For the eighth time in the Brady-Belichick era, the New England Patriots have played their way to February. After winning the Super Bowl two years ago against the Seattle Seahawks, the Pats are back in the big game, this time against the Atlanta Falcons.
Atlanta boats the league’s number one scoring offense and has been explosive in its two playoff games, blowing out both the Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers, respectively. And while they finished the regular season at 11-5, the Falcons look to be no push over with Matt Ryan and company at the helm.
The Falcons’ offense has been spearheaded by its passing game with the likes of Ryan, Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu exploiting secondaries around the NFL. However, the offense is multidimensional with the two-headed monster of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman coming out of the backfield.
Coleman is a dynamic pass-catching back whom Ryan uses as a safety net when facing heavy pressure or to gain critical yards close to the first down. Freeman is a more traditional back who bulldozes his way through the line and is hard to bring down. With an offense sporting two equally effective methods of moving the ball, it is no surprise that many are picking the Falcons to put up points against the Pats.
However, the Patriots defense is more than capable of stifling the prolific Atlanta offense. The No.1 scoring defense in the NFL this season, New England has been able to shut down opponents despite losing key components of last year’s D. Gone are Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins — traded away because of underlying contract concerns at the beginning of the season. In their place have been the not-so-flashy names of Kyle Van Noy, Chris Long and Barkevious Mingo.
While there were concerns as to how the Pats front seven would play in the wake of Jones’ and Collin’s departures, New England has thrived defensively. Malcom Brown and Alan Branch have combined to anchor the defensive line while Long, Trey Flowers and Jabaal Sheard have been excellent compliments to Dont’a Hightower — who has thrived in a contract year.
The secondary has been as advertised thus far, with Malcolm Butler continuing his stellar play since taking over as the team’s No. 1 cornerback in 2015. Devin McCourty once again was one of the league’s best safeties this season, while the emergence of Logan Ryan as the team’s second corner has made the Pats even better in the secondary.
Many pundits around the NFL have questioned whether or not the Patriots will be able to defend Julio Jones. And while the safe answer is that no one can contain the lethal Jones, the Patriots secondary is one of the few that can limit the prolific wideout.
Last week against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Butler effectively held Antonio Brown, arguably the best receiver in the game, to just seven catches, 77 yards and no scores. Brown has been in the conversation for the league’s best receiver with Jones and Odell Beckham Jr. Twice Butler has defended Brown and limited him from inflicting too much damage.
In New England’s 27-16 win over Pittsburgh in October, Brown still left his mark on the game, hauling in seven passes for 106 yards, but was kept out of the end zone by Butler. Three months later, Butler was even more effective as Brown totaled 40 less yards — even with Ben Roethlisberger back under center.
Nevertheless, Butler will probably have the duty of covering Sanu, who scored a touchdown on five receptions for 52 yards in last Sunday’s win over Green Bay. With Butler covering Atlanta’s number two receiver — a tactic often employed by the Patriots — the task of covering Jones will fall to the rest of the New England secondary.
Logan Ryan will be charged with shadowing Jones and will most likely be aided by the help of McCourty over the top. This double-covering combines both man and zone coverage, meaning that the Pats will have an answer for the receiver no matter which strategy they decide to go with.
Two games ago, the Pats used the same coverage on Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkins. And while Matt Ryan is obviously a much better quarterback than Brock Osweiler, limiting a receiver like Hopkins to six catches for 65 yards and no scores is significant.
Whichever coverage New England decides to go with, expect coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to have a complex plan to limit the damage of Jones.
While the Falcons also have a running game that can be effective against the Pats, the New England front seven should be more than capable of handling Freeman and Coleman. Branch, Brown and Hightower all have the capability to get behind the offensive line and stop a traditional runner like Freeman, not to mention put big pressure on Ryan. Faster players such as Sheard, Van Noy and Shea McClellin can also contain Coleman if he runs around the line to the sidelines, though they have to be careful if the Falcons use Coleman in a receiver-type role.
There is no doubt that the Falcons have multiple weapons, a good and competent quarterback and are the best offense in the league. And while the Patriots’ defense has benefited from a weaker regular season schedule, they are more than capable of limiting the damage inflicted by Matt Ryan and company. Combining that with an offense that sports Tom Brady, I’m taking the Pats 34-24 over the Falcons.