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