Super Bowl Sunday is upon us and the New England Patriots are once again vying for the Lombardi Trophy. A win would be Super Bowl championship number five, placing them second all-time, tying them with the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers.
New England is the model of consistency in the NFL over the past decade and a half, the cream of the crop. While they are now one of the most storied franchises in NFL history, they haven’t always been in the upper echelon of NFL franchises.
In 1994, when owner Robert Kraft bought the team, the Patriots had 16 winning seasons and two Super Bowl appearances, both of which resulted in losses. In the 23 years as the owner, Kraft has seen his team win 16 divisional crowns and four Super Bowls.
It is extremely hard to beat the duo of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in the postseason. On Sunday, both will be in their seventh Super Bowl (all seven together), which will rank them first in appearances by a head coach and a quarterback. Brady will look to join Charles Hayley as the only players to win five Super Bowls. Belichick will look to surpass Chuck Noll for most Super Bowl wins by a head coach.
Belichick became the New England head coach in 2000 and a year later, Brady became the starting quarterback, replacing the injured Drew Bledsoe. In their tenure together, the Pats have appeared in 11 AFC Championship games, going 7-4. The duo has gone 4-2 in Super Bowls, with the two losses coming to the New York Giants.
To quote the late, great Gorilla Monsoon, “The irresistible force meets the immovable object.” Monsoon said this at WrestleMania 3 when Hulk Hogan squared off with Andre the Giant. That quote applies to this game as the Patriots, who ranked first in defensive scoring, will take on the Atlanta Falcons and their lethal, No. 1 ranked offense. Something will have to give.
This is the second time in franchise history the Patriots have led the NFL in defensive scoring. The other time was back in 2002 when they went on to win the Super Bowl, also played in Houston.
Matt Ryan played at an MVP level this year and will likely be the winner of the award. His main weapon is Julio Jones, who is arguably the best wide receiver in all of football, even with his injured foot/toe. If anyone can take away an opposing team’s best weapon, its Belichick. Will he double up Jones, freeing up the likes of Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel or will he have another trick up his sleeve? Will Malcolm Butler be matched up with Jones or will he cover Sanu? Those are big questions that will be answered on Sunday.
One of the key factors of the Atlanta receiving corps against the defense will be the yards after catch. Atlanta had a league-best 6.2 YAC this season, but on the other hand, the Pats allowed a league-low 4.1 YAC. Again, something will have to give.
The dynamic running backs of Atlanta, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, will have their hands full against the stout Patriots run defense. That unit allowed 88.6 rushing yards per game, the third best mark in the NFL. The key for them will be whether or not they can bust out some big runs and set up scoring chances.
In the past, teams have had success against Brady when presenting pressure, the 2007 Giants set that standard. However, on the flipside of that, nobody is better against the blitz than Brady. In the playoffs, Atlanta is blitzing 36% of the time while applying pressure 44.9% of the time, which ranks second and first respectively. During the regular season, when facing the blitz, Brady completed 61-of-99 passes for 838 yards and 11 touchdowns, while not throwing an interception. He was sacked just twice in those situations.
Brady could have a field day against a young Atlanta secondary if pressure is not applied. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will have some plays to put the Patriots receivers in position to exploit the young secondary. Brady is the best in the game when it comes to progressing through his reads quickly and putting the ball exactly where it needs to go.
The x-factor for the Patriots will be running back Dion Lewis. Fun fact: New England is 16-0 in the past two seasons when Lewis has played. Keep in mind he missed a bulk of time due to injury, but he is back now and will be the difference maker. Atlanta allowed a league-worst 53.5 receiving yards per game to opposing running backs this season and Lewis is a dynamic playmaker catching the ball out of the backfield.
Don’t forget about the brute of the Patriots offense, running back LeGarrette Blount, who could see a ton of success if Brady is able to pick apart the Atlanta secondary and build and early lead.
Speaking of early leads, the Patriots have zero first quarter points in the six Super Bowl appearances in the Brady/Belichick era.
It will be interesting to see what game plan Belichick, who has had two weeks to prepare, will throw out come Sunday. The matchup on paper has the makings to be a game for the ages. Only one can emerge victorious and if that team is New England, that will only further cement the legacy of the franchise, the head coach and the quarterback.