After 266 games, countless highlight-reel touchdowns and plenty of remarkable upsets, 60 minutes is all that stands in our way from the conclusion of the 2016-17 NFL season and the crowning of a new Super Bowl champion. While the road was long, winding, and full of doubters along the way, New England and Atlanta are all that are left standing in the pro football world. Now, one of the two teams is ever so close to capturing the sport’s ultimate prize and holding up that famous Lombardi Trophy.
For the Patriots’ dynasty, this whole process is a bit of a “rinse and repeat” situation as they look for a historic fifth title down in Houston. The team marched through the regular season with just two blemishes and managed the league’s best record despite star quarterback Tom Brady missing the first four games of the year. Bill Belichick’s defense is as stout as expected, playing the run extremely well while limiting penalties and big plays through the passing game. Though the numbers are always impressive for a team that seems to consistently excel in the postseason, the fact that so many unexpected contributors have stepped up in the face of some key injuries is one of the biggest reasons why this team is in position to win the big game once again.
MVP candidate Matt Ryan and the rest of the Falcons aren’t flinching in the face of all that however. The league’s most potent offense is much more than just their starting signal-caller, as Julio Jones is the most dangerous wideout in the game right now and the two-headed rushing attack of Devota Freeman and Tevin Coleman will make you pay if there’s even a sliver of daylight to run through. Atlanta’s defense may not have the overall numbers to suggest this unit is an elite group, but it has limited ring-holders Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers on the way to the NFC title and the Falcons sport some top-notch defenders like pass rush extraordinaire Vic Beasley Jr.
All of which brings us to the final game of the season and what should be one of the more evenly matched Super Bowls in recent years. Neither team is head and shoulders above the other and there’s little indication as to whether it will be a high-flying shootout or devolve into a grind-it-out game of keep away. This is just the second trip to the big game for Atlanta in franchise history (the other, in 1998, resulted in a loss to the Denver Broncos) and the team has never taken home a Lombardi Trophy. The Patriots, on the other hand, will be making a ninth appearance in the Super Bowl (most in NFL history) and aiming for a fifth ring under the leadership of owner Robert Kraft.
As a result, this year’s contest figures to be a memorable one no matter what side ultimately winds up victorious. For the final game of the season, there’s not much more you can ask for than that.
Super Bowl LI: New England vs. Atlanta
Kickoff: Sunday, Feb. 5 at 6:30 p.m. ET
Where: NRG Stadium (Houston)
TV Channel: FOX
Line: Patriots -3, over/under 58.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Dueling Gunslingers
As with every major football game, the focus for most will be on the two quarterbacks in this matchup between a pair of signal-callers that are having career years. On the New England sideline stands Tom Brady, making his record seventh Super Bowl appearance and gunning for a fifth title with the franchise that famously drafted him in the sixth round nearly two decades ago. Much has been made this season — and especially in the run-up to Houston — about the season the quarterback has turned in since his involvement in “Deflategate,” but don’t overlook the fact that he has thrown for an eye-popping 33 touchdowns and just four interceptions despite a surrounding cast that wasn’t exactly a laundry list of Pro Bowlers. If he’s able to come out with a victory on Sunday, be prepared for plenty of talk about being the G.O.A.T. as he would move past Hall of Famers Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana with that fifth ring.
His opposite number is no slouch however, and has put up MVP-caliber numbers in leading the league’s best offense to the doorstep of the ultimate game. Matt Ryan led the NFL in passer rating this season and has been, hard as it is to believe, even better in the postseason — throwing for 18 touchdowns and no picks in the Falcons’ current six-game winning streak. While the quarterback has been able to lob one up to the amazing Julio Jones, the Atlanta offense is much more than just its star wide receiver with 13 different players catching a pass in the end zone for a new league record. This is a versatile and explosive group to try and stop and the biggest reason for that is its remarkable leader under center.
2. Finding Stops
It should come as no surprise that these two prolific offenses are being highlighted but the other side of the ball features two units that very well will decide the ultimate outcome of the ultimate game. The Patriots and their defensive-minded head coach gave up the fewest points in the NFL this season and have one of the most versatile groups in the game. Secondary options like Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and recent Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler are some of the headliners on the back end for New England but the team’s front seven defenders like Rob Ninkovich, Chris Long and Dont’a Hightower provide plenty of push up front for a unit that has shut down numerous ground games. The ability to mix-and-match personnel options or keep a group on the field that is fluid enough to stop an up-tempo attack will no doubt play a role in slowing down the best offense in the league.
Dan Quinn is just in his second season as Atlanta’s head coach but he has already done a terrific job turning around the Falcons’ defense from lackluster to one of the better groups in the NFC. That reversal in fortune has come in lockstep with a youth movement: second-year player Vic Beasley Jr. led the league in sacks (15.5) and the team starts four rookies, including hard-hitting safety Keanu Neal. The group has really turned things up during the team’s winning streak and has shut down former Super Bowl winners Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers in back-to-back weeks. Is a third straight heroic effort too much to ask for? We’ll soon find out.
As much as you study the matchups, break down the depth charts and figure out all the chess moves each coaching staff is bound to put together, there’s always a surprise star or two that ends up becoming a Super Bowl hero. The Patriots know that better than most having Malcom Butler on their roster and the Falcons are no stranger to being on the losing end as a result of a surprising breakout performance too.
As a result, don’t sleep on somebody like Atlanta wide receiver Taylor Gabriel or Justin Hardy going off or having somebody like Brian Poole step up on defense. New England wideout Chris Hogan has been so prolific this postseason that even his story might be over-emphasized but tailbacks Dion Lewis or even D.J. Foster could be potent weapons in the Patriots’ passing game out of the backfield. Given the pass-happy attack the Falcons trot out, don’t be shocked if athletic linebackers like Kyle Van Noy and Barkevious Mingo go from being talked about as castoffs to key contributors on game day.
Related: 5 X-Factors for Super Bowl LI
An NFL season is full of twists and turns, shocking surprises and unpredictable feats. Left standing at the end of this year’s campaign are two teams few would have predicted back in September but, upon closer examination, seem perfectly fit for the moment at hand on Sunday.
Out of the AFC comes a motivated New England squad bent on having the last laugh from a tumultuous Deflategate saga that finally came to a close this season. Quarterback Tom Brady has turned in one of his best years ever and continues to perform like one of the elite players in the league at the ripe old age of 39, leading an offense that is as prolific as it is versatile. As usual though, the Patriots are one of the most balanced teams around under future Hall of Fame head coach Bill Belichick and sport another stellar defense that is tough to figure out and even tougher to get past.
NFC champion Atlanta is not fazed by the star power on the other sideline however, as the Falcons have been shattering records left and right on their way to Houston. Matt Ryan and the offense are certainly the headliners, proving difficult to stop whether they utilize the dynamic ground game of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, or the aerial attack involving stud Julio Jones and numerous other explosive and productive targets. Don’t sleep on the Atlanta defense either, no matter how maligned this young unit may be entering the game considering it has been phenomenal down the stretch and has taken things to another level to make it to the final game of the season.
Legacies are on the line and spots in the hallowed pantheon of the game are at stake. Two teams, one game, and the ultimate prize awaits on Sunday when Super Bowl LI kicks off.
Athlon Editors' Super Bowl LI Predictions
AthlonSports.com NFL/Fantasy Contributors' Super Bowl LI Predictions
— Preview by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.