Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Super Bowl LI Preview

AFC Champions

New England Patriots


NFC Champions

Atlanta Falcons

Okay, so having been a bit preoccupied by the storm of news coming from the White House under the new Trump administration, just like most of the rest of us, I realized in the past couple of days that I had neglected doing my traditional Super Bowl preview. Usually, that preview comes within a day or two of the AFC and NFC Championship games, but this year, obviously, this blog with my prediction is coming quite a bit later than usual.

That said, let's get to it.

First of all, I think that these two teams make a compelling match together. It is not likely to be an absolute blowout by one or the other, like we saw when the Seahawks completely dismantled the Broncos. In some Super Bowls, you have a clear-cut favorite. Remember Super Bowls like that, particularly in the 1980's and 1990's? You kind of just knew the Bears wre going to decimate the Patriots, or the Giants were going to whip the Broncos, or that the 49ers were going to dismantle the Broncos a few years later, or that Washington and Dallas were both going to handle Buffalo, or that the 49ers were going to take the Chargers apart. 

Now, that era produced probably better, more complete championship teams than we tend to have today, as teams tend to be more lopsidedly good on one side of the ball or the other. Remember last year's Super Bowl? Carolina was very explosive on offense, while Denver was very physical and tough on defense. Or the year before, when this same New England team came in with that incredible offense, and the Seahawks had the best defense.

Well, this year, the differences are not so glaring. The Falcons come in with an unbelievable offense, although the Patriots are also known mostly for their offense as well. However, you have to be careful, because New England's defense was one of the toughest this year as well. They allowed fewer overall points in the regular season (250) than anyone else in the league! But their offense scored the third most amount of points in the league, behind Atlanta, who led the league, and the New Orleans Saints.

Now, how about that Falcons offense? Just how good were they?

Well, here are some amazing stats that illustrate just how good they were. Overall, they scored 540 points during the regular season, averaging 33.7 points per game! That is the tied for the seventh most in NFL history. They scored 71 more points than the next closest team (again, New Orleans), and scored 176 points more than the league average! In the two playoff games, they have averaged 40 points, having beaten Seattle, 36-17, and then Green Bay, 44-21. 

Matt Ryan was the leader of that offense, of course. And he had himself an MVP caliber performance this season, throwing for 4,944 yards and 38 touchdowns, with only 7 interceptions. All of that was good enough for an overall quarterback rating of 117.1. Most people consider him the frontrunner to win the NFL MVP award this year. Andrew Hirsh helped to put this in perspective in an article at the end of the regular season (see link below):

It made Ryan one of three NFL players (along with Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers) to throw for 3,500-plus yards and 10 or fewer INTs in a season....Ryan was incredibly efficient: His 9.26 yards per attempt is the highest in NFL history for a 16-game season and any season with 350-plus attempts. 

Now, that's pretty incredible stuff!

The Falcons, however, will be facing one of the toughest defenses in the league, and you can bet that Bill Belichick, who has long been considered a defensive genius dating back to his time with the New York Giants of the 1980's and early 1990's (under the tutelage of Bill Parcells) will try some different things to slow them down. The Patriots were particularly effective against the run, and if they manage to contain Atlanta's rushing game, that might make their passing game more predictable and easier to defend, as well. 

As for the Patriots offense, we all know Tom Brady, who will be making his record 7th appearance starting in a Super Bowl. He now stands alone as the player who has been to the most Super Bowls, passing nosetackle Mike Lodish, who went to six Super Bowls in the 1990's (four straight with the Bills, then two with the Broncos, where he earned championship rings). Brady also now has considerable more Super Bowl appearances than any other quarterback in Super Bowl history and, if he wins, he will break a tie with Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana to stand alone as the most successful championship quarterback in NFL history.

Obviously, there is a lot at stake!

New England's offense is obviously very good as well. Again, New England's offense scored more than all but two teams in the league, and they showed how good they can be in the postseason, beating Houston 34-16 and outscoring Pittsburgh, 36-17. They might not have put up the record kind of numbers that Atlanta did, but what they lack in numbers, they make up for in efficiency and experience.

It might be tempting to say that Atlanta's defense will be overmatched again the Pat's offense. Still, Atlanta's defense played extremely well in the playoffs themselves. They clearly grounded Seattle, and really overwhelmed Aaron Rodgers and the usually explosive Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game. 

That is what makes this particular Super Bowl so compelling. Both teams look like they are peaking at exactly the right time. That might sound obvious when a team qualifies for the Super Bowl, but this is actually not always the case. I remember the Buffalo Bills dominating the AFC throughout the 1991 season, but Denver's defense slowed them down a lot in the AFC title game, which the Bills escaped with a win, 10-7. But they clearly did not play as well as they were capable of, and did not recover on time to even be competitive against Washington in the Super Bowl. In 2001, the Rams were "The Greatest Show on Turf" and were everyone's favorites to win the Super Bowl again. But they struggled to beat the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game, and wound up losing in a shocking upset to New England in the Super Bowl. The Patriots in 2007 looked like the best team of all time, but they were clearly slowing down by the time the playoffs rolled around, beating Jacksonville and then merely outlasting San Diego. Once they played the Giants in the Super Bowl, they appeared ripe for an upset. More recently, the Broncos had a record shattering offense in 2013, becoming the first team to score over 600 points in one season. But in the playoffs, they only scored 24 against San Diego and 26 against New England, which were relatively pedestrian numbers for such an incredible team. Once they went up against the toughest defense in the league in Seattle for the Super Bowl, they simply had no answers. The Seahawks suffered similarly the next season, as they struggled to eke out a win against Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game. They infamously lost the Super Bowl against New England a couple of weeks later, although that was in large part due to the 2nd and 1 interception that iced it for the Pats. 

The good news is that neither of these teams is entering this game with that kind of a slowdown. That means that they are both playing at their peak level, which makes it difficult to tell who is going to win this game. There are no obvious, glaring mismatches. Frankly, it would not be surprising to see either team get hot enough at key points to win this game.

My guess is that it will be somewhat similar to the last Super Bowl that the Patriots were in. Not that either the Pats or the Falcons are on the level defensively as that Seattle's "Legion of Boom" defense was, but I am thinking that it will be the kind of game with several momentum swings, just like that Super Bowl had. Also like that game, it will probably wind up being close, coming down to the final minutes of the fourth quarter. And also like that game, I would not be surprised if a crucial mistake winds up making the difference, one way or the other. 

In the end, I have to make my pick. This Super Bowl is a tough one to pick, though, because both of these teams are very, very good, and coming in with a ton of momentum. Whoever maintains their composure and avoids mistakes best will likely come out on top, and with that in mind, it is difficult to go against the New England Patriots. They have been to the Super Bowl before, and they have tons of experience. True, the Pats are without their star tight end Rob Gronkowski, but they still have Brady, they have Julian Edelman, and they know what to do in these types of situations. Also, they are wearing their white jerseys, and much like the NFC enjoying that massive winning streak back in the 1980's and 1990's, right now the teams wearing white are enjoying a particularly great streak. Historically, teams wearing their white jersey hold a decisive edge, but this advantage has gotten ridiculous recently, as they have now won 11 of the last 12 Super Bowls. If you are into superstitions, that has to mean something.

And so, while it is difficult to go against either of these teams at the moment, I am having an especially difficult time seeing the Patriots screwing this up and losing this game. It took miracle plays for the Giants and the Seahawks to put themselves in position to win the last three Super Bowls that New England was involved with, and the Pats still managed to win one of those games. They are tough, they have a decisive advantage in terms of experience, and I predict that they will use that to achieve a historical Super Bowl win this coming Sunday!

Super Bowl LI Prediction: New England Patriots Win


1 comment: