Super Bowl LI Preview: Falcons seeking first title, Patriots eyeing their fifth

It’s that time of the year again. This Sunday, half of America will tune in to see the country’s most significant annual television event, featuring some of the highest-rated commercials, a Lady Gaga halftime show, and of course, the final National Football League matchup of the season to determine the champion.

And this year, particularly on paper, it could be one for the ages. The Atlanta Falcons offense, led by quarterback Matt Ryan, was statistically the best in the league throughout the regular season, averaging 33.8 points and 415.8 yards per game. No other team averaged more than 30 points per game, and only the New Orleans Saints averaged more yards (426.0 yards per game). Ryan finished second in the league to Drew Brees in passing yards with 4,944, and also finished second in the league to Aaron Rodgers in touchdown passes with 38, capping off an MVP-caliber season.

In their two home playoff games, the Falcons took it a step further against the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers, averaging 40 points and 457.5 yards per game. Ryan’s postseason stat line included 730 passing yards, seven touchdowns and no interceptions.

If the Falcons were playing any other team in Super Bowl LI, they would likely be favored due to their historic offense and how they have currently been performing throughout the playoffs. But the team they will be playing on Sunday could be the one team that has the answer.

The New England Patriots defense is arguably the best in the league. In fact, over the course of the regular season, they allowed 15.6 points per game on average, the least by any team since 2013. In terms of yardage, they ranked eighth with 326.4 yards allowed per game. In their two home playoff games against the Houston Texans and Pittsburgh Steelers, the Patriots allowed just 16 and 17 points, respectively, and eight of those points by the Steelers were scored when the game was essentially out of reach.

Along with their defense, the Patriots offense has also made a case of their own this year. Throughout the regular season, they averaged 27.6 points per game for third-best in the league, and 386.3 yards per game for fourth-best in the league. Despite missing four games due to the infamous “deflategate” controversy and missing favorite target tight end Rob Gronkowski for eight games due to a back injury, quarterback Tom Brady threw for 3,554 yards, 28 touchdowns and only two interceptions.

There will certainly be a lot on the line at NRG Stadium in Houston. A Super Bowl win would be a first for the Atlanta Falcons franchise, one that it has been waiting over 50 years to experience. For quarterback Matt Ryan, it would be a chance to step out of the shadow and into the “elite” category. For the city of Atlanta, it would be just their second sports championship ever, along with the 1995 World Series champion Atlanta Braves.

With Matt Ryan at age 31, head coach Dan Quinn in just his second year, and an extremely young core of talented players, a championship could potentially be the start of something special.

For the Patriots, the city of Boston and the New England region are more than familiar with championships, especially in the 21st century. This is more about solidifying a legacy and a dynasty. If the Patriots win Super Bowl LI, it would be the region’s tenth championship since 2001 and the Patriots’ fifth championship in the same timeframe.

For head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady, it would be their fifth championship in seven appearances as a duo. Despite the controversies of 2007’s “spygate” and 2015’s “deflategate,” it is difficult to argue against these two being the greatest head coach and quarterback tandem of all time.

Speaking of the controversies, after Tom Brady’s four-game suspension to start the regular season, winning the championship in the same season and accepting the Lombardi trophy from league commissioner Roger Goodell, who made constant efforts to uphold the suspension, would certainly make for an intriguing scene.

Ultimately, the Patriots will be coming into this game as three-point favorites in Vegas, likely due to having a balanced offense and defense, not to mention it’s difficult to bet against Brady and Belichick in a big game. In addition, there have been six Super Bowl matchups in NFL history where the season’s best offense in points scored faced the best defense in points allowed, and the best defense has prevailed five of those six times.

Yours truly agrees with the point-spread, as I feel that while the Falcons have a historically great offense, their defense just isn’t quite on the same caliber, ranking 25th in the league in yards allowed (371.2 yards per game) and 27th in the league in points allowed (25.4 points per game). Meanwhile, the Patriots offense and defense are both statistically in the top three.

There is one glimpse of hope for the Falcons, though. Of the past nine Super Bowl matchups, the Vegas underdog has come out on top six times, so while these matchups may have clear favorites on paper, Super Bowl Sunday has been proven to be a day where anything is possible.

The highest-scoring offense versus the most-resilient defense. The up-and-coming Falcons versus the dynasty Patriots. The young potential versus the legendary proven. Super Bowl LI will most certainly be one to watch.

Kickoff is set for Sunday, February 5 at 3:30 P.M. PST.


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Griffin Aseltine

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