Yes, this is a Titans site. However, we’re talking about the Super Bowl. The biggest single day sporting event in the world. It’s time to preview the game.
To say that the Atlanta Falcons came out of nowhere this season would be a fairly accurate statement. It wasn’t a secret that they had talent, with the likes of Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman on the roster. But, I’m not sure anyone outside of the organization could have imagined this kind of success.
After starting last season 5-0, the Falcons lost eight of their next eleven games to finish the year 8-8. RB Devonta Freeman and WR Julio Jones both had incredible statistical years, but they didn’t have a ton of support around them, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
Over the offseason and throughout the course of the regular season, the converse of Murphy’s Law was true for the Falcons: everything that could’ve go right went right.
Free agent C Alex Mack truly solidified the offensive line, earning a Pro Bowl selection for his elite play. Free agent WR Sanu took pressure off of Julio Jones and gave Matt Ryan a true second option at WR. Rookie LB Deion Jones’ great athleticism allowed him to make over 100 tackles, and he finished the year as a nominee for Defensive Rookie of the Year. First round pick SS Keanu Neal proved to be a very physical safety who fits perfectly in Dan Quinn’s Cover 3 defensive scheme, making 72 tackles and forcing five fumbles. Second year DE Vic Beasley broke out and lead the NFL in sacks, becoming a speedy and scary edge rusher.
But perhaps the most shocking and important improvement from 2015 to 2016 for the Falcons has been the explosion of QB Matt Ryan. After being not much more than an average starting QB with a big arm for most of his career thus far, Ryan was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player for this season.
Ryan threw for 4,944 yards and 38 touchdowns to only seven interceptions. Over 7% of his pass attempts resulted in touchdowns. When MVP talks started to swirl regarding Ryan, it was hard for me to say that he is the most valuable player in the NFL. While it is still hard to put him ahead of the award’s other nominees—Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Derek Carr, and Ezekiel Elliot—one thing is undeniable: the Falcons wouldn’t even catch a scent of the Super Bowl without him.
On the other side are the New England Patriots. The “been there done that” team. A team that, other than at a few positions, has seemingly weak personnel. How does a team that lacks physically imposing receivers and playmakers on the defensive line manage to make it to the Super Bowl? It’s more than just Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.
Tom Brady is undeniably the best quarterback in the NFL right now, and his Super Bowl experience makes him the ideal player to have under center in the biggest game in all of sports. Bill Belichick is undeniably the best head coach in the NFL right now, and his ability to create defensive game plans to shut down star players is unlike anything that has ever been seen. But it’s Belichick’s assistants, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, who get the players, some of whom are not the most talented in the world, into positions where they succeed at an incredibly high level.
In their two playoff games, New England’s most productive players have been WR Chris Hogan, RB Dion Lewis, CB Malcolm Butler, and DE Rob Ninkovich. Hogan is a 29 year old college lacrosse player who has been with five different NFL teams in just seven years. Lewis was a fifth round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers who hadn’t played a down of NFL football for two years prior to being signed by the Patriots. Butler was signed by the Patriots in 2014 an undrafted free agent out of West Alabama, and was a relatively unknown player prior to his famous interception of Russell Wilson at the one yard line in Super Bowl XLIX. Ninkovich bounced around multiple practice squads before joining the Patriots in 2009, the team that he’s played for ever since.
None of these guys are elite athletes, and really no team other than New England wanted them. Yet, McDaniels and Patricia masterfully put them in spots where they perform like great players. Mike Shanahan is an artist with his offensive system, but it’s not that hard to move the ball when you have a terrific offensive line, Julio Jones, and two stellar running backs.
When New England last won the Super Bowl in 2015, they were led by superstars like Rob Gronkowski and Darrelle Revis. This season, they have left nearly every team they’ve faced in ruins, but the only true superstar on the team has been the guy that wears #12. Their coaching is the reason for that, and the word “elite” simply doesn’t do their coaching staff justice.
Atlanta’s players are much more talented than New England’s, but the Patriots have an incredible edge on the sidelines with their coaching staff. We’re in for two incredible metaphorical chess matches: Kyle Shanahan vs. Matt Patricia, and Josh McDaniels vs. Dan Quinn. May the best man win.