Monday, January 23, 2017

Super Bowl LI Preview

By Brad Oremland

This postseason has been full of blowouts, with eight of the 10 games decided by double-digits, not even close.

Championship Roundups

Atlanta Falcons 44, Green Bay Packers 21

The Falcons bade farewell to the Georgia Dome with a rout of the visiting Packers, a dominant win heading into the Super Bowl and an embarrassing loss for Green Bay.

Atlanta's offensive performance was no surprise; I wrote last week, "It wouldn't surprise me if Atlanta scores 40 points." But Green Bay's offensive struggles, including a first-half shutout, caught many fans off-guard.

The Falcons' success is easy to understand. Matt Ryan had time to throw, and with Green Bay's injuries in the secondary, he had receivers getting open. Kyle Shanahan called a creative game without getting unnecessarily showy about it, Julio Jones went into beast mode for a 73-yard touchdown, and so on.

On the other side of the ball, Aaron Rodgers was under pressure, and threw from the pocket rather than buying time with his legs. He was also unable to catch the Falcons in penalties that gave him free plays, Davante Adams was a non-factor, and Jared Cook had several drops. The Packers abandoned the run game almost immediately; Rodgers was the only Packer to rush for at least 20 yards. Atlanta's defense appears to be peaking at the right time.

It's interesting to notice how much attitudes toward Matt Ryan have shifted in the last two weeks. At the end of the regular season, announcers were mentioning Ryan as one of several MVP candidates. On Sunday, he was confidently referred to as the MVP of the league. I think that because the Falcons got so little exposure during the regular season, people were skeptical of Ryan's stats; they hadn't seen him throwing 38 touchdowns and averaging the most yards per attempt since 1976. Now, after watching him carve up the Seahawks and Packers for a combined 80 points, they're finally convinced.

New England Patriots 36, Pittsburgh Steelers 17

Le'Veon Bell left early with an injury, and the Steelers clearly missed him. But Bell isn't worth 19 points, and the final score is misleading, with the Patriots comfortably in control when Pittsburgh added a meaningless touchdown late in the game.

New England took away Antonio Brown, or at least prevented him from making significant impact, and the Steelers didn't have an answer. Their stats look pretty good, but before a 75-yard TD drive on their final possession (down 36-9), they had 1 TD, 1 FG, 4 punts, and 3 turnovers. Late in the second quarter, Jim Nantz marveled, "A new postseason streak for Roethlisberger, 12 straight completions." The Steelers were losing 17-6 at the time, and that drive stalled into a field goal. Defensively, Pittsburgh failed to pressure Tom Brady, failed to cover Chris Hogan and Julian Edelman, and failed to tackle LeGarrette Blount. It was a miserable performance.

The Steelers missed some opportunities in the red zone, which could have made the game closer, and Bell's injury obviously messed them up, but they also appeared to get badly out-coached. They were unable to exploit the extra attention given to Brown. Their defense primarily used a three-man rush and zone coverage, and Brady picked them apart.

Both Atlanta and New England looked like Super Bowl teams, while the Packers and Steelers were unable to overcome injuries, and looked overwhelmed.

The Crystal Ball

Super Bowl LI: Atlanta Falcons vs. New England Patriots
Houston, Texas
February 5, 2017

The Falcons led the NFL in scoring, and the Patriots led the league in fewest points allowed, so this is another chance to test the thesis that defense wins championships. It's largely been true in the past, with the 1976 Oakland Raiders the only one-dimensional offensive standout to win a Super Bowl. The Falcons aren't one-dimensional, exactly, but they can't win 14-10, and the Patriots might.

This game also represents a test of the idea that experience matters in the postseason. Before this year, the Falcons hadn't made the playoffs since 2012; New England has won eight straight division titles. The Falcons have won one playoff game in the last 14 years; the Patriots have won three Super Bowls in the last 14 years. Tom Brady has as many Super Bowl MVPs (3) as Matt Ryan does total postseason wins.

Atlanta on Offense

This is the matchup we all want to see: the number one offense against the number one defense. Atlanta has scored at least 33 for six games in a row, at least 28 for eight games in a row. New England has held every opponent under 20 for five games in a row, eight of the last nine.

I give the edge to the Falcons. They're going to score. There's so much talent here, and so many things they do well. Bill Belichick is famous for taking away the opponent's biggest weapon, but Atlanta scored 40 points even in the two games Julio Jones missed. They have two good ball-carriers in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, and capable secondary receivers like Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel. Perhaps most important, they have a top-five offensive line, which should create running lanes and give Ryan time to operate.

Of course, the Steelers had a top-five offensive line, but they were unable to move New England's front around in the running game. The Patriot defense sneaks up on you because it's good across the board without any real superstars: there's not a Von Miller on this unit. I suspect New England's gameplan is similar to what they used against Pittsburgh: contain Julio Jones, bottle up the run, and dare Atlanta to win with its secondary receivers. The Falcons can do that; they're going to score.

The three things I'll look for on Super Bowl Sunday are whether the Falcons can hit a big play at some point, avoid turnovers, and score touchdowns in the red zone.

New England on Offense

It's not often that a Tom Brady offense gets second billing, but this is the less intriguing matchup. It's also where New England has the best chance to win the game. When the Falcons have the ball, it appears to be a pretty even matchup, and that's not the case here. The Falcons' defense is okay, and it's played well recently, but the Patriots have to believe their offense is better than Atlanta's defense.

The Patriots, like the Falcons, have a multi-dimensional offense. They're not afraid to pound you with Blount, they can throw deep, and there is always that quick passing game. That's the twist here: I think the Falcon defense matches up great with the Patriots. They have speed, especially in the middle. Deion Jones is one of those linebacker-safety hybrids, and he could create real problems for New England on those short passes.

If the passing game stutters, look for the Patriots to use Blount, exploiting Atlanta's lack of size up the middle, and use play-action to set up the pass. I think the goals here are pretty similar: hit a big play, avoid turnovers, don't settle for field goals. But I'd also look for consistency in the ground game and what Atlanta does with any takeaways. Jones is dangerous with the ball in his hands, the league leader in interception return yardage. The biggest key is to get pressure on Brady, so Vic Beasley probably needs to have a big game.

Special Teams

This looks like a slight advantage for Atlanta. Matt Bryant had a great year, while Stephen Gostkowski uncharacteristically struggled, including a missed extra point this weekend. Both punters are pretty good, but Matt Bosher is particularly distinguished by avoiding mistakes. In six years and 367 punts, he has never allowed a TD return.

The Forecast

At this point in the season, these are clearly the two best teams in the NFL. The Falcons won their two playoff games by a combined 39 points, and the Patriots by 37, both of those totals including some garbage-time comebacks.

When the Falcons trounced Green Bay in the NFC Championship, they looked like they could beat anybody. I'll say it again: that offense is going to score. But in the late game, New England looked equally dominant, and arguably more well-rounded. And you'll get tired of hearing it the next two weeks, but there is some history to suggest that defense wins championships. The Patriots feel like they belong here, while the Falcons might feel some nerves, might feel distracted by the impending departure of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, might be overwhelmed by the sudden attention after a regular season that flew under the radar.

Last year, I wrote that all the intangibles favored Denver, but the Panthers had a better team. This year, I think the intangibles favor New England and the Patriots are the better team. The Falcons need to play a near-perfect game to beat them. They pick up third downs, avoid turnovers, and capitalize on opportunities in the red zone. They put pressure on Brady and force some mistakes, and they get a big play on defense or special teams. The Falcons need to act like they belong here: Ryan doesn't get tight, and the defense stays true to itself, playing aggressively. Make no mistake: it could happen.

The Patriots need to frustrate Atlanta's offense: keep everything underneath and make big stops on third down and goal-to-go. A couple takeaways would probably seal the win. The offense needs to find something that works: Blount, Julian Edelman, whatever. Exploit something to keep the chains moving. I might also look for a trick play at some point. We saw a flea-flicker on Sunday, the confusing offensive sets against Baltimore a couple years ago, and I wouldn't be surprised if we see something new or unusual in Houston.

I have great respect for how the Falcons are playing, and I want to pick them to win; upsets are fun. But instead, the Patriots win their fifth Super Bowl, 30-24.

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