Matt Ryan and the NFC champion Falcons charge into the Super Bowl with a full head of steam
The Atlanta Falcons could not have provided a more fitting end to the NFL franchise’s storied 25-year history inside the Georgia Dome. The final chapter being a dominant 44-21 victory over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game to earn a trip to Houston to face the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI. It marks just the second Super Bowl berth in the Falcons’ 51-year existence. It also provides Atlanta with an opportunity for redemption, almost two decades after losing to the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXXIII.
It won’t be easy as second-year head coach Dan Quinn and the Falcons have a very tall task in front of them. They must face a Patriots team in search of its second Super Bowl win in three years, led by the quintessential head coach of the modern era in Bill Belichick. Fortunately, a poised Atlanta team seems to have everything in place to meet that challenge head on. In fact, the Falcons actually stand a very good chance of hoisting their first Lombardi Trophy in franchise history when all is said and done on Feb. 5 at NRG Stadium in Houston.
5 Reasons Why the Atlanta Falcons Will Win Super Bowl LI
1. Scoring Machine
The Atlanta Falcons not only led the NFL in scoring (33.8 ppg) during the regular season, they also set a new franchise record for points (540). That total tied for the eighth most in the history of the league. Atlanta has won six games in a row and has averaged 39 points per game during this span. The Falcons have averaged 40 points in their two playoff victories.
New England allowed the fewest points in the league this season and the Patriots’ offense is certainly no slouch in its own right when it comes to scoring. However, Bill Belichick’s defense has yet to face an offense quite like Atlanta’s. (Pittsburgh’s offense wasn’t the same after running back Le’Veon Bell left the AFC Championship Game due to a groin injury). Orchestrated by potential MVP Matt Ryan at quarterback and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, the Falcons’ attack is a well-oiled scoring machine that can move the football at will and routinely find the end zone against any defense. Just look at the numbers.
2. Matt Ryan is on a Mission
Atlanta’s first-team All-Pro quarterback can take a lot of the credit for the Falcons’ offensive success, and he should. No disrespect to the great Tom Brady, but this has been Ryan’s breakthrough season, which is why he is considered the favorite to win NFL MVP honors. He set new career highs this season for completion percentage (69.9), passing yards (4,944) and touchdown passes (38), while throwing a career-low seven interceptions. Ryan’s 117.1 QB rating was tops in the NFL and 9.26 yards per attempt were far and away the best in the league. He has been even more impressive in the postseason with near-flawless performances in each of Atlanta’s two playoff victories. In those two wins, he has a remarkable 132.5 QB rating and he hasn’t been picked off in a game since early December.
While Brady has been paired against an impressive list of quarterbacks in the Super Bowl over the years, none have entered Super Sunday with as much momentum as Ryan. He has almost effortlessly carved up every defense that has been put in front of him during the Falcons’ current six-game winning streak, accounting for 19 total touchdowns without committing a single turnover. Brady is a Super Bowl legend, but he could meet his match on Feb. 5.
3. Stellar Supporting Cast
Matt Ryan has had plenty of help in getting the Falcons back to the Super Bowl. Julio Jones led the NFL with 100.6 receiving yards per game and even though he’s been dealing with a nagging toe injury, he showed on Sunday why he’s arguably the league’s best pass catcher. He will be a handful for anyone New England lines up against him, including second-team All-Pro cornerback Malcolm Butler. If by chance the Patriots do manage to keep Jones in check, Ryan has proven that he can easily make do with a number of capable targets, including Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel. Torching opposing defenses with a wide range of different receivers has been commonplace for Ryan throughout the season.
Despite Atlanta’s affinity for throwing the football, this offense is just as capable and dangerous on the ground. The Falcons finished fifth in the league with 120.5 rushing yards per game thanks to one of the best running back tandems. Devonta Freeman spearheads Atlanta’s running game after posting his second straight 1,000-yard season. Meanwhile, the versatile Tevin Coleman accounted for 11 touchdowns during the regular season and has two more in the playoffs.
Keeping the pocket clean for Ryan and paving the way for the run game is an outstanding group of offensive linemen led by All-Pro center Alex Mack. The Falcons have featured the same starting five up front for every game this season. They are the only team in the NFL to do so, and that continuity should once again pay dividends against the Patriots in Super Bowl LI.
4. Emergence of a Young Defense
While the Atlanta defense still has its shortcomings, it has come a long way since struggling mightily in the first half of 2016. Growing pains were to be expected for a defense that has featured as many as eight first-or second-year players at times. But this is a group that has matured dramatically over the course of the season, and it is clearly starting to pay off at just the right time. The Falcons’ defense has been particularly impressive during the playoffs, surrendering just 20.5 points per game against two of the NFL’s most dangerous offenses in Seattle and Green Bay. They even managed to hold a red-hot Aaron Rodgers and Packers’ offense scoreless in the first half of the NFC Championship Game.
Rookies Keanu Neal and Deion Jones are quickly evolving into two of the best up-and-coming defenders in the NFL. And while second-year pass-rushing dynamo Vic Beasley Jr. has been relatively quiet so far during the postseason, he is fully capable of wreaking havoc on Super Sunday. His league-leading 15.5 sacks during the regular season should provide all the evidence you need. This is indeed a group that is finally starting to gel and complement the league’s most prolific offense with some outstanding play of its own. If the defense can maintain its recent strong play, this unit is capable of providing Tom Brady and company with a stiff challenge in Super Bowl LI.
5. Mistake-Free Football
Bill Belichick takes a lot of pride in playing mistake-free football. He takes even more pride in exploiting teams that do not take care of the pigskin, capitalizing on every misstep. The Patriots have been particularly opportunistic when it comes to turnovers over the years. It is a big reason for New England’s success, especially in the postseason. The problem is that Atlanta has been solid with its ball security this season, which make things even more difficult on Belichick’s defense.
The Falcons tied the Patriots for the fewest turnovers (11) in the regular season. Atlanta lost just four fumbles, the third-lowest total in NFL history. The Falcons have yet to commit a turnover in the playoffs while the Patriots have coughed it up three times (all vs. Houston) in two games, although they do have five takeaways in those two games. Atlanta has been penalized just six times for 41 yards in the postseason, while New England has been flagged seven times for 60 yards. If the Falcons can continue to play mistake-free football against the Patriots, it only increases their chances of winning by nullifying what has historically been a big advantage for a New England team that is no stranger to Super Bowl success.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.