The Super Bowl is set, and Bill Belichick has time to scheme. Be afraid, Falcons. Be very afraid.
1. Is Another Bill Belichick Defensive Gem Coming?
In order to understand the brilliance of New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and why his teams have done so well against historic offenses, you first have to step inside the time machine and go back to Jan. 27, 1991, the date of Super Bowl XXV. It was the beginning of the innovative Belichick we see now and the innovative Belichick the Atlanta Falcons will see Feb. 5.
Belichick was the New York Giants defensive coordinator, and his task was to stop Jim Kelly and the Buffalo Bills' K-Gun offense. Many across football and in the media believed the Giants weren't just going to lose; they were going to get blown out by the Bills, who averaged a league-high 26.75 points per game that season.
Belichick had different ideas. He constructed a game plan around physically punishing the Bills receivers, mainly future Hall of Famer Andre Reed. If they catch the ball, Belichick told his defense, make them pay for it.
The strategy worked. The Giants' physicality wore down Buffalo's passing game. By the time the Bills began to run the football more with Thurman Thomas, it was too late. The game came down to Scott Norwood's field-goal try, and we all know what happened then.
A lot of people will say they saw that outcome happening, but outside of the Giants locker room, few did. The Giants had the players and the Belichick schemes to make it happen.
Fast-forward 10 years. Belichick is coach of the Patriots. Again, his team faces a formidable offense in the Super Bowl—the Rams and their Greatest Show on Turf—and again, few believe he has a chance to stop them. Belichick knew better.
The Rams had Kurt Warner and future Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk. Belichick used a strategy against the Rams similar to the one he used against the Bills. Patriots defenders punished Rams receivers with nasty hits. But Belichick, as he always does, added a twist. He made sure every time Faulk came out of the backfield to make a catch, someone hit him. Not chipped him or brushed him, but hit him hard.
As a result, the Patriots limited a team that averaged a league-high 31.4 points in the regular season to 17 in the Super Bowl. They won, 20-17.
Over the years, players from the Bills and Rams, including Kelly and Warner, have told B/R they credit Belichick's schemes with stopping them. (Meanwhile, Faulk believes the Patriots won because of Spygate.)
Which brings us to this year. The Falcons are photon-torpedoing teams. It again looks like Belichick will have to devise a game plan to slow down a historically powerful offense.
Led by the likely MVP in quarterback Matt Ryan, the Falcons averaged 33.8 points a game in the regular season.
Several AFC and NFC offensive assistant coaches who have competed against Belichick believe he again will create some wrinkle or strategy to confuse the Falcons.
What you notice with the Falcons more than anything, one assistant said, is how few defenses get physical with their receivers, particularly Julio Jones. That's partly because the 6'3", 220-pound Jones is too big and fast. It's also because teams are generally scared to try if they miss on him.
But fear and Belichick are mortal enemies.
The assistant thinks Belichick will pull from his previous plans and try to make the Falcons pay physically for every catch with hard hits, each targeted at sapping the energy from Atlanta's powerful offense.
That's easy to predict but harder to execute. But Belichick was also told the K-Gun offense was impossible to stop. And that the Greatest Show on Turf was impossible to stop. He slowed both.
The Falcons scored 71 more points than any other team this season. They're impossible to stop, right?
2. Free Tony
The Dallas Cowboys front office has impressed people across the NFL with what they accomplished this season. That same front office, however, has NFL types worried they are making a huge mistake because of what they are not doing. Let me explain.
A number of team executives believe owner Jerry Jones should be Executive of the Year for his drafting of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. Jones' drafting, the thinking goes, transformed the Cowboys almost overnight into a potentially great team for years to come.
But there is also a belief that the Cowboys are mishandling what should be an easy transition from Tony Romo to Prescott as the full-time starting quarterback. By showing Romo so much deference, Dallas may be souring its relationship with Prescott.
It's not a unanimous belief, and in fact, one exec called me an idiot for even bringing this up.
Yet other executives think the Cowboys need to dump Romo now, hand over the franchise to Prescott in a highly public way and signal the future is here immediately.
"You let your young star know he's the star," one general manager said, "and you do that now."
3. Don't Judge a Coach by His Past
It's easy to forget, but the Belichick hire in New England in 2000 was seen as a bit risky. He had previously worn out his welcome as the head man in Cleveland and had bolted from a chance to run the Jets with a hastily written note. He was seen as a curmudgeon, a potentially unfriendly face of the franchise.
But owner Robert Kraft saw past that. Kraft once told me (and he has said publicly several times) that many around football warned him it would be a mistake to hire Belichick, but he felt differently. Kraft went by his instincts, and those instincts were right.
Drafting Tom Brady didn't hurt, either.
4. Title or Bust
Jason Schwartz @JasonSchwartz
The disdain with which Bill Belichick received the Lamar Hunt trophy is truly awe inspiring https://t.co/A6RG8eafCo1/23/2017, 3:00:26 AM
This video is maybe the best photographic evidence of what it means to be a member of the most ruthless (and I mean that in the best way) and successful organization we've ever seen in the NFL.
An AFC title trophy? As the video shows, Belichick doesn't want any part of it. It's almost as if he doesn't want to touch the trophy. He knows there's a far bigger one to be had.
In many ways, that sums up what it means to be a Patriot now—that only one trophy is good enough.
5. An Apology to Matt Ryan
I was wr...wr...wrong.
There, I said it.
(But good luck against Belichick. You're gonna need it.)
6. It's Only a Game
The internet is a place of wonders and brilliance, but it can also be nasty and brutal (duh). I've experienced tons of online harassment and vitriol, but nothing like what I've received from some Falcons fans over the past few weeks after predicting doom for Ryan this season.
On Twitter, some Falcons fans threatened to rape my daughter, a child. One threatened to rape her while making me watch. Several different Falcons fans made sexual assault jokes after both the divisional and conference rounds.
A few other Falcons fans merely said I should be brutally murdered. They weren't joking.
This isn't to say every message from Falcons fans was of this nature, but this series of comments in recent weeks is easily the most threatening, ugly language I've received on social media. I've never seen anything like it from any fanbase in the past.
The good news is that tons of people reported the trolls. The bad news is that women get this kind of stuff almost daily, and far worse. That's the point of mentioning the ugliness here. It's always better to shine a light on this garbage than duck it or act like it didn't happen.
The point is, most journalists are used to hearing we're awful or wrong or stupid. That's part of the job.
As for the other stuff, some people need to just take a step back...
7. For Sale: One Expensive Backup Quarterback
It remains true, as it has been all season (and even before), that New England is open to trading backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. The problem, from what several NFL team executives told B/R, is that the Patriots continue to ask for a first-round pick.
These sources also say the Patriots are willing to be patient and wait until they get the pick or picks they want. They know Brady has several more years left, they love Garoppolo, and for the moment, they know Garoppolo can't really leave.
So teams can forget about any bargains in the Patriots aisle.
8. A Generous Gesture
Falcons owner Arthur Blank is planning to bring all team employees to the Super Bowl in Houston, according to Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Other organizations have done the same in the past—the Broncos and Panthers each did so last season, and the Giants did in each of their last two Super Bowl runs—but it's good to see that in a year when so many owners have been greedy and selfish, a few get it. Just a few, but it's a start.
9. Aaron Rodgers' Kryptonite?
Green Bay's 44-21 loss to the Falcons in the NFC Championship Game marks the fourth time (without a win) Rodgers has lost to a Dan Quinn-coached defense.
The reason is pretty simple. Quinn has had some speedy defenders to coach, and speed on defense is the only anecdote to Rodgers.
Quinn was the defensive coordinator in 2013 and 2014 in Seattle. Those Seahawks defenses were stacked. They beat a lot of quarterbacks. And they beat Rodgers twice in the 2014 season.
Atlanta's defense is fast and physical, and, true to form, the Packers lost to the Falcons in the regular season and in the playoffs.
Advantage Quinn, again.
10. Colts' Carnage Making Pats Smile
The Patriots have taken great glee in the firing of Indianapolis general manager Ryan Grigson. It goes beyond what Robert Kraft's son, Jonathan Kraft, said about Grigson. Or what Robert Kraft told the New York Times. The Patriots have always felt that Grigson was the catalyst for Deflategate.
But more than that, to the Patriots, the Colts represented a part of the NFL they see as jealous of their success, and they see Indy's actions in Deflategate as a way of trying to cheat that success.
There's a great deal of validity to that thinking, but I have to admit, it's been some time since I heard an owner rip into another organization so publicly. The last time I can remember something akin to this was decades ago, when Giants owner Wellington Mara ripped into Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones over his dislike of both men.
It all shows just how angry the Patriots remain over the Deflategate controversy.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.
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