Super Bowl 51: Expert Consensus Picks for the Title Game
You may not have heard, but there's a rather important football game this weekend.
In fact, some have gone so far as to call it "Super."
On Sunday, the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons will lock horns in Houston for the 51st iteration of the biggest spectacle in sports. For the upstart Falcons, it's an opportunity to lift the Lombardi Trophy for the first time as the champions of the National Football League.
For the Patriots, it's the opportunity to make even more NFL history by appearing in a record ninth Super Bowl. A win would give quarterback Tom Brady his fifth victory in the game—a feat that's never been accomplished by a quarterback.
Hey...it wouldn't be a Super Bowl without super stakes.
There's no shortage of intriguing storylines in the game: the Falcons' league-best offense, starring wide receiver Julio Jones and quarterback Matt Ryan, going against the Patriots' No. 1-ranked scoring defense. Oh, yeah, and New England head coach Bill Belichick coaching in his record seventh Super Bowl.
As we have throughout the postseason, the NFL writers here at Bleacher Report have once again assembled to offer their opinions on who will dance under the ticker tape at NRG Stadium.
Here's how they see Super Bowl LI playing out.
And then there were none.
Heading into the conference championship games, only NFL Analyst Brad Gagnon had correctly picked all eight playoff games. Compliments of the Falcons' win over the Green Bay Packers, that perfect record is no more, dropping Gagnon into a three-way tie with NFL Lead Scout Doug Farrar and NFL Analyst Brent Sobleski.
None of our other writers can catch that group, but take heart—every member of the panel is batting at least .700 so far this postseason.
If this was baseball, they'd be golden.
As a group, we've fared even better—the consensus picks are tied with our trio of leaders at 9-1.
Let's hear it for teamwork!
Jason Cole, NFL National Lead Writer: 7-3 (1-1)
Gary Davenport, NFL Analyst: 7-3 (1-1)
Tyler Dunne, NFL Features Writer: 7-3 (1-1)
Doug Farrar, NFL Lead Scout: 9-1 (2-0)
Mike Freeman, NFL National Lead Writer: 7-3 (1-1)
Brad Gagnon, NFL Analyst: 9-1 (1-1)
Matt Miller, NFL Draft Lead Writer: 7-3 (2-0)
Dan Pompei, NFL Columnist: 7-3 (1-1)
Brent Sobleski, NFL Analyst: 9-1 (2-0)
Mike Tanier, NFL National Lead Writer: 7-3 (2-0)
Sean Tomlinson, NFL Analyst: 7-3 (1-1)
Consensus: 9-1 (1-1)
Tale of the Tape
What: Super Bowl LI
When: Sunday, February 5, 2017
Time: 6:30 p.m. ET
Where: NRG Stadium, Houston
Line (Per OddsShark): Patriots -3
Super Bowl LI is a battle of old meets new.
In addition to interminably long pregame shows (starting seven hours before kickoff) and ridiculously expensive ad rates (around $5 million for a 30-second spot), the old is something that's as familiar to the Super Bowl as the name of the game itself.
The AFC champion New England Patriots.
This marks the (record) ninth time the Patriots have played in the Super Bowl and the third during New England's current six-year streak of AFC Championship Game appearances. Back in 2011, the Pats came up short, falling 21-17 to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLVI.
Two years ago, it was a different story, as Malcolm Butler's game-clinching interception sealed a 28-24 win over the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX that lifted Tom Brady into rarefied air as one of only three NFL quarterbacks to win four Super Bowls.
Brady's 2016 got off to a rocky start, as the 39-year-old started the season by serving a four-game suspension for the Deflategate saga. However, despite insisting all along he did nothing wrong, Brady told ESPN.com's Mike Reiss that he's not out for a measure of payback against the league offices.
"I'm motivated for my teammates. They're all the motivation I need," Brady said. "It takes a lot of work to get to this point. Nothing that has happened in the past is going to help us win this game. What's going to help us win this game is going through that process we talked about and being ready to go. That's enough motivation for me."
Brady also told Reiss he's "very grateful" to be playing in his seventh Super Bowl.
"It's pretty cool for our team to be able to accomplish this," he said. "I think we've done a good job taking advantage of our opportunities. It's a pretty mentally and physically tough team that has proven itself over the course of a long season."
No members of the Atlanta Falcons are playing in their seventh Super Bowl. In fact, for the overwhelming majority of this year's NFC champions, Super Bowl LI marks their first trip to football's biggest stage.
This marks only the second time in franchise history the Falcons have advanced to the Super Bowl, and the first in almost two decades. That first trip didn't work out so well—the Denver Broncos waxed the Falcons, 34-19, in Super Bowl XXXIII.
Still, there's some inspiration this Falcons team can take from that one. In the NFC Championship Game that year, the Falcons traveled to Minnesota to face a 15-1 Vikings team that had set an NFL record with 556 points in the regular season. The Falcons prevailed 30-27 in overtime.
This year's Falcons squad isn't the underdog in the Super Bowl that one was in Minny, but many are still looking at this game as a matchup between the Dirty Bird David against the Beantown Goliath. It's a clash of youth against experience.
It's the third time the Super Bowl has been played in Houston, and just as in most respects, the Patriots have the experience edge there as well. Brady picked up his second Lombardi Trophy at Reliant Stadium back in February 2004, leading the Patriots past the Carolina Panthers 32-29 in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
That game is more famous for what happened at halftime (Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction") than anything on the field. Here's hoping Lady Gaga's halftime show is a bit less risque—which is something you rarely hear in regard to Lady Gaga.
The AFC Champions: The New England Patriots (16-2)
I know, I know. You're sick of hearing about how good the New England Patriots are—and of seeing them play in the Super Bowl. Almost everyone outside the Greater Boston metropolitan area is.
However, there's no denying the impressiveness of what the Patriots have accomplished in 2016.
Despite not having their star quarterback for the first four games of the season, the Patriots posted the NFL's best record at 14-2. Even without Tom Brady for that month and star tight end Rob Gronkowski for half the season, they finished the year fourth in the NFL in total offense. New England beat the Houston Texans, who finished with the league's No. 1 overall defense, 27-0...with its third-string quarterback.
The Patriots' mastery trickled over to defense, too. Before the season, they traded their best pass-rusher (Chandler Jones) to the Arizona Cardinals. During the season, they sent their best linebacker (Jamie Collins) to the Cleveland Browns. Despite that, New England ended the regular season first in the NFL in scoring defense, allowing only 15.6 points per game.
Atlanta offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan knows it won't be easy to move the ball against the Pats, telling reporters: "They have very good players all around ... players that are interchangeable, that can be pass-rushers, that can be linebackers, that can be corners, that can be safeties."
The versatility of New England's defenders allows the team to tailor its scheme to fit its opponent. As Karen Guregian of the Boston Herald reported, former Patriots great Rodney Harrison thinks Bill Belichick might take a page from past playbooks by getting physical with Atlanta's receivers—just as they did with the Greatest Show on Turf St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI.
"Obviously, Julio's a big guy," Harrison said. "He's been going across the middle the entire year, but there's only been a couple of receivers I've come across, where the more you hit 'em, the tougher they become. That was (former Steeler) Hines Ward and (Raven) Steve Smith. No matter how hard you hit 'em, those were the only guys you could not truly intimidate. A lot of receivers, the great ones, Marvin Harrison, you could intimidate them, if you hit 'em."
The New England offense is similarly versatile and also prone to changes in identity to exploit an opponent's weaknesses. One week, it could feature the power run game with tailback LeGarrette Blount. The next might highlight the aerial attack and wide receivers Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan. The one constant is Brady, who set an NFL record with a 14-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2016.
Brady's on the verge of making more history with a fifth Super Bowl win, but he told reporters that he's much more focused on the here and now than the historical implications of a potential victory.
"Well, I don't think I put it in that type of perspective," he said. "I never thought about winning a number of Super Bowls. I never thought I would be playing in the NFL. It's just all happened. It's my 17th year and it's still happening. I never really took any time to have any perspective. I've just been caught up in the moment of playing and preparing and getting ready to go. It's just gone very fast."
The Patriots are a team with precious few weaknesses led by arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history in Brady and arguably the greatest head coach in NFL history in Bill Belichick. It's no surprise the two are playing in their seventh Super Bowl together—nor that some find all that success off-putting.
The NFC Champions: Atlanta Falcons (13-5)
They say defense wins championships.
Well, offense can apparently get you to the threshold of one, because the 2016 Atlanta Falcons have been all about that side of the ball.
In the regular season, only the New Orleans Saints gained more yards per game than Atlanta's 415.8. The Falcons were as flexible as they were prolific, ranking in the league's top five in both passing and rushing yardage.
In the postseason, the Falcons have hit another gear altogether, piling up over 450 yards per contest.
The engine for that juggernaut of an offense has been quarterback Matt Ryan, who is the favorite to be named the NFL's Most Valuable Player on Saturday at the NFL Honors. Ryan's 4,944 passing yards this season ranked second in the NFL, as did his 38 touchdown passes. His passer rating of 117.1 paced the league.
Ryan has been even better in the playoffs. As ESPN.com's Jamison Hensley noted, Ryan's passer rating of 132.6 in this year's playoffs is the second-highest mark for a quarterback in NFL postseason history with 75 or more attempts.
Now Ryan has one more game ahead him, and as he told reporters at Monday's Super Bowl media night, he thinks the key to success Sunday is to treat this game just like the 18 that came before it.
"I think you just go and do your normal routine," Ryan said. "For us, it's getting back to work tomorrow and focusing on our meetings and getting on the practice field and making sure we do the right things. Just having that build up during the week that we normally have so we're ready to go when the ball gets kicked off on Sunday night."
There's no question who Ryan's top target is. Julio Jones led all NFC receivers with 1,409 receiving yards, and no wideout in the NFL averaged more yardage per game than Jones' 100.6.
New England Patriots cornerback Eric Rowe told Eric Edholm of Yahoo Sports that the Pats are well aware they will have their hands full with Jones in the Super Bowl.
"Deep threat, go-to guy … you're in the red zone, you know the fade is coming," Rowe said. "He's tall and he can jump. Strong hands. He's a burner. Route-running skills. He has every route in the book at anywhere on the field. And if you don't wrap him up on the [short catches], you better hold on because he can take you for a ride. I've seen him like rodeo dudes before. It's crazy."
Throw in a pair of tailbacks in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman who are as adept at exploiting defenses through the air as they are on the ground, and you have the makings of the NFL's most dangerous offense.
As Jones told Bleacher Report's Mike Tanier, that's without taking into account an underrated Atlanta offensive line.
"Matt, the wide receivers and the running backs get the [publicity]," Jones said, "but our offensive line keeps Matt Ryan upright and gives the running backs holes to run through."
Atlanta's young defense hasn't gotten nearly the publicity the offense has in 2016, and from a statistical standpoint, they weren't all that good in the regular season, allowing the eighth-most yardage leaguewide. However, they have improved in the postseason, making plays when they needed to against the Seattle Seahawks and a high-flying Green Bay Packers offense.
After beating Seattle in the divisional round, safety Ricardo Allen told ESPN.com's Vaughn McClure that no matter the opponent, he and his teammates intend to fly around the field.
"If there's a football and there's a field, we're going to go out there and play ball," Allen said. "We're like junkyards dogs in here, man. We don't care."
Sunday brings the biggest test of all. In the biggest game of all. Against the quarterback who has started more Super Bowls than anyone in NFL history.
The Pick: New England Patriots (6-5)
In some respects, this game feels similar to Super Bowl XLVIII: a seemingly unstoppable offense going up against one of the NFL's best defenses.
Defense won the day in a big way in that one, with the Seattle Seahawks waxing the Denver Broncos, 43-8.
But take heart, Falcons fans. If the vote for Super Bowl LI is any indication, our experts don't see a similarly lopsided affair in the offing. Nearly half of the panel picked the Falcons to pull off the upset.
NFL Analyst Brad Gagnon expects Matt Ryan to win the battle of superstar signal-callers:
Tom Brady has been phenomenal. Matt Ryan has been better. Julio Jones is a more dangerous weapon than anyone on the New England roster, and the Falcons are more balanced as well. They're hotter and healthier, and I think that underrated defense can hold up just enough.
NFL Lead Scout Doug Farrar, on the other hand, pointed to Atlanta's young defense as a potential key:
I'm taking the Falcons, because I have a belief in Atlanta's young defense that just barely puts them over the top. New England will be tough as always, but I believe that the speed of the Falcons defense will be able to handle whatever Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels throw at them. Falcons 31, Patriots 28.
Defense was the deciding factor for NFL Analyst Sean Tomlinson too—specifically Vic Beasley and his league-leading 15.5 sacks:
If Vic Beasley can get anything resembling consistent pressure on Tom Brady, then the Falcons have a solid chance to win in shootout fashion, as they so often do. That's a tough ask, of course, because Brady has only been sacked 19 times this season (including the playoffs). But if Brady's rhythm is disrupted and Matt Ryan is firing away, the upset quickly becomes very, very possible.
However, a slight majority (including this writer) expects Super Bowl LI to end with quite possibly the most awkward trophy-presentation ceremony in the history of sports—NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell handing the Lombardi to Brady and Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
As NFL National Lead Writer Mike Tanier wrote, it boils down to a matter of "been there, done that":
The Falcons have spent the playoffs—as well as much of the season—sneaking up on opponents like the Seahawks and Packers that may have been a little overrated based on reputation. I think there is an element of that at work here: They are facing a great-but-flawed Patriots team, not the sum total of a two-decade dynasty. If their defense was a little deeper or more experienced, I think they would win. But there are too many 21- to 25-year-olds who are still developing into their roles who are about to embark on the most mind-boggling experience of their lives, capped by a meeting with a guy who was doing this when they were seven years old. It's just too much of a climb for a defense that lacks the pass-rush intensity to throw Tom Brady off his game.
NFL Analyst Brent Sobleski echoed those sentiments:
The Super Bowl is the biggest stage for any professional athlete. The New England Patriots hold a decided advantage in experience dealing with the festivities and pressure. For the Atlanta Falcons, it's more than just Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. Head coach Dan Quinn relies heavily on 10 first- or second-year players. The moment may prove to be too big for the Falcons.
And while the Falcons are new to the madness that is the Super Bowl, as NFL National Lead Writer Mike Freeman pointed out, Darth Hoodie and his apprentice most assuredly are not:
It's just difficult to pick against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. They aren't perfect in the Super Bowl. They've obviously lost before, but they are as good a duo in this spot as the sport has ever seen. This isn't about picking against the Falcons as it is appreciating the brilliance of those two.
Experience was a big factor in my decision to pick the Patriots, too—both where it concerns the game itself and the fact that Brady was playing in the Super Bowl when half the Atlanta defense still thought Play-Doh was food.
But the Patriots are also a much more balanced team with a significantly better defense than the Falcons. In addition to leading the league in scoring defense, New England was also third against the run. And there hasn't been a better team in the last 25 years at taking away what an opponent does best.
If the Patriots can contain Jones and the Atlanta run game, a ton of pressure will shift both to the Falcons defense and their secondary receivers. I don't see that group holding up under the strain.
Patriots: Davenport, Freeman, Miller, Pompei, Sobleski, Tanier
Falcons: Cole, Dunne, Farrar, Gagnon, Tomlinson