Back in August, I started my New England Patriots' season preview by saying “On February 5, 2017, the Patriots are going to win their fifth Super Bowl.” A little more than five months later, I stand by that statement.
They were practically dead even with the Falcons by weighted offensive DVOA this season—New England finished first by 0.2 percent, but there is a massive difference between the two defenses. Atlanta finished 27th in defensive DVOA and 22nd in weighted DVOA; New England finished 16th in regular and 11th in weighted. There’s no doubt that both teams can move the ball—the over/under is 59—but this game is going to come down to which defense can step up when it matters and that defense is New England’s.
The Falcons will almost certainly come out aggressively. As good as New England’s secondary is, it’s easier to attack the Patriots via the passing game thanks to their 5.1 percent adjusted sack rate—a number good for 26th in the league. Couple that with an Atlanta offense that already ranks ninth in first-half passing plays and the Falcons will almost certainly start the game throwing. For New England, the challenge is finding a way to contain Julio Jones without giving too much space to other receivers or letting Atlanta run it. That’s a two-pronged challenge, but it’s not dissimilar to the one the Patriots faced—and met—against Pittsburgh. In the AFC title game, the Patriots constantly showed five-man fronts to goad the Steelers into passing and plug up the gaps when they handed the ball to Le’Veon Bell. They had Malcolm Butler shadow Antonio Brown, rarely giving off coverage, but frequently helping the corner by having a safety bracket Brown or, in single-high, shade over to his side of the field. And in the red zone, they straight-up doubled the receiver on practically every play.
I doubt their plan against Jones will mirror that strategy exactly—expect less nickel early in the game and fewer five-man fronts. However, the job Butler did against Brown is was impressive. I think we’ll see a similar strategy there—though whether or not Butler will shadow Jones when he goes into the slot remains to be seen, New England will likely give their corners help from over the top, even out of single-high safety packages. In the red zone, I’d be surprised if we don’t see double teams again.
Of course, the Falcons have had success when teams managed to keep Jones quiet this year and Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel present a challenge to a New England defense that could be preoccupied with Jones. I expect Belichick to take his chances with Sanu and leave him 1-on-1 with Logan Ryan, or Eric Rowe if Sanu ventures outside. Things are more complicated for Gabriel, who, per NFL GSIS, averages 8.11 YAC per reception. No doubt New England will be on high alert for screens and they’ve done a nice job limiting YAC this season—ranking first in the league with just 4.1 YAC per opposing reception this season—but Gabriel is volatile. More than anyone, he can swing this game by turning a screen into an electric 70something-yard catch and run. If the Falcons pull off the upset, there will be at least one of those plays.
With Matt Ryan under center, the Falcons will throw the ball with success even if New England executes perfectly. Ryan’s brilliance this season is the biggest reason they are playing on Sunday. The quarterback will probably win the MVP Award this week, deservedly so, and I don’t doubt that he’ll keep playing at this level on Sunday. However, the Patriots don’t need to stop Ryan; they just need to slow him down.
In the trenches, the only area where New England may be able to get pressure is with Trey Flowers going up against Jake Matthews. Flowers has often been New England’s lone productive pass rusher, leading the team with seven sacks and 14 hits, per NFL GSIS. Matthews put up a solid 75.3 PFF grade this season, but looks shaky at times. If Flowers is isolated against him or New England can force him to block Alan Branch on a stunt, it could be enough to end an Atlanta drive.
When Atlanta turns to the run, New England has to win inside. Branch and Malcom Brown anchored New England’s run defense—which finished fourth in DVOA—but Atlanta’s run blocking is one of its strongest attributes. Chris Chester may be vulnerable at right guard, but Andy Levitre and Alex Mack have handled duos better than Branch and Brown all season. When running to the middle, Atlanta averaged 4.26 adjusted line yards, which ranked 4th in the league. Defending those runs, New England allowed 3.76 ALY, good for 13th. However, when Atlanta goes to outside zone, one of their signatures, expect less success. New England was top-5 defending runs to the left end and finished sixth against runs inside the right tackle. They were vulnerable when opponents went inside the left tackle, but Atlanta struggled when they ran there as well. Expect the Falcons to play to their strengths and run it to other areas, instead of leaning on Matthews and his 49.2 PFF run blocking grade to open up holes.
Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are also dangerous in the screen game. The Falcons are aggressive in putting either running back--or both--outside and picking on a defense scrambling to match up. New England will be ready for that, but both Freeman and Coleman will get their fair share of balls thrown their way. It’s one of the ways Kyle Shanahan can exploit a New England linebacking corps that, outside of Dont’a Hightower, is beatable. If Kyle Van Noy or Shea McClellin lines up against a running back—a likely scenario since New England usually plays man—Atlanta should be aggressive in getting the ball there.
No doubt, Atlanta will move the ball, but the Patriots can slow them down just enough to win. It won’t take much from the New England defense—I’m betting that the Patriots win if they hold the Falcons to under 30 points, something they’re capable of doing. With Belichick at the helm, a capable secondary and just enough matchup advantages, the Patriots can hold Atlanta.
On the other side of the ball, it comes down to whether or not Atlanta can pressure Tom Brady. Throughout Brady’s career, that’s been the way to beat him. But unlike last season, New England’s offensive line is strength, not a weakness. Marcus Cannon and Nate Solder have PFF grades of 88.1 and 88.0, both inside the top-10 among tackles. Shaq Mason played a huge role in the success of the Patriots’ rushing attack and David Andrews is a stalwart at center. The one place Atlanta can attack them is at left guard, where Joe Thuney’s been shaky at times. The problem for the Falcons is that their pass rush just isn’t that good. They finished 24th in adjusted sack rate at 5.4 percent. Vic Beasley, responsible for much of that 5.4 percent, has to go up against Cannon—one of the tougher matchups he’s faced this season. Grady Jarrett will be a key component in run defense, but the defensive tackle has been largely invisible as a pass rusher throughout his career.
Maybe Dan Quinn gets creative with blitzes—Atlanta has found success blitzing this postseason—but New England’s offense is practically built to beat blitzes. They design quick-developing routes and get the ball out of Tom Brady’s hands ASAP. If you’re blitzing against New England, you have to hit home fast and I don’t think Atlanta can.
Atlanta’s secondary has impressed this season—especially after Desmond Trufant’s injury—but they’ll struggle to match up against the Patriots. When Julian Edelman is in the slot, he can eat Brian Poole for lunch. Poole isn’t terrible, but he’s clearly the weak link in Atlanta’s secondary. The Patriots will pick on him like they picked on Tharold Simon two years ago—constantly throwing it his way and forcing Dan Quinn to consider putting Jalen Collins in the slot to match up with Edelman instead. Chris Hogan stealthily finished the year 11th in DVOA among receivers; he could be an issue for Atlanta, especially if Robert Alford ends up in coverage against him. Collins is the lone corner I trust in a game like this, but New England has enough depth to get around any matchup advantage he holds. If he shuts down Hogan and the Patriots need Malcolm Mitchell or Danny Amendola to play a big role, it’s no issue (just ask Shane Vereen). Brady and Belichick make everyone better.
I do like Keanu Neal’s chances against Martellus Bennett. The Falcons were 11th in pass defense DVOA against tight ends this season and Neal has the physical prowess to keep up with Bennett. There are worse things for Atlanta than Deion Jones ending up in man against Dion Lewis or James White as well. However, Bennett was third among tight ends in DYAR and DVOA. White was third among running backs in passing DYAR. (Lewis didn’t have enough targets to qualify.) However, all it takes is a small crack in Atlanta’s defense for New England to exploit and eventually, the Patriots will find that crack.
New England will also find success running the ball. The Falcons were 29th in run defense DVOA and 25th in adjusted line yards. When the Patriots run power with LeGarrette Blount, Atlanta may not be able to stop it. It was 27th in adjusted line yards when opponents ran to the middle. And as good as Vic Beasley was as a pass rusher, his 43.8 PFF run defense grade underscores a major hole for Atlanta, which was dead last in adjusted line yards when opponents ran to the right tackle at 4.99. Against a truck like Blount, the magnitude of that problem will multiply.
In the red zone, Atlanta’s defense has been horrific. Per Football Outsiders’ premium database, the Falcons are 29th in red zone defense DVOA, ranking 27th in run defense and 31st in pass defense. Against New England, that might as well be a death sentence.
Tom Brady is the best QB of all-time and Bill Belichick is the best football coach of all-time. New England doesn’t have many weaknesses in this game, but those two can cover them up better than anyone else in the history of the game can. Belichick, coaching against Dan Quinn, represents the biggest advantage New England has in this Super Bowl. Quinn’s done a nice job this season, but he’s no match for Belichick as we saw in Super Bowl XLIX, when he helped Brady engineer two scoring drives in eight minutes to put New England ahead. The talent on this Atlanta defense isn’t comparable to Seattle’s two years ago. The Patriots will move the ball easily against them and slow the Falcons on the other side. New England should win this game and they will win this game.
Pick: Patriots -3 over Falcons
Last Week: 2-0-0
All stats are from pro-football-reference.com, footballoutsiders.com or profootballfocus.com unless otherwise noted
 I haven’t forgotten Quinn kicking a field goal down 4 points with 2 minutes left in San Francisco last season. I don’t care if he goes on to win 12 Super Bowls, that decision will always cast doubt in my mind when it comes to the coaching ability of Dan Quinn.