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Why the Falcons will beat the Patriots in Super Bowl 51

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Retired NFL defensive lineman Stephen White studied the tape and saw a distinct advantage the Falcons have that will be hard to stop, even for the Patriots.

It seems like it was only yesterday that I was working on my breakout players posts in the preseason, and yet somehow all we have left of this postseason now is the grand finale on Sunday. Gotta say it kinda snuck up on me. It’s depressing every year when I realize that only one game stands between me and another long, boring offseason. On the bright side, I have to say that after studying the Patriots and Falcons a little more closely on film, I have a feeling that this year's matchup may end up being one of most entertaining that we have ever seen in a Super Bowl.

I say that because most fans just love offense. Hell, so do I, and these two teams get busy on offense. The Falcons, for instance, ended the regular season ranked third in passing yards per game, fifth in rushing yards per game, and lead the league in scoring, averaging an eye-popping 33.8 points per game. Their quarterback Matt Ryan, my pick for MVP, was tops in the NFL for passer rating in 2016 of any player with over 11 attempts with 117.1 and second in the league in passing yards with 4,944, to go with 38 passing touchdowns against just seven interceptions.

The Patriots, on the other hand, weren’t too shabby either as they ended the season fourth in the league in total yards per game, fourth in passing yards per game, and third scoring offense with a more-than-respectable 27.6. Tom Brady didn't waste any time after serving his four-game suspension to start the season and still found a way to end up 20th in the league in passing yards with over 3,500 to go with 28 touchdowns against only two interceptions. It is kinda funny that Brady ended up third in the league in passer rating because the guy who finished second was ... Jimmy Garoppolo.

He's a system quarterbaaaaaack!

Just kidding.

Or am I?

Styles make fights

It doesn't get much more evenly matched than these two high-powered offenses. As for their defenses, however, they couldn't be more different. The Falcons are a 4-3, and statistically, they were pretty mediocre this season. The Patriots run a 3-4 and were statistically dominant this year.

The Patriots defense finished the regular season with the best scoring defense in the league, giving up only 15.6 points per game. They also ranked third in the league in rush yards allowed per game.

A person might get the impression that the Falcons won't be able to keep up with the Patriots on Sunday. The film tells a somewhat different story.

Now, I'm not going to try to sell the Falcons defense as the second coming of the ’85 Bears or anything. When I went back and watched several games where the Falcons gave up a lot of points, it turns out in many of those instances Atlanta allowed the majority of those points in the fourth quarter of games. These were games when their opponents were down big and trying to catch up, and the Falcons, rightfully, weren't quite as aggressive on defense. Giving up a lot of points in the fourth quarter is somewhat worrisome, but it’s worth pointing out these games that they actually won this season.

  • In Week 2 the Raiders had 14 points through the first three quarters, but end up with 28. Atlanta won 35-28
  • In Week 4 the Panthers had 10 points in the first three quarters, but ended up with 33. Atlanta won 48-33.
  • In Week 5 the Broncos had 3 points in the first three quarters and ended up with 16. Atlanta won 23-16.
  • In Week 9 the Bucs had 14 in the first three quarters and ended up with 28. Atlanta won 43-28.
  • In Week 17 the Saints had 13 in the first three quarters and ended up with 32. Atlanta won 38-32.

Hell, in the NFC Championship they held Aaron Rodgers and crew scoreless in the first 30 minutes of the game, going into halftime up 24-0

For additional context, Atlanta and New England had five common opponents this year. Here is a comparison of how many points those opponents scored against each.

Patriots & Falcons common opponents

Opponent Atlanta New England
Opponent Atlanta New England
Arizona 19 21
Denver 16 3
Los Angeles 14 10
San Francisco 13 17
Seattle 26 31
2017 common opponents

I wouldn't consider the Falcons a dominant defense just yet, but they aren't quite the pushovers that some of their statistics might have you believe. And they definitely aren't as far off from the Patriots defense as you might think.

Interestingly enough, when it came time for me to pick who I thought would win on Sunday, a lot of my rationale had to do with both defenses.

One of the things that stood out to me watching that Falcons defense is how closely it already mirrors what the Seahawks do.

That's not really a huge revelation considering the fact that Atlanta's head coach Dan Quinn was the defensive coordinator for Seattle in 2013 and 2014 (which means yes, he was there when they lost to the Patriots in Super Bowl 49). At the same time, Gus Bradley's five years as head coach in Jacksonville is a good reminder that trying to emulate a defense in a different place doesn't always work out so well.

Even though they don't have the same amount of talent across the board, defensively, that the Seahawks do, the Falcons play that same kind of defense. And they move around like they have been at it for much longer than the two years since Quinn got there.

The Falcons, much like the Seahawks, generally keep the game plans simple and just expect their guys to play really disciplined football. That simplicity also allows them to play really, really fast.

Like the Seahawks, the Falcons tend to stick with their base 4-3 alignment for most of the game without a lot of different looks. I would say the Falcons probably send a little more pressure than the Seahawks simply because they don't quite have the collection of pass rushers that Seattle has just yet.

Yeah, Vic Beasley led the league in sacks with 15.5, but no other defender had more than Adrian Clayborn's 4.5 sacks, and he’s now on IR. I don't think there is a huge difference in how much either team blitzes. Both usually like to rely more on their four-man rush than anything else.

Another thing both defenses have in common is that when they do decide to blitz, it usually catches the opposing offense off guard. And that can lead to big plays.

The Falcons, like the Seahawks, also play a lot of single-high safety with some form of zone behind it, but both defenses also don't mind mixing in a little man-to-man as well.

The most important thing that the Seahawks and Falcons defenses share is tons of speed at every position.

Back when I was playing in Tampa a long, long, long, long time ago people used to say that we ran to the ball so well play after play that it looked like someone had sped the tape up. That's about as great as compliment as I have ever heard.

You can't just have fast players on defense, you have to have dudes who hustle, or all that speed is wasted. When I watch the Seahawks on film, they remind me a lot of how we used to get after it back in the day. I'm seeing that same kind of hustle out of the Falcons on defense as well.

That speed factor also shows up for the Falcons in terms of not giving up a lot of big plays — at least not till the fourth quarter. As a defensive coordinator, it is a luxury when you have corners who are fast enough that you don't have to constantly give the safety help over the top. It allows you to put all kinds of wrinkles into your scheme for your safeties and you can blitz a little more liberally without having to worry that one of your guys is going to get Moss'd if the pressure doesn't get there right away.

In this new passing-league era of the NFL, having speed everywhere also helps you with the underneath coverage as well.

One of the reasons why the Falcons' speed on defense is so important to this Super Bowl matchup is because of the versatility of the Patriots' running backs.

Quietly, James White was the second-leading receiver for the Patriots during the regular season with 60 catches. His five receiving touchdowns were also second only to Martellus Bennett's seven. Dion Lewis, who only played in seven games in the regular season, had 17 catches. Both of those guys can break your ankles out in space.

In the playoffs both White and Lewis have four catches and a receiving touchdown, which may not be eye-popping numbers, but the threat of what they can do as receivers tends to force opposing defenses to make substitutions to account for them in the passing game.

The Falcons, however, have two rookie linebackers — Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell — who can both run and cover pretty well. That means Atlanta can generally stay in its base personnel for most of the game and still match up just fine even when the Patriots try to get their running backs involved in the passing game.

I'm pointing this out because, as the saying goes, "styles make fights." Some teams just happen to match up well with others and this, to me, appears to be one of those times.

I have the utmost respect for the Patriots and the standard of excellence they’ve set for over a decade now, but probably much to the dismay of my guy Bomani Jones, I am picking the Falcons on Sunday. The film just tells me they are a bad matchup for New England.

Falcons offense vs. Patriots defense — A personnel advantage

Unlike when I picked the Broncos over the Panthers last year, I don't think there will be a specific scheme advantage this time around, but rather key personnel advantages.

We know that Bill Belichick is a defensive genius and that he can usually find a way to take out your biggest threat on offense. Sometimes even your top two threats. The problem with trying to defend the Falcons is that they have so many damn weapons to go along with a stone-cold killer like Julio Jones, who simply demands extra attention.

The Patriots are normally a well-oiled machine on defense, but one issue I saw a few times on film was they would have trouble when a team's third or fourth receiving option had a lot of speed and took them deep. That's not unique to New England because that third or fourth receiving option is usually covered by a linebacker or a team's third or fourth cornerback. Most teams just don't have a third or fourth option who is good enough to really exploit that matchup.

Atlanta has Taylor Gabriel, appropriately nicknamed "Turbo," and Tevin Coleman, who can both line up in the slot and blow the doors off of anybody you put in front of them on a fade route. Considering how much man-to-man the Patriots like to play, I can see Gabriel and/or Coleman having a huge day catching the ball down the field.

If the Patriots do what I think they will and use their linebackers to "hug up" the backs on passing downs when they are lined up in the backfield, I also wouldn't be surprised if Devonta Freeman has a big day catching the ball after the Falcons counter that Patriots tactic by motioning him out of the backfield more.

That's one thing about Ryan and the Falcons: They will nickel and dime you all the way down the field if they have to. If the Patriots are intent on taking Julio out deep, then Ryan will just keep dumping it off and dumping it off until 12 plays later they are on the New England 2-yard line about to punch it in.

If the Patriots can't deal with Freeman and Coleman out of the backfield, things could get ugly fast.

This might be the one game where the Patriots actually feel the loss of Jamie Collins, who they traded to Cleveland, while trying to match up with those running backs in the passing game.

Another guy whom I believe is going to have a big day for Atlanta's offense is fullback Patrick DiMarco.

Time after time on film I saw him making key blocks to spring his running backs. Particularly against teams that still line up in a traditional 3-4 alignment at times (like the Patriots), he did a good job taking on the force player and giving Freeman and Coleman the opportunity to bounce outside where they could really do damage. He is also a viable receiving threat out of the backfield, so while the Patriots may key in on Jones out wide and Freeman and Coleman underneath, DiMarco is likely to be open in the flat quite a bit.

As a reminder, again, the Falcons also have a Julio Jones.

If your team doesn't have a Julio Jones, I strongly suggest you try to get one.

Playing on turf, in perfect conditions in Houston should give a well-rested Jones the opportunity to show out on Sunday night, even if New England shows him extra attention. There may come a time during the game where the Falcons offense sputters for a drive or two, but all it takes is one slant route to Julio and a couple of broken tackles to fix that. It also helps when you absolutely have to make a play to have a guy as tall, physical, fast, and athletic as Jones who you can chuck it up there to and just let him go get it.

Let's not forget that even in that loss to the Seahawks earlier in the season, even as poorly as the Falcons played at times, if either Richard Sherman doesn't grab Jones’ arm and/or the ref actually called pass interference, the Falcons may well have come back and won that game.

Jones is like a human tiebreaker. With Rob Gronkowski on IR, the Patriots don't have anyone comparable on offense. Martelleus Bennett can be a matchup nightmare, but he ain’t no Julio Jones, bruh.

Matt Ryan under pressure

Now I actually believe the Patriots will blitz quite a bit and show a lot of 3-4 on early downs against the Falcons. If there is one thing that can bother Ryan, like most quarterbacks, it’s pressure. Which is not to say that Ryan folds under pressure. For the most part that isn't true. Ryan actually does a good job moving around in the pocket, at times escaping the pocket to avoid pressure and deliver the ball down the field.

When you look at some of Ryan's worst decisions, however, they almost always come when he is under duress. That is pretty much the only time when he is ever careless with the football. If he doesn't feel pressured, he will just patiently wait until someone comes open or throw it away.

If the Patriots want to force turnovers, then bringing additional pressure is probably the only way to get it done, so I expect that you will see New England coming from everywhere at times, trying to force one of those occasional brain farts out of Ryan.

That will make the Patriots vulnerable to those deep shots I mentioned earlier, and I expect Ryan to take them early and often. Doesn't matter if he only hits on a couple. A couple big plays in a game like this can be the difference, especially if they come early on.

Falcons defense vs. Patriots offense — Thrown off schedule

I expect that the Patriots offense will also move the ball up and down the field on the Falcons, but they will have to do so meticulously. The Falcons are going to be flying to the ball, and they’re very good tacklers. They also aren't prone to letting a lot of balls get thrown over their heads. That means the Patriots are going to have to grind all the way down the field for most of the game.

The good news for New England is that the team is made to do just that on offense. They can run the ball with Blount, White, and Lewis. They can also kill you on underneath routes with Bennett, Julian Edelman, and Danny Amendola.

What the Falcons have to hope is that at the right time they will be able to send pressure to knock the Patriots off schedule. Even with as well as Brady has played this year — and he has been outstanding — if the Falcons get the Patriots into third-and-long where they can really put all that speed on defense to good use, I believe Atlanta will win a lot of those battles.

Brady, again like most quarterbacks, does not like to get hit, so it will be incumbent upon the Falcons to get heat on him one way or the other. And that brings me to one of players to watch for the Falcons on defense.

Dwight Freeney is going to be a major factor in this game.

Freeney has now had two weeks to study left tackle Nate Solder. He will also be facing Solder on turf, which means Freeney will have great traction for his explosive get-off on speed rushes as well as good footing to execute spin moves to great effect after he gets Solder bailing out of his stance.

I'm betting that in those two weeks Freeney noticed the same thing I did about Solder: starting off with power and then turning it into a speed rush gives him problems.

Once a rusher feels Solder anchor down on the power move, he can quickly escape off the block to the outside. Freeney is long in the tooth, but he can still give a tackle the business when he has time to rest and prepare. I expect to see him all over Brady all night, especially since this might be his last game in the NFL.

I'm not just talking sacks, though I think Freeney will get at least one. I'm talking about not allowing Brady to feel comfortable in the pocket with just a four-man rush. To beat the Patriots you have got to bring the heat on Brady, there really isn't any other way.

I'm still trying to figure out what kinda dirt weed the Steelers' defensive coordinator was smoking when he decided he would use so many three-man and even two-man rushes against Brady in the AFC Championship. You have to at least rush four most of the time, maybe more at some point.

The "maybe more" part is where Brian Poole comes in.

See, Poole does a little bit of everything for the Falcons. He can cover and he can hit, and the guy can blitz his ass off. He has a knack for disguising when he is coming and he can get from point A to point B in a damn hurry. I doubt that the Falcons will blitz (where blitz here means send more than four players to rush the passer) much more than a handful of times, kind of like Seattle in its earlier win over the Patriots this season, but when they do decide to unleash Poole, I'm expecting there to be fireworks. Just ask Aaron Rodgers about him.

I really like both of these teams, but there can be only one winner on Sunday. After watching the film and thinking it through, I just feel like Atlanta is the better team top to bottom, especially with Gronk out. Even a future Hall of Fame coach and a future Hall of Fame quarterback won't be able to overcome that.

Oh, and I just want to point out that Joel Thorman and I tied for first place on our SBNation “experts” panel for picking games during the regular season. We are currently tied in the postseason as well ... and he picked New England. So yeah, these are high stakes for me, but I feel confident in my prediction.