Two surging teams, the Atlanta Falcons (11-5) and the New England Patriots (14-2), will meet in Houston, Texas on Feb. 5 to play in Super Bowl LI. The game will be Atlanta’s second Super Bowl, its first since losing to the Denver Broncos in 1998. New England will be playing in its record ninth Super Bowl, last playing and winning the game against the Seattle Seahawks in 2014.
The matchup features the top-two MVP candidates in quarterbacks: the Falcons’ Matt Ryan and the Patriots’ Tom Brady. Under the guidance of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, the 31-year-old Ryan recorded a career year in 2016 en route to posting career bests in passing yards (4,944), touchdowns (38), interceptions (7) and a ridiculous 9.3 yards-per-attempt.
Despite being suspended for the first four games of the season, Brady finished with an impressive 3,354 yards and 28 touchdowns in an incredibly efficient season for the 39-year-old.
Monster wide receiver Julio Jones racked up 180 yards and two touchdowns in Atlanta’s 44-21 NFC Championship victory over the Green Bay Packers. Former Super Bowl hero New England cornerback Malcolm Butler will be tasked with slowing Jones down. Butler finished as the sixth ranked cornerback in 2016, via Pro Football Focus.
Just as New England zeroed in on wide receiver Antonio Brown in their 36-17 romp of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship game, the Patriots will likely double Jones and force Atlanta’s other playmakers to win the game.
Also featured in the Falcons’ high-powered attack are two versatile running backs in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Whether receiving carries in the backfield or flexing into the slot to showcase their supreme receiving abilities, both players bring unparalleled flexibility to the offense. Defenders with the strength and athleticism to defend in both of those capacities are few and far between.
New England boasts the league’s No. 1 scoring defense but still may find covering all of Atlanta’s weapons difficult. Standout linebacker Dont’a Hightower excels in both run and pass coverage, and he will face the tall task of slowing down Atlanta’s backs.
Converted cornerback into safety Devin McCourty patrols New England’s secondary as a strong tackler. Along with Jones, the Falcons’ receivers include big-bodied Mohamed Sanu and the speedy Taylor Gabriel in the slot. As the last line of defense, McCourty will attempt to tame Atlanta’s trio of wideouts.
When Brady is on the field, Atlanta’s elite pass rusher Vic Beasley Jr. will be matched up with New England’s outstanding tackle Nate Solder. While the Patriots’ offense is based on short passes to slot receivers and running backs, Beasley Jr.’s ability to wreak havoc in the pocket will have a significant impact on the game.
Diminutive wideouts Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan, plus massive tight end Martellus Bennett power New England’s passing attack. The Falcons’ best cover man, cornerback Desmond Trufant, will miss the game with an injury that has sidelined him since week nine.
Atlanta will need to disguise blitzes and coverages on nearly every snap against Brady, but it still may not be enough to rattle No. 12. The Patriots’ dink-and-dunk system, along with the creativity of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, have laid waste to several defenses in 2016 with secondaries superior to the Falcons’.
Although devoid of playmakers on defense, New England plays a cohesive and intimidating style. Ryan will feel comfortable playing in the dome, but a lack of production from the tight end position could be detrimental. An underrated Atlanta o-line’s ability to give Ryan sufficient time could be the difference in bringing the Falcons their first Super Bowl in franchise history.