Can the Falcons topple football’s Evil Empire?
Editor’s Note: We’re bringing back the prediction feature for the NFL Playoffs. A quick reminder of how this works: We’ve taken a look at each game on the NFL Playoff schedule, focusing on a player to watch, a key stat, relevant history and finally some predictions. For this week’s big game, we’ll zoom in a little further, finding a player and stat to keep in mind for each of the two teams thanks to a lack of recent history to take a look at (the teams last met three years ago.) I’ll probably be wrong more often than I’m right, but you can guarantee I’ll talk much more about the correct calls than the bad ones. Them’s the breaks.
Well, we finally made it. It’s been quite the weird and wild NFL season, but we’re finally at the Super Bowl.
The final game of the football season pits perhaps the greatest historical juggernaut in the league in the Tom Brady and Bill Belichick Patriots against perhaps the greatest offensive juggernaut in history. While it may have been a sloppy season at times, the ending is shaping up to be quite a contest.
So, without further ado, let’s make with the analysis and the picks.
New England Patriots vs Atlanta Falcons (NE -3)
Sunday, February 5, 6:30 PM NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas
Key Players: Malcolm Butler, cornerback, New England Patriots
The strengths for both of these teams come in scoring touchdowns rather than keeping the other team out of the end zone, but it’s likely that one of these two defenses will win or lose the game on Sunday. So, let’s take a closer look at the most important players for each squad.
The Patriots faithful must be asking themselves on a daily basis at this point just how good they think Butler is—and whether he can pull off another Super Bowl miracle. The fourth-year corner made his name with that famous game-winning, gaffe interception against the Seahawks in the Super Bowl a few years ago, but he’s put up solid numbers since. The Patriots have leaned on Butler since Darelle Revis left the team, including during that Super Bowl run, but this has been his best year by far since coming into the NFL.
While he may be remembered for that big pick, he hasn’t quite been a ballhawk in the years since that fateful night. But, he broke out in the turnover column this season, intercepting four passes in 2016 and also finding a way to force a fumble. Those are the only regular season turnovers he’s produced in his career, so who knows how replicable that performance will be. But the Patriots don’t need him to be a ballhawk or a turnover machine on Sunday.
They need him to “do his job,” which in this case will be keeping wide receiver and freak of nature Julio Jones. Simply put, his responsibility will be to avoid ending up on the kind of highlight reel the Green Bay secondary wound up on after the NFC Championship Game. More specifically, he’ll have to find a way to contain one of the most productive receivers in the league, and keep perhaps the best deep-ball threat away from a big play on the biggest stage.
And yes, he will have help. We’ve all heard by now that Belichick loves to take away his opponents strength, and he won’t leave that responsibility solely to Butler.
But with the arsenal that Atlanta can deploy, Butler will need to stand on his own two feet at times, and maybe more, if New England wants to get another banner.
Vic Beasley, linebacker, Atlanta Falcons
It’s been a tale of two seasons for Vic Beasley. The regular season was the best of times, as he led the Falcons, and in fact the entire NFL, in sacks, posting 15.5 QB takedowns in 2016.
And while a trip to the Super Bowl probably means he wouldn’t describe the postseason so far as the worst of times, the playoffs haven’t gone quite so well for Beasley on an individual level. He’s yet to record a sack, and is still without a solo tackle, jumping in on just two assisted takedowns in the win over the Seahawks. And while the defense may not have needed much of his help against the Packers, he didn’t even show up in the box score of that game.
Now, defensive players’ box scores don’t always necessarily reflect their performance on the field, and again, the Falcons won the game, so I’m not trying to criticize too harshly. But the Falcons are going to need to be able to rush the passer on Sunday, and for Atlanta, that process pretty much starts and ends with the league’s leading sack man, and as well they should.
While there are times where the New England war machine seems just about unbeatable (and this seems to be one of those times), the New York Giants have provided somewhat of a blueprint. And that blueprint, especially in that first title, when Belichick, Brady and the boys looked to be their least stoppable, started with a fearsome pass rush. New England’s passing scheme is built to minimize mistakes and keep the ball moving downfield by taking advantage of Tom Brady’s best weapon, namely, his arm speed and ability to execute quickly and consistently.The key for opposing defenses is to disrupt the natural timing and rhythm to the Patriot offense and take advantage of the mistakes made as a result.
That’s how Michael Strahan led the Giants to a victory a few years ago, and while he may not play the same position as Strahan, Atlanta will likely need an equally herculean effort from one of the best LB’s in football if they hope to hoist the Lombardi trophy.
Key Stats: 46 percent third-down conversion rate, New England Patriots
Okay, enough about the defenses—it’s time to look at these teams’ strengths.
The Patriots’ biggest strength this year? Their ability to keep drives moving. There were few teams better than the Patriots at that in the entire league, as the Patriots finished 2016 with the fourth-highest third down completion rate in the NFL, finding the sticks on 46 percent of their third down situations. And, in some good news for New England, the Falcons defense is also fairly willing to let you get first downs this year, even when they just need one more stop. Atlanta was 24th in the league in third-down stops, allowing their opponents to extend drives on 42 percent of their third-downs this year.
As is no secret, the Falcons have a wide array of weapons to deploy on Sunday, as they have throughout the season. In addition to the fearsome Julio Jones, there’s veteran pass catcher Mohamed Snu and young breakout player Taylor Gabriel, who had an impressive run of play this year before, during and even after Jones’ injury. In the backfield, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman will surely give New England matchup problems. But all those weapons can’t do much to change the game if they are waiting to get on the field.
No matter how well Malcolm Butler plays in Houston, the best thing the Patriots can do to help keep the Falcons off the scoreboard is to keep them off the field. If the offense can find ways to extend drives on third down, expect Brady to pick up another ring.
540 regular season points, Atlanta Falcons
While the Patriots excel at extending drives on third down, the Falcons are best in the league at ending their drives with points, and more often than not, touchdowns.
The Falcons led the NFL in total points scored with 540 points, 70+ more than the second-place Saints and a perfect 99 points more than the Patriots, looming in third place. And the biggest reason for those points, despite all those weapons that we talked about already, is Matt Ryan. While I’ve never been the biggest Matt Ryan fan, he’s been excellent this season and has finally performed well in the postseason.
For all the offensive brilliance, though, the most impressive part has been this team’s ability to break off big gains. They lead the league in “big plays” (plays that go for more than 30 yards) and it’s not hard to see why, considering they have Julio Jones picking up handfuls of yards seemingly with each massive stride, and a pair of dependable and explosive backs in Coleman and Freeman.
They will need Ryan to be at his best and to find ways to reel off a few big plays if they want to win this Super Bowl. Remember, along with a fearsome pass rush, the giants had some explosive plays of their own in their two Super Bowl wins over the big bad Patriots, and Atlanta needs to look for examples somewhere.
Chin Music Pod Picks: Tim Culverhouse (NE), Matt Tardiff (NE), Tom Dragani (ATL)
Note from Tim: As the champion of this pool, I chose not to make a selection for my own personal juju. It’s dumb and can’t be explained, but for the biggest games I HATE making a prediction for my favorite team. This was Brendan’s wizardry, not mine. I wanted to abstain and wear the crown with my 9-1 record. But since he signs the checks (mine have somehow gone missing) he breaks the necks.
Brendan’s Pick: New England Patriots 34, Atlanta Falcons 28
Atlanta, do not hate me. I want to see you win. I want to see Julio Jones do the Dirty Bird in the end zone, I want Ryan’s vindication to come now that I’ve finally embraced him, and I want to see Dan Quinn get a little redemption after the Super Bowl loss that made Seattle sadder than it already was.
But, I just don’t think it’s in the cards.
Now, don’t get it twisted. There’s been plenty written about how it’s destiny or fate, or that there’s something supernatural at play, hoping to right wrongs and shove it in Roger Goodell’s smarmy face, including by yours truly (and I can’t deny, that will be a great feeling) but that’s not what all this is about. At the end of the day, we’re seeing what may be the last ride with the greatest football franchise we’ve ever seen.
Brady remains one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, and while they may not have the firepower, or starpower, that Atlanta can boast, a roster with Julian Edelman and Martellus Benett lining up to catch passes is nothing to sneeze at, and LeGarette Blount can dole out some serious physical and yardage based punishments. The defense isn’t great, but it’s good enough, smart enough and has had enough time to prepare, to contain even Ryan and the high-flying falcons.
No, this isn’t luck or fate. This is the greatest we’ve ever seen, realizing this may be their last chance to prove just how good they are, and grabbing that chance by the throat.
Brady is still at or near his peak, with his crazy diet, impassioned sleep schedule or some other bullshit keeping him going into his fourth decade of life and another year of football. Belichick is still at the top of his game and is even wearing suits now. After ending up losers in both the AFC Championship game to end last season and Deflategate to start this one, things are good once again in New England.
But football is funny. Between the salary cap and the high injury rate, a promising season can turn into a lost year, and Father Time comes for us all. Even Brady and Belichick don’t have so many promising seasons left in them.
And I hate them, I truly do. I hate the arrogance, the holier than thou persona, the “Patriot Way”, the general feeling of being untouchable that seems to permeate all of Patriot Place, and so many other things. This is truly an evil empire. But dammit, are they good.
And they’re going to remind us just how good they are on Sunday.
ChinMusicPod NFL Playoff Standings so far:
1. Tim “Hot Takes” Culverhouse (9-1)
2. Matt “Stat” Tardiff (7-3)
3. Brendan “Editor in Chief” Murray (6-4)
4. Thomas “Culture” Dragani (6-4)
Brendan Murray is the founder of ChinMusicPod.com, and is dreading living in Boston after a Patriots Super Bowl victory. You can follow his chagrin (or unexpected joy) on Twitter @MurraySpotTalk. Thanks to Tim Culverhouse for helping to edit this monstrosity each and every playoff round, and to GraphIQ for their open-access graphics.