Break­ing it down The Fal­cons and Pa­tri­ots by the num­bers and what each needs to do to win. D8

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY NEIL GREENBERG neil.greenberg@wash­post.com

The At­lanta Fal­cons have the best scor­ing of­fense in the NFL, led by a newly minted MVP at quar­ter­back in Matt Ryan. But to earn the fran­chise’s first Su­per Bowl vic­tory, they are go­ing to have to beat the New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots, own­ers of the league’s top de­fense.

Here are three keys for how the Fal­cons can ex­e­cute the per­fect game plan to win Su­per Bowl LI: Get out to an early lead The eas­i­est way to dic­tate game flow is to snag an early lead, and the Fal­cons showed an abil­ity to do that dur­ing the sea­son, in­clud­ing in the play­offs. They led the league in open­ing drives with a score (11) and have scored on their open­ing drive in eight straight games, in­clud­ing the NFC cham­pi­onship game against the Green Bay Pack­ers.

When lead­ing, At­lanta has been able to main­tain a roughly 50/50 split be­tween run­ning and pass­ing plays, but that ra­tio moves to 40/60 when the Fal­cons are trail­ing. Pa­tri­ots Coach Bill Belichick is a foot­ball ge­nius on a reg­u­lar day, but when you give him in­sight into a team’s play­call­ing ten­den­cies, his abil­ity to game-plan be­comes that much harder to over­come.

A fast start also would put pres­sure on Tom Brady — not from the score­board but from the pass rush. Just as the Pa­tri­ots may be able to an­tic­i­pate the Fal­cons’ play calls, should New Eng­land need to pass of­ten, the Fal­cons’ pass-rush­ers will be able to chase Brady with­out fear of a hand­off. And pass-rush­ing pres­sure has been the sin­gle big­gest fac­tor in trip­ping up Brady through­out his stel­lar ca­reer. Speak­ing of . . .

Pres­sure Brady into mak­ing a mis­take

Brady isn’t prone to mis­takes — he set the record for fewest in­ter­cep­tions (two) in a qual­i­fied sea­son — but his pro­duc­tion, like that of most quar­ter­backs, suf­fers when he faces a good pass rush. His passer rat­ing dropped from 120.9 to 82.6 when he was un­der pres­sure this sea­son, which in 2016 was roughly the dif­fer­ence be­tween Ryan (117.1) and Joe Flacco (83.5).

In Su­per Bowl XLII, the first ti­tle game in which the Pa­tri­ots lost to the Giants, New York pres­sured Brady on 23 of his 38 drop­backs, hold­ing him to 91 yards and no touch­downs on those plays. In Su­per Bowl XLVI, an­other Pa­tri­ots loss, the Giants pres­sured Brady on 20 of his 43 drop­backs, hold­ing him to 94 yards with an in­ter­cep­tion.

More so than the over­all passer rat­ing, Brady’s com­ple­tion per­cent­age takes a big hit when he’s un­der pres­sure, go­ing from 74.3 to 49.9 per­cent with­out a clean pocket. He is 9 for 20 with 160 yards, a touch­down and an in­ter­cep­tion un­der pres­sure dur­ing the 2016 play­offs.

Cap­i­tal­ize in the red zone with Devonta Free­man and Tevin Cole­man

New Eng­land’s de­fen­sive prow­ess can be dis­counted in part be­cause of its strength of sched­ule, but its red-zone de­fense is clearly for­mi­da­ble. The Pa­tri­ots held op­po­nents to 4.55 points per trip in­side the 20-yard line, the sixth-best mark dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son, al­low­ing them to come away with a touch­down a lit­tle more than half of the time (52.3 per­cent, ninth best in the league).

The best chance At­lanta has in the red zone, es­pe­cially in­side the 10-yard line, is to use its two pass-catch­ing run­ning backs, Devonta Free­man and Tevin Cole­man, who are dif­fi­cult to de­fend in space.

Free­man and Cole­man com­bined to catch 85 passes out of the back­field and rank No. 1 and No. 2 at the po­si­tion, re­spec­tively, in post­sea­son yards per route run. They also caught nine of 10 passes in­side the 10-yard line, four for touch­downs, against the New Or­leans Saints in man cov­er­age in Week 17.

Plus, only one of New Eng­land’s lineback­ers, Dont’a Hightower, re­ceived a pos­i­tive rat­ing by the game char­ters at Pro Foot­ball Fo­cus for his pass-cov­er­age abil­ity. Foot­ball Out­siders rated the Pa­tri­ots 20th as a team for their per­for­mance against pass-catch­ing run­ning backs.

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