Super Bowl LI between the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons is nearly upon us. It has the potential to be one of the best championship games in recent NFL history.
Two MVP candidates tossing the rock around the field in Houston. Two elite-level receivers catching passes from these top quarterbacks. In the meantime, a bottom-five Falcons pass defense looks to slow down Tom Brady and Co. Can the defensive-minded Dan Quinn draw up a game plan to stop New England’s aerial attack?
On the other side of the ball, Julio Jones will be testing his talents against a top-end corner in Malcolm Butler. How will this matchup help dictate the outcome of Super Bowl LI?
Also, lost in all the talk surrounding Bill Belichick and Dan Quinn leading their respective teams to the Super Bowl is the fact that each squad boasts tremendous assistant coaches.
Soon-to-be San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan will lead his Falcons offense against Patriots defensive wiz Matt Patricia. Their schemes are surely going to help impact the outcome of this game.
These are among the top-10 matchups for the highly-anticipated Super Bowl LI.
1. Tom Brady vs Matt Ryan
This is obviously the matchup everyone is talking about. The two top MVP candidates going up against one another with a championship on the line. For Brady, it’s all about potentially making history with his fifth Super Bowl title. On the other hand, Ryan is attempting to end the narrative that he’s not a big-game quarterback. These are the backstories. But the matchup itself is so much more than that.
Ryan is coming off a tremendous regular season that saw him complete nearly 70 percent of his passes for 4,944 yards with 38 touchdowns and seven picks. He also led the NFL in touchdown percentage, yards per attempt, yards per completion and quarterback rating. Those are some absolutely absurd numbers right there.
How good has Ryan been? The usually tight-lipped Bill Belichick thought he was worthy of praise heading into Super Bowl LI.
“He does everything well,” Belichick said in late January. “He handles the line of scrimmage well, gets the team in the right plays, plays good in critical situations, deep ball, intermediate throws, possession passes, red passes; he’s athletic, he can get out of some trouble. There’s really no weaknesses to his game.”
Ryan has been even better in the playoffs. He’s led the Falcons to an average of 40 points in two games while throwing for 730 yards and seven touchdowns. If he’s able to keep this up against the league’s top-scoring defense, the Falcons will be hoisting the Lombardi come Sunday evening in Houston.
No one really should be surprised by what we’ve seen from Brady this season. He’s a man on a mission. He’s a future Hall of Fame quarterback that felt slighted by the four-game ban the NFL threw his way due to an alleged role in Deflategate. Put a chip on Brady’s shoulders and see what happens. The league’s other 31 teams learned this first-hand during the regular season.
After missing the first four games of the season to suspension, Brady came out like gangbusters. He led New England to an 11-1 record while tossing 28 touchdowns and just two interceptions.
While Brady did struggle against Houston in the divisional round, he absolutely dominated a helpless Pittsburgh Steelers secondary to the tune of 384 yards and three touchdowns in the AFC Championship game.
More than mere stats, it sure looks like Brady is playing at the best level of his career. That’s insane to think about considering just how good he’s been in the past. His touchdown pass to Chris Hogan on a flea-clicker in the conference title game is a prime example (watch here).
Brady is now better than any quarterback in the modern era at exposing weaknesses on defense and taking advantage of them. He knew the Steelers’ secondary was green and inexperienced. With Josh McDaniels calling the shots, Brady took full advantage. Expect much of the same against a Falcons defense that yielded the fifth-most passing yards during the regular season.
2. Julio Jones vs Malcolm Butler
We have to go back some time to find a better wide receiver-cornerback matchup in the Super Bowl. The one that sticks out the most would be Jerry Rice taking on Ronde Barber back in Super Bowl XXXVII. That’s how far back we might have to go.
Despite dealing with a toe injury throughout the season, Jones has been Ryan’s go-to guy for the top-ranked Falcons offense. Here’s a dude that put up over 1,400 yards while averaging an absurd 17 yards per catch during the regular season.
And for the second consecutive season, Jones led all NFL receivers in yards per game. This has him among the upper-echelon of receivers in modern league history. If you think that’s just hyperbole, ask the Packers’ defense how they looked against him in the NFC Championship Game. Silly would be the operative word on this 73-yard touchdown (watch here).
Jones now gets to take his talents and go up against a cornerback in Malcolm Butler who has ascended to the elite-level play we’ve only see from a handful of cornerbacks in the NFL today. Really, we don’t have to go much further than the AFC Championship Game to understand this.
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) January 23, 2017
Heading into that outing, Butler had yielded a sub 16.0 quarterback rating when targeted since Week 15. That’s Richard Sherman-level domination. The interesting dynamic here is that Butler himself had dreams of going up against Jones when the cornerback was nothing more than an afterthought in college at West Alabama.
I wanna check julio jones…lol……real talk doe..
— Malcolm CB Butler (@Mac_BZ) December 23, 2012
“Dreams do come true,” Butler would add five years later. “That’s not any trash talk or being cocky or anything. I had a vision.”
We know Ryan isn’t going to shy away from Jones simply because of Butler’s presence. That’s what is going to make this matchup so outstanding. Elite against elite with the Super Bowl on the line. Whoever comes out on top here will likely be lifting that Lombardi.
3. Marcus Cannon vs Vic Beasley
Cannon upped his game considerably in his first season as a full-time starter for the Patriots. Despite playing an average of 20 more snaps per game, he allowed a career-low 27 quarterback pressures. This was good enough for Cannon to find himself as a Pro Football Focus second-team All Pro.
The former fifth-round pick from TCU will surely have to be on top of his game to help protect Brady here. After all, he’s going up against a young pass rusher in Vic Beasley who led the NFL with 15.5 sacks during the regular season. Not only that, Beasley ranked among the top-three players in the NFL in quarterback pressures.
In reality, Atlanta’s mediocre pass defense stands no real chance against the likes of Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan if Brady finds a clean pocket throughout the game. That could be the difference between New England dominating a weak defense and this Falcons unit stepping up when it counts the most.
Brady found himself sacked just 15 times in 12 games during the regular season. Equally as important as his ability to get rid of the ball, New England’s offensive line was dominant at times. If Beasley is unable to break through here, it will be a long evening for the Falcons.
4. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman vs Patriots run defense
New England’s defense has been absolutely dominating against the run recently. It has yielded just two 100-yard games since mid November. During that very same span, the Patriots are giving up an average of just 68 yards per game and just over three yards per rush. This is one of the primary reasons that New England finished the regular season with the top-scoring defense in the entire NFL.
Though, it must be noted that the level of competition hasn’t exactly been stiff here. All-everything running back Le’Veon Bell suffered a groin injury prior to the AFC Championship Game and saw action on just six rush attempts. The prior week saw New England take on a back in Lamar Miller that had missed the final two regular season games. Sunday’s matchup against this dynamic duo is a completely different ball game.
Over the course of the Falcons’ first two playoff games, Freeman and Coleman have combined for 352 total yards and four touchdowns. They are also averaging over six yards per touch during the postseason.
This comes on the heels of the two tallying a combined 2,482 yards and 24 touchdowns between them. So while most of the talk here surrounds Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ passing game, it’s important to note that these two running backs have played a huge role in the team’s success.
The other positive for Atlanta here is that New England yielded the fifth-most receiving yards to running backs during the regular year. Both Freeman and Coleman have the ability to make huge impacts through the air. In fact, the two have combined for nearly 900 receiving yards and an 80 percent catch rate.
If the Falcons are able to get balance on offense, it will cause some major issues for the league’s top defense. That’s where Freeman and Coleman come into play.
5. Martellus Bennett vs Deion Jones
Bennett has seen his production dip recently. Though, that’s primarily due to the fact that he’s been playing through a somewhat painful and serious ankle injury. One has to wonder if the tight end will be anywhere near 100 percent come Super Bowl Sunday.
For what it’s worth, Bennett’s lack of production has correlated with the time frame of his injury, suggesting that a two-week rest could do him wonders. After all, here’s a guy that was excellent in Rob Gronkowski’s stead earlier in the season.
First 13 games: 48 receptions, 613 yards and five touchdowns
Past 5 games: 13 receptions, 123 yards and two touchdowns pic.twitter.com/i1U8wjgm7C
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) January 31, 2017
Should Bennett prove himself to be healthy and ready to make an impact, it will be a boon for the Patriots. Atlanta yielded the ninth-most receiving yards and seventh-most receiving touchdowns to tight ends on the season. Brady and Co. can definitely exploit this perceived weakness.
That’s until we realize just how good Jones has been as a rookie. The LSU product dominated the stat line during the regular season, tallying 106 tackles, three interceptions, 11 passes defended a forced fumble and two touchdowns. That has Rookie Defensive Player of the Year written all over it.
Though, it’s the tape that tells us a story of just how much of an impact Jones has made.
This is where Jones can come up big. He’s not a one-dimensional player. He can rush the passer. He already boasts elite-level coverage skills. It’s this type of ability from the middle of Atlanta’s defense that could help the team somehow fend off what promises to be an onslaught from Tom Brady and Co.
6. Jake Matthews vs Trey Flowers
Flowers has done a tremendous job filling the vacuum that was left after New England abruptly traded Chandler Jones last spring. It was a move that surprised the masses, but one that the Patriots have been known to make. Just ask linebacker Jamie Collins.
In keeping with their theme during what has been nearly 20 years of consistent contention, the Patriots were able to fill that hole internally. It came in the form of a pass rusher in Trey Flowers who the team selected in the fourth round of the 2015 NFL Draft.
Flowers did absolutely nothing of substance on defense as a rookie. Despite this, Bill Belichick and Co. saw enough in practice to rely on him this season. He responded by leading the team with seven sacks. It’s not a tremendous number, but it most definitely was needed to help New England overcome the loss of Jones.
On the other hand, Matthews has stepped up as one of the best pass-protecting left tackles in the entire NFL. He absolutely dominated Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews in the NFC Championship Game, holding the Pro Bowler to a single tackle and zero sacks.
This is an individual duel within the confines of a larger matchup between these two conference champions. If Matthews is able to contain Flowers, the Patriots don’t have anyone else on their defense that can put consistent pressure on Matt Ryan. After all, Jamaal Sheard ranked second on the team with five sacks during the regular season.
That in and of itself would go a long way in helping Julio Jones fend off the elite corner he’s tasked with matching up against. And in reality, it could help dictate that outcome of Super Bowl LI.
7. Julian Edelman vs Robert Alford
Here’s a matchup that could very well play a major role in what happens on Sunday. The expectation here is that second-year corner Jalen Collins will match wits with Chris Hogan. If that’s the case, and maintaining their corner coverage with Desmond Trufant injured, this leaves the recently extended Alford against Tom Brady’s favorite target.
Alford has had an up-and-down season. He yielded an absurdly high 105.0 quarterback rating when targeted during the regular season. The fourth-year corner from Southeast Louisiana also gave up the second-most touchdowns (seven) in the NFL. That’s definitely not a good sign for a Falcons defense that ranked in the bottom five of the NFL against the pass during the regular year.
Though, Alford himself did step up in the NFC Championship Game. He allowed just one catch for nine yards in the first half before being abused by Jordy Nelson on a second-half touchdown. That’s somewhat the issue. A lack of consistency.
This most definitely won’t work against the tag-team tandem of Tom Brady and Julian Edelman. The two have connected for 16 receptions and 255 yards on 23 targets thus far in the playoffs. Heck, Edelman has racked up 70-plus receiving yards in each of the past 10 games.
If Alford and the Falcons’ defense is unable to contain this dynamic duo, it’s reasonable to believe that the team’s offense won’t be able to keep pace with Brady and Co. That’s where Alford and his inconsistency could be a major issue Sunday in Houston.
8. Kyle Shanahan vs Matt Patricia
Shanahan, the future head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, has drawn a massive amount of praise around the NFL for his scheme in Atlanta. The way his offense dominated both the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers leading up to the Super Bowl is where legends are made. Schematically, it’s been a beauty to watch Shanahan navigate his way through the game plan.
The tape tells us a story of an offensive coordinator that knows how to put his skill-position players in the best situation to succeed. He moves Julio Jones all around the line of scrimmage pre-snap, forcing defenses to react in a whim. It’s in this that Jones himself continues to dominate, especially on crossing routes.
All this has helped Shanahan reach the peak of the assistant coaching profession and earn the right to coach one of the most-historic franchises in league history. It also helped Atlanta finish No. 1 in the NFL in scoring during the regular season. Heck, the Falcons are averaging an absurd 39 points over the past six games.
On the other hand, Patricia has also found himself mentioned as a potential head coach. He interviewed for the San Diego Chargers’ opening before the team ultimately opted for Anthony Lynn. At some point here soon, the brains behind New England’s defense will join other former Belichick assistants as a head coach in the NFL. That much is known. And his performance in leading the Patriots’ defense this season magnifies that even further.
New England finished the regular season yielding the fewest points in the NFL. It also finished in the top eight in total yards allowed. This, despite the fact that the Pats ranked in the middle of the pack in takeaways. That right there is scheme and taking full advantage of an offense that didn’t turn the ball over.
We’ll definitely continue to hear talk about Bill Belichick and Dan Quinn leading up to Super Bowl LI. They are the two head coaches doing battle. But they wouldn’t be here without top-level assistants. It’s in this that the Shanahan-Patricia matchup will definitely help dictate the outcome of Sunday’s game.
9. Chris Hogan vs Jalen Collins
Some will say that Hogan came out of absolutely nowhere in the AFC Championship Game, recording a Patriots playoff record 180 receiving yards to go with two big touchdowns (watch here and here). That couldn’t be further from the truth.
In his first season with New England, the former un-drafted free agent from Monmouth has found a tremendous relationship with Brady.
In fact, Hogan caught 66 percent of the 58 passes thrown in is direction during the regular season and led the league with an average of 17.9 yards per reception. He was strong for the Patriots even before what is being called a breakout performance against Pittsburgh.
Hogan will now be tasked with going up against a second-year corner in Jalen Collins who had to take on a larger role with Desmond Trufant injured. Collins himself has definitely stepped up when the Falcons needed it the most this season. According to Pro Football Focus, Collins actually put up a better season in coverage than Richard Sherman. Think about that one for a second.
Surely, a lot of the focus here will be on how the Edelman-Alford matchup goes. We’re also going to be interested to see how well Deion James performs against Martellus Bennett. With that said, this could be the one matchup that is most impactful when all is said and done.
Hogan is surely an under-the-radar Super Bowl MVP candidate. He fits the mold of the type of Patriots players that have stepped up in the big game in the past. Meanwhile, all Collins has done for the Falcons this season is step up. It should be fun.
10. LeGarrette Blount vs Falcons goal-line defense
Let’s be clear here for a second. Blount has struggled to anything of real substance after performing at a high level for the majority of the regular season.
In fact, Dion Lewis has taken on a larger role than Blount in recent weeks. That’s magnified by the fact that Blount is averaging just 2.8 yards per rush over the past five games. He doesn’t really need this to change too much for the Pats to have success on offense.
Instead, Blount’s primary goal will be to score touchdowns and product in short-yardage situations. After all, he did lead the NFL with 18 rushing touchdowns during the regular season.
On the other hand, Atlanta’s run defense finished in the middle of the pack in both yards and rushing touchdowns allowed. It also gave up the third-highest first-down percentage in the league.
While we do expect Lewis to play a big role in this game, Blount’s ability to gain that yard or two on third-and-short is going to be big for the Pats. Look for Bill Belichick and Co. to attempt to expose this perceived weakness of the Falcons.