Super Bowl Preview: Young Atlanta Falcons team battles an experienced squad from New England

The Patriots and Falcons square off in Houston on Sunday with the Lombardi Trophy on the line.
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Over the past decade and a half, the New England Patriots have been the most dominant team in football. This year has proven to be no exception. Even with future Hall of Famer Tom Brady missing the first four games of the season, the Patriots finished 14-2, storming through the AFC and earning a first-round bye.

On the other hand, the Atlanta Falcons have risen to the top with a balanced and potent offensive attack that features MVP front runner Matt Ryan and explosive offensive weapons Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman and Julio Jones. This is only the second Super Bowl appearance for Atlanta, the other being in 1998. The Falcons won 11 games this season, good enough for the No. 2 seed in the NFC.

New England Patriots

Brady and head coach Bill Belichick are playing in their seventh Super Bowl together, an NFL record. In Houston, Brady, Belichick and the rest of the team will be looking to bring home a fifth Lombardi Trophy, the second in three years.

Though the Patriots’ season did not begin the way they intended, they still proved successful. The season began without star quarterback Brady, who was serving his four-game “Deflategate” suspension. Those four games had no impact on Brady’s performance; this was one of his best seasons in his 17-year career. In an abbreviated season, Brady threw for 28 touchdowns with just two interceptions. Since the 39-year-old quarterback’s return, the team has lost just one game.

Another key player, tight end Rob Gronkowski, went down in late November with a season-ending back injury in a win over the New York Jets. Despite losing their most dangerous target, the Patriots did not skip a beat without Gronk. They have yet to lose a game without him.

The Patriots have also been able to lean on their defense. After a shaky start and several personnel changes, the defense became a suffocating force week in and week out. The defense finished the season No. 1 in the NFL in fewest points allowed, giving up just 250 points during the season. They also finished in the top 10 in yards per game allowed.

Atlanta Falcons

Unlike New England, the Falcons do not have a lot of Super Bowl experience. Brady has played in more Super Bowls than the entire Atlanta roster combined. The Falcons fly into Houston on the back of an MVP-caliber season from Ryan and one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL.

The Falcons played well during the regular season, earning an 11-5 record and winning the AFC South. The team had a rough start with a loss to begin the season, but with each passing week, the team gained more momentum with Ryan controlling the offense. The Falcons enter the Super Bowl on a six-game winning streak and have scored an average of 26.8 points per game over that span.

During the postseason, the Falcons exploded. Atlanta took down the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round, winning 36-20. They then proceeded to dismantle Aaron Rodgers and the Packers 44-21 in the NFC Championship to clinch a spot in the Super Bowl. The team is currently ranked third in passing yards with 295.3, fifth in rushing yards with 120.5, and third in points with 33.8 per game.

Last time they met

In their last meeting on Sept. 29, 2013, Brady was able to fend off a Falcons comeback in Atlanta to win the game 30-23. The teams have played each other a total of four times since 2001, and the Patriots have won every game.

What they need to do to win

The Pats have been viewed as one of the toughest teams to beat because of their composure in all aspects of the game.

Brady runs a stellar offense that knows how to take care of the ball. Key offensive players for the patriots include LeGarrette Blount, who leads the team with 1161 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns, and Julian Edelman, who has 1106 receiving yards and three touchdowns. The defense has proven to be difficult to score against and is led by Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler. Ryan has helped the Patriots with his 74 solo tackles, and Butler has led the team in interceptions with four. However, the experience of both Brady and Belichick is dangerous.

Putting pressure on Brady will be an important factor for the Falcons in order to prevent the Patriots from scoring. Brady has been pressured 21 percent of the time on his dropbacks, which ranks second to last in the NFL.

The Falcons’ defense is ranked 27th for creating pressure on the opposing quarterback during the regular season at 25 percent. But in the postseason, the pressure has gone up to 45 percent. Brooks Reed and Vic Beasley Jr. have led the team in putting pressure on quarterbacks, yet an impressive 12 different Falcons defenders have contributed a significant amount as well. Brady is not an easy player to pressure, so the Falcons may have to get to the interior to take him down.

On the line

Other than the obvious goal of winning a championship, bringing home a Lombardi Trophy and having bragging rights for a year, there is a lot at stake for both teams.

For a team that has rarely made a Super Bowl appearance, the Falcons can make a statement by winning this game. Not only can quarterback Ryan make a big statement for himself after becoming a leader of the team, but the team can be recognized as one of the league’s elite with a win in Houston.

On the opposite end, the Patriots know all too well what it is like to hold the Lombardi Trophy with pride. For Brady, it is a matter of having NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell hand it to him. Since the controversial “Deflategate” investigation was reopened and Brady was suspended by Goodell, the Patriots have wanted nothing more than to prove the league wrong. Brady is also playing for the opportunity to be the winningest quarterback in Super Bowl history, as no other quarterback has won five.

The game kicks off at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday at NRG Stadium in Houston and will be broadcast on Fox.

Edited by Eli Lederman | elederman@themaneater.com

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