Now that the NFL's conference championships have been decided, we know that the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons are the two teams with a shot at winning Super Bowl LI.
This is an intriguing title matchup for a couple of reasons. For one, we have the league's best offense against the league's best scoring defense. The Falcons averaged an NFL-best 33.8 points per game during the regular season, while the Patriots allowed an NFL-low 15.6 points per contest.
We'll also get a quarterback matchup between Tom Brady, the grizzled veteran, and Matt Ryan, who is playing in his first Super Bowl. We're either going to have another victory by Brady and the old guard, or a sizable step for Ryan and the young Falcons team.
We're here to take an in-depth look at Super Bowl LI and the latest odds—courtesy of OddsShark.com. We'll be making our predictions for the game and digging into some of the top matchups to watch between the whistles on game day.
Super Bowl LI
What: New England Patriots vs. Atlanta Falcons
Where: NRG Stadium, Houston
When: Sunday, February 5
Time: 6:30 p.m. ET
National TV: Fox
Line: NE -3
Prediction: Patriots 27-24 over Atlanta
Matchups to Watch
Patriots O-Line vs. Atlanta Pass Rush
The Atlanta defense isn't what one might call an elite unit. However, the defense has proved effective, especially late in the season, because of its ability to create pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
As a team, the Falcons are rated 12th in pass rush by Pro Football Focus. The Falcons defense has produced five sacks in two postseason games, which has helped the unit limit opponents to just 20.5 points per game.
If the Patriots want to be able to match points with Atlanta's explosive offense, they're going to have to stonewall the pass rush. Pressuring Brady is one of the few ways opposing defenses can limit the Patriots quarterback, as the Houston Texans did back in the divisional round.
In that game, Brady completed less than 50 percent of his passes and tossed two interceptions.
The Pittsburgh Steelers couldn't figure out how to pressure Brady in the AFC title game, and their defense got carved up because of it. Part of the problem for Pittsburgh was New England's no-huddle attack, which likely prevented the Steelers defense from setting up any sort of exotic pressure.
New England simply rushed to the line, saw how the Steelers were aligned and then adjusted the play accordingly.
"We didn't really anticipate it like that," Steelers linebacker Bud Dupree said, per Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "It was more in their approach to the no-huddle, the checks they made right away. It was a great job by Tom Brady."
The no-huddle and Pittsburgh's lack of pressure allowed Brady to rack up 384 yards and three touchdowns.
Hitting Brady is one good way to slow that no-huddle and put the pressure back on the New England offense. This is why the battle between Atlanta's pass rush and New England's line—which is rated eighth in pass blocking by Pro Football Focus—will be one to watch.
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Atlanta's offense is so explosive because of the number of pass-catching weapons at Ryan's disposal. Guys like Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman can all catch the ball well and can all produce big things after the catch.
What's even better for Atlanta is the fact that offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan knows exactly how to put these weapons in position to succeed.
The Patriots, though, are pretty darn good at defending the pass. They have produced three sacks and four interceptions in the postseason alone and are rated first overall in pass coverage by Pro Football Focus for the season.
New England's stout defense and Atlanta's cadre of weapons is why the mental battle between Shanahan and Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia is going to be huge.
The Patriots are incredibly adept at taking away what an opposing offense does best. Against the Steelers, that was long passes to wide receiver Antonio Brown. Brown finished the game with seven receptions for 77 yards, but he never produced a true impact moment.
The Falcons have so many weapons, though, that double-teaming top target Jones won't be enough to derail the Atlanta offense. The Patriots will also want to make Atlanta one-dimensional by slowing Freeman and Coleman on the ground.
New England got lucky against Pittsburgh as star running back Le'Veon Bell left with an early groin injury and did not return. It won't be so lucky in Houston.
Of course, the Falcons will still have to deal with a Patriots run defense that is rated second overall by Pro Football Focus. If Atlanta can do this, it will maintain options on offense and the possibility of deep passes off play action.
If the Patriots can limit the long ball and slow the run, though, Ryan will be forced to dink and dunk the offense down the field with frequent short passes. This could increase the chances of the Patriots defense forcing a mistake.
Falcons Run Defense Against LeGarrette Blount
If the Falcons aren't able to rely on their quick-strike capabilities, then they're going to want as much time with the football as possible. This means Atlanta cannot allow the Patriots to control the tempo and grind the game out with bruising running back LeGarrette Blount.
Blount, who rushed for 18 touchdowns in the regular season, was mostly held in check by the Steelers last week—he had just 47 yards on 16 carries. However, when it was time to put the game away, the Oregon product found ways to earn tough yards.
At one point, he carried more than half of Pittsburgh's defense for extra yardage.
"LeGarrette is that kind of back," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick explained, per Zack Cox of NESN.com. "He's a big back. He's a horse. He's going to carry some guys with him and make tough yards."
If Atlanta can slow Blount, it will have more opportunities with the football and more chances to attack Brady with its pass rush. If New England can control the game on the ground, though, it will limit each of these opportunities for Atlanta.
Unfortunately for the Falcons, run defense is one of the few weaknesses the team actually possesses. While the team allowed an average of just 104.5 yards per game on the ground in the regular season (17th in the NFL), this was largely due to the opposition often being in catch-up mode. Pro Football Focus rates Atlanta just 26th in run defense for the year.
Slowing the run will have to be something the Falcons prepare to do over the next couple of weeks if they want to be able to rely on their usual game plan in the Super Bowl.