Marquee players tend to grab most of the headlines heading into any Super Bowl. Super Bowl LI is no different with standouts such as Tom Brady, Matt Ryan and Julio Jones dominating the storylines leading into Sunday’s big game between the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons. All of the attention garnered by these star players is well deserved. And there is a very good chance that one of the aforementioned stars will take home MVP honors when all is said and done on Feb. 5.
However, it’s also not out of the realm of possibility that another player, perhaps one currently flying under the media radar, could steal the show and ultimately be the guy everyone is talking about come Monday morning. These unsuspecting players and underlying circumstances are referred to as x-factors. Here’s a closer look at five potential x-factors for Super Bowl LI.
Atlanta Falcons WR Mohamed Sanu
One of the things that Patriots head coach Bill Belichick does best is finding a way to take the opposing team’s most dynamic player out of the game. In this particular case, that player is Atlanta’s All-Pro wide receiver, Julio Jones. The problem is that it will take a concerted effort on behalf of the New England defense to limit Jones’ impact in this matchup. And with so much focus and attention dedicated to Jones, that should help open the door for some of the Falcons’ less prominent targets. Among those, Sanu is the most likely candidate to reap the benefits from this scenario.
Sanu had a career-high 59 catches for 653 yards and four touchdowns during the regular season. Those numbers aren’t overwhelming by any stretch. But he has been a trustworthy target for Matt Ryan when called upon. Sanu also has a touchdown in each of his last three games, including the Falcons’ two playoff wins against the Seahawks and Packers. Sanu is definitely someone worth keeping an eye on in Super Bowl LI. Deep threat Taylor Gabriel is another Atlanta receiver that has the ability to make a significant splash on Sunday.
New England Patriots CB Malcolm Butler
The Patriots will need more than one player to help slow down Julio Jones. But the player most likely to shoulder the brunt of that responsibility is Butler. Bill Belichick is notorious for putting his best cover corner on the opposing team’s best wide receiver. If that holds true on Super Sunday, Butler, a second-team All-Pro this season, will be shadowing Jones, probably with the assistance of free safety Devin McCourty amongst others.
Butler has enjoyed a stellar season that includes four interceptions and 17 passes defended. He also is no stranger to Super Bowl heroics. His game-clinching interception in Super Bowl XLIX against the Seahawks will forever be remembered as one of the greatest moments in the history of the big game. Butler will look to re-capture some of that Super Bowl magic on Sunday in a bid to become the x-factor. For better or worse, his performance in Super Bowl LI will go a long way in deciding the outcome.
It’s fairly uncommon for a linebacker to take center stage in a football game, especially when that game is the Super Bowl, but it isn’t unprecedented. In fact, two out of the last three Super Bowl MVPs were linebackers. The Broncos’ Von Miller took home the honor last year in Super Bowl 50 and Seahawks’ linebacker Malcolm Smith stole the show in Super Bowl XLVIII to win MVP.
The Falcons’ Vic Beasley Jr. might just be the next to take home the award. Beasley led the NFL with 15.5 sacks this season, while adding six forced fumbles and a touchdown to his All-Pro stat sheet. He has been fairly quiet so far in the postseason. But that is primarily because he has been used as a spy to hold containment against the fleet-footed Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson. That won’t be the case on Sunday against statuesque pocket-passer Tom Brady. Beasley’s pass rushing skills will be on full display. If successful, he could be leaving Houston with more than one trophy on Super Sunday.
Another potential game-changer in Atlanta’s young linebacker corps is Deion Jones. The NFL Rookie of the Year candidate led the Falcons this season in tackles (108), tackles for a loss (5), and interceptions (3). Jones is a rangy player that flashes big-play potential in a number of ways. He is particularly dangerous in pass coverage, which is a rare asset for a middle linebacker. Of his three picks, he returned two of them for touchdowns, and he also was credited with 14 passes defended in the regular season. The role of x-factor is not new to this rookie sensation. And you might get to see him reprise that role on Sunday.
New England’s Backfield
One factor that could steer the outcome of Super Bowl LI in favor of the Patriots is time of possession. The longer the Patriots can keep their offense on the field, and perhaps more importantly, keep the Falcons’ high-powered offense off of it, the better their chances are for victory. The best way to do that is by controlling the clock with a successful ground game. That means that you will likely see a heavy dose of LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis on Sunday.
Blount, who led the NFL with 18 rushing touchdowns during the regular season, is always a threat to find the end zone. But it is his potential to effectively keep the chains moving and sustain drives that makes him an x-factor candidate in this matchup. The same can be said for Lewis, New England’s change-of-pace option. However, Lewis’ x-factor appeal may actually lie more in his potential to make explosive game-changing plays, both on the ground and as a receiver. It’s probably not a coincidence that the Patriots have a perfect 16-0 record over the last two seasons when Lewis is in the lineup.
Been There, Done That
Comfort level and experience are two underlying factors that could pay big dividends for New England on Super Sunday. For Bill Belichick, Sunday will mark his ninth trip to the Super Bowl and seventh as head coach of the Patriots. It will be Tom Brady’s seventh appearance in the big game. And most of the current players on the Patriots roster will be making at least their third trip to the Super Bowl. In other words, no team feels more at home in the Super Bowl than New England.
Conversely, Atlanta has just four players on its roster that have ever competed in a Super Bowl, none of which came with the Falcons. Only one of those players, Dwight Freeney, will be in the starting lineup for Super Bowl LI. Fortunately, head coach Dan Quinn has some experience in that regard, serving as defensive coordinator for the Seahawks in their two Super Bowl appearances. That should help matters, but the Falcons’ players themselves are likely to experience some serious jitters heading into a game of this magnitude. That could very well work against them when facing a well-composed Patriots team this Sunday in Houston.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.