Super Bowl matchup: Patriots have the overall edge
HOUSTON — Super Bowl LI offers a classic showdown between the league’s top-scoring offense (Falcons) and the No. 1 scoring defense (Patriots). For the record, the top-scoring defense has won this type of matchup in four of the last five go-rounds.
Of course, there’s also the business of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick going for a record fifth title — the most for any quarterback or coach. But you know all about that. Let’s get to how these two teams stack up for Sunday’s matchup:
Brady was masterful in ripping apart the Steelers defense in the AFC Championship Game en route to 384 yards and three touchdown passes. He’s competing in his seventh Super Bowl, while chasing an unprecedented fifth ring for a quarterback that would lift him above Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw. Ryan has been impressive this postseason following a regular season that has him poised to take home the MVP. He threw four TD passes in the NFC title game against the Packers and, after several years in which he always seemed to make a critical mistake, he’s emerged as a big-game quarterback in position to win his first title. That said, the jewelry collection and past experience win out.
LeGarrette Blount, Dion Lewis, James White
Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman, Terron Ward
The Patriots didn’t rely on their running game much against the Steelers. When they did run (57 yards, 27 attempts), they weren’t as effective as they’ve been in the past — not withstanding Blount toting a boatload of Steelers on his back for a memorable 18-yard run. Lewis, who was the star against the Texans, was relatively quiet. The Falcons’ two-headed monster of Freeman and Coleman combined for 2,482 yards from scrimmage and 24 touchdowns this season — the most of any RB combo in the league. They’re weapons in the passing game as well, having combined for 85 receptions and 883 yards. Like the Patriots with James Develin, the Falcons use Pat DiMarco at fullback. Against the Packers, he had a 31-yard catch-and-run.
Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell
Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel
Hogan (two TDs) had a career game against the Steelers, setting a team playoff record with 180 receiving yards. Edelman also had a big night, catching eight passes for 118 yards and a touchdown. Mitchell, however, struggled in his return. Danny Amendola will figure into the mix, and maybe Michael Floyd will get another chance. For the Falcons, Jones is the table-setter. He became the first player in NFL history to post multiple 150-yard, two-touchdown games in the postseason. Sanu and Gabriel aren’t just window dressing, they can hurt you as well, and Matt Ryan isn’t afraid to spread the ball around. Justin Hardy is another target.
Martellus Bennett, Matt Lengel
Austin Hooper, Levine Toilolo
Bennett’s gimpy ankle clearly has slowed him. He managed to catch five passes in the AFC title game, but did little with them. Still, he remains a presence and someone an opposing team has to worry about. The reverse is true with the Falcons. On a team loaded with offensive weapons, tight end isn’t one of them. Hooper and Toilolo really aren’t threats, although each has caught three balls this postseason.
LT Nate Solder, LG Joe Thuney, C David Andrews, RG Shaq Mason, RT Marcus Cannon
LT Jake Matthews, LG Andy Levitre, C Alex Mack, RG Chris Chester, RT Ryan Schraeder
The Patriots line rebounded nicely from the Texans game in the divisional round, keeping Brady clean against the Steelers during the AFC Championship Game. He was sacked twice, but one was a coverage sack. It was more like how the unit performed all season. Like the Patriots, the Falcons have had continuity with their line, as the same five linemen started all 18 games. The unit did allow 37 sacks, tied for 11th most in the NFL. It wasn’t all bad, given the Falcons’ success both throwing and running the football. Free agent acquisition Mack has provided a boost at center.
DE Rob Ninkovich, DT Alan Branch, DT Malcom Brown, DE Trey Flowers
DE Brooks Reed, DT J. Babineaux, DT Grady Jarrett, DE Tyson Jackson
The Patriots front did a great job once again containing an elite running game, as the group won the line of scrimmage first in keeping Le’Veon Bell in check while he was in, then later stuffing De’Angelo Williams. Vincent Valentine, Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long also chipped in meaningful snaps for a line that’s playing really well. The Falcons also employ a four-man front as a base. Dwight Freeney, Courtney Upshaw and Ra’Shede Hageman rotate in. They were 17th in run defense, which is middle of the pack. With the 28th-ranked pass defense, there’s not a lot of push coming from up front, either.
Dont’a Hightower, Shea McClellin, Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts
Vic Beasley, Deion Jones, De’Vondre Campbell
The Patriots linebackers have been steady throughout the postseason. Against the Steelers, one of the key plays had Van Noy forcing an Eli Rogers fumble, which was recovered by Ninkovich. As for the Falcons, Beasley, in his second year, is the star of this crew. He led the league in sacks with 15.5. Jones is up-and-coming and part of a unit that’s really quick to the ball.
S Devin McCourty, S Patrick Chung, CB Malcolm Butler, CB Logan Ryan, CB Eric Rowe
S Ricardo Allen, S Keanu Neal, CB Robert Alford, CB Jalen Collins, CB C.J. Goodwin
The Pats unit was effective in taking away the Steelers’ most dangerous weapon, Antonio Brown. Butler was on him most of the time, with a safety on top protecting. Brown had seven catches for 77 yards but was taken out of the middle of the field where he’s most dangerous. It’ll be interesting to see how it works with Julio Jones. The Falcons unit is young, featuring rookie safety Neal and second-year corner Collins. They’re good, and boast a lot of speed, but they’re still learning.
K Stephen Gostkowski, P Ryan Allen, KR Dion Lewis, PR Julian Edelman
K Matt Bryant, P Matt Bosher, KRs Eric Weems, Justin Hardy, PR Weems
Gostkowski missed his first PAT of the postseason against the Steelers (7-of-8) but has been perfect on field goals (5-of-5). The Pats did a better job holding onto the football against Pittsburgh. Bryant was one of the better kickers during the season (34-of-37 field goals, 56-of-57 extra points). In the postseason, he’s perfect with field goals (3-of-3), while missing one extra point (9-of-10). Weems is a definite threat in the return game.
Belichick just keeps adding to his Hall of Fame-worthy resume, making his record seventh Super Bowl appearance as the head coach of the Patriots. Like Tom Brady, he’s also seeking his fifth ring, which would push him past Chuck Noll for most all-time. Belichick completely out-coached Mike Tomlin in the conference championship. Quinn, meanwhile, does have a ring as the Seahawks defensive coordinator. He was also with the Seahawks when the Pats staged their comeback win in Super Bowl XLIX. He’s done a good job with the Falcons. He’s just not in Belichick’s league. But then again, who is?