One year ago, we saw one of the greatest defensive matchups in the history of the NFL’s big game.

Super Bowl 50 featured the two best defenses in football, and both units lived up to the hype, delivering a game which featured 34 total points, 509 total yards, and more sacks (12) than third down conversions (4). Somehow, I get the feeling that this year’s championship round will go a little bit differently.

Super Bowl LI might offer the best pair of offenses ever to square off for the Lombardi Trophy. The Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots were respectively 1st and 3rd in scoring offense, 2nd and 4th in total yardage, and 1st and 4th in passing yardage on the season.  

They both have two resounding victories on their postseason resume already–New England has outscored the Texans and Steelers 70-33, and the Falcons put up an 80-41 margin in blowouts against Seattle and Green Bay. Whatever the outcome, Super Bowl LI looks to be full of offensive fireworks.

I noted above that the Falcons and Patriots were among the top-ranked offenses in the league this season, but grouping them together is honestly a disservice to the Falcons. The high-flying Dirty Birds blew the competition away this season to the tune of 33.8 points per game; New England, the NFL’s third-ranked scoring unit, posted a point total closer to the 20th-ranked Detroit Lions than the Falcons in first.

Football Outsiders also ranked the Falcons a comfortable first in offensive DVOA.  Star quarterback (and likely NFL MVP) Matt Ryan posted a stunningly efficient season, leading the league in touchdown percentage (7.1%), ANY/A (9.03), and both traditional passer rating (117.1) and QBR (83.3).  

Wide receiver Julio Jones was a monster as well, racking up 1409 yards in just 14 games. And while Ryan and Jones have received the lion’s share of credit for Atlanta’s offensive dominance, don’t forget that the Falcons picked up over 1900 yards on the ground as well.

Atlanta can go to the shotgun spread offense and slice your secondary to smithereens, or they can line up in the offset I formation and shove the ball down your throat.

So what can the New England Patriots expect to see from Matt Ryan and Co. on Sunday? A little bit of everything. The relentless productivity of Atlanta’s attack is rivaled only by its sheer creativity, thanks to the fantastic work of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan (who is widely expected to accept the San Francisco 49ers’ head coaching position after the postseason is finished).  

The Shanahan family’s trademark West Coast offense, built around a zone-blocking run scheme and slow-developing quarterback bootlegs, is widely thought of as vanilla and anachronistic in today’s NFL, but Kyle has spruced up that foundation with a variety of delightful touches.

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Kyle Shanahan is the mastermind behind Atlanta’s offense.

Atlanta likes to use pre-snap packages designed to force defenses into tipping their hand, particularly in their “13” personnel–aka, three tight ends, one wide receiver and one running back.  Three tight end sets are commonly thought of as a running formation, but Atlanta can and does do much more with that personnel grouping.  If the defense shows its “base” look with four defensive backs, Atlanta likes to split a tight end (usually rookie Austin Hooper) out wide and attack the secondary with an array of high-low route combinations.

Sometimes they will empty the backfield and motion one of their running backs wide, which forces the defense to declare its coverage–if no defender follows the back in his motion, then Matt Ryan knows he is facing zone coverage; if a linebacker splits out to cover the motion man, it’s a clear sign of man coverage.  

And when Atlanta gets a linebacker isolated in man coverage against one of their running backs, look out–the Falcons’ backfield platoon of Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman combined for 883 receiving yards on the season.  If, on the other hand, the defense respects the threat of a pass and shows a “nickel” package (five defensive backs), they are no better off–the Falcons can simply feed Freeman and Coleman on inside zone running plays against the spread-out center of the defense. Almost every set the Falcons show on offense is designed to stretch the defense horizontally, thus opening up the weak point to assault them vertically.

It’s clear that the Patriots defense will have their hands full on Super Bowl Sunday.  And while Matt Patricia’s defense allowed a league leading 15.6 points per game this season, it’s questionable if they are really as good as that statistic makes them out to be–they ranked just 16th in the NFL by DVOA, and seven defenses allowed fewer total yards. Whatever your perspective on the Patriots’ defense, this looks to be a tough matchup for them.  

The Pats secondary features a stud cornerback in Malcolm Butler and one of the game’s elite centerfielding safeties in Devin McCourty, and you can expect those two to focus their efforts on shutting down star wideout Julio Jones, particularly after his 9-catch, 180-yard evisceration of the Packers in the NFC Championship.

If that is the case, Atlanta will likely focus on getting its running backs involved in the passing game, much as they did earlier this year against top secondaries like Denver and Seattle. That’s bad news for the Patriots, who allowed 801 receiving yards to opposing running backs this season–the third highest total of any defense in football. New England’s linebackers and extra defensive backs will be tested to their limits by the variety of ways that Atlanta employs its secondary receiving options in the passing game.

Remember earlier this season when the Patriots shocked everyone by trading star linebacker Jamie Collins? That could come back to haunt them on Sunday.  While it was a reasonable decision to get something in return for Collins if they didn’t think they could afford to resign him, New England could really use a coverage linebacker of his abilities in this matchup.

Like basically every NFL quarterback, the best way to beat Matt Ryan is to consistently put pressure on him in the pocket. That’s not going to be easy for the Patriots’ defense, whose 5.4% sack rate this season slotted in just below the league average of 5.8%.  New England could try to disrupt Ryan’s timing with exotic blitz packages, but a blitz-heavy approach is dangerous against a team with weapons like Atlanta’s–for as many highlight-reel deep balls as Ryan has thrown this year, he does a whole lot of damage on simple slant/flat combinations that only require him to hold the ball for a couple of seconds; every time New England sends extra rushers, they will leave the sort of gaps in their underneath coverage that those concepts are designed to exploit.  

If New England wants to slow down Matty Ice, they need their front four pass rushers like Chris Long and Trey Flowers to beat one-on-one matchups up front and put the heat on Ryan without getting much help from the blitz. How successful they are will go a long way towards determining the outcome of the game?

Chris Long (95) is an important cog in the Patriots’ defense. (Credit: Associated Press)

Atlanta may be in its own hemisphere offensively, but the Patriots pack plenty of firepower on that side of the football as well. Tom Brady continued to brazenly disregard Father Time this season, and while his yardage totals were depressed by a four game suspension, his 8.81 ANY/A was second in the league (trailing only Ryan) and he put up 28 touchdowns against a ridiculous 2 interceptions.

His unreal interception rate was certainly influenced by randomness (and he’s already thrown as many picks in the postseason as he did in the regular season), but that doesn’t discount just how impressive his 2016 campaign was. Brady and Bill Belichick have taken a collection of skill position weapons assembled off the scrap heap and turned them into a deadly downfield attack, just as they always seem to do, and it has paid off in the form of their seventh Super Bowl trip together. Now if they are going to outgun the Falcons, they will need that passing attack to be at its very best.

The good news for Patriots fans is that Atlanta’s defense doesn’t appear to offer a very tough challenge.  The Falcons defense was an ugly 27th in DVOA in the regular season, and just four teams gave up more passing yards. Atlanta’s best player on defense, cornerback Desmond Trufant, tore his pectoral muscle in week 9 and never returned, and they have been forced to rely heavily on inexperienced young defensive backs like Jalen Collins and Keanu Neal. While those guys improved as the season went along, they will have their work cut out for them against New England’s deep, versatile corps of receivers.

The Erhardt-Perkins offense that was brought to Foxboro by Charlie Weis and perfected by Josh McDaniels emphasizes option routes and sight adjustments intended to use the defensive back’s positioning against him; if the defensive back overplays to one side of the field, the receiver makes his cut to the other side. Even very good cornerbacks have a hard time positioning themselves to cover two or three route possibilities on the same play–Atlanta’s green defensive backs have a long week ahead of them preparing for the mental challenges they will face on the field Sunday.  

And that’s without even addressing Atlanta’s bigger issues trying to cover secondary options in the passing game–the Falcons allowed over 1800 receiving yards this year to tight ends and running backs.  While the Patriots won’t have Rob Gronkowski on the field, they should be able to count on Martellus Bennett, Dion Lewis and James White to be major contributors in the passing game.

Much like their counterparts in the New England corner, Atlanta’s defense is likely to live and die in this game based on how much pass pressure they can generate. While Atlanta’s pass rush was little more than mediocre this season, that group has come on strong in the postseason–they have notched five sacks across their first two contests, and in the NFC Championship Game they pressured Aaron Rodgers on 42% of his dropbacks and hit him seven times.

Breakout star Vic Beasley Jr. has been the poster child for Atlanta’s pass rush after leading the league with 15.5 sacks, but the Falcons have also gotten some very good postseason showings from interior linemen like Grady Jarrett and Jonathan Babineaux. Atlanta absolutely needs more of that on Sunday; if those guys can get penetration up the middle consistently, they will keep Brady from stepping up in the pocket and open up rushing lanes for Beasley and others on the edge.  

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Vic Beasley (44) has had a great season with Atlanta. (Credit: ESPN)

Falcons coach Dan Quinn knows better than anyone what constant pass pressure can accomplish against a great quarterback–he was at the helm of the Seahawks defense that dismantled Peyton Manning and the Broncos back in Super Bowl XLVIII.  If Quinn wants to add to his ring collection, he needs to focus on engineering that kind of disruptive defensive line performance once again.

In the end, this could very well come down to who holds the football last. Both offenses are going to score in bunches, and both defenses will be hard-pressed in finding ways to get off the field.

Josh McDaniels and Kyle Shanahan are two of the most aggressive and creative offensive minds in the game today, and we can probably expect to see some unusual wrinkles thrown into both offenses–it wouldn’t be a shock to see a jet sweep or two, a reverse or even a flea flicker.  

Both quarterbacks played at an extremely high level all season, and both have been absolutely stellar in the playoffs. It is tempting to make an argument that Brady has an advantage based on his postseason success, and his resume is admittedly impressive–he has claimed four victories already in the big game, including three memorable game-winning drives,  and his reputation for ice-in-his-veins crunch time heroics is basically unmatched in the modern NFL (by the way, did you know that the medical term for an abnormally low heart rate is bradycardia?  I mean…isn’t that just perfect?).  

But if some quarterbacks are just better than others in the playoffs, why did Brady go just 8-8 in the postseason between 2005 and 2013 with no Super Bowl victories? Matt Ryan, by contrast, has a reputation as a choker in the postseason–and yet he has now won three of his past four postseason starts, with thirteen touchdowns against three interceptions in that stretch.

Media narratives like to focus on whether players are “clutch”, but it’s hard to make a convincing argument that a playoff pedigree really affects what happens on the field in any material way–streaks of particularly strong or poor postseason performance by great players are far more likely to be the result of simple randomness and variance. Both of these quarterbacks are great; the outcome of the game will likely to come down to which defense is better equipped to stop them.

As hard as it is for me to doubt Bill Belichick’s Patriots, I think Atlanta has just a slight advantage in this game. The Falcons won’t stop New England from scoring, but if they can put points on the board early and force the Pats to play from behind, they will be able to cut Vic Beasley and Co. loose to attack Tom Brady. That could be enough to propel Atlanta to the first Super Bowl championship in their 51-year history.

PREDICTION:  Falcons 35, Patriots 31


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