Super Bowl 51: Chris Simms' Predictions for the Title Game
Each year, I root for a few incompletions to start off the Super Bowl.
I'll admit it doesn't make for good football. But it probably ensures my dad's three-decade-old Super Bowl record stays intact for another year—and that's something I want him to have forever.
For the uninitiated, Phil Simms tore the Denver Broncos a new one back in Super Bowl XXI. Only three of his 25 passes hit the ground (all three should've been caught), and in the second half, he rattled off 10 completions in a row. I was too young to understand what the hell that Super Bowl-record 88 completion percentage meant. I did happen to get a pretty well-publicized trip to Disney World out of it, though.
In retrospect, it's pretty amazing 'Ol Phil has held that record down as long as he has. I remember watching Troy Aikman's blowout bowl against the 1992-93 Bills and thinking it was over. He only completed 73.3 percent of his throws that day. Two decades later, I thought Eli Manning (75 percent) might've let my dad pass the torch to another Giants quarterback in Super Bowl XLVI. I was wrong. Only Drew Brees (82.05 percent) in Super Bowl XLIV has ever come close to joining my dad in the '80s.
Tom Brady and Matt Ryan have as good a shot as any to take the mantle this year. I'm rooting for an awesomely quarterbacked game—just not awesome enough to let this one record sneak out of the Simms family.
Super Bowl Cliche of the Day
Anyone putting a Super Bowl terminology bingo board together better put "Deflategate" right at the center.
It's bound to come out of Joe Buck's mouth at least once or twice. After all, Brady served a four-game suspension for the whole thing earlier this season. And he might meet up with Roger Goodell at an awkward MVP ceremony if things go well for the Pats.
I, for one, hope every Deflategate storyline goes the same way as those footballs did. I'm so damn tired of analyzing an event that happened more than two years ago. But I'm not sure the broadcast team that's airing this year's big game will feel the same way.
Super Bowl 51 MVP Dark Horse
Prediction: Taylor Gabriel
Seven of the last 10 Super Bowl MVPs have been signal-callers.
But a big Taylor Gabriel game could buck that trend. There's so much attention about to be paid to Julio Jones that the speedy slot receiver could be in for a career-defining performance.
Only one facet of the Falcons offense needs to click for Gabriel to pop off. Should Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman find a little early success running the football, New England might be forced to bring a safety down. The ex-Browns wideout can scorch single-high safety looks if that happens.
What if it doesn't? Gabriel is still the Falcons' version of Tyreek Hill—and still a threat to take a simple screen pass the distance when his number's called.
Prediction: Deion Jones
So much of Atlanta's success is predicated on a guy who was training for the NFL Scouting Combine this time last year.
Keep an eye on linebacker Deion Jones. If an upset goes down in Houston, it'll be because No. 45 handled about six different jobs in the middle of Dan Quinn's defense.
Those jobs include but are not limited to: aligning his defensive teammates (not easy if Brady goes quick count), determining Patriots formations and shifts, peeling off some of the most physical guards he's seen his entire life, sifting through the mix of crossing routes and running back option routes New England's planned, and, last but not least, wrapping up to make sound tackles.
If that sounds like a tough task for a rookie, that's because it is. Keep your eyes locked on him.
Assistant Coach You Oughta Know
Prediction: Brian Flores, Patriots linebackers coach
Meet the next branch of the Bill Belichick coaching tree, everyone.
Brian Flores has personality for days. He's got a keen command of the defense, and he's tough as nails. From my time up with the team, it was clear he's the next guy franchises will want when coordinators Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia leave.
And his positional group should come in the crosshairs fairly often. New England's linebackers will need to be sharp to handle all the running back and tight end work Atlanta likes to throw at a team. It's on Flores to make sure the Patriots are ready.
They will be. I once saw Flores get in a shoving match with an NFL center to give the scout defense more time to line up. It's clear he'll do anything in his power to give his guys an edge.
Super Bowl Stat to Brag About
Prediction: 40-plus-yard plays allowed
Did you know Brady can join Charles Haley as the only two NFL players to win five Super Bowls?
Did you know that Atlanta's offense is the most dangerous group (33.8 points per game) Belichick has ever seen in a Super Bowl?
Now you do. So here's one more stat that is sure to impress all the people at your big-game party this Sunday—and it involves plays of 40 yards or more.
New England's defense allowed five such plays all regular season. Conversely, Atlanta's offense has churned out more than one of those plays per week (17) over that same span. Something's gotta give in Houston.
And that something will end up determining who wins the game. Atlanta's offense thrives on chunk gains; it's not the best red-zone offense around. Prevent it from scoring from far out, and New England probably prevents the Falcons from pulling the upset.
Houston, They Have a Problem
Prediction: Falcons interior defense vs. over-the-middle Patriots receivers
I've been highlighting Atlanta's Super Bowl kryptonite all week from Radio Row.
Guys like Deion Jones, Keanu Neal and De'Vondre Campbell are ridiculously talented—there's no question about that. They also happen to be ridiculously young, and these rookies are up against the quarterback with more playoff seasoning than anyone.
New England is also playing a watered-down version of the same Seattle zone defense it faced in its last Super Bowl win. Brady will throw eight kinds of routes into the heart of that scheme—rub routes, shallow crossers, jerk routes, you name it—and dare the young Falcons to stop them. I'm not sure they can.
More Passing Yards: Tom Brady or Matt Ryan?
Prediction: Tom Brady
Consider Brady's last Super Bowl outing as a reference point for his next one.
He faced an identical style of defense. He squared off against a higher-caliber of defender. And he still put up big numbers (328 yards, four touchdowns) that earned him a third Super Bowl MVP nod.
Brady's experience against the Seattle Cover 3 bail scheme is the deciding factor here. He knows where to go with the football against a zone defense—just ask Pittsburgh, which played nothing but zone in the AFC Championship Game and got ripped to shreds for it. Brady could do that all over again.
Flip the script, and you'll see a very different plan of attack. I wouldn't be surprised to see Kyle Shanahan's offense come out running, all in the name of keeping Brady and Co. off the field. Ryan will get his yards, but a more balanced attack should keep him behind Brady all game long.
More Sacks: Trey Flowers and Dont'a Hightower or Vic Beasley and Brooks Reed?
Prediction: Trey Flowers and Dont'a Hightower
It takes a pass rush like the 2007 Giants to really startle New England.
Atlanta doesn't have one. Head coach Dan Quinn will mix up his coverages, but he doesn't have the bodies to mix and rotate out rushers. The Falcons defensive line also doesn't possess size; New England's front five linemen will look noticeably bigger, even to the casual viewer at home.
In short, Atlanta doesn't have the positional versatility New England does. You'll see Trey Flowers over tackles, then shift inside to guard. You'll see Dont'a Hightower scoot to outside linebacker after two downs as a run-stopper. It's all in the name of getting the best pass-rushing mismatch, and no one knows how to do that better than Belichick.
Under/Over: Julio Jones Receptions
New England's secondary doesn't really have an answer for Julio Jones.
So what I think it'll do is this: Eric Rowe will play a slightly off-coverage zone or man technique, followed by safety help up top. That ought to limit the number of deep-ball connections Jones can receive, which is why I'm taking the under.
With one caveat, of course. Shanahan is the king of bringing Jones on underneath routes when he sends the rest of his team on a four-verts concept—basically everyone else goes deep while Jones gets open underneath. It's a simple way to spring No. 11 for easy catches, and if Atlanta repeats that, it'll spring its top wideout for nine receptions or more.
More Receiving Yards: Patriots RBs or Falcons RBs?
Prediction: Patriots running backs
To answer this prediction, I'll kindly refer you to Shane Vereen's stat line from Super Bowl XLIX.
Remember, Vereen was the receiving back from that 2014 championship Patriots team. His 11 catches in the flat and on backfield option routes turned the tide of that game—and rewrote Super Bowl history books in the process.
Flash-forward to this season. New England hasn't lost a game that Dion Lewis has been active for, in large part because it uses him exactly as it used Vereen. Lewis will be New England's Cover 3 zone-buster, and he'll out-receive even the best running back/receiving tandem in Freeman and Coleman.
More Touchdowns: Mohamed Sanu or Chris Hogan?
There's a realistic scenario in which Mohamed Sanu and Chris Hogan both find the end zone in Super Bowl LI.
In fact, I'm counting on it. Both No. 2 wide receivers can take advantage of a lack of defensive attention and wiggle free from coverage. And both guys are playing their best football of late.
I'll leave myself a little breathing room with Sanu, though. We haven't seen the former part-time Rutgers quarterback try his hand at throwing a gadget pass—yet. Shanahan might save that trick for when the Patriots least expect it.