HOUSTON — Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots are at home in Houston, where they won Super Bowl XXXVIII, and accustomed to the NFL’s biggest stage.
The Atlanta Falcons are in their second Super Bowl and strive to secure the Lombardi Trophy for the first time in franchise history on Sunday in Super Bowl LI.
“It is a great privilege to be here and represent the AFC in this game,” Belichick said of preparing for his 10th Super Bowl, including three as an assistant coach. “It is where you want to be at the end of the year. We are here this year. We are proud to be here.”
The Falcons, in head coach Dan Quinn’s second year, rode the NFL’s highest-scoring offense (33.8 points per game) to the top of the NFC. The trophy on the line Sunday is the hardware that matters, but Atlanta’s achievements already include offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan being named assistant coach of the year and Matt Ryan as offensive player of the year. The MVP award was handed out Saturday night, and Ryan won as expected.
Belichick and the Patriots are hailed for finding ways to eliminate the top playmakers of the opposition, but choosing where to start with Atlanta is no easy decision.
Wide receiver Julio Jones averaged 17 yards per reception and will command extra attention, Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan said, but the Falcons also thrived in the running game. As the only team to start all five offensive linemen in every game this season, there’s cohesion around big-ticket free agent addition Alex Mack. Mack was the top-rated run blocker in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus, and Atlanta’s running back tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman averaged more than 170 yards from scrimmage in 2016.
Jones said he will likely play “everywhere” in the formation to dictate matchups, but the Patriots just shut down Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown in the AFC title game despite the Pittsburgh Steelers establishing that hide-and-seek approach to formation changes.
“I don’t think there’s much Bill and his staff hasn’t seen before,” Shanahan said. “They’ve seen a lot of football and they do it as good as anyone. The main thing is giving your players confidence going into the game knowing that when we do see what they’re doing, you give our players the ability to adjust for us to go in a number of difference directions. They’re as good as it gets, so we know it’ll be a huge challenge, something that we’re working at just like they are. When the game starts, it’s going to come down to trying to put our guys in good position and enjoy watching them go.”
The Patriots are plotting how to handle Ryan, which starts with making him uncomfortable in the pocket. Quinn said turnovers — a major issue in the Falcons’ nosedive from a 5-0 start in 2015 — might decide the game. But he also believes the defense that grabs the advantage early will also have a big edge.
Atlanta’s front five isn’t bulletproof. Ryan, a pocket passer, was heavily pressured in losses to the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles in the regular season — film the Patriots have no doubt reviewed in their two weeks of preparation. New England defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said the risk in sending an extra body to make Ryan move from his launch point is that approach leaves Coleman and Freeman open in space, where they’ve been destructive.
“They do an unbelievable job of making guys either miss in open space, whether it’s tackling or in your approach angles,” Patricia said. “Their vision that they run with is phenomenal. What’s great is when they get them out of the backfield, the passing game — great for them, not for me — is trying to defend them. They run receiver routes, the quarterback trusts them to get the ball to them very quickly.”
Quinn was defensive coordinator of the Seahawks two years ago in Glendale, Ariz., when the Patriots beat Seattle with a dramatic interception at the goal line from cornerback Malcolm Butler. But the memorable plays from that game to Quinn were Brady piling up completions with ease in the second half, including what proved to be the game-winning score to wide receiver Julian Edelman in the final minute.
Quinn’s defense was 27th in the NFL in points allowed and starts four rookies, which could be viewed as blood in the water for Brady, who is one win from setting the modern-day record with five Super Bowl wins.
“When you have this many young guys feeling their way and making strides quickly — that’s the most important thing — we don’t really look at the risk side of things,” Quinn said. “They wouldn’t be in there if they weren’t ready. They’ve earned it.”
Brady said he will not be motivated by any grudge against commissioner Roger Goodell, who suspended Brady for the first four games of the 2016 season for his role in Deflategate. In 12 games this season, Brady was sacked just 15 times and had a TD-to-INT ratio of 28-12. Against Atlanta, a defense built on speed, the Patriots could install an extra offensive lineman or tight end and play power football to force the Falcons to adjust.
Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount averaged 3.9 yards per carry and had 18 touchdowns on 299 carries.
“Tom Brady is a future Hall of Fame quarterback. It’s hard to stop a guy like that that knows defenses,” Falcons defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux said. “He’s seen it all. The thing that we have to do is rattle him and make sure he’s not comfortable in the pocket.
“We know in this league that the ball comes out 2.4, 2.5 (seconds) 90 percent of the time, so any way we can affect him by getting our hands up, or getting a hit and getting him rattled, anything we can do to disrupt him is going to be great for us.”