The participants for Super Bowl LI are set. The New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons won their respective conferences Sunday and will meet on the first Sunday in February.
This promises to be a terrific matchup for the big game. On one side, we have the Falcons and their high-flying offense. On the other, we have the stout defense of the Patriots. Neither team is one-dimensional, though.
Atlanta's steadily emerging defense has allowed just 20.5 points per game in the postseason. This unit is more than good enough to complement offensive stars like Julio Jones, Matt Ryan, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
The Patriots, of course, have standout offensive weapons of their own. Guys like Julian Edelman, Martellus Bennett, Chris Hogan and LeGarrette Blount are going to test that Atlanta defense frequently. Quarterback Tom Brady, who has been here six times before, knows exactly how to put those weapons in position to succeed.
Simply put, this game should give fans a little bit of everything.
We're here to take an early look at Super Bowl LI. We'll be examining the early odds, courtesy of OddsShark.com, and some of the top storylines heading into the game.
Super Bowl LI
What: Atlanta Falcons vs. New England Patriots
When: Sunday, February 5
Time: 6:30 p.m. ET
National TV: Fox
Line: NE -3
Prediction: New England 27-24 over Atlanta
Storylines to Follow
Offense vs. Defense
At first blush, one of the top storylines for this game is the matchup between Atlanta's offense and New England's defense.
The Falcons, who are rated first in overall offense by Pro Football Focus, averaged an NFL-best 33.8 points per game in the regular season. They have averaged 40 points per game in the postseason so far.
The Patriots, who are rated second in overall defense by Pro Football Focus, allowed an NFL-low 15.6 points per game in the regular season. They have allowed just 16.5 points per game in the playoffs.
If this seems like a familiar setting, it's likely because we saw a similar matchup in last year's Super Bowl. The Carolina Panthers led the NFL in scoring in 2015 with an average of 31.2 points per game. The Denver Broncos, meanwhile, led the league in yards allowed, with an average of just 283.1 per game.
Like this game, Super Bowl 50 featured well-balanced teams. The Carolina defense was certainly nothing to laugh about. The Broncos offense featured a future Hall of Famer at quarterback and some supremely talented skill-position players.
Defense won out in last year's title game, as the Broncos dominated the game and won 24-10.
We wouldn't expect Super Bowl LI to be as one-sided as last year's big game, but the similarities are part of the reason why our early prediction has the Patriots on top.
Dan Quinn Creating a New Identity in Atlanta
As we've mentioned, the Falcons are not a team that is based solely on offense. Atlanta has grown in a big way on the other side of the football over the past two years.
In 2014, the Falcons were rated 27th in overall defense by Pro Football Focus. This year, they are rated 15th. The team has also improved its pass rush and penchant for creating turnovers. The Atlanta defense has produced five sacks, three interceptions and a forced fumble in two postseason games.
This defensive turnaround is due largely to the presence of head coach Dan Quinn. The former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator has brought his aggressive attitude to the defense. He has also helped build the kind of defense he wants with young players like Keanu Neal and Deion Jones.
In addition, Quinn has helped forge a winning identity and a solid foundation for his team as a whole.
Falcons defensive end Dwight Freeney, who has seen a lot during his 15 pro seasons, recently explained how the culture has changed, per Tom Rock of Newsday:
This is probably one of the most enjoyable environments, locker rooms, meetings that I’ve been in during my career. They do a great job around here of keeping things upbeat, light, you know? I don’t know if it’s the fact that there are so many young guys that there’s always energy in the building. I’m not sure. But just walking around here, it’s a different feeling. It’s uplifting, energy that I think has a lot to do with Dan and how he likes to run his team.
This new identity has helped transform the Falcons from a 6-10 team in 2014 to a Super Bowl team just two seasons later.
The Brady-Belichick Legacy
This is the seventh time the Patriots are finding themselves in the Super Bowl with Brady at quarterback and with Bill Belichick as head coach. It's a record that helps show just how dominant the duo has been.
The legacy of the duo has taken its hits at times, though, most recently following the 2014 season. The Patriots were fined and stripped of draft picks after the league conceded there was likely a plot to deflate footballs for the goal of competitive advantage.
Brady was suspended for four games at the beginning of this season as a result.
Winning Super Bowl LI would help point the narrative more toward the greatness of Brady and Belichick and less toward events like Deflategate and Spygate.
It would also give the Patriots an opportunity to show up commissioner Roger Goodell, a man many believe unfairly targeted the Patriots in order to make an example of the franchise.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft is undoubtedly one of those people.
“Sometimes, the league really messes up, and I think they really messed this up badly,” Kraft recently said, per Phil Perry of CSNNE.com.
A win in two weeks would give Brady his fifth Super Bowl victory. He is currently tied with Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana as the only starting quarterbacks to lift the Vince Lombardi Trophy four times.
One more win might cement Brady's status as the greatest quarterback of the modern football era.