more mediocrity. The lone “good” game on the docket so far has been the divisional matchup between the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers—and the winner of that game was summarily dismantled the following week.
But the NFL has the chance to have all its fans walk out of its glittery seasonal amusement park with a big ol’ smile plastered on their faces thanks to a Super Bowl LI matchup starring the most notorious team in the league and two high-powered offenses. As we’ll get to in later paragraphs, there are stars all around the offensive side of the ball for both teams. There are high-profile coaches. There’s history, and the chance to make more history. It sounds like a promotional platitude, and it often is, but this year it’s also true: this Super Bowl is shaping up to be one of the better contests in the event’s history.
For the NFL’s sake, it needs to be. It’s been a full year of bad football, a year that began with last year’s snoozefest of a Super Bowl—the NFL needs a clean start in this year’s affair.
We hear all the time about how the NFL has turned into a quarterback’s league, and that’s largely true. But, given the dearth of quality passers and the abundance of quality pass-catchers, it may be more accurate to say it has become a wide receiver’s league.
Most of the biggest names in the game right now line up outside. Odell Beckham Jr. is keeping the New York football scene interesting almost singlehandedly. Antonio Brown is twerking in the end zone on a weekly basis. Even after perhaps the most physically gifted wide receiver of this generation Calvin Johnson hung up his spikes, the league has more talent and excitement at the wide receiver position than it ever has before.
And on top of that mountain stands the Falcons’,Julio Jones. He has the nose for the end zone that Brown has shown, finishing fifth in the league in TD’s despite sharing the field with a deep arsenal of playmakers. He’s also exhibited the explosiveness that has turned Beckham into a star, most notably in the NFC Championship game when he quite literally man-handled the Green Bay Packers’ defensive secondary (he also gave Beckham a run for his money when it came to acrobatic catches.)
And perhaps most importantly, he also is the last one standing in the playoffs. On Sunday, Jones will have the opportunity to do what Brown and Beckham still have not—leave his signature on a Super Bowl. It won’t be easy, as Belichick is sure to put a bright spotlight on the Falcons’ receiver, the best of a very talented bunch that Atlanta has. But he has that shot.
And if he finds a way to the end zone before being fitted for a ring this weekend, he will cement his place as perhaps the best receiver in the best era the position has ever seen.
It’s tough to get a mention in two straight Monday Morning Updates, but Chris Hogan manages to do it. In a Super Bowl full of interesting stories, Hogan’s might the most-movie-ready. From the lacrosse field to the grid iron, to being cut, to signing with the champions, to a regular season surprise, to a playoff record setter.
Does he have one more act in him on Sunday?
Bittersweet as it may be for both Hogan and the team he suits up for, he’s no longer the team’s secret weapon. His impressive, nay, record-setting play in the AFC Championship game made sure of that. No, a big performance by the former Penn State lax-bruh will no longer count as the Super Bowl shock it may have seemed like a few weeks ago.
And so, maybe Hogan fades into the background. We’ve seen the here-today-gone-tomorrow routine from the Patriots time and time again before. Sometimes a player gets himself thrown out of a newly found role, sometimes the circumstances do it for them. So fair or not, Hogan may very well not get a chance to stand-out on Sunday as he was given a week or so ago.
But he’ll still be out on the field, and even a decoy can have a big impact on a Super Bowl. And something tells me he’ll be more than just a distraction come kickoff.
4. Speed kills
It makes a certain amount of sense that these two teams have such top-notch offenses since both tend to need to score plenty of points in order to overcome their defensive struggles.
But despite the disparity when compared to their peers (the Falcons’ D ranked 27th in points allowed while the offense ranked second in points scored) the Falcons’ opposite units have some similarities. Namely, speed.
Both sides of Atlanta’s roster are built for the fast and hard conditions of the turf and dome. While the defense may have relinquished their fair share of points, and then some, during the regular season, the speed has come on late and served the team well in the playoffs. It has forced four turnovers in its first two postseason victories and will be looking to cause more chaos in Houston.
Even Belichick admitted that the team’s speed is more dangerous than it may initially seem. And there’s reason for Bill and pat fans everywhere to be nervous. If there is one way to beat Tom Brady, especially in the playoffs, it’s by getting to him quickly, early, and often. The Falcons’ defense may not be particularly good, but it’s built to do just that.
While the Falcons’ speed could elevate their defense to the Super Bowl trophy stage, the Patriots don’t on the surface have the same weapons. And, to complicate matters, the team sent their best defensive weapon to Cleveland in advance of an upcoming contract dispute. I wonder if they are regretting it at all now that they’re staring down the barrel of a very loaded Atlanta shotgun? (Knowing Belichick, I doubt it.)
The lack of Collins has obviously made the job of defensive coordinator Matt Patricia more difficult, and he’ll face his strongest test yet against the Falcons. I’ve referenced it a few times already in this blog, but at the risk of sounding like a broken record, it’s really deep. We’ve talked about Jones already, but even if Malcolm Butler and the Patriots can neutralize him, it won’t be the death of the Falcons passing game—they still have some talented wide outs in Mohammad Snu and Taylor Gabriel.
The team’s backs, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, present a two-headed beast who are as good out of the backfield as they are spread out wide. They also give Ryan the comfort of being able to call a play-action pass at the snap of a finger and get the defense on their heels.
All told, its going to be quite a front for Patricia to combat, even with the help of Belichick. But, if he does, it may his name and not offensive boss Josh McDaniels’, being mentioned around next year’s head coaching vacancies.
There’s a reason there is so much speed on the Falcons D. Despite the obvious gap between the two, the Falcons’ defensive roster was designed to mirror the last unit that first-time head coach Dan Quinn built—the Legion of Boom in Seattle.
To put it lightly, Atlanta’s Legion is a bit lacking. Like we addressed before, the team allowed plenty of touchdowns in 2016, and if there are any flaws with this team, they reside on that side of the ball. But for all their issues, the Falcons’ secondary was actually fairly reliable by many metrics, and perhaps most importantly, it improved as the season went on. They have up more than eight points less per game after their bye-week in Week 11 than they did before, and their record and margin of victory improved as a result.
Quinn has built one glory-less franchise into a lean-mean-hitting machine in Seattle, giving the team and the city an identity and a Super Bowl title. But he didn’t do it as head coach.
He has the chance to add that bullet point to his resume now. This will be his team from the top down, and he will have truly built his own legacy, rather than being a part of Pete Carroll’s in Seattle. To put the final touch on this unit, however, Quinn will have to take down perhaps the best coach of all time—talk about building your own legacy.
For my money, we don’t need this week to decide where Bill Belichick stands in the pantheon of coaches—he’s already laid claim to being the greatest of all time. But with a win on Sunday, Bill can remove most, if not all, doubt.
If it is blue and red confetti falling in NRG Stadium on Sunday, Belichick will find himself with the most Super Bowl wins of any coach. His five titles will surpass greats like Chuck Noll, Vince Lombardi, Bill Parcells and any other coach who has donned the headset or held the clipboard. Considering the era he has done it in, it will be very hard for even the most ardent haters to argue against the man’s resume. Heck, even if the Patriots don’t win, he’ll find himself as the coach with the most Super Bowl appearances ever, with seven.
Belichick is arrogant, he’s surly, he’s probably a liar, a megalomaniac, a little heartless, and many many other things. But he’s also a certifiable genius. His influence almost never makes his colleagues look bad when they work under him, but never allow him to be surpassed when those same coworkers strike out on their own.
He stands alone as the greatest, win or lose on Sunday. But a win would remove all doubt.
You have to wonder if Matt Ryan ever pinches himself to make sure he isn’t dreaming, or is at least aware of just how lucky he is.
This has been an exceptional season. He’s the undisputed MVP, and has probably also become the undisputed best graduate of the Boston College football program in the process. Ryan has been surgical this season, and obviously has a healthy load of talent on his side. But, I hope he realizes to an extent just how lucky he has been. He’s surrounded by the weapons that would make most passers weep with joy, he plays half of his games in a dome and half of the rest in the cushy NFC South, in warm sunny stadiums or controlled domes.
All that said, you’d rather be lucky than good. And Ryan has been both this year, which is best of all. Like his coach Quinn, he has a chance to conquer the biggest bad in all of football this week, and that has a tendency to impact your legacy (just ask Eli Manning and Tom Coughlin.)
With just one incredible run, Ryan’s status has already changed. With one more win to cap it off, it could change his whole career.
We saved the best, the biggest, the most obvious, for last.
After all, his is what it all comes down to, isn’t it? Yes, Belichick’s quest for a fifth ring is historic. Yes, Matt Ryan or Dan Quinn climbing the mountain and beating the ultimate Yeti at the top would make for a great story. There is no shortage of storylines this week, it’s true—but this is the one that takes the cake.
I’m not a professional wrestling fan, but the past two NFL seasons have been a better showcase for the WWE exploits than the squared circle itself. You have the evil authority figure in Roger Goodell, the rebellious golden boy in Tom Brady, and their band of supporters and enemies. It’s good vs. evil, gang wars at its finest.
If this were pro-wrestling, we’d already know how the match was going to end. With the golden boy decimating the evil authority to a roar from the crowd. But thanks to the beauty of a non-scripted even, we don’t know if that will be the result on Sunday.
But just the prospect of it is mouth-watering, even if the outcome will inevitably be a bit disappointing, with Brady likely showing some respect and class, taking the trophy, and celebrating with his team. It doesn’t matter if we won’t actually get to see Brady pull some stunt involving the trophy, just the fact that he has Goodell in that vulnerable positon would be top-notch television.
At the end of the day, we watch sports for the drama, the entertainment. No matter what anyone else tells you, this is escapism, no different than a movie, TV show or album. And that’s not a bad thing.
The past few weeks have been the peak of drama in the soap opera that is the NFL, and Brady’s redemption is a plotline that we’ll remember for a long time. Let’s remember to enjoy it before it’s gone.
That’ll do it for this edition—have a great week everyone! For more, follow @MurraySportTalk on Twitter, and check out the rest of ChinMusicPod.com’s Super Bowl Week!