It’s just been that kind of year. First, LeBron James sprinted the full length of the court and chased down a streaking Andre Iguodala for the weak-side block. Next, Kyrie Irving stepped back behind the arc to drain The Shot, take out the 73-9 Warriors, and deliver a championship to the hard-luck city of Cleveland after 52 long years. This October, the Chicago Cubs broke the curse of the Billy Goat and 108 seasons of misery, forcing the last out through an epic Game 7 in Cleveland.
For Clemson, in January, Deshaun Watson went over the top for 420 passing yards and three touchdowns to take the National Championship away from the Alabama Crimson Tide. Now, the Atlanta Falcons march into Houston to take on a long-running Patriots Dynasty making its seventh trip to the Super Bowl (nine total in franchise history) in 15 years, winning four.
For many, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick already established themselves as the greatest of all time at their respective crafts — to the point where winning another Super Bowl ring seems all but a formality. These Patriots are especially fired up in light of the Deflategate scandal and Roger Goodell doling out a four-game suspension to Brady.
On the opposing sideline is an Atlanta club that went 11-5 through the regular season, while repeatedly fielding questions as to whether or not they are actually for real. This Atlanta franchise made its one and only trip to the Big Game in 1999, taking a 34-19 beatdown from the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXXIII.
After the Dirty Bird era, the Falcons were good for making the playoffs, getting popped in the mouth, laying down, and making way for the likes of the Harbaugh 49ers, Packers, and Seahawks to march right into the Super Bowl. Against this backdrop, it would make perfect sense for a Atlanta franchise to come out of nowhere and win Super Bowl 51. For the five following reasons, we expect this Big Game to continue the trend where down is up and up is down.
This is the year of the underdog.
5. Their running back platoon
For Super Bowl 51, the Atlanta Falcons will roll out two interchangeable running backs in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Both backs are more than capable of either running the football between the tackles or bouncing pays to the outside. In the passing game, both Freeman and Coleman can throw chip blocks on edge rushers before leaking out of the backfield and catching swing passes. In space, expect these outlet receivers to make one man miss and move the chains.
Taken together, Freeman and Coleman combined for 2,482 yards from scrimmage through the latest regular season. Freeman is somewhat better on the ground, grinding out his second straight 1,000-yard season. Alternatively, Coleman is more capable of breaking the big play in the passing game, where he showed out for 14 yards per reception and three touchdowns this year.
For the Divisional Playoffs, Freeman and Coleman racked up 204 yards of total offense and two touchdowns, setting the tone for a balanced attack that blew the doors off Seattle. For the following week, these two backs scored two more touchdowns in the second half against the Packers to blow the NFC Championship Game wide open.
In space, the Atlanta running back platoon will be a matchup nightmare for a burly New England linebacker corps, where Shea McClellin, Dont’a Hightower, and Rob Ninkovich all weigh in at well over 250 pounds. For passing situations, Belichick may slide down a safety or nickel back to go man-to-man against these versatile backs. DBs cheating up to the line of scrimmage, of course, will only open up the field for Matt Ryan to go over the top to Julio Jones. Pick your poison.
4. Julio Jones
Jones is a monster. Last Sunday, he fought through a defensive hold, hauled in the football on a quick slant, threw out a stiff-arm, and outraced the entire Green Bay secondary for 73 yards to paydirt. This one play showcased the fact that, on any given Sunday, Jones is the biggest, strongest, and fastest man out in the field of play.
The 26-year-old has already established himself as one of the better prime-time receivers in the game. Jones has racked up 39 catches for 552 yards and five touchdowns through five postseason appearances. For the Divisional Playoffs, he ate up loudmouth Richard Sherman for a red zone touchdown on a quick out. For the NFC Championship Game, he had his way with the Packers for another nine catches, 180 yards, and two touchdowns.
With age, Jones has emerged as a fiery and vocal leader, after serving out his apprenticeship beneath taskmaster Nick Saban at Alabama. Expect him to rally the troops early in the Super Bowl and demand the football in critical situations. Belichick, of course, will throw multiple looks at Jones to slow down the Atlanta offense. Base coverage may call for Malcolm Butler to track Mohamed Sanu, while Logan Ryan shades over towards Jones’ side of the field, with Patrick Chung helping over the top.
When blitzing the quarterback, it will likely be Butler who locks up man-to-man against Jones. This frantic scheming, however, may largely come in vain, against a generational talent who can go the distance any time that he touches the football.
3. Matt Ryan
Ryan has quietly emerged as the leading candidate for the 2016 NFL MVP award. For this regular season, Matty Ice lit up defenses for 4,944 yards and 38 touchdowns off 70% passing. Ryan, not Aaron Rodgers or Ben Roethlisberger, commanded the league’s most explosive offensive attack to 34 points per game.
Still, the apparent experts refused to believe that these Falcons were for real, even going so far as to write off Ryan as a glorified game manager; one who simply racked up bloated regular-season statistics, only to freeze up and choke out of the playoffs. Ryan did take three cracks at the playoffs before getting his first win in 2012. That year, the 13-3 Falcons made it to the NFC Championship Game, only to be outmuscled at home by the San Francisco 49ers.
For this postseason, Ryan was openly dismissed as a mere throw-in at the outset of the Championship Round, when Rodgers, Roethlisberger, and Brady’s collection of seven Super Bowl rings rounded out the rest of the bracket. It was Ryan, however, who came out and outplayed the supposedly white hot Rodgers, going over the top for 392 yards and four touchdowns. For the exclamation point, Ryan spiked the ball in the end zone to finish off his 14-yard touchdown run amid this 44-21 NFC Championship blowout.
After taking a loss in the Divisional Playoffs, Seattle defensive end Michael Bennett snapped and screamed at reporters who suggested that he failed to do his job. Apparently, Ryan got the ball out fast — well before the pass rush could get anywhere near the quarterback. Now, Ryan is set to showcase his innate ability to go through his progressions, make smart decisions, and spray the football around a Belichick defense. A calm, cool, and collected Matty Ice may very well claim league MVP and Super Bowl MVP hardware in the same year.
2. Atlanta’s pass rush
The New York Giants exposed Brady in 2007. Tom Coughlin’s game plan called for relentless quarterback pressure out of four down linemen, with all seven linebackers and defensive backs dropping into coverage against the pass. The Giants rotated waves of D-linemen to stay fresh and tee off upon Brady. The statuesque Brady took five sacks, threw one pick, and lost Super Bowl XLII to Eli and the miraculous helmet catch. For this, “18-1” will forever go down in infamy.
Four years later, in 2011, the Giants went with the same playbook and took Super Bowl XLVI. These Patriots are far from invincible, and Atlanta does have the personnel — in Victor Beasley, Adrian Clayborn, and veteran graybeard Dwight Freeney — to replicate the Giants’ scheme. Beasley, for his part, led the NFL in sacks with 15.5 takedowns. Atlanta will roll out its bend-but-don’t-break defense that will strengthen as the game progresses.
On paper, this unit appears to be the Achilles heel of the team, ranking 27th in scoring defense. In reality, many of these points were given up after the team played with a big lead and went into prevent mode. Last week, the Atlanta D gave up one garbage-time touchdown to Green Bay, after already being up 44-15 late in the fourth quarter.
For Super Bowl 51, the Atlanta pass rush will be even more dangerous, if the team’s explosive offense takes an early lead heading into halftime. After the break, LeGarrette Blount will be a non-factor, and Beasley and company will be free to take shots at Brady. Last week, Rodgers spent the majority of the afternoon running for his life. Brady, of course, is far less mobile. He will take multiple sacks, before having another meltdown and screaming at any officials and teammates within earshot. This thing could get ugly, much to the delight of Patriot haters everywhere.
There is no greater galvanizing force in all of sports than the idea of perceived disrespect. Certainly, these Atlanta Falcons will pass around reams of bulletin-board material through the hype and lead-up to the big game. The line out of Vegas is now taking the Patriots by three points, winning a shootout where both teams combine to light up the scoreboard for 59 points.
These are the Atlanta Falcons. This is a franchise that reached its pinnacle in 1998, when Gary Anderson blew a chip shot in the fourth quarter, sending the Falcons to the Super Bowl. In Super Bowl XXXIII, the Falcons served themselves up as cannon fodder for John Elway to win back-to-back Super Bowl titles before retiring and heading off into the sunset.
The Falcons never had an Elway, Brady, or even a Curtis Martin. Instead, it’s the likes of Deion Sanders high-stepping to the end zone and out of town; Jamal Anderson busting out the Dirty Bird; and Michael Vick fighting dogs before doing time at Leavenworth. For once, these 2016–17 Falcons have to a legitimate chance at bringing glory to their much-maligned franchise. In this case, no Super Bowl 51 win would be greater than shocking the world and sending the Patriots franchise packing.