It’s finally that time of year, people! When the football world comes together for a single day to see who will be crowned as the best team in the league. When backyard barbecues and flag football games are the only important events on otherwise over-scheduled calendars. We’re talking, of course, about the Super Bowl. The greatest day of the year for football fans all over the world who barely survived the Pro Bowl and are ready for some real football before they have to start helping around the house on Sundays. No matter which team you’re a fan of it seems that everyone is hoping the game will be closely contested after a very mediocre playoff run in which almost every game was a blowout. However, everyone’s got to pick sides eventually when the Patriots are involved. Let’s go through the Official 4th and Gyas Totally Non-Biased Super Bowl Preview to find out who you should be rooting for when the Patriots and Falcons face off on Super Sunday!
Okay, let’s just start with the basics. If you’ve never watched a football game before you sit down for the Super Bowl, you’re probably going to pick a team based on which one you (and those around you) will have an easier time rooting for.
Falcons: With the unfortunate exception of Dwight Howard’s presence, Atlanta’s brand is at an all-time high. ATL-native Donald Glover (aka Childish Gambino) released one of the year’s most unique and enchanting albums while producing and starring in hit TV show “Atlanta” in the same stroke. Not to mention that also Atlanta-born rap group Migos have taken over the country’s music charts with their hit single Bad and Boujee, which the aforementioned Glover declared as “the best song…ever” while accepting an award at the Golden Globes. The city of Atlanta has also given us Outkast and Bojangle’s biscuits so they jump out to an early lead.
The team itself follows the same standard. When asked about the best quarterbacks in the game in a recent interview with Matt Hasselbeck, Falcons QB Matt Ryan didn’t even bother to mention himself, despite the fact that his team destroyed Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers on their way to being NFC Champions. Ryan is always complimentary of opponents, doesn’t speak out in the media much if at all, and retains an air of great humility. Running back Devonta Freeman is a lot of fun to watch and also looks a smaller version of Jordan Peele (of Key and Peele) with dreads so that’s great. Overall, Atlanta’s got a little bit of everything. There’s Keanu Neal, the rookie safety who leads his team in tackling and keeps his mouth shut, and veteran D-lineman Johnathan Babineaux who has been waiting 11 years to get this team to a Super Bowl. Plus, the Falcons shut up everyone who was hailing Aaron Rodgers as the greatest quarterback of all time because of a few Hail Mary throws and some good games down the stretch, so their points go waaay up for doing us all that favor.
Patriots: In a recent poll done by ESPN, the Patriots were voted as the NFL’s most disliked team. Great place to start. New England’s head man in charge, Bill Belicheck, is cold and standoff-ish, only occasionally playing nice with the media if they ask him about an especially good punter or Ed Reed. Most of the players follow the same formula, giving broad and robotic answers to any and all questions, unwilling to betray the “Patriot Way”. The Patriots also have a habit of trading for or signing players who have worn out their welcome elsewhere and turning them into stars like receiver Michael Floyd who only a few weeks ago was cut by the Arizona Cardinals for being charged with a DUI. Feeling the love yet? Trust me, it gets better.
Outside of their many, many legendary players in the five major sports, New England’s favorite sons are Mark Wahlberg, Ben Affleck, and Matt Damon. Affleck recently starred in the dumpster fire of a film that was Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Damon is set to release a movie about…fighting dragons at the Great Wall of China? But come on guys, remember Good Will Hunting? And you can’t trust anyone who has a bad word to speak against Four Brothers. Outside of their film careers, the three men are all openly and loudly fans of the Patriots. Just like any other Patriots fans, they swear by the genius of Belicheck and the greatness of Tom Brady, Roger Goodell and his idiotic smear campaigns be damned.
Now of course, there’s plenty to like about Boston, the Patriots, and New England’s contribution to the world of culture and media, but that’s the thing about Patriots fans – we don’t care. We love playing the villain. It is our absolute joy to be booed and hissed at by opposing fans because it only reminds us how much better our team is than everyone else’s. I love it when a Bills fan lays into me about how much they hate my team – they’ve only managed to beat the Patriots once or twice in the past 10 years. Oh, and the whole “Patriots are cheaters” thing? We don’t care about that either. We’re convinced that Spygate was a load of crap and Deflategate was just an asinine attempt to defame the greatest quarterback ever, Thomas Edward Brady. In fact, most of us just find it hilarious that Goodell went out if his way to piss Brady off only to watch him be the most successful quarterback ever at his age. Nice going, Commish.
You can’t turn on ESPN during the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl without hearing about “the role experience will play”. Basically, the idea is that a team has a better chance of winning when it features players who have experience with the large crowd, increased media attention, longer halftime, etc of the Super Bowl. The old adage doesn’t always prove to be necessarily true or important, but it never hurts to have a little bit of prior exposure to the spectacle of the Super Bowl.
Falcons: The last time Atlanta went to the Super Bowl I was only four years old and their biggest star to date was a man by the name of Deion Sanders. The Dirty Birds had the Dirty South all abuzz when they beat out Minnesota to reach their first ever Super Bowl following the 98’ season. However, they lost Super Bowl XXXIII (33) to the Broncos, Deion Sanders added to his collection of rings elsewhere, and I went on to make the honor roll every year of elementary school. As the Falcons finally have another chance to sit atop the NFL throne, they feature only four players with prior Super Bowl experience. The four are a combined 2-3 in those Super Bowls, with veterans Dwight Freeney and Courtney Upshaw winning as Colts and Ravens, respectively. The two men that the Falcons, and the entire state of Georgia, will be looking to for leadership on Sunday, Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, will be playing in their first Super Bowl. Atlanta will have to hope that the huge moment isn’t too much for their leading men to handle.
The most notable Super Bowl experience on the team is that of head coach Dan Quinn, who reached the Super Bowl twice as defensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks before he was plucked away by Atlanta’s front office. Quinn’s first Super Bowl was a shining moment for him and his “Legion of Boom” defense, an absolute drubbing of Peyton Manning, Peyton Manning’s forehead, and the prolific offense of the Denver Broncos. The next season, Quinn lost to none other than these New England Patriots as Tom Brady beat his defense for four touchdowns on the way to yet another Super Bowl MVP trophy.
Patriots: The Patriots haven’t been to the Super Bowl since way back after the 2014 season. Before that, they were playing in February after the 2011 season following a drought of a whole four years. The point is, nobody has gone to the Super Bowl more than New England since their initial championship victory over the Rams in 2001. This will be quarterback Tom Brady’s record SEVENTH Super Bowl appearance and an NFL-record ninth trip for the franchise. There are currently 22 players on New England’s active roster who have been to at least one Super Bowl, the equivalent of a full offensive and defensive unit. Patriots head coach Bill Belicheck coached (and won) two Super Bowls as defensive coordinator of the New *Jersey Giants in addition to his six appearances and four wins with New England. At this point, you could say the Super Bowl is just another part of Belicheck’s game plan.
In the NFL where anything can happen and any great team can be brought down at a moment’s notice, matchups are everything. Matchups are the reason a blitz-happy Steelers defense never had a chance against Tom Brady and the Packer’s defense, which is at its worst when covering deep down the field, could have stayed home for the NFC Championship and gotten a much similar result. It will be matchups that ultimately decide this Super Bowl between the NFL’s highest scoring offense and least scored-on defense.
Falcons: The easy answer here is Julio Jones vs Malcolm Butler, but Atlanta’s most important matchup of the day actually starts in the backfield. If Kyle Shanahan wants to score touchdowns against this New England defense he’s going to need running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman to have their best game of the season. If Shanahan is smart, which the sheer amount of points Atlanta has scored this year indicate that he is, he will know that he can’t outsmart Matt Patricia by just attacking the secondary on first, second, and third down. Freeman and Coleman will need to succeed in their matchups against New England’s linebackers in order for the Falcons to keep drives alive and put the ball in the endzone.
In Super Bowl XLIX the Patriots’ defense was steamrolled by Seattle back Marshawn Lynch for 102 yards and 1 touchdown on the ground in addition to a 31 yard catch on a wheel route that exposed linebacker Jamie Collins’ struggles in coverage and most likely began the process of Collins being traded to Cleveland earlier this season. While making several trades and mid-season signings in order to shape his defense this season, Bill Belicheck made his intentions for the linebacker corps clear: must be able to cover to the sideline. Besides defensive centerpiece Dont’a Hightower, the New England defense features a rotating linebacker trio of Kyle Van Noy, Shea McClellin, and Elandon Roberts. Fun fact: Van Noy was acquired mid-season in a trade with the Lions, McClellin was signed in the offseason from Chicago, and Roberts was a sixth round pick by the Patriots in the last draft.
Hightower owns the responsibility of shutting down run plays that come through the middle of the defense, tasked with identifying which gap a back is trying to expose and meeting him there to stop the run before it ever starts. On the occasion that a back is able to reach the edge and get outside of New England’s defensive line it becomes the job of our aforementioned secondary backers to stop a 5-yard gain from turning into 15 or more. Of course, it would be far too easy if Atlanta’s duo only specialized in getting up the sideline in a hurry – they’re also two of the NFL’s best when it comes to catching passes out of the backfield. This is where Shea McClellin specifically comes into play. McClellin, whose athleticism was on display when he jumped over the center and blocked a field goal earlier this season, uses his speed to limit passes within 5-10 yards of the line of scrimmage and stick close to streaking backs should he find himself covering the dreaded wheel route. If Kyle Shanahan wants Matt Ryan to have short passing options when nobody is open downfield he will have to find a way to pull McClellin, Van Noy, and Roberts out of their comfort zones and make New England prove that limiting opposing backs to less than 90 yards all season was more than luck.
Patriots: 3rd down. That’s right; New England’s biggest opponent to watch for isn’t a single player on Atlanta’s roster, but what happens in third down situations. Despite scoring the most points in the NFL this season, the Falcons rank just 11th in the league for third down conversion percentage. Conversely, the Patriots sit just outside the top 5 for defensive third down percentage, allowing first downs on only 36.9% of third down plays this season. If Matt Patricia wants to shut down this fast-paced offense come Sunday he will have to expose their very few weaknesses and struggles on third down are certainly one of them. The caveat here, of course, is that Atlanta’s offense doesn’t find itself in third down situations very often in the first place, but it will up to New England’s defense to make sure that they do in order to get Matt Ryan and Co. off of the field and put the ball back in Tom Brady’s hands.
The third down battle will most likely be decided by the most interesting matchup of the Super Bowl: Atlanta’s receivers versus New England’s defensive backs. I’ll try to keep this short, but I’m an issuing an impending tangent warning just in case because this subject gets me so damn hyped every time I think about it. Unless this year’s Super Bowl will be the first NFL game you ever watch, then you’ve heard of Julio Jones and Malcolm Butler. There has been a lot of media buzz surrounding a tweet by Malcolm Butler expressing a desire to cover Jones while Butler was still in college and watching Julio dominate some poor defensive back on a Sunday evening. That whole “Super Bowl Hero vs Record Breaking Receiver” clash will be exciting and all, but it’s actually the lesser known pieces in this puzzle that I had in mind.
When Julio Jones was forced to miss sit out due to injury several times this season, it seemed as though Atlanta produced some new receiver you’d never heard of to catch 10 passes for 100 yards and a touchdown on a weekly basis. This is a testament to the depth of this Falcons offense, but what gets me jacked faster than chugging a Monster drink is the fact that Atlanta ran into the one defense with the depth in the secondary to match. Does the name Taylor Gabriel mean anything to you? How about Eric Rowe? Still nothing, huh? Well you’ll be pleased to know that what transpires between these two could decide who is hoisting the Lombardi Trophy on Sunday and who is slinking away through the confetti rain. Gabriel, ranking as anywhere from Matt Ryan’s third to fifth receiving option depending on the play, caught 35 passes for 579 yards and 6 touchdowns this season. Most defenses don’t have the depth to double or triple cover Julio Jones and still have a solid DB to spare for the fourth receiver. Fortunately for the Patriots most defenses aren’t built by Bill Belicheck. This is going to come as a total surprise, but Rowe is another player that New England traded for earlier this season, this time from Philadelphia. Rowe struggled early on to learn the playbook and find his place in the Patriots defense, but now he spends his days making sure that no opposing receiver is forgotten and given the space to burn New England on a crucial third down. The Patriots will be depending on yet another short-tenured veteran to come up big on Super Sunday.
Falcons: Keanu Neal. Remember that name. Neal was Atlanta’s first-round pick out of Florida (17 overall) in the 2016 draft and has come on strong in his rookie season. With 106 tackles and 5 forced fumbles Neal has been a centerpiece of a much improved Falcons defense that used to be known for giving up yards and touchdowns like it was Christmas Eve and they were hitting the home stretch of their delivery route. Neal, along with fellow rookie from UF Brian Poole, played a starring role in Atlanta’s surprising shutdown performances against the Seahawks and Packers on their way to the Super Bowl.
Neal with face his toughest test of the season when he meets Patriots receiver Chris Hogan. Hogan’s role as primary deep threat has only increased with the absence of tight end Rob Gronkowski and season-long defense-torching campaign was capped with a nine reception, 180 yards, 2 touchdowns demolition of Pittsburgh’s secondary in the AFC Championship. Neal, one of if not the fastest safety in the NFL, will be tasked with keeping tabs on Hogan in order to make Tom Brady hesitate before throwing the ball deep downfield. Whereas Dan Quinn’s Seattle defenses started at a great pass rush and then fielded a secondary good enough to capitalize on the mistakes of quarterbacks feeling the pressure, this Atlanta unit depends on defensive backs to stall a QB with solid coverage and give the pass rush time to develop.
Keanu Neal and his three rookie counterparts on Atlanta’s defense, linebackers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell, along with the aforementioned Poole have passed every test so far in their first NFL season. This Sunday will be their master’s thesis. New England’s ever-evolving and amorphous offense is the perfect labyrinth for these young warriors to get lost in. where the overall speed of this defense is usually an advantage, one misdirection pursued too heavily could easily turn into a 30+ yard touchdown like the flea flicker that found Chris Hogan in the end zone for a second time against the Steelers. Although these rookies have spent the last 18 weeks looking like anything but, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will use plenty of unorthodox formations and plays that might turn their inexperience into key mistakes.
Patriots: To pinpoint an x-factor for the Patriots is a task in itself. Almost every week a different player is liable to have a huge game – three touchdowns, a pair of turnovers, a pass rushing clinic. That’s also exactly what makes them so hard to beat on any given Sunday. It’s like being surrounded by hungry crocodiles. All of them could attack you, a couple of them could make a move, or all but one could saunter off and leave you for dead. Either way, you’re being eaten by a crocodile. That’s why New England’s x-factor for this game is versatility. The bruising running game of LeGarrette Blount, the open-field abilities of Dion Lewis and James White, the shiftiness of Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, the field-stretching speed of Chris Hogan and Michael Floyd, everything the Patriots do well will have to make an appearance in order for Tom Brady to be handed his fifth Lombardi Trophy.
The versatility will also need to be featured on defense in order for the Patriots to be victorious on Sunday. Luckily, Belicheck searches for this very characteristic when adding players to the roster. Strong safety Patrick Chung is a perfect example of an ideal Belicheckian defender. Chung regularly stonewalls rush attempts by playing close to the line of scrimmage and using his speed to get around offensive linemen, but he’s also asked to cover speedy receivers in the deep third of the field on a regular basis. Chung, New England’s likely answer for any involvement from Atlanta’s tight ends on Sunday, will play a large role in the success or failure of Belicheck and coordinator Matt Patricia’s defensive scheme. Chung’s veteran savvy should give him an advantage when facing this young Falcons receiving corps that has speed to burn.
What happens if they win?
There are repercussions that we as fans experience after every Super Bowl. Consequences that are tied to the storylines and scenarios that come to life during those glorious three hours after being built up for weeks prior. Last year we all had to pretend that Peyton Manning hadn’t stopped playing football in 2014 after the Broncos defense pulled Carolina apart piece by piece. The year before, Seattle became an eternal sports-joke when they threw the ball from the 1-yard line as opposed to handing it off to Marshawn Lynch. Almost as crazy as when the Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals. Anyway, let’s walk through what the world will look like when either of these teams claims victory in Houston.
Falcons: There he is, Matt Ryan, standing on the podium next to Falcons owner Arthur Blank and some idiot in a suit. Ryan holds up the Lombardi Trophy and the entire city of Atlanta explodes into joyous celebration. The next day, Migos drops a bonus track from their new album “Culture” simply titled “Champions” that immediately climbs to #1 on the country’s charts. It includes the lyric “I’m comin’ for the trophy/these n*ggas can’t stop me/b**ch call me Julio (JULIO!)”. Keanu Neal and Devonta Freeman make a guest appearance on FX’s Atlanta in its second season and Atlanta mascot Freddy the Falcon talks his way into a “Stranger Things” cameo. Every Bojangle’s in Atlanta gives away free biscuits on the Monday following the Super Bowl and a certain semi-semi-professional sportswriter takes a mysteriously convenient personal day from work.
Patriots: Every great sci-fi action movie has a scene where the villain gets his hands on some magical gem or relic that imbues him with great power and the sky suddenly becomes dark with swirling clouds and lightning. You know the one. Well, when the aforementioned idiot in a suit is forced to hand Tom Brady his fifth Lombardi trophy that’s exactly what’s going to happen. The sky will become dark and Patriots haters all over the country will cry out in anguish as they realize that they’ve been sitting around all season hoping for New England’s downfall only to be forced to return to their own sad realities where their favorite team missed the playoffs and the light bill is still due. Fox will be forced to cut their audio feed from the podium ceremony when Patriots fans inevitably start the “F*ck you Goodell!” chants while New England residents drink every ounce of Sam Adams beer in a 10-state radius. Tom Brady solidifies his place as the greatest quarterback of all time and Patriots fans stop arguing with other fans altogether, only holding up five fingers as they smugly ignore any loser that tries to badmouth their team. I still take that personal day, though.
ADVANTAGE: Falcons. We always need more Migos.
I would like to take this time to point out that at the beginning of the playoffs we here at 4th and Gyas predicted the Patriots and Falcons would be facing off in the Super Bowl. Just in case you forgot. If you’d like to read it again it’s right where you left it in the 4th and Gyas Playoff Preview. One more time I’m just pointing out that we were right and all of you who thought the Packers or the Steelers might actually have what it takes to knock off these two juggernauts. I mean, some you guys even thought the Cowboys would make it to the Super Bowl. So just take a moment and reflect on how much more I know about football than you. Let’s proceed.
There hasn’t been a low-scoring Super Bowl in five years and I don’t think the Patriots and Falcons are looking to return to that trend. These teams will come out firing and it may take their respective defenses a while to settle into the game plan. You should expect points early on in this game. The key for the Patriots will be their ability to create turnovers on defense. The turnover battle is always essential, but with an offense as potent as Atlanta’s it will be paramount for New England to take the ball away at least once before halftime. The Falcons and their improved offensive line will need to keep the Patriots pass rush at bay and allow Matt Ryan time to exploit his second and third options should Julio Jones be unavailable. Ultimately I think the Atlanta defense will be at a disadvantage – their speed-filled zone heavy defense is very similar to Pittsburgh, and you can ask Mike Tomlin how much success they had in stopping Brady. The Super Bowl always blesses us with a few amazing and completely unpredictable moments so I won’t try and get too specific, but I see the experience of the Patriots guiding them through to a fifth Lombardi.
Patriots 31, Falcons 27