Submitted by Jim Feist on Tuesday, January 31, 2017 at 12:00 AM
by Jim Feist
What a difference a year makes! Last year the Super Bowl pitted two talented defenses, with the Denver Broncos triumphing under a barrage of sacks on MVP Cam Newton. This year it's a pair of ace quarterbacks in Matt Ryan and Tom Brady leading high octane passing attacks.
It's a change of pace as defense certainly has led the way of late. Denver last year, the Patriots two years ago coming up with a goal-line stand with Malcolm Butler's interception and Seattle's crushing defense taking apart Peyton Manning's record setting offense three years ago.
This is the fourth straight season that the 1-or-2 seeds in each conference have met in the big game, which is remarkable as that hasn’t been the norm. We had been in a golden age for the AFC for a while, almost as if the pendulum had swung. During the 1980s and much of the 90s, the NFC dominated, winning 15 of 16 Super Bowls, including 13 in a row. That changed in 1998 when Denver upset Green Bay, 31-24. Since then, the AFC has won 12 of the last 19, including four years ago with the Ravens as a dog, the Patriots two years ago and the Broncos last season.
What we have in 2017 is one strong defense (Pats) and two talented, versatile offenses. Atlanta added WR Mohamed Sanu to give some help to star Julio Jones and the combo has been deadly, giving Ryan (38 TDs, 7 INTs) more weapons to spread the field and attack defenses with.
But Atlanta's defense didn't exactly dazzle, ranked #25 in yards allowed, #28 against the pass and #27 in points surrendered. They allowed 31 to Tampa, 29 to the Chiefs and 33 to San Diego (all home losses), plus 32 twice to New Orleans and 32 to Green Bay in the regular season.
The Patriots did a marvelous job upgrading their major weak spot from last season, the offensive line, and have had balance on offense most of the year. Brady (28 TDs, 2 picks), like all quarterbacks, is most effective when the offense has balance. And the young defense excelled, finishing tops in points allowed, then allowed 17 and 16 points in two playoff victories.
Atlanta hopes to continue a trend: The underdog is 11-4 ATS the last 15 Super Bowls, winning eight times. Here's a look at what to expect this weekend as America's unofficial national holiday, the Super Bowl, kicks off.
What the Falcons want to do: Get out in front early! One plus they have on defense is speed, especially with Vic Beasley (15.5 sacks). Atlanta likes forcing opponents to play from behind, anticipating a lot of passes which allows its defense to bring pressure on the QB.
Of course, if they fall behind that's less of a concern than most teams, with the NFL's top-ranked offense in points (33.8), second in yards, third in passing yards. And don't ignore the ground attack, which finished fifth in rushing. The Falcons are on a 15-5-1 run over the total. With this game indoors in Houston, the Falcons may feel at home, too.
What the Patriots want to do: Bill Belichick has a history of trying to take one weapon away from the opponent's offense and worry about the other ten guys. In this case, it's probably Juilo Jones, which may mean single coverage for Sanu -- for those who like to play prop bets. New England may play plenty of nickel defense, daring the Falcons to run the football more.
On offense, the Patriots faced several teams like Atlanta ranked in the bottom 13 in yards allowed, Miami, Buffalo, Cleveland and scored 31, 35, 33, 41. They played the Bills twice and got shut out in the other meeting, sans Brady, however, in Week 4.
Brady is 39 years old and the last quarterback that age to start a Super Bowl was...Peyton Manning one year ago. That Manning had a poor season (9 TDs, 17 INTs), looking ready to retire, which he did. But New England's 39-year old QB is playing at a high level and looks nowhere near retirement. The Pats are on a 33-16-2 spread run, though 1-4 ATS in Super Bowls. They're also 45-22 over the total against winning teams. The last 40 years the "over" has gone 24-17 in Super Bowl play. Enjoy the big game!