Thirty-two teams started and two teams remain. The matchup for Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas is set and it is already an historic matchup. The New England Patriots are a three-point favorite over the Atlanta Falcons with the highest total we’ve ever seen for a Super Bowl at 58.5 points. Both Super Bowl participants had thoroughly impressive performances in the Conference Championship round, as the chalk held up yet again. With eight blowouts in 10 NFL playoff games, fans are desperately hoping for a hard-fought battle in the Super Bowl. They should get their wish.
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Dan Quinn and Bill Belichick meet on the biggest stage in sports for the second time in three years, but the circumstances are quite a bit different. Super Bowl XLIX featured the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots. Quinn was the defensive coordinator for the Seahawks then, but he’s the second-year head coach of the Atlanta Falcons now. Belichick, as we know, is the Hall of Fame coach of the New England Patriots and he has shown once again that his teams are always ready to play. The offensive coordinators deserve a mention at the top of the playbill for this upcoming performance as well. Superstar OC Kyle Shanahan has done a brilliant job with Matt Ryan and the Falcons offense. Josh McDaniels doesn’t seem to get enough credit because his quarterback is Tom Brady, but he’s been spectacular since taking over the OC reins.
Atlanta heads into this game with a 13-5 record overall, including a couple of playoff wins over the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers. The Falcons are 12-6 against the spread. The Patriots are 16-2 with playoff wins over the Houston Texans and the Pittsburgh Steelers. New England has been building bankrolls all season long with a 15-3 record against the spread. It’s almost unfathomable that a heavily-bet, extremely public team like the Patriots can put up that ATS record in the face of inflated lines, but they’ve done it. The high-octane offense of the Falcons had led to a 15-2 over mark, depending on the number you got for the Christmas Eve game against Carolina.
The Patriots appear first by rotation number, so we’ll focus on the favorite first. This will be the seventh Super Bowl appearance in the illustrious career of Tom Brady. He’s 4-2 on the big stage so far. Brady posted a 28/2 TD/INT ratio during the regular season, but struggled a bit with a 47 percent completion rate against Houston and two touchdowns against two picks in the Divisional Round. As if there was any doubt, Brady completed 76 percent of his throws with three touchdowns and zero picks to bounce back and help lead his team to another Super Bowl appearance. The guy is just spectacular. Brady only has one Super Bowl win since he won three of four from 2001-04, with that triumph coming back in Super Bowl XLIX. In his six Super Bowl appearances, Brady is 164-of-247 (66.4%) for 1,605 yards, 13 touchdowns, and four interceptions.
Brady’s ability to elevate good talent into great talent is something that actually comes off as underappreciated. Julian Edelman is a prime example, as Edelman picked up his third consecutive 100-yard game last week against Pittsburgh. With Rob Gronkowski out and Martellus Bennett hobbled, Brady has made a star out of Chris Hogan, who had nine catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns against Pittsburgh. The Patriots couldn’t run the ball against the Steelers, so that’s something that Josh McDaniels may want to figure out heading into the Super Bowl, but there’s no better quarterback for this game than Tom Brady. A lot of people don’t like the Patriots, but their consistency under Brady has been remarkable.
With Brady taking the majority of the headlines, the Patriots defense has quietly put together a really strong season. No defense allowed fewer points than New England’s and the Patriots limited opponents to 5.2 yards per play, which ranked in the top 10. The Steelers had 5.5 yards per play last week, but some of those came in garbage time with all doubt removed as to which team would win the game. The criticism about New England is that they haven’t faced a whole lot of premier quarterbacks this season, which is true, and they’ll get one in Houston, but Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia have two weeks to prepare and coach up the players. One thing that really helps the New England defense is that Brady and the offense take great care of the football. The Patriots win the field position battle with regularity and that goes a long way in today’s quarterback-driven NFL.
People may be surprised to see the Atlanta Falcons in this position, but they shouldn’t be. The Falcons roared out to a 6-1 start in Dan Quinn’s first season, but Atlanta crashed and burned in the face of adversity after losing a few games in a row. That experience was beneficial in Quinn’s development as a head coach because he was able to nip things in the bud that popped up this season and it has all led to a berth in the Super Bowl. A lot of credit needs to go to Kyle Shanahan, who is the mastermind behind Atlanta’s offense. Shanahan’s play design and ability to tailor the playbook to player strengths is second to none in the NFL from an offensive standpoint. Defensive coordinator Richard Smith has also done an excellent job as the season has gone on with a relatively young, but very talented defense.
There have always been questions about Matt Ryan in the playoffs. Narratives grew and grew because of some untimely regular season picks and past playoff performances. He’d be the first to admit that they weren’t very good. Entering this postseason, Ryan was 124-of-187 for 1,230 yards with nine touchdowns and seven interceptions. This postseason, Ryan has been spectacular with a 70.7 percent completion rate on 75 attempts with a 7/0 TD/INT ratio and 730 yards passing. On the heels of his best regular season ever, Ryan has gone toe-to-toe with proven playoff performers Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers and has completely outclassed them. There’s something to be said about that. Also, Atlanta has been able to spread the ball around to a collection of athletic mismatches like Mohamed Sanu, Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman, and Tevin Coleman. Julio Jones will draw a tough assignment against Super Bowl XLIX hero Malcolm Butler, but Kyle Shanahan will have two weeks to prepare to get his guys open and find a way to crack the New England code.
The Atlanta defense gave up a lot of points this season, but also saw a lot of snaps and a lot of time on the field. From a yards per play standpoint, the Falcons were pretty much around league average. The Falcons have allowed 5.7 yards per play in each of their two playoff wins this postseason, so it’s fair to wonder if they can stack up against Brady and the potent Patriots offense. As long as Matt Ryan takes care of the football, the Falcons can turn New England’s game plan right around on the Super Bowl favorites by controlling the clock and winning the field position battle.
There are some very important intangibles to consider about this game. The Patriots have some really significant edges in stuff that you may not be thinking about. They are all tied to experience. The Patriots have been here before. They’ve been to a lot of Super Bowls. Atlanta has not. In fact, the Falcons are in the playoffs for the first time in four seasons and haven’t been to a Super Bowl since the 1998 season. The coaches for the Patriots are definitely more experienced in terms of preparing for a game like this. Finally, and perhaps the most important thing, the Patriots have been through the dog-and-pony show that takes place during Super Bowl week. There are distractions aplenty. There are media requirements. Families are in town. There are other events in the host city. All of these things can be tiring and distract from the preparations for the game. The Falcons are still a relatively young team, so this has to be a consideration in your handicapping.
Super Bowl LI Free Pick: Atlanta Falcons +3
Wait around on this number. There is absolutely no reason to get involved on the side for this game. The public will back Tom Brady and the Patriots. We’ll have to see if Atlanta is the sharp side. You should be able to catch a 3.5 or possibly even a 4 on the underdog. If you like the Patriots, you should be able to find a stray 3 here and there, but it would be a major shocker to see it fall anywhere under that key number. Both of these teams deserve to be here and Atlanta’s defensive growth over the course of the season has flown under the radar because the offense keeps putting up points and putting up overs.
A pick had to go here, but I really don’t think that’s the best way to approach this game. For one thing, you can get better odds on picking the winner by using props to your advantage, which is something we’ll talk about in the coming days. Also, props are simply a better way to go because there’s a lot more guesswork involved in stuff like that and a lot of options out there. Those numbers are nowhere near as efficient as the side and total should be for this game. Stay patient and wait for the right numbers. There are going to be a lot of storylines, narratives, influence, and bias over the next two weeks. Find what works for you.