The Atlanta Falcons have the best offense in the NFL, led by an MVP-caliber quarterback in Matt Ryan. But to get the franchise’s first Super Bowl victory they are going to have to beat the New England Patriots, owners of the league’s top defense.
Here are the three keys for how the Falcons can execute the perfect game plan to win Super Bowl LI.
Get out to an early lead
The easiest way to dictate game flow is to snag an early lead, and the Falcons showed an ability to do that during the season, including the playoffs. They led the league with the most opening drives with a score (11) and have scored on their opening drive in eight straight games, including the NFC championship game against the Green Bay Packers.
When leading, Atlanta has been able to maintain a 50/50 split between running and passing plays but sees that ratio move to 40/60 when trailing. Coach Bill Belichick is a football genius on a regular day, but give him insight into a team’s play-calling tendencies and his ability to game plan becomes that much harder to overcome.
A fast start will also put pressure on Tom Brady … not from the scoreboard but from the pass rush. Just as the Patriots will be better able to anticipate the Falcons’ play-calls if the Falcons are trailing, should the Pats need to pass often the Falcons’ pass-rushers will be able to chase Brady without fear of a handoff. And pass-rushing pressure has been the single biggest factor in tripping up Brady throughout his stellar career. Speaking of …
Pressure Tom Brady into making a mistake
Brady isn’t prone to mistakes — he set the record for fewest interceptions (two) thrown in a season — but his production, like most quarterbacks, suffers when facing a good pass rush. His passer rating dropped from 120.9 to 82.6 under pressure this season, which is roughly the difference between Ryan (117.1) and Joe Flacco (83.5) in 2016.
Pressuring Brady has also worked in the past. In Super Bowl XLII, the first time the Patriots lost to New York, the Giants pressured Brady on 23 of his 38 dropbacks, holding him to 91 yards and no touchdowns. In Super Bowl XLVI, another Patriots’ Super Bowl loss, the Giants pressured Brady on 20 of his 43 dropbacks, holding him to 94 yards with an interception.
More so than the overall passer rating, Brady’s completion percentage takes a big hit under pressure, going from 74.3 to 49.9 percent without a clean pocket to throw in. And he is 9-for-20 with 160 yards, a touchdown and interception under pressure during the 2016 playoffs.
Incompletions can become interceptions, and Atlanta is 9-2 this season when they get at least one interception.
Capitalize in the red zone with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman
New England’s defensive prowess can be discounted due to its strength of schedule, but the red-zone defense is clearly formidable. The Patriots held opponents to 4.55 points per trip inside the 20-yard line, the sixth-best mark during the regular season, allowing them to come away with a touchdown a little more than half of the time (52.3 percent, ninth-best in the league).
The best chance Atlanta has in the red zone, especially if inside the 10-yard line, is to use its two pass-catching running backs, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, who are difficult to defend in space.
Freeman and Coleman combined to catch 85 passes out of the backfield and rank No. 1 and No. 2 at the position in postseason yards per route run. No other running backs break the two-yards per route run mark. They also caught nine of 10 passes inside the 10-yard line, four for touchdowns, including this seven-yard rub play against the New Orleans Saints in man coverage in Week 17.
Plus, only one of New England’s linebackers, Dont’a Hightower, received a positive rating by the game charters at Pro Football Focus for their pass-coverage ability and Football Outsiders rated the Patriots 20th for their performance against pass-catching running backs.