Tom Brady and the New England Patriots will be chasing history as they attempt to stop the Atlanta Falcons from claiming their first Super Bowl crown here Sunday.
More than 100 million homes across the United States and millions more worldwide will tune in for the American football showpiece in Houston, which sees Brady aiming to become the most decorated quarterback of all time.
Ahead of the match, Sport360 examines where the tie will be won and lost at NRG Stadium.
Staying afloat in the first quarter
For both these teams, the first quarter could make all the difference. With how good the offences are, falling too far behind is not an option.
They’ll likely have to hold serve by scoring on almost every possession, right from the start. The Patriots have scored zero points in their previous six Super Bowl first quarters, whereas the Falcons enter having found the end zone on eight straight opening drives.
New England can certainly come from behind, as they did in 2015 against Seattle, but perhaps the circumstances will make Bill Belichick opt to receive the ball if they win the toss, as opposed to deferring like they normally do.
Getting a pass rush on Brady without blitzing
It’s no secret what the blueprint is to beat Tom Brady: get pressure on him without sending extra rushers. Which Falcons pass rush will show up though?
In the regular season, Atlanta ranked 27th in the league in pressure rate at 24.9 per cent. In the playoffs, they’ve churned out a 44.9 per cent pressure rate, a mark which would easily have been the best during the season.
But the Falcons’ up-tick has come with a rise in blitz rate to 36.0 per cent. Tom Brady has always been phenomenal against the blitz and this season he went 61-of-99 for 838 yards, 11 touchdowns and no interceptions for a top-ranking passer rating of 125.7 against extra pressure.
Avoiding a Julio explosion
We’ve heard it ad nauseum these past two weeks: Bill Belichick is notorious for taking away a team’s best weapon. So what does that mean going against a freak of nature like Julio Jones?
It means Belichick will do everything he can to ensure a gameplan which doesn’t allow Jones to get out of the box with big plays.
Even if Jones finishes with a glossy stat line with plenty of receptions and yards at the end of the day, the Patriots will live with it if it means avoiding giving up chunks at a time.
Whether it’s Malcolm Butler or someone else lined up on Jones, it’s almost a certainty the corner will have safety help over the top.
Utilising running backs in the passing game
If these teams can run the ball with success, that’ll of course make a huge difference. But how the running backs are used in the passing game will be just as pivotal.
Dion Lewis and James White are both options who can create mismatches for New England, while Atlanta’s duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman can do the same.
Tom Brady can use the no-huddle when Lewis is on the field to put the Falcons’ defence in uncomfortable situations, while Matt Ryan can target Freeman or Coleman when a large portion of the Patriots’ defensive focus is fixated on Julio Jones.
Expect to see a lot of swing, flat, angled and wheel routes.
Converting in the red zone
Neither team can settle for field goals, especially when they get a sniff of the end zone. For Atlanta’s offence, as prolific as they’ve been, their red zone touchdown percentage of 63.16 ranked just 10th in the league.
That’s far from bad, but it should be higher for a historically-dominant attack. One of the major reasons why New England had the best scoring defence this season is they hold up in the red zone, where they allowed a touchdown 50 per cent of the time – tied for the sixth-best mark.
They’ll let you beat them between the 20s but not in the money area. Where did the Falcons defence rank? 72.13 per cent. As in dead last.
It’s the Super Bowl, so naturally there’s more on the line than just the Lombardi Trophy.
Fair or not, legacies often hang in the balance and we often define players’ careers by whether or not they earned a ring.
This game may cement Tom Brady’s status as the greatest quarterback of all-time if he can do what no other in his position has ever done before: win a fifth title.
It may also firmly entrench Bill Belichick as the greatest coach ever, putting him ahead of Vince Lombardi if he can slow down one of the greatest offences in history with another master-stroke of coaching.
But if Brady and Belichick lose on the big stage, even if it’s for a third time, it’s unlikely our view of what they’ve accomplished during their unprecedented run will alter.
It’s also likely, considering Brady’s Benjamin Button-like aging process and Belichick’s continued presence, we see them in the Super Bowl again before it’s all said and done.
That’s why this Super Bowl is more important for the Atlanta Falcons and their city.
Let’s start with the wider scope. Atlanta isn’t considered one of the greatest sporting cities in the United States, but it should be.
Spare me the fairweather comments. Anecdotally, we often hear not enough fans show up to games to support the local teams. Well, if you look at the NFL’s average attendance for this season, Atlanta had the 14th largest crowd at 69,999.
You may think that number was influenced by how successful of a season the Falcons had. The answer: not really. In the past three years, when the Falcons went 8-8 in 2015, 6-10 in 2014 and 4-12 in 2013, Atlanta actually averaged a higher attendance than 2016 and ranked 13th in the league each time.
If your teams aren’t winning much, the spotlight usually won’t fall on the fans. Which is why with a Super Bowl win, Atlanta supporters can finally earn some recognition and deserved respect.
A victory would also end plenty of futility.
We just saw Cleveland and Chicago remarkably erase their massive championship droughts in the same year when the Cavaliers reached the pinnacle and the Cubs tasted glory, but Atlanta isn’t all that far behind in terms of hard luck across their four major sporting franchises.
In total, Atlanta’s teams are a jaw-dropping 1-for-167 in winning titles. That ‘one’ is courtesy of the Atlanta Braves in 1995, which doesn’t sound all that long ago, but certainly feels like it.
Sure, the city is often more focused on college sports, especially college football, but that doesn’t take away the hurt the fans of the professional teams feel. By beating New England, that pain can quickly turn to pure joy.
It’s crucial the Falcons capitalise on this opportunity. Not because they’re necessarily one-hit wonders or not built to get to this point again, but because the NFL landscape can change instantly. Hell, it’s designed to. The Patriots are the exception, not the rule.
The Falcons have also gotten this far in major part due to their world-beating offence, whose orchestrator on the sidelines, Kyle Shanahan, is leaving for a head coaching gig in San Francisco in the offseason. Maybe Matt Ryan and Co will be just fine without him, but it’s hard to think they’ll remain as dominant.
So here it is Atlanta, here’s your stage to shine. Who knows when you’ll get the chance again.
Who do you think will win?
In part one, Asser and Christ discuss if and how the Patriots can slow down the Falcons’ historically-potent offence, breaking down the match-up between wide receiver Julio Jones and New England’s secondary and how Atlanta’s running back duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman will be key.