A preview of the Super Bowl LI matchup between the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons:
When: Sunday, Feb. 5, 5:30 p.m. (Fox)
Where: Houston’s NRG Stadium (retractable roof)
Injuries: Several prominent Patriots are battling aches and pains, including WR Danny Amendola (ankle), TE Martellus Bennett (knee), LB Dont’a Hightower (knee), WR Chris Hogan (thigh) and WR Malcolm Mitchell (knee). But all should be ready to play. The biggest issue for Atlanta is WR Julio Jones (toe) but he should be fine with two weeks to heal.
History:Patriots 7-6 all-time against the Falcons but 4-0 since 2001 by an average of 10 points.
1. Something’s gotta give: New England surrendered 15.6 points a game in the regular season, fewest in the NFL. Atlanta scored a league-best 33.8, and its 540 total tied for eighth best all-time. The Falcons have even hit an extra gear in postseason with 80 total points in wins over the Seahawks and Packers. But if those units battle to a virtual draw, Atlanta will probably be in trouble. The Falcons defense plays well from ahead, as evidenced in the playoffs, but allowed the sixth-most points in the regular season and surrendered an average of 24.8 over all 18 games. With 27.6 points per outing in the regular season, the Patriots were the AFC’s most explosive offense and are certainly capable of scoring in bunches.
2. The QB question: The gunslinger trope is always fun. But the pairing of Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and Brady is more akin to a faceoff between Swiss watchmakers. Brady’s four-game Deflategate suspension to start the season may have cost him a third league MVP award (Ryan will almost certainly take home the hardware). But ”TB12” is far more focused on how he finishes this campaign than how he began, and one more victory might finally settle the debate about who’s the greatest of all time if he can become the first quarterback to earn five Lombardi Trophies. From an individual perspective, he’s been as good as ever, too, with a record 28-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio in the regular season and a strong AFC Championship Game showing (384 passing yards, 3 TDs). Ryan proved he remains the hottest arm in the league. He’d already led the NFL with a lofty 117.1 passer rating this season (Brady was second at 112.2) and set a record by averaging 9.3 yards a throw (while finishing with 4,944 yards, 38 TDs and 7 INTs). During the Falcons’ current six-game winning streak, he’s thrown for 1,861 yards and 18 TDs, completing 72.8(PERCENT) of his passes for a 133.3 rating. Ryan’s posted at least three TD passes in each of his last four playoff games.
3. Coming-out party: The Super Bowl stage can convey mega-stardom beyond football, especially for non-quarterbacks. Just ask Von Miller, Malcolm Butler, Richard Sherman and so many others in recent memory. It’s a shame injured TE Rob Gronkowski won’t be among the participants, however fellow New England TE Martellus Bennett has the ability and (more importantly) personality to have a breakout performance. Still, the Patriots have long been defined by Brady and coach Bill Belichick, and it will probably take something like Butler’s unforgettable pick in Super Bowl XLIX to garner part of the spotlight. Conversely, many Americans will be getting a fresh introduction to the Falcons, who played only two prime-time games in 2016, one on a Thursday and the other overshadowed by a presidential debate. Ryan is hardly a household name outside of Atlanta. Jones and RBs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are well known in fantasy circles — all are excellent players likely to keep Belichick and Co. burning the midnight oil — but are also somewhat anonymous to the public at large. The Falcons also have terrific young defenders like Keanu Neal, Deion Jones and NFL sack leader Vic Beasley. You can bet some new media darlings will surface as well as an unexpected hero (and/or goat), who will be immortalized between the lines.