Friday, February 3, 2017

Patriots Super Bowl Preview

So it's finally here, Super Bowl LI, the game to end all games... until next year. Your Patriots take on the Atlanta Falcons in what promises to be a high-scoring affair.

Usually in this space you'd see an analysis of the last game the two teams played, with the most important question being if enough had changed to change the outcome. However, the Pats and Falcons last met on the field in September of 2013 -- 28 months ago. And that game will have little bearing on this one; most of the starters are gone on both teams, and the Falcons have an entirely new coaching staff.

So here is a breakdown of what to expect when each team has the ball, key players in each phase of the game, some additional factors, and a completely useless prediction.

When the Patriots have the ball

The Patriots offense can do whatever it wants. Atlanta ranked 11th in yards allowed per pass, 22nd in defensive passer rating, 25th in yards allowed per rush, and were a surprising 27th in points allowed. It doesn't look like they'll be stopping the Patriots third-ranked scoring offense very often.

More interesting is how the Patriots will likely attack on offense. Some expect a heavy dose of heavy formations, with extra offensive linemen and tight ends and running back LeGarrette Blount. Others predict a balance of run-pass, with James White and Dion Lewis running from the spread formation while Julian Edelman and Martellus Bennett work the short passing zones.

Atlanta's speed in the secondary makes long passes dangerous, unless they can draw up the safeties in run support. So expect Patriots to play it safe in the first quarter to avoid an early turnover. They will switch between the two ball-control strategies until they see what Falcons head coach Dan Quinn does on defense.

Once they see how Atlanta plays it, the Pats will go to whatever gives them the best match-ups against that defense. That is when the game really begins.

Key Patriots Player: running back Dion Lewis or running back LeGarrette Blount
Key Falcons Player: linebacker Vic Beasley

When the Falcons have the ball

Atlanta's offense is exactly the kind has historically given Patriots fits: a balanced attack with multiple weapons. The Falcons run the ball effectively, quarterback Matt Ryan can use short or long passes to three or four talented receivers who can turn a short pass into a long touchdown in the blink of an eye.

Atlanta led the league in points per game, average yards per pass, QB rating, and passes of 40+ yards. They have three gifted receivers who are hard to cover, Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, and Taylor Gabriel. Their two-back-attack keeps their running backs fresh, and Ryan is the presumptive 2016 MVP.

Despite the two-man running attack, Atlanta won't likely run much on the Patriots. New England ranked eighth in yards allowed per rush, and their disciplined defense will force the cutback runners to hesitate so the rest of the defense can rally to the ball.

Atlanta will make hay with throws over the middle to their second- and third-best receivers. The Patriots usually neutralize the other team's best weapon (in this case, Jones), so Sanu and Gabriel will have to beat man-coverage or find holes in the zone quickly.

The Patriots will likely play safety Patrick Chung close to the line to help with the run and cover the tight end and/or running backs. His ability to diagnose run/pass quickly will be put to the test, as the defense could be undermanned against either tactic if he is out of position.

Key Falcons Player: receiver Mohamed Sanu
Key Patriots Player: safety Patrick Chung

Quick Hits

A) The Patriots own a marked advantage kick coverage. The Falcons allowed almost twice as many yards per punt return (9.6 to 5.0) on the season. And they gave up over three yards of field position to the Pats on kickoffs (average opponent starting yard-line: 22.6 vs.19.3).

B) Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski did have an off year, so Atlanta's Matt Bryant outperformed him in field goals and extra points.

C) In the NFC Championship Game, the Falcons had two false start penalties, a defensive offsides, and a botched snap. Those are all signs the moment was a bit to big for them; and the spotlight will be even brighter this Sunday.

D) In 2016, the Patriots gave up the fewest first-quarter points in the NFL (1.9 average), whereas the Falcons scored the second-most first-quarter points (8.6). It'll be strength vs. strength for the first 15 minutes.

E) A close game late favors the Patriots: they gave up an average of 5.1 points per fourth quarter (5th) and Atlanta gave up an average of 9.4 points per fourth quarter (31st).


Neither team will stop the other cold, but the Patriots defense is better-suited to stop Atlanta at least some of the time. And if the Pats score on 75% of their possessions and the Falcons score on only 60%, that's a win for the Patriots.

Additionally, turnovers are key in the postseason, and Atlanta's younger, less experienced players are more likely to give the ball away.

Patriots win: 34-23.

Enjoy the game!

- Scott

PS. 16-2 & 2-0!

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