That editorial decision makes perfect sense, as Brady finished with the highest Pro Football Focus grade of any player this season, while Ryan is the presumptive NFL MVP. It's a commonly held thought that this game could be a shootout.
But what if the quarterbacks aren't the stars of the game? What if this contest goes in a completely different direction than people expect?
The New England Patriots are currently three-point favorites over the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI, with the over/under total set at 58 points, per OddsShark. That seems to foreshadow a classic aerial shootout.
The guess here is that the running backs are center stage, however, leading to a slightly lower-scoring game than people might assume.
In the two games the Patriots lost this year (16-0 vs. Buffalo and 31-24 vs. Seattle), opposing running backs and fullbacks combined for 16 catches, 147 yards and one touchdown. Per Football Outsiders, New England also allowed 50.3 receiving yards per game to opposing running backs, the third-worst mark in the league.
The Falcons can attack that weakness with running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, who combined for 85 catches, 883 yards and five touchdowns receiving this year. And then they can take some shots downfield to Julio Jones or Taylor Gabriel when the time is right.
However, the Falcons are even worse against running backs, allowed 53.5 receiving yards per game.
Here's a likely scenario: The Patriots jump out to an early lead and go to running back LeGarrette Blount consistently in the second half of the game to control the time of possession and keep Atlanta's high-powered offense off the field. It's certainly possible that will lead to success, as the Falcons finished 29th this year in run defense DVOA, per Football Outsiders.
Brady also might find opportunities with running backs Dion Lewis and James White, who have each shown pass-catching prowess since joining the Pats.
In just seven games last season, Lewis caught 36 passes for 388 yards and two touchdowns. White has had two monster receiving games for the Pats in the last two years: 10-115-1 against Philadelphia in 2015 and 8-47-2 versus Cincinnati this season. They can both be utilized to attack a hard-hitting, fast Atlanta defense that is finding its stride in recent weeks.
ESPN.com's Bill Barnwell wrote about the matchup between the Pats' pass-catching backs and the Falcons defense:
The job of covering the backs will fall to [cornerback Brian] Poole, [linebacker Deion] Jones or another rookie, linebacker De'Vondre Campbell. They all have the speed to hold up in coverage, but the Patriots are so clever in creating favorable routes for their backs that it's difficult to foresee Atlanta locking them down all game. In the Super Bowl two years ago, the Patriots were kept alive at times by Shane Vereen, who finished with a team-high 11 catches and six first downs. The Patriots can stretch the Falcons in Cover 3 by using their backs as part of snag concepts, getting into the flat for safe completions while daring the outside corner to stop sinking on the deep corner route.
The final gist is this: There are five running backs who will see the field Sunday, and it figures we will see them plenty.
Don't expect this game to consist of downfield throws to Julio Jones and Chris Hogan all day. Expect a lot of running and checking down to running backs.
Ultimately, the key is the difference between the defenses. The Pats have a more experienced (both in time served in the NFL and in postseason experience) defensive unit, and it finished the season allowing the fewest points of any other team in the league.
The Falcons defense has improved over the last couple of months, but it's hard to see them slowing down the versatile Pats too much.
Score: New England 31, Atlanta 24
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