The NFL season is coming to an end and only game is left to play. To determine the 2017 NFL champions. On the AFC side the Patriots come in with a league-best 14-2 record and advance to the Super Bowl for the seventh time in the Belichick – Brady era. The Falcons will represent the NFC after finishing the regular season with a 11-5 record and will make just their second ever appearance in the big game. Both teams are led by their MVP candidate quarterbacks Tom Brady and Matt Ryan in a matchup of New England’s number one ranked scoring defense and Atlanta’s number one ranked scoring offense. It’s the AFC vs. the NFC. It’s Patriots vs. Falcons.
Here is my gameplan for both squads and a prediction for the final score:
The Falcons defense mainly plays Cover 3 and man-to-man. That means you have to get rid of the ball quickly against zone early on to make the coverage come up and then hit them over the top. Their biggest problem defensively for about the first half of the season was that their young linebackers and safeties sold out too much on short stuff and they opened up holes between those guys and the deep cover men. When they switch to man I think your best shot is at exposing Jalen Collins. If you line Edelman and Amendola up wide you could see the second-year man out of LSU struggle because of their quickness. Robert Alford and Brian Poole have held their ground since the injury to their number one corner Desmond Trufant. Another way the Pats like to attack man-coverage is to move James White and Dion Lewis out wide to create mismatches, which would also make it easy for them to read their coverage.
Since the Atlanta offense has been red-hot all year you will have to put points on the board against them, but the Patriots running-game has been much more effective this season than in prior years. The combination of LeGarrette Blount pounding inside and Dion Lewis being more of a patient runner who can bounce it outside and is a nightmare in the open field should present problems for a mediocre Falcons run defense. The offensive line has done a much better job this season in creating push and opening up holes and as we saw over the first four weeks, when Brady was still suspended, they can take it on their backs and grind it out. Plus, they simply have had more stability in terms of lining up the same five guys for most of the year.
New England will probably be suited well using some no-huddle sequences to keep Mike Smith out of the game and put the pressure on the rookies to match what the offense is doing. Protection-wise motioning a tight-end in to Vic Beasley’s side when he’s lined up wide and chipping this year’s sack leader could be a part of the game plan, because his sacks come in bunches and if you can keep him off rhythm he will have to adjust what he’s doing. Other than that I think you should keep the protections simple to be able to pick up the loops and stunts the NFC champs draw up.
Even though the Falcons aerial attack has been phenomenal all the way up to this game I think you want to make them one-dimensional and put it all on Matt Ryan’s shoulders to beat you. That means you want to set physical edges against Devonta Freeman, who runs very hard inside and use Patrick Chung in the slot to not only drop underneath Julio Jones, but also be a factor against the run. Nobody preaches holding outside contain more than Bill Belichick and his coaching staff and while that should be a high priority, especially when you see the speed Tevin Coleman comes around the corner with, they can’t get too wide to open up against the inside zone-bashing Atlanta is capable of bringing. When the ground game slowed down last season this was a different offense.
Playing coverage against them is tough because they spread the ball around so well, but I don’t see any way you don’t put any extra attention to the greatest receiver in the NFL right now. Like I said they could use somebody in inside technique to drop underneath him and have your corners dropping deep, but there’s a good chance we see Malcolm Butler taking him man-coverage with help over the top or simply having Devin McCourty lurking to Julio’s side. The biggest thing they have going for them in the secondary is that they are the best tackling team in the NFL. So a lot of those quick slants where you have Julio crossing the entire field and running down the sideline you won’t see happening in this game. Another play the Falcons like to run are rub-route concepts. I’d say we saw how Butler can defeat that in SB XLIX against the Seahawks. There are a lot of different looks the Patriots can show them with two deep safeties and man underneath or playing cover four to counter some of the vertical concepts Atlanta likes to run as well as bringing in an extra safety or corner in Duron Harmon or Eric Rowe. The keys to me really are for their defensive ends to knock down the running backs coming out of the backfield in the passing game like they did against the Steelers and to NEVER play Julio one-on-one on the goal-line.
When you talk about putting pressure on the Falcons MVP candidate the right side of their offensive line is certainly where you want to attack compared to Mack, Levitre and Matthews on the left. But instead of challenging them by sending extra guys on their right side I’d rather overload their strong side to create one-on-ones for Trey Flowers and company against Chris Chester and Ryan Schraeder. This offensive front has kept Matty Ice clean for the most part (even though the sack numbers might not indicate that), but when they struggled it was when the opposition sent more than they can block to give Ryan no room to step up and push the ball down the field. That means some nickel and safety blitzes could create some havoc and throw his mechanics off.
For as great as Matt Ryan has been this season you don’t want to get into a shootout with Brady. You have to take advantage of your dynamic one-two-punch at runningback in Freeman and Coleman on inside and outside zone plays. As I already said New England puts a lot of focus on keeping outside contain, but I think especially #26 has the burst to burn them on some pitch plays. Once you get them on the edges a couple of times the Patriots defenders will start to get wide and cutbacks will open up. You have to be patient though. The Falcons offensive line is at its best when they can use combination blocks and really move laterally to create space inside. When it’s there you have to stick your foot in the ground and get downhill as those two Atlanta RBs have done so well.
If New England is occupied with taking Julio out of the game, they have to continue spreading the ball around and ask Sanu, Gabriel and especially their tight-ends to make plays. One way to do so would be lining Julio up wide and Sanu in the slot to his side. That way you probably could get their top cover guys Malcolm Butler and Patrick Chung on one side with Devin McCourty helping out deep. The result would leave Taylor Gabriel versus Logan Ryan or Eric Rowe, who both are excellent tacklers and overall players, but could struggle with Gabriel’s speed and ability to beat them outside the number away from their center-fielder and one of their tight-ends against a linebacker. To me TE could be the X-factor in this one in general, because that position might be the forgotten member on this offense, but they make a lot of big plays down the field when the coverage drifts away from them.
The biggest strength of this Patriots defensive unit is their ability to tackle in space and their biggest weakness the pass rush. So they should force the Patriots DBs to cover for a longer time because the receivers will spring open eventually. Sure, you want to get the ball out in rhythm and methodically march down the field, but neither will New England allow an MVP candidate to be comfortable in dropping back and getting the ball out on time, nor will it be easy to defeat them in the red-zone when they tighten up. Ryan has to trust the pocket and buy some extra time to give his playmakers a shot to get open.
Most people think of the Patriots offense being all about Brady spreading the leather over the entire field and simply picking apart opposing defenses (and he can), but they’ve shown they can rely on their ground game and when you see LeGarrette Blount carrying seven defenders on his back it will catch players’ attention. When he is on the field you really want to keep the gaps small by extending your arms and keeping blockers off of your body to push them into the runner. You don’t want a smasher like Blount to be able to hit the hole full speed or you’re in for a long night. You want him to stop in the backfield, change directions and once he gets to the second level you have to really commit to gang-tackle him. Dion Lewis and James White have a little different style of running in terms of their patience and quickness. You can’t let them get to the edges or be passive in your approach to get them to the ground. The Falcons three rookies Deion Jones, De’Vondre Campbell and Keanu Neal are all very fast and active, which should be a plus as their primary run stuffers. Blitzing from the backside to not allow their smaller backs to let the blocking develop or cut runs back will be key.
When you talk about defending the passing attack I think you have to force the Patriots’ offensive weapons to win in man-coverage. With Gronk out they don’t really have an elite pass catcher out there, that you have to primarily gameplan against. If I was Dann Quinn I’d probably step into the room and tell my defensive backs to show me they are better than their receivers. The other thing would be to set the tone early with Keanu Neal in rubber and underneath coverages to put some licks on the little guys on New England’s offense. You want those guys to be thinking when they go over the middle and if you have a really hard hitter I think a big shot early can change the complexity of the entire game. That doesn’t mean you have to press the receivers on every snap. You can play off, you can play zone on one side and man on the other, you can show Brady two deep safeties and let one come up close to the snap. The main thing is you can’t show the Hall of Fame QB what you’re doing coverage-wise.
It’s no secret. To beat the Patriots you have to get to Tom. The challenge is how you can do that without being vulnerable in your coverage. For a long time everybody said you can’t blitz Brady, but you can if you don’t allow him to figure out the entire scheme. Atlanta should use their young linebackers on blitzes either for them to get free in a combination with stunts or free up the guys up front. That can be done by using both inside LBs on double A-gap pressure looks and change up when and where you drop them out. I really liked what they did against Aaron Rodgers in the Championship round when slanted three of their down linemen hard to one side to open up a gap for Jones to run through because everybody had their back turned away from him. They need to be creative and confuse TB12 as much as they can and they will have their most success when they get right into his face.
In the end you can’t settle for field goals in this game because both offenses are capable of lighting up the scoreboard no matter who they are playing against. Neither defensive unit will be able to play straight coverage and lock down the opposition. They will do stuff to throw the offenses off their gameplan. The Patriots D was ranked first in total points allowed, but they played against the Jets twice, the 49ers, Rams, Browns and so on. I don’t want to take anything away from them, but I think this Atlanta offense is a different dimension to what they’ve faced this season. The five games the Falcons lost this season were mainly based on the fact they got behind the sticks and had to push the ball down the field instead of having shorter yardage situations where they had defenses guessing and could suck them up on play-fakes to hit them over the top. On the other hand the Falcons defense has been getting better consistently over the last weeks leading up to the big game and could provide some big plays and turnovers that end up deciding the outcome of this game.
My prediction: Patriots 24 – Falcons 27
The Falcons win a close game that might be decided for the team that has the ball last. For the first time in franchise history Atlanta will take home the Lombardi trophy.
My pick for MVP: Matt Ryan
Keeping it simple here. Over all 16 games I think no quarterback played at a higher level and pushed the ball down the field quite like Ryan, who I would also give the regular season MVP award to. (Check out my picks for the NFL Honors awards right here)
Another guy who I could see being the game’s biggest star is linebacker Deion Jones.