A year ago, the New England Patriots dropped a couple of late-season games, which kept them from gaining home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs. They ended up losing the AFC Championship Game at Denver, resulting in an empty feeling at the end of the season for Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and Co.
The Patriots learned from their mistakes. They defeated the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins to close the regular season and rolled on their home-field during the postseason. They culminated that run with a surprisingly one-sided 36-17 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game Sunday.
The victory marked the ninth time the franchise has won the AFC title, and the combination of Belichick and Brady will take the Patriots to the Super Bowl for the seventh time in search of their fifth Super Bowl title.
The Atlanta Falcons also had a surprisingly easy time in earning their spot in Super Bowl LI. They hammered the Green Bay Packers, 44-21, in the NFC Championship Game, as their offense was basically unstoppable.
The Steelers and Packers came into their games with nine- and eight-game winning streaks, respectively, but neither team was able to stay close in the second half.
Belichick's ability to focus in on his opponent will once again be put to the test when the Patriots and Falcons get together in Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium in Houston on February 5. His focus is normally to take away an opponent's greatest strength and force other players to make an impact.
|Super Bowl LI|
|Matchup||Date||Time (ET)||TV||Point Spread; Over/Under||Prediction|
|New England Patriots vs. Atlanta Falcons||Feb. 5||6:30 p.m.||Fox||New England (-3); 58.5||New England; Under|
|OddsShark; Silverman prediction|
That may not work against the Falcons, because Atlanta has the NFL's best combination at the running back position with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Those two combined for 19 rushing touchdowns during the regular season, and both are excellent receivers, too.
The Falcons have a brilliant quarterback in Matt Ryan and one of the NFL's elite receivers in Julio Jones. Ryan methodically took apart a vulnerable Green Bay defense by completing 27 of 38 passes for 392 yards with four touchdowns. Jones did whatever he wanted against the Packers secondary and caught nine of those passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns.
Jones said the Falcons were not intimidated by the Packers and quarterback Aaron Rodgers. "Our mentality was just to keep scoring," Jones told Dan Graziano of ESPN.com. "Nobody can stop us but us."
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Jones went on to further explain the Atlanta mentality. "I mean—we ain't trying to play with you and let you hang around," Jones said. "Our mentality was that it was 0-0 and we had to get points. Kyle Shanahan did a great job staying aggressive there."
The Patriots got something of a break against the Steelers when that multitalented team lost star running back Le'Veon Bell to a groin injury early in the game (he had just six carries in the AFC title game).
Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia has put together the NFL's top-ranked scoring defense in the league. While they had not played many elite quarterbacks throughout the year, they did not blink as they faced Ben Roethlisberger on Sunday. They held the Steelers to 17 points, and eight of those came late in the fourth quarter when the competitive part of the game was long over.
The Patriots come into Super Bowl LI as three-point favorites, according to OddsShark, and appear to have an excellent chance of winning their fifth NFL championship.
Dan Quinn is one of the finest young head coaches in the NFL and has helped upgrade the Falcons from a talented team to one that can focus on each possession and play sharp football for 60 minutes.
He has passed every test to this point, but now he has to come up with a game plan that is at least the equivalent of what Belichick can come up with for the Patriots. Since Belichick either ranks with Vince Lombardi as the best coach in the history of the game or is slightly ahead of him, this will be the biggest challenge of Quinn's career.
One of the first things Quinn must do is figure out how to slow Brady down. He may not have tight end Rob Gronkowski (back) at his disposal, but he spreads the ball around to Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Martellus Bennett and Dion Lewis.
Additionally, the Patriots have a power running back in LeGarrette Blount who can pound an undersized opponent. The Falcons have been victimized because they fit that description in previous years, and Blount will provide a severe test for a defense that ranked 25th in yards allowed this season.
Blount rushed for 1,161 yards during the regular season and scored 18 touchdowns, but he knows that the Falcons will have to focus on Brady.
“He’s the best quarterback to ever play the game,” Blount said, per Christopher L. Gasper of the Boston Globe.
The Falcons have exceeded expectations to get to Super Bowl LI. They will have to go above and beyond that to win this game.