By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The most notable matchup in Super Bowl LI pits the Atlanta Falcons’ No. 1 scoring offense against the Patriots’ No. 1 scoring defense. As Tony Massarotti pointed out, the last time such a matchup occurred was a lopsided win for the defense, when the Seattle Seahawks dismantled the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII. In fact, the team with the top-ranked defense has won nine out of 11 such matchups.
That historical edge to defensive teams certainly bodes well for Bill Belichick’s defense as they prepare to take on the Falcons’ high-powered offense, led by likely league MVP Matt Ryan at quarterback. But to take it a step further, how have Belichick’s Patriots historically performed on defense when going up against the league’s best offensive attack?
Since the start of the 2001 season, including playoffs, Belichick-led Patriots defenses have gone up against the team that finished the regular season with the league’s No. 1 scoring offense 10 times. On three other occasions, the Patriots themselves had the No. 1 offense but their defense went up against the league’s No. 2 offense. The Patriots are 9-4 in those games, 3-1 in the playoffs.
Of course, the wins and losses are based on a wide range of variables that have changed over the course of the past 16 seasons, some of which the Patriots defense could not control. Different seasons, teams, games, opponents, locations, and in-game situations. Constantly changing defensive personnel. But 13 games is still a large sample size for an NFL team, almost a full season’s worth of games – and the one constant through all of them has been Belichick, who once again has his defense playing at a high level in 2016.
On average, in the 13 games that the Patriots defense has faced the best possible offensive opponent, they have allowed 8.5 points fewer than what the opposing offense averaged during the regular season. A quick example: the 2004 Indianapolis Colts finished the regular season averaging 32.6 points; in Week 1 on the road against the Patriots, they scored 24 points. The Patriots won 27-24.
The most famous example is easily Super Bowl XXXVI, when the Patriots slowed the St. Louis Rams’ Greatest Show On Turf to a crawl with physicality and game-changing plays like Ty Law’s pick-six. In the 2006 Divisional Playoff, the Patriots held the high-powered Chargers offense (30.8 points per game) to 21 points in an ugly and uneven — but ultimately effective — performance.
The 2013 AFC Championship Game was not the best day for the defense, as Peyton Manning carved them for 400 passing yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. But to hold the most prolific offense in league history (37.9 points per game) to 26 points on their home field could have still been enough had the depleted Patriots offense been close to full strength or been able to execute with what they had. It’s also fair to note that star corner Aqib Talib went down with an injury in the first quarter, which really opened things up for Manning and the Broncos. The Patriots can’t afford that kind of a loss against the Falcons, either.
The most recent example of the Patriots defense facing the NFL’s No. 1 offense came in Week 13 of the 2014 regular season when they faced the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. Aaron Rodgers was 24-for-38 passing with 368 yards and two touchdowns, including a back-breaking 45-yarder to Jordy Nelson just before halftime. The Patriots hardly shut the Packers down, but to go to Lambeau and hold an offense that averaged 30.4 points on the season to 26 points was a respectable effort – and, of course, that particular Patriots defense proved good enough to complement Tom Brady and win the Super Bowl.
There are two major outliers to the Patriots’ history against No. 1 offenses. The famous one came in the 2004 AFC Divisional Round, when they masterfully held Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts (32.6 points per game) to just three points, highlighted by Law’s three interceptions. Manning threw a then-record 49 touchdown passes during the 2004 regular season.
The other outlier came in Week 12 of the 2009 season, when the eventual Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints torched the Patriots for 38 points. Drew Brees threw for 371 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions and a perfect 158.3 passer rating in the Saints’ 38-17 win. Belichick famously said on the sideline during that game, “I just can’t get these guys to play the way I want them to.”
It’s become clear in recent weeks that Belichick can get this year’s Patriots defense to play the way he wants them to play, unlike the 2009 unit. But at the same time, their talent level simply does not measure up to that of the 2004 Patriots defense. So in analyzing the larger sample size of Belichick’s 13 games against the best possible offensive opponent, it’s best to go by the law of averages.
The Falcons averaged 33.8 points per game in the 2016 regular season, so if the Patriots defense can turn in a similar performance to the historical standard, that leaves Atlanta at about 25 points in the Super Bowl. It would take a Herculean effort by the Falcons defense – and an off game for Tom Brady – for the Falcons to score “only” 25 points and win the game.
The point of this exercise is not that the Patriots are going to shut the Falcons down, or that Matt Ryan has no shot at outscoring Brady. It’s simply that, based on his history in New England, Belichick can be relied upon to devise a defensive scheme that will limit the Falcons’ ability to move the ball.
Belichick’s scheme will likely manifest itself, as it usually does, in the red zone. The Patriots’ opponents in 2016 scored touchdowns on just 50 percent of their red zone possessions, according to TeamRankings.com, good for seventh in the NFL. The Falcons, meanwhile, finished last in the league in the same category at 72.13 percent.
The Falcons will probably be able to move the ball efficiently between the 20-yard lines, but there’s also a good chance that the Patriots prevent big plays and clamp down in the red zone to hold the Falcons to field goals on a handful of possessions. If the Falcons can’t play better defense than they have in the red zone, they will be in serious trouble.
But, of course, the Patriots will also need to play at least as well as they have in the red zone (and overall on defense), if not better, to keep the Falcons offense in check. It’s unlikely that either offense will be “stopped” in this game, but the Patriots defense has a good chance to secure the win by simply getting a handful of key red zone stops while the Brady-led offense scores touchdowns.
The Falcons may have the league’s most explosive offense, but if any coach can find a way to limit them, it’s Belichick. However he schemes it up, it’s a safe bet that he can get the defense to hold the Falcons under their average point total. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.