Super Bowl LI in Houston on Sunday will see the New England Patriots face the Atlanta Falcons for the sport’s biggest prize: the Vince Lombardi Trophy. New England overcame Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship game while Atlanta crushed Green Bay in the NFC Championship game, signing off at the Georgia Dome in style ahead of their move to Mercedes-Benz Stadium from next season.
Love them or loathe them, the Patriots continue to break records as they get set for their ninth appearance in a Super Bowl, an NFL record, looking to claim their fifth title.
Quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick, arguably the greatest quarterback-head coach combination in the history of the league, will both be making their seventh appearances in the title game. Quite the feat for a franchise used to winning.
Standing in their way are the impressive Atlanta Falcons, propelled by quarterback Matt Ryan’s MVP calibre season. Operating the league’s highest scoring offense, the Falcons had the distinction of notching up the seventh most points across a single season in NFL history (540). This could very well be offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s last hurrah, with reports that he could be about to take the vacant San Francisco 49ers head coaching gig, so Ryan and co. could be primed with one last performance to send him out on a high.
Credit too must be given to Falcons head coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff. The latter has re-stocked the roster after the Mike Smith era that was characterised by regular season success but nothing of the post-season variety. Julio Jones is as good a wide receiver as there is in the league, and dual-threat running back duo Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman provide outlets out of the backfield for check down passes or screen plays, and in the running game.
Quinn famously oversaw the ‘legion of boom’ while defensive coordinator in Seattle and his squad certainly have playmakers. These include cornerback Robert Alford and the disruptive Vic Beasley, who will be charged with collapsing the pocket and limiting Brady’s time to make plays.
Atlanta will take to the field in their second Super Bowl, and first since the 1998 season, looking to lift the Vince Lombardi Trophy for the first time. Ryan will surely be toasting league MVP honours but he also has the credentials, backed by a solid offensive line, to deliver the goods here. Watch out too for both Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel, the latter cut by the Cleveland Browns, who has the speed to stretch the field.
Never count out New England though. They overcame the loss of Brady for the first four games of the season, emerging 3-1 over that span with Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett under centre. They possess the number one scoring defence in the league and won a Super Bowl as recently as the 2014 season, when they beat the Seattle Seahawks in dramatic fashion.
No one quite matches Belichick when it comes to picking players up off the street and turning them into key contributors. He has made a career out of it and this season has been no exception.
Undrafted cornerback Malcolm Butler was the hero two years ago and now occupies the position as their number one defensive back. LeGarrette Blount has had off the field issues but thrives as the Patriots’ power running option, while linebacker Kyle Van Noy and defensive back Eric Rowe were acquired in low cost trades at the beginning of the season.
Meanwhile, just as Danny Amendola discovered, wide receiver Chris Hogan has seen his production increase under the tutelage of Brady, following his acquisition from Buffalo, putting in a stellar performance in the AFC Championship game that saw him end with 180 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns. He could be one to watch along with the reliable Julian Edelman. The Patriots go into this one as slight favourites as Brady and Belichick seek a fifth ring. Atlanta, however, possess the dynamism and offensive firepower to live with any opponent, as demonstrated during a profilic regular season campaign.
This one may be decided by small margins, and by the side who can be more disruptive defensively, so the play of the offensive lines could prove decisive.
Image courtesy of Ed Shcipul