We're finally here. It's time for Super Bowl LI in Houston.
If the Atlanta Falcons win, it's probably the biggest victory in the history of Atlanta sports. (The 1995 Braves were the year after the strike year, and while the 1980 Georgia Bulldogs are close, one must at least pretend to acknowledge that there are a couple Georgia Tech fans in town.) If the New England Patriots win, Tom Brady becomes the first quarterback ever to win five Super Bowls, and he gets to stick it to Roger Goodell on the grandest stage of all. The Patriots don't usually blow teams away in the Super Bowl. And the Falcons look like they can score anytime they want. Baltimore-San Francisco this isn't: Points will fall from the sky.
When: Sunday, 6:30 p.m. ET, FOX
Where: NRG Stadium, Houston, Texas
Most recent meeting: September 29, 2013: Patriots 30, Falcons 23. The Falcons were actually favored going into this game, but the score wasn't as close as it looked: The Pats led 30-13 midway through the fourth quarter.
Simple Rating System numbers: New England 9.3, Atlanta 8.5
Current Line: Patriots by 3.
How the Falcons can win
1. Keep those offensive good vibes going. The Falcons have been on a crazy roll on offense for about three months now, to the point that comparisons to the "Greatest Show on Turf" don't seem entirely out of bounds. The Packers' offense wasn't terrible in the NFC Championship Game, but there was no way they were going to be able to keep up. Matt Ryan looks as comfortable as he has in his career, and why wouldn't he? His team is scoring at will; he has weapons everywhere he looks; he has a coordinator who is on an all-time hot streak. Bill Belichick and the Patriots will do everything in their power to disrupt the Falcons' timing. But everyone else has been trying to do that too.
2. Put pressure on Tom Brady. Like, a ton. OK, fine, just knock the crap out of him. This is always the book on Brady, though it feels like less "the book" and more "he's the best quarterback of all time and we're looking for some sort of flaw." But Brady has shown that he can be shaken a little bit, particularly if you hit him early. This isn't a particularly distinguished Falcons defense, but they still have extremely large men who can do all sorts of damage to a 39-year-old man. Can you imagine if Brady's big culmination night ends with him in concussion protocol? Don't think the Falcons aren't going to try to make it happen.
3. Use those backs in space. The Patriots are particularly skilled at shutting down a team's top receiver, so you can expect them to do what they can go make Julio Jones disappear. But Ryan threw touchdowns to 13 different players this year. In particular, look for Tevin Coleman, who is an excellent sleeper MVP candidate. The Patriots have a solid defense, but not one blessed with otherworldly individual talent. Coleman seems uniquely designed to exploit that.
How the Patriots can win
1. Stop Atlanta on the first drive. The Falcons have scored touchdowns on their first possession in eight consecutive games -- an insane factoid, by the way -- and that has led to Ryan and company finding their rhythm right from the get-go. At this point, they might get rattled if they don't score on the first drive. Teams play better, looser when they're ahead, and the Falcons have had that advantage for three months. This is the time to disrupt that.
2. Throw the Falcons some of that Belichick curveball magic. Maybe it's a trick play. Maybe it's an early onside kick. Maybe it's finally getting James White a ton of touches. Dan Quinn is a solid coach, but Belichick revels in getting in other coaches' heads. He will pull off all sorts of weirdness. Remember, the Falcons have essentially been rolling without much resistance for half a season. Belichick won't let it be that simple for them: This reeks of a mind-game party for him.
3. Get Brady the ball last. Even with the success of the Patriots' defense, this game is going to feature a lot of points. The back-and-forth should be relentless. So this just needs to be timed right. Can the Patriots keep up with the Falcons' scoring? Maybe. But if this game is either tied or has the Pats facing a one-score or less deficit in the final minutes, is there a person on the planet who doesn't think Brady is going to pull it off? Maybe the Falcons will score a lot. But Brady seems destined to be the guy who scores last.
This has all the hallmarks of a classic. Two incredible offenses, a legend against the current MVP, the teams many advanced analytics believe were the best two teams in football this year. Here's where I end up landing: The Falcons really do look like the "Greatest Show on Turf" Rams, who were unstoppable … until Belichick had two weeks to figure them out. The Patriots won't be able to stop the Falcons. But they'll do enough to give Brady all the space he needs. Every athlete dreams of a moment like Brady has set up here. Do you really think he's not going to make it reality?
New England Patriots 31, Atlanta Falcons 24