Super Bowl LI Preview

Before the Falcons and Patriots clash on Sunday Feb. 5, The Duke staff gives their predictions and keys to victory for the big game.

Atlanta Falcons' Matt Ryan talks to New England Patriots' Tom Brady during opening night for the NFL Super Bowl 51 football game at Minute Maid Park Monday, Jan. 30, 2017, in Houston. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Atlanta Falcons’ Matt Ryan talks to New England Patriots’ Tom Brady during opening night for the NFL Super Bowl 51 football game at Minute Maid Park Monday, Jan. 30, 2017, in Houston. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Atlanta Falcons

By Andrew White | Staff Writer

How They Got Here:

After a disappointing 2015 campaign which saw the Atlanta Falcons finish at 8-8 after a promising 5-0 start, the Falcons had a bounce back season for the ages.

Picked to finish under .500 by many sports media outlets, the Falcons are preparing to make their second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history against the AFC Champion New England Patriots.

Led by star quarterback Matt Ryan the Falcons finished the regular season with an 11-5 record, won the NFC South Division and clinched the number No. 2 seed, which granted them a first round bye in the playoffs.

Matt Ryan had an MVP-caliber season, leading the Falcons’ high octane offense to an NFL leading 33.8 points per game — four and a half points more than the next closest team, their NFC South rival, New Orleans.

Ryan, one of the favorites to win the MVP award, threw for a career high 4,944 yards, 38 touchdowns, just seven interceptions and a league-leading 117.1 quarterback rating.

The Falcons were also fueled by a deep receiving core led by star wideout Julio Jones who caught 83 passes for over 1,400 yards in just 14 games.

Prior to this season, one of the biggest issues the Falcons had faced was the depth behind Jones. That void was filled this year when the team signed wide receivers Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel.

Sanu, a former Cincinnati Bengal, has helped tremendously in the slot, as he has provided a reliable target for Ryan in the middle of the field and a good secondary target in the redzone. Gabriel, a former Cleveland Brown, has provided the Falcons with another wideout with big play potential, which was shown multiple times this season.

The passing game has also been aided by a young dynamic backfield that features two young and dynamic rushers in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. The two combined for almost 1,600 rushing yards and 19 rushing touchdowns, not to mention almost 900 yards and five touchdowns through the air.

While the Falcons boast a high powered offense, they struggle on the defensive side of the ball. The young defense, which is led by NFL sacks leader Vic Beasley Jr., ranks in the bottom third of the NFL in both points against per game and yards against per game.

After surprising most experts with an NFC South division title, the Falcons breezed past the Seattle Seahawks in the Divisional Round and then left the Georgia Dome on a winning note when they blew out the Green Bay Packers 44-21 in the NFC Championship Game.

Keys to Victory:

To beat the Patriots, the Falcons will need to get pressure on Tom Brady and force turnovers on defense. Brady, who set the single season record for touchdown to interception ratio, will have to be forced into making mistakes for the Falcons to have a chance to win.

Ryan and the offense will also have to move the ball down the field in an efficient matter. The Patriots boast one of the most underrated defenses in the NFL, quietly leading the league in points against per game with 15.6 points.

1. Control the Game

The Falcons must control the time of possession and limit turnovers. By doing this they will be able to keep Brady off the field longer which will give him less time to put more points on the board.

2. Spread the Love

Get a balanced attack going on offense. The Falcons need to keep the Patriots defense on their heels at all times. Creating a balanced running and passing attack will accomplish this.

3. Defense Must be a Factor

Put pressure on Brady and keep tight coverage on receivers. The biggest key to the game is keeping the Patriots passing game intact, a feat which many teams struggle with. To do this the defensive line and linebackers will need to create pressure on the offensive line and Brady while the secondary sticks to tight man coverage on receivers.

Final Prediction: Falcons 31, Patriots 27

The Vince Lombardi Trophy is seen before NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's news conference during preparations for the NFL Super Bowl 51 football game Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

The Vince Lombardi Trophy is seen before NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s news conference during preparations for the NFL Super Bowl 51 football game Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

New England Patriots

By Bry McDermott | Asst. Photo Editor

How They Got Here:

The New England Patriots are set to compete against the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium in Houston on Sunday night. The Pats head into their seventh Super Bowl under head coach Bill Belichick with a league-best 14-2 regular season record and an impressive two-game playoff performance, which saw New England outscore the Houston Texans and Pittsburgh Steelers by a combined score of 70-33.

Quarterback Tom Brady missed the first four games of the season due to a suspension brought on by Deflategate, but returned to throw 28 touchdowns and just two interceptions, the best touchdown to interception ratio in NFL history. The Patriots defense also had a strong season, allowing only an average of  15.6 points per game, the fewest in the NFL.

Keys to Victory:

1. Build on Experience

The Patriots are no stranger to the Super Bowl as this matchup will be their ninth appearance in the big game and their seventh since 2001. When you look at the wider picture, 14 percent of all Super Bowls have featured Brady as a starting quarterback and Bill Belichick as a coach.

Atlanta is at the opposite end of this spectrum. According to CBS Sports, Tom Brady’s six Super Bowl appearances is more than the entire Falcons’ roster (five). The experience of playing in a Super Bowl can be overwhelming for a lot of players. If the Patriots can hone in on their experience, they might be able to make the Falcons crack under pressure.

2. Defense Wins Championships

New England is a threat on both sides of the ball with offensive juggernaut Tom Brady at quarterback and a defense that allowed a league-low 250 points during the regular season. It’s going to be tough for Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons to break through the top-ranked defense in the NFL.  

The Patriots will have to shut down Atlanta receiver Julio Jones, but, historically, they seem up to the challenge. According to the New England Sports Network, the Patriots have only allowed one playoff touchdown to any first-team All-Pro receiver who is 6-foot or taller. They have also  allowed just two 100-yard games to players in that category.

3. Tom Brady Going for History

Atlanta’s defense has given up an average 25.4 points and 266.7 passing yards per game this season, even allowing Aaron Rodgers to pass for 287 yards in the NFC title game that saw the Falcons take down the Green Bay Packers 44-21.

Coincidentally, that is the same number of yards that Brady threw for in arguably his worst game of the season in the divisional round of playoffs against the Houston Texans. Brady completed less than 50 percent of his passes and threw two interceptions. To put things into perspective, the Texans were ranked fifth in defense by Pro Football Focus, while the Falcons hold the 15th spot on the list.

Brady is one of the best, if not the best, playoff quarterback in NFL history. The 39-year-old holds seven Super Bowl records, including completed passes (164), passing yards (1,605), passing touchdowns (13), among other impressive statistics. Brady is on the hunt for a historic fifth Super Bowl ring and his fourth MVP award.

The Patriots operate with a throw-first mentality, and if Atlanta can’t tighten up its defense, Brady will run away with the game.

Tom Brady will prove to be too much for an inexperienced Atlanta squad. I’m predicting a close contest, but look for Brady to have a big game as he makes his way to a historic fifth Super Bowl victory.

Final Prediction: Patriots 27, Falcons 24

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