You would be hard pressed to find someone surprised that Bill Belichick's New England Patriots will head to the Super Bowl for a record-breaking seventh time (ninth time in franchise history) in just under two weeks. Likewise, you would be hard pressed to find someone who picked the Atlanta Falcons as NFC Champions. Yet, if the second half of the season has proved anything, it's that if anyone can thwart the Patriots, it's Dan Quinn's Falcons.
Matt Ryan entered the postseason as the least successful QB in the field. In the lyrics of Lin-Manuel Miranda's "Hamilton," "He has something to prove. He has nothing to lose." But now the pressure is on, and certainly Tom Brady is not going to be affected by nerves with so many Super Bowls already under his belt. In fact, the postseason is where Belichick and Brady shine. Meanwhile, this is Ryan's first Super Bowl appearance, and only the second in Falcons franchise history.
So how did the Falcons end up here? In yesterday's NFC Championship game against the Green Bay Packers, the Atlanta defense broke right through Green Bay's offensive line. In fairness, the Packers are injury-riddled right now, but that did not seem to slow down Patriots WR Chris Hogan last night, who suffered a thigh injury in week 20. Ultimately, Packers QB Aaron Rodgers is among the best offensive players in the league, maybe even better than Brady this season, so the fact that the Falcons essentially shut him down is promising for a team that will need to put extremely high pressure on the man who many consider to be the greatest QB the NFL has ever seen. The Falcons defense that helped end the Packers' eight-game winning streak by keeping the opposing team scoreless through half time is the same defense that put up abysmal numbers earlier in the season. Since then, however, Atlanta's defensive line has improved exponentially.
"Some people said this defense is too young and we're going to make a lot of mistakes," said 15-year veteran Falcons defensive end Dwight Freeney to NFL Media Columnist Jeffri Chadiha. "But I could look at the other side of it. These guys are young, they have energy and they can run. If we get them on the right page and understanding what they need to do fast, we could be dangerous."
A young, spry defensive line could be useful against Brady who, even though he is as tireless as a vicenarian, is still 39-years-old. Conversely, even Ryan admitted the importance of veterans in the playoffs.
"Experience counts; experience helps," he admitted after clinching the NFC title.
Of course, the Matt Ryan-Julio Jones dyad brings a different type of experience to the table. In October, they became the first duo ever to put up 500 passing and 300 receiving yards. Jones has the size and speed to put points on the board, but will those points be greater than what Brady accumulates?
Probably not. The Patriots and the Falcons will give each other a difficult time on both sides of the ball, but in the end, its likely that the Belichick-Brady squad will inch past Atlanta for a fifth Super Bowl win.
Brady's offense is a powerhouse, but the New England defense is what will give the team the edge it needs to defeat Atlanta. Yesterday, the Patriots proved that their defense can still have success against a tough offensive team, such as the Steelers. In the postseason alone, the Pats have four interceptions and three sacks. Overall, New England has allowed fewer passing yards, rush yards, points, and third down conversions per game than Atlanta. If the Falcons can be more like the Patriots and use the defensive line to attack and break through the blockers, they stand a solid chance to rob Brady and Belichick of another victory. But so far, the Falcons have showed that they beat teams primarily by scoring more, rather than preventing scoring by their opponent.
That's going to be tough when it's Belichick's offensive line staring them down on the other side of the field.