On Monday, I left you a Walking Dead-esque cliffhanger in my trends to know ahead of SB LI, but I’ve returned to scratch your metaphorical itch.
The New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons will square off in the 51st Super Bowl on Sunday, February 5 (6:30 PM ET) at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. Tom Brady and company have opened as three-point favorites over Matty-Ice and his high-flying Falcons. Unsure of where your money should go? Not to fear, I’ve got you.
And now, the moment you have all been waiting for (since earlier this week), and could probably continue waiting for, my Super Bowl LI pick against the spread.
New England Patriots vs. Atlanta Falcons (+3, 59 o/u)
If all you want is my pick against the spread, just scroll to the bottom. If you want an appetizer – a little antipasto to the heaping plate of meatballs I’m about to bring – then take it slow and learn how each team got here and why each can win this game.
The Road Traveled
New England Patriots
DeflateGate finally reached it’s unsatisfactory conclusion in the fall, and the result was Tom Brady being forced to sit-out the first four games of the 2016 season. Backup Jimmy Garoppolo performed admirably in his place, but fell victim to a shoulder injury in the Patriots’ second game against Miami. Third-string quarterback Jacoby Brissett was forced into action and started the final two games of Brady’s suspension. Against all (make that some) odds, New England was 3-1 when Tom Terrific returned to the field.
Outside of one loss to the Seahawks, Brady and the Pats breezed through the remaining 12 games, partly due to a light schedule, and finished with an NFL-best 14-2 record. LeGarrette Blount led the way in the backfield, especially in Brady’s absence, and finished with a league-high 18 rushing touchdowns. What was most surprising about Bill Belichick’s squad this year was the performance of the defense, even after trading Pro Bowl linebacker Jamie Collins. New England allowed the fewest points in the league and showed no glaring holes on the defensive side. Malcolm Butler is proving to be more than a one-play wonder and someone new seems to step-up every week.
In spite of not playing their best football in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, the Patriots still came away with an 18-point victory over the Texans. They followed that with a much better outing against the Steelers in the AFC Championship and had their Super Bowl berth wrapped-up early in the fourth quarter.
This is New England’s second Super Bowl appearance in the last three years, and third in the last six. Brady and Belichick are playing in their seventh Super Bowl together, and looking to hoist their fifth Lombardi Trophy.
After being booed off the field at halftime of their season-opener against the Bucs, the 2016 Falcons are making the franchise’s second Super Bowl appearance. Atlanta followed its season-opening loss to Tampa Bay with four-straight wins and sat atop the NFC South. When everyone forecasted a drop-off by pointing to last year’s mid-season collapse, Matt Ryan and company silenced doubters by winning five of their last six and earning the second seed in the NFC.
Matt Ryan posted an NFL-high 117.1 passer rating and will likely be named the league MVP. Thanks to Ryan’s phenomenal play, an uber-talented group of skill players, and an under-the-radar offensive line, the Falcons ran up the scoreboard every week, notching at least 30 points in 11 games, and hitting 40 in five. Atlanta scored 71 more points than the next best offense and has drawn comparisons to “The Greatest Show on Turf.” Julio Jones’ dominance out wide, Taylor Gabriel’s ability to stretch the field, and the dangerous duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman in the backfield proved to be too much for opposing defenses week-in and week-out.
The Falcons’ defense took its time coming together, but Dan Quinn seems to have found the solution. Following Atlanta’s bye week, the defense finished the season by holding four of its final six opponents under 20 points. Rookie linebackers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell no longer resemble first-year players, while Robert Alford, Jalen Collins, and Brian Poole have helped mask the loss of shutdown corner Desmond Trufant. And we can’t forget about the sack-king Vic Beasley. The biggest testament to this defense is the fact that they were able to not just cool-down a red-hot Aaron Rodgers, but hold the Packers scoreless in the first half of the NFC Championship.
Why the Falcons can win
1. Their offense appears unstoppable
This is an offense that went into Denver and threw for 250 net yards against a historically good Bronco pass defense which limited opponents to under 186 per game. The Falcons followed that performance by walking into Seattle the next week and compiling 333 total yards. This electric attack has scored 80 points in two playoff games, and made a 99-yard touchdown drive against the Seattle defense look way too easy.
Kyle Shanahan has Matt Ryan and the entire offense playing at an extremely high-level, a level that Bill Belichick may not even be able to mess with.
2. Defensive speed
Aforementioned linebackers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell have the speed to follow Dion Lewis around the field, but also the tenacity to bang with LeGarrette Blount at the line of scrimmage. Vic Beasley’s speed off the edge will give the Patriot offensive line issues in pass protection, and the entire secondary has the quickness to make-up for any missteps. This defense can fly!
3. Inherited boost of confidence from NFC Championship
Aaron Rodgers was playing quarterback at a level we had never witnessed before. This wasn’t just a two-game stretch, either. Rodgers’ magic dated back more than two months. The idea of slowing this man was absurd. Yet, the Falcons made him look mortal last week. If they can do that to Rodgers, why not Brady, too? Quinn’s defense is in the process of realizing its potential. After what I saw against Green Bay, I’m not even sure where that potential stops.
Why the Patriots can win
1. Tom Brady is the greatest of all-time
Is the argument over yet? Brady prepares to suit-up for his seventh Super Bowl, when no other quarterback has played in more than five. His four wins in the big-game tie him with greats Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana for most all-time.
Although the Pats don’t have Rob Gronkowski on the field, Brady and Josh McDaniels have made the most of what they do have. With all the experience you could want, it’s tough to bet against the 39-year-old.
2. Bill Belichick is a defensive mastermind
Only a few things are certain in this world: death, taxes, and Belichick removing your best player from the game. I don’t know how it’s possible, but the curmudgeonly coach will do what turf toe couldn’t and slow Julio Jones. And if anyone can find a way to get Matt Ryan out of his rhythm, it’s Belichick.
3. Team Defense
This defense isn’t held together by just one or two guys. Belichick has three corners he’s confident in, a four-man rotation at linebacker, and a bevy of linemen who all possess unique strengths. This is a unique and deep defense that can attack you in many different ways with many different players.
Who you should bet on
New England (-3)
If you read my trends from earlier this week, you’d know that, when the favorite wins the Super Bowl, it tends to cover as well. Only six times in the previous 50 Super Bowls has the favorite won and not covered. I’m sticking with that trend, not just because the Pats are wearing the white jerseys, either.
Belichick will find a way to slow Ryan and Jones and Tom Brady will quick-game the young Atlanta defense to death. Atlanta’s pass-rush has five sacks in the last two games, but it’s been able to feast on glaring holes and the Pats don’t have a major weakness up front. If there proves to be one, McDaniels and Belichick will find a way to patch it mid-game.
Photo Credit: Keith Allison (flickr) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/].