Highlander Super Bowl special: Positional breakdown

Courtesy of Ticket Master
Courtesy of Ticket Master

A year has come and gone since the Deflategate saga, but yet not much has changed. Four games at the beginning of the season seem to have meant nothing to Tom Brady and the Patriots. He returned to the stomping grounds he’s ruled for over a decade with a precision and focus that could be argued as unparalleled in his entire career. From the NFC comes a powerful offense with Matt Ryan having an MVP-caliber season (despite throwing the first pick-six on a two-point conversion in NFL history to lose against the Chiefs in week 13) and finally getting the help he needed to push the Falcons over the brink. It should be an exciting matchup, but only one team will raise the Lombardi Trophy.

Quarterbacks

Christian: Patriots. While Ryan has had an incredible season, Tom Brady has had a much longer track record of not only being successful, but making inferior talent more successful than they should be. It’s no coincidence that Brady has four times more Super Bowl victories than Ryan will have Super Bowl appearances. Brady has been better for a long time, and is still better even now.

Earl: Patriots. The Patriots are headed to an NFL-record seventh Superbowl led by Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. The Falcons are riding a hot six-game winning streak en route to Houston, averaging a torching 39 points per game during that span. Matty Ice has lived up to his name, being as cool as they come while averaging a near perfect 133.4 passer rating during their win streak. The Falcons’ offense is near impossible to stop when Matt Ryan has time to dissect the defense. However, I give a slight edge to the four-time Superbowl champion Brady despite the absence of all-pro tight end Rob Gronkowski. Brady has been known to come up big in clutch situations, leading the league with an impressive 114.7 passer rating in the final 15 minutes. If  Brady gets the ball with any time left to close out the game, the Patriots will hoist their fifth Lombardi Trophy in the Tom Brady era.

Running Backs

Christian: Falcons: While LeGarrette Blount had an excellent season and can form a formidable pair with the finesse of Dion Lewis, it is a combo that is nowhere near as dynamic as the Devonta Freeman-Tevin Coleman combination that the Falcons possess. While Blount is not a great one cut back and simply uses his strength to truck through the trenches, Freeman has the strength and running ability to both cut and push forward. On top of that, Coleman has been gelling with Matt Ryan all season, while Lewis lost much of his season to injury. While the Patriots have a solid backfield, the Falcons have one of the top duos in the NFL.

Earl: Falcons. The Falcons boast a deadly two-combo backfield with passing specialist Tevin Coleman and three-down running back Devonta Freeman. LeGarrette Blount churned out a league leading 18 touchdowns in the regular season, however the offense undeniably runs through Tom Brady’s aerial attack. Blount benefitted from a handful of goal line situations that bumped his touchdown total, while the Falcons sport a balanced two-pronged attack through the ground and air. The utilization of Tevin Coleman’s pass catching, open-field prowess will be vital to exploiting the Patriots’ linebackers. Edge goes to the Falcons for having one of the most dangerous backfields in the league.

Receivers

Christian: Falcons. As I mentioned in the quarterback comparison, the Tom Brady and Bill Belichick duo is arguably the best faction at making garbage into gold, and this year is no exception. Besides Julian Edelman, the Patriots are going to trot out some very inexperienced pass catchers, such as Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell. The contributions of Michael Floyd are still up for speculation, all coming together to form a questionable receiving core. The Falcons are led by the sure-handed Julio Jones, who led the league in receiving yards this season and has been dominant all year for Atlanta in moving the chains, placing fourth in both first down catches and first down catch percentage (minimum 40 receptions) with totals of 64 catches and a 77.1 first down percentage. Nothing on the Patriots can compare to that, and that’s just one receiver.

Earl: Falcons. The Patriots have a respectable receiving core that excels under the guidance of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Julian Edelman should find himself exploiting mismatches in coverage, however it will be difficult for Chris Hogan to explode again against the Falcons’ secondary. The Falcons also have the luxury of the best receiver in the league, the superhuman Julio Jones. His combination of size, speed and skill makes him practically matchup proof. Malcolm Butler tweeted in 2012 that he wanted to cover Jones, and now he gets his wish in the biggest game of the season. The Patriots cannot hope to shut down Jones simply by shadowing Butler on him, as Belichick is fully expected to provide extra support for Jones anywhere on the field. The mere explosiveness of Jones along with the emergence of Taylor Gabriel and Mohamed Sanu gives the Falcons a huge edge in this department.

Pats O Line vs Falcons Defense

Christian: Patriots. Vic Beasley has led a defensive rejuvenation for the Falcons, leading the league in sacks while giving Ryan the support he needed to push the team into this position. Brady’s O line has been strong behind the brilliant coaching of Offensive Line coach Dante Scarnecchia, but it hasn’t faced a front seven as purely athetic as the Falcons. Whether or not the Patriots receivers can take advantage of a depleted secondary without Desmond Trufant will be key in this matchup, but the Patriots O line has proven to be much improved for the unit that allowed Brady to be hit 23 times against the Broncos in last year’s AFC championship, enough so that it can hold off the Falcons.  

Earl: Falcons. The Falcons have a quietly impressive defense that focuses on getting pressure on the quarterback quick enough to alleviate stress in the secondary. With stud cornerback Desmond Trufant on injury reserve, they have to rely on Jalen Collins and Robert Alford to man the secondary. They found crown jewels in the 2015 draft, however, with linebacker Deion Jones and safety Keanu Neal. Sack-leader Vic Beasley with teammates Brooks Reed, Tyson Jackson and Jonathan Babineaux have to penetrate an underrated Patriots offensive line to disrupt Brady’s rhythm. The Falcons could look to exploit rookie guard Joe Thuney and right tackle Marcus Cannon to get pressure on Brady early. Slight edge goes to the Falcons for having more overall talent on defense to take advantage of the Patriots’ offensive line.

Falcons O Line vs Pats Defense

Christian: Falcons. It’s not just Matt Ryan’s backs and receivers that are strong, his O line has also blossomed into a solid and cohesive unit. Tackle Jake Matthews and guard Andy Levitre have really established themselves as a legitimate presence on the offensive front, and the acquisition of four-time Pro Bowl center Alex Mack pushed the line over the brink to make it a front strong enough to support the Falcons’ attack. The Patriots do not have an elite pass rush, but their smart players on which it is far more difficult for certain plays to work, such as a Tevin Coleman flat to go for huge games. However, the time that the O line gives Matt Ryan this season has made the offense all the more dynamic, and they should be able to adjust as the game progresses.

Earl: Falcons. The Falcons have arguably the second best offensive line in the NFL, behind the wall of Dallas. Top-down, the Falcons sport an imposing lineup with Jake Matthews, Andy Levitre, Alex Mack, Chris Chester and Ryan Schraeder. The Patriots do not don a commanding defensive line, however are blessed with talented linebackers in Dont’a Hightower and Rob Ninkovich. The Patriots have the edge in secondary play, as they hold two splendid cover corners in Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan with All-Pro safety Devin McCourty playing centerfield. If the Patriots do not get pressure on Matt Ryan early, Matty Ice could go off for another 30 points. Edge to the Falcons.

X-Factor

Christian: Coaching. While the Falcons have far more talent across the board, the Patriots have beaten better teams with an even worse supporting cast than this one, and it’s all on the masterful coaching of both Belichick and Brady. Their coordinators have also been exceptional, with guys like Matt Patricia who are integrated into the system and know it’s kinks and flaws inside and out. All Dan Quinn and his crew need to do to win is to keep up and not allow the Patriots scheming to force you into big mistakes. Whether or not Quinn and his team can do that in the biggest game of their professional lives against coaches who have made legacies out of outscheming opponents with superior talent will play a huge part in determining this game.

Earl: Martellus Bennett. With Rob Gronkowski injured for the season, Martellus Bennett has to pick up the load in key third down and end zone situations. Martellus has developed remarkable rapport with Brady and should be a focal point of the offense as they look to exploit the Falcons’ abysmal coverage linebackers. Look for Brady to target Bennett early and often to open up the rest of the offense. He will be key to the Patriots as they prepare for what looks to be a shoot-out.

Score Predictions

Christian: 28-24 Patriots. While the Falcons are more dynamic athletically, the poise and composure that comes with tasting both victory and defeat in the Super Bowl is invaluable. In a game of this magnitude, every mental error is magnified, and the Patriots are notorious for taking advantage of said mistakes in any game. While the Falcon offense is truly explosive, I think that these tiny mistakes will be enough for the Patriots to sneak by for Brady’s fifth ring.

Earl: 31-28 Patriots. I gave the edge to the Falcons for all but one category, so what’s the meaning behind this prediction? Well that lies in the only category that the Patriots have the advantage, and that’s the quarterback position. Quarterback is the most important position in the NFL and arguably in all of sports and the Patriots have the best quarterback in the league. Tom Brady has proven to uplift the play of his team, has a commanding presence of the offense in all situations and is a proven-clutch performer. While I thoroughly expect this match-up to be a shoot-out between two talented offenses, I believe it will come down to one or two mental errors. The Falcons continue their offensive scoring pace, however give the ball to Tom Brady with just under a minute left to go. Brady leads the Patriots downfield to set up Gostkowski for the game winner, and the Patriots hoist their fifth Lombardi Trophy in the Tom Brady and Bill Belichick era.

 

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