The matchup for Super Bowl LI has been set: the Atlanta Falcons vs. the New England Patriots. Both of these teams secured decisive victories in their conference championship games, with the Falcons defeating the Green Bay Packers 44-21 and the Patriots defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers 36-17.
For the Falcons, this is unfamiliar territory. This is only their second super bowl appearance in franchise history; their first appearance was a 34-19 defeat at the hands of John Elway and the Denver Broncos in 1999. For the Patriots, this is their seventh super bowl appearance since 2001 and their ninth overall, which is the most of any franchise all time.
The Patriots are once again led by head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady, who have led the team to a total of four super bowl victories together. The Falcons rise has been more unexpected. This past season was Atlanta’s first time with a winning record since 2012.
Their rise can be attributed to the hiring of head coach Dan Quinn after the 2014 season, who has quickly improved their struggling defense with young players such as defensive end Vic Beasley and safety Keanu Neal. The real star of this Falcons team is QB Matt Ryan.
Ryan has been the face of the Falcons franchise since being drafted 3rd overall in the 2008 draft. Ryan has had up and down seasons, but has always remained a solid starting QB. This year, under the guidance of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, Ryan has had a career year, finishing as a top three QB in completion percentage, touchdown passes and passing yards. Ryan is the favorite to win league MVP at the NFL honors on Feb. 4. When it comes to the teams facing each other on the field, there are several key match ups that will decide the fate of the game.
- Falcons receiving corp vs. the Patriots secondary. These are two of the deepest units in the entire league at their positions. The Falcons set the NFL record this season for most players to catch a TD pass with 13. The Falcons receivers are led by All-Pro Julio Jones. Since being drafted in 2010, Jones has been a force in the NFL, earning Pro Bowl trips four out of the past five seasons and First Team All-Pro nods the past two. Across from him will be the Patriots Pro Bowl corner Malcolm Butler. Butler has quickly emerged as a star defensive player in the NFL since his late-game heroics in Super Bowl XLIX. Last week, Butler held Steelers All-Pro receiver Antonio brown to two catches for 24 yards when covering him. Supporting Butler is fellow Pro Bowler Devin McCourty along with excellent role players such as Logan Ryan, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon. Jones is also backed by a strong supporting cast including Mohamed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel and TE Austin Hooper. The Patriots will need to contain these receivers in order to slow down the Falcons passing game.
- Marcus Cannon vs. Vic Beasley. This matchup features two young players who have finally come into their own this season. After only recording four sacks his rookie year, Beasley has improved significantly this year, leading the NFL with 15.5 sacks. Before this year, Cannon had always been a role player on the Patriots offensive line. After Sebastian Vollmer went down with an injury in the preseason, it opened the door for Cannon to start at right tackle. Cannon responded with a phenomenal year, only surrendering a sack in one game and earning Second Team All Pro Honors. Watching these two compete will be great to watch. The Falcons will need Beasley to get to Brady if they are to win. The secret to beating the Patriots has always been to apply a great pass rush. If Canon is able to shut down Beasley, then the Falcons are in trouble.
- Chris Hogan and Julian Edelman vs. Robert Alford and Jalen Collins. Hogan and Edelman both turned in monster performances in the AFC Championship game. The two combined had 17 catches for 298 yards and three touchdowns. On the other side, Alford and Collins have both played well in recent weeks, containing talented receiving corps for the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers. Collins in particular has improved, filling the void left by injured starter Desmond Trufant. Hogan and Edelman present a unique challenge; both possess excellent short burst quickness, making them very hard to cover on slant and out routes. Combined with Tom Brady’s excellent quick release, the Patriots offense is a fast-paced and efficient best. Atlanta once again needs their young defenders to come up big if they are to have a chance.
This Super Bowl features two of the most prolific offenses in the game. However there still remains a huge discrepancy between the defenses with the Patriots clearly possessing the better of the two. The Patriots will be able to slow down Matt Ryan and the Falcons offense enough to come out on top with a fifth super bowl win. Patriots win 31-24.