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Super preview: Can Falcons soar past Patriots?

Posted by Eric Fisher On February 2

The Patriots have been to the Super Bowl six times since the Falcons’ last – and only – appearance, a 34-19 loss to the Broncos in Super Bowl XXXIII. Normally, history can be dismissed as relatively irrelevant to the current teams. But you can’t do that with the Patriots.

The Patriots’ quarterback and head coach on Sunday in Super Bowl LI in Houston will be the same duo that has been together for New England’s last six Super Bowl appearances. Quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick will both be appearing in their record-breaking seventh Super Bowl. Brady and Belichick helped the Patriots win a Super Bowl just two seasons ago, defeating the Seahawks, 28-24. Experience is definitely on the Patriots’ side.

But don’t discount the Falcons. They can score points in bunches. Quarterback Matt Ryan is likely to win the NFL’s Most Valuable Player Award, and Julio Jones is arguably the NFL’s best receiver. A Super Bowl victory would earn Ryan a place in the elite quarterback discussion.

Brady, of course, is already part of that discussion. A victory Sunday, which would be a record-setting fifth Super Bowl win, could propel Brady to the top of the heap in the quarterback ranking.

Will the Lombardi Trophy be captured by the Falcons, a team few people expected to advance this far in the playoffs, or will it be secured once again by the usual suspects from New England?

Let’s take a closer look at Super Bowl LI.

FALCONS (13-5) vs. PATRIOTS (16-2), 6:30 p.m.

(at Houston)

How they got here: After a first-round bye, the Falcons defeated the Seahawks, 36-20, and pulverized the Packers, 44-21, in the NFC Championship Game. They have won six straight games. After a first-round bye, the Patriots trounced the Texans, 34-16, and stomped the Steelers, 36-17, in the AFC Championship Game. They have won nine straight games.

How the Falcons can win: The Falcons’ formula for success starts with jumping out to an early lead. They have scored a touchdown on their opening drive in eight straight games. Once the Falcons get the lead, they mix in runs and play-action passes. Ryan (4,994 yards passing, 38 TDs), the likely NFL MVP, has numerous targets to throw to, which puts defenses in a bind. Will he throw to star receiver Jones (83 receptions, 1,409 yards)? Mohammad Sanu (59 for 653)? Running backs Devonta Freeman (54 for 462) and Tevin Coleman (31 for 421)? Not be overlooked on offense is the offensive line, which has unified around center Alex Mack, signed away from the Browns.

The Falcons were the NFL’s top-scoring team (540 points) by a wide margin. They have averaged 39 points during their current 6-game winning streak, including a 40-point average during the playoffs. The defense is clearly the weaker unit, but the defense has improved as the season progressed. Second-year defensive end Vic Beasley led the NFL in sacks (15½). If Beasley can put pressure on Brady, perhaps the Falcons can create a rare interception (Brady only threw two during 12 regular-season games). Matt Bryant is an excellent field goal kicker.

How the Patriots can win: Like the Falcons, the Patriots love to play with the lead. They haven’t trailed in a game since Week 12. When they have the football, the Patriots turn to Brady. He threw 28 touchdowns this season and just two interceptions while putting up MVP-like numbers in just 12 games. Brady can seemingly make anyone look like a star. Chris Hogan, a former Penn State lacrosse player, looked like an all-pro receiver in the AFC Championship Game, scorching the Steelers for 180 receiving yards and two touchdowns. The previous week against the Texans, Dion Lewis became the first player in NFL history to register a rushing touchdown, receiving touchdown and a return touchdown during one playoff game. A more familiar weapon is running back LeGarrette Blount, who led the NFL with 18 touchdowns while gaining 1,161 yards. Julian Edelman caught 98 passes this season for 1,106 yards.

What makes this Patriots team different from some of the past Patriots teams is its defense. The Patriots led the NFL in fewest points allowed (250) this season. They don’t have a plethora of big-name players, but it seems as if everyone is either good or, to use coach-speak, is put in the best position to succeed. How else can one explain the fine play of safety Patrick Chung, who was a disaster with the Eagles in between stints with the Patriots?

Score this year: The teams did not play each other.

Ex-Eagles factor: Safety Patrick Chung, cornerback Eric Rowe and receiver Danny Amendola (Eagles practice squad) are important cogs in the Patriots machine.

Weather: The game will be played in a dome. Weather isn’t a factor.

Prediction: If you examine the offensive and defensive units, the Falcons defense is clearly the weakest link. But that defense could look a lot better if the Falcons can take an early lead. But Belichick is a master at finding and exploiting the opponent’s weakness. With Brady executing the plan on the field, the Patriots usually find the bad matchup for the defense. The wild card is that neither team has played a close game in the playoffs. The Patriots haven’t played a game decided by fewer than five points all season, so a close game could benefit the Falcons. On the other hand, a close Super Bowl may favor the team with more big-game experience. Patriots 31, Falcons 26

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