BOSTON (CBS) — As one NFL team tries to become the greatest of all NFL dynasties, another tries to get their own dynasty started. Super Bowl LI pits the New England Patriots against the Atlanta Falcons in a game that will bring a number of interesting matchups on both sides of the ball – and even on the sidelines.
While the Tom Brady-Matt Ryan quarterback matchup is one of the best you could possibly have in the NFL, the matchups don’t stop there. The Patriots secondary has a massive challenge to defend Falcons receiver Julio Jones. The Falcons’ defensive front has a crucial matchup against the Patriots’ offensive line in their quest to disrupt Brady’s passing attack. The Falcons coaching staff has a lot to prove in terms of whether they can hang with Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels, and Matt Patricia.
There are also some situational matchups that will be especially important on Sunday night, particularly red zone play. That’s where the Patriots defense is typically at its best, and it could be the difference in the game if they can hold the Falcons’ high-powered offense to field goals instead of touchdowns.
Here’s a look at what to watch for in the final game of the 2016 NFL season as the two best teams in the league do battle in Super Bowl LI:
Is Matt Ryan ready for the Super Bowl stage?
The Falcons offense has plenty of weapons and a good offensive line. The Patriots defense certainly has its hands full trying to contain everyone. But ultimately, the success of the Falcons offense will come down to the play of quarterback Matt Ryan.
There’s no question that Ryan, who is likely to be announced as league MVP on Saturday night, has enjoyed a career-best season and appears poised to take his status in the NFL to the next level. A Super Bowl championship would certainly do wonders for Ryan’s career and nudge him into the conversation with the likes of Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers for the best quarterback in the league right now.
But there’s a problem: Ryan is in his first Super Bowl, while Brady is playing in his seventh with a chance to cement himself as the greatest quarterback in history. With Ryan facing the Super Bowl stage for the first time, it’s fair to question how he will respond in this spot.
The Super Bowl is not only the most pressure-packed game possible for a quarterback, it’s wildly different from a regular season game in terms of logistics. It’s played on a neutral field, pregame festivities take longer, halftime takes longer, and the added length of time to the overall game can take a physical and psychological toll on any player if he’s not ready. Ryan has yet to prove how he will handle the different atmosphere and pressure situations that can only be understood with experience.
That “experience” question extends to most of the Falcons roster. Brady alone has played in more Super Bowls than the entire Falcons roster combined; Dwight Freeney played in two with the Colts, while safety Dashon Goldson and linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Phillip Wheeler have played in one each. But as the 2001 Patriots proved, sometimes experience doesn’t matter.
Can the Falcons coaches match Belichick and his staff?
Ryan isn’t the only unknown for the Falcons as to how he will perform in this game. There are also two big question marks on the Falcons sideline hanging over head coach Dan Quinn and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.
The duo certainly deserves credit for coaching up a Super Bowl-caliber team. Quinn’s program has transformed the Falcons from annual playoff pretenders to championship contenders in two short seasons. Shanahan has coordinated a deep, diverse offensive attack that ranked first in the NFL with 33.8 points per game.
Depite the coaches’ success and buzz leading into the Super Bowl, they still face the biggest X’s and O’s challenge of their respective careers in their attempts to keep up with Belichick, McDaniels, and Patricia.
Frequent 98.5 The Sports Hub guests like Greg Bedard and Albert Breer expressed confidence in the ability of Quinn and Shanahan to make it a tough game for Belichick. Devising effective schemes on both sides of the ball, having the Falcons prepared for all situations, and making smart in-game adjustments will be crucial for the Falcons to compete in the coaching battle. It’s clear that teams who simply “do what they do” won’t have success against Belichick, especially if the Patriots are on top of their game.
How prepared will the Falcons be for what the Patriots bring on Sunday? That question could be answered early on. If the Falcons coaching staff can’t match wits with Belichick at times, or at least play sound situational football, they will a hard time keeping pace with the Patriots.
Who wins the matchup of No. 1s?
You’ve probably heard this before, but Super Bowl LI pits the NFL’s No. 1 scoring offense against the league’s No. 1 scoring defense. That matchup has historically favored the defensive team, but the Patriots defense is not without its question marks.
The Patriots finished the regular season allowing just 15.6 points per game, the No. 1 mark in the league – but they also had the league’s easiest schedule and were rarely tested by tough opposing offenses, especially quarterbacks. The Seahawks’ Russell Wilson was one of the defense’s true tests and he shredded them, while Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers could only muster 9 points for more than 50 minutes of their loss to the Pats in the AFC Championship Game.
The Falcons, meanwhile, scored 36 points against the Seahawks’ defense without Earl Thomas and 44 against the Packers’ patchwork unit. So they have not necessarily been tested by an opposing defense in the playoffs, either. Shanahan has called the Patriots defense the best that they will see all season; that’s likely the case for both groups.
It’s an epic matchup of two league-best units in terms of scoring. Something’s got to give. Which leads us to perhaps the most important question of the game for each team …
What happens in the red zone?
If the Patriots defense can find a way to slow down Ryan and the Falcons’ high-powered offense, it will likely be due in large part to how they play in the red zone. That is typically where the Pats defense plays its best football. And in a game where both offenses are expected to move the ball and put points on the board, this Super Bowl could simply come down to who’s scoring touchdowns and who’s kicking field goals.
It’s safe to assume that the Patriots defense will figure out how to limit (or totally eliminate) big plays of 20-plus yards down the field for the Falcons; they’ve done that many times before against similarly explosive offenses. But the Falcons also have enough firepower to methodically move the ball down the field between the 20-yard lines, which means that their success on offense will come down to how they play when they get into the “red area,” as Belichick loves to call it.
The Falcons will likely threaten to get the ball into the end zone on multiple occasions, but the Patriots proved in the AFC Championship Game that they’re capable of goal line stands against powerful offenses. It’s unlikely that the defense can stop the Falcons entirely, but they will have a decided edge in the game if they can simply hold them to three points instead of seven on a few occasions.
The Patriots’ opponents had a 50 percent success rate scoring touchdowns in the red zone in the regular season, good for seventh in the league. On the flipside, the Falcons’ red zone defense allowed touchdowns 72.13 percent of the time. If those stats hold up on Sunday, it could very well be the difference in the game.
The red zone battle also circles back to the coaching matchup. If the Falcons are down by a touchdown or more and face a fourth-and-goal from a few yards out, does Quinn go for the touchdown or settle for a field goal? The Falcons will need to be fearless and aggressive in this game to have a chance, especially down by the goal line.
There will likely be plenty of red zone situations in this game, and whoever executes better in that area of the field could be the team that hoists the Lombardi Trophy.