HOUSTON - Success in sports is often celebrated with a high-five.
Sunday afternoon at NRG Stadium, the Patriots have the opportunity to enjoy the ultimate high-five, as Robert Kraft's team takes on the upstart Falcons with the chance to secure the fifth Lombardi Trophy in franchise history.
A win over Matt Ryan's young, speedy Atlanta squad would secure a fifth Super Bowl ring for Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the rest of the New England dynasty, once again stamping the duo as the best coach/quarterback combination in NFL history.
Really any comparison between Dan Quinn's NFC-champion Falcons and Belichick's team that's playing in its seventh Super Bowl of the era - including its second trip to Houston for the big game - has to begin with a look at experience. It's the proven, accomplished, veteran Patriots against the hungry, underdog Falcons looking to carve out their own spot in the history books.
Brady and Co. were in the big game just two years ago, riding Malcolm Butler's stunning, Super Bowl-stealing interception off into the Arizona sunset. Nearly half the Patriots team and basically the entirety of the coaching staff know exactly how to handle the two-week build up to game time with pressure-tested preparation.
And though Quinn was a part of the Seattle squad that the Patriots dispatched back in XLIX, Atlanta is the clear relatively unproven newcomer to this spot with all the sports world watching.
PFW's Andy Hart shares his players to watch during Super Bowl LI between the Patriots and Falcons.
But what the Falcons lack in experience, they make up for in offensive playmaking and youthful, speedy exuberance. Ryan is the presumed MVP, playing about as well as any quarterback has heading into the big game. He has a buffet of weapons, led by wide receiver Julio Jones and running back Devonta Freeman.
Atlanta's No. 1 scoring offense -- one that's answered challenges before in regular season trips to Denver and Seattle to prove itself more than just a home dome attack - squares off against New England's own No. 1 scoring offense. History tells us past matchups have swung the way of the defenders (4-1) in the Super Bowl, but Belichick is the first to tell us that here-and-now execution and not history is what will win this Sunday's showdown.
The hype is in full force in Houston. The teams are winding down their preparations, putting the finishing touches on what they hope are winning game plans. Fans and families have arrived.
All that's left now is all that really matters - the game.
As the hours and minutes tick down until the flashbulb-frenzy of kickoff - and before the world goes Gaga at halftime - here are a few keys to keep an eye on in Super Bowl LI as Belichick's favored, experienced troops look to finish the job and get one more. One more victory. One more ring. One more addition to New England's dynastic resume of unprecedented success.
As he so often does, Brady put Super Bowl week in perfect perspective.
"When you get to this point, walking off the practice field today, there's two quarterbacks probably in the world that are practicing today preparing for this game. Myself and Matt should feel very privileged to be able to do that. There's a lot of guys that don't have the chance, and I think you do feel very humbled when you're walking off the field to say, 'Wow, we had an opportunity to go out and practice and prepare for a game that's so meaningful to all of us that we'll remember for the rest of our lives.' I'm just very blessed for that.
"How we remember this week will be determined by the score of the game."
Opening act - Belichick talked this week about players and coaches having to "pace" themselves a bit differently for the big game. Pregame ceremonies, longer TV timeouts and extended halftime festivities create a much longer day, even though the game itself is still 60 minutes of action. But neither team can pace itself to the point that it's not ready to play from the opening whistle. History shows us that New England hasn't scored in the first quarter of its previous six Super Bowl trips under Belichick. The Patriots probably hope that streak ends on Sunday against a Falcons team that's scored touchdowns on its opening possession in eight straight games. The Falcons love to play from ahead, which helps out Atlanta's questionable young defense. The Patriots also generally play from ahead. If Atlanta can score first to get an early lead, especially if it's a touchdown, it could be a first step toward the shootout that many are projecting. Conversely, if New England can get an early stop or score first itself, that would be a nice first step toward the Patriots controlling the game. Early action will have lasting value in this one. As Belichick so often describes it, the first quarter will "declare" how the game may play out.
Plan D - The Patriots No. 1 scoring defense has played with a chip on its shoulder all season. Logan Ryan and others have expressed what the players perceive to be a lack of respect. Well, there is no better way for the unit to earn the ultimate respect than handling its business against the No. 1 scoring offense led by the likely MVP quarterback in the Super Bowl. It's the ultimate measuring stick for Matt Patricia's defenders. But it won't be easy. Ryan is on fire, having topped 120 in passer rating in six straight games, including two playoff wins to get to this point. He spreads the ball around to a variety of weapons, maximizing the field both vertically and horizontally in almost Brady-like fashion. Jones is as good as they get. Freeman - a 1,000-yard rusher and 50-catch receiver -- is extremely versatile. New England can't really sell out to stop any one aspect, because Ryan is good enough and smart enough to go elsewhere. The Patriots defense got to this point by avoiding allowing big plays, tackling well and stopping the run up front. It needs to do that yet again, this time against easily the best offense the group has faced all year. There will be plenty of individual matchups and challenges, but the story for the Patriots remains focused on solid team defense. One thing that bears particular attention is injured Falcons center Alex Mack. He returned to practice this week, but if he's forced to miss any time it's a huge advantage for Alan Branch and the Patriots front.
Tom's time - Brady made his name with a two-minute drive to Super Bowl glory and MVP honors in his first season as a starter back in 2001. He's been on this big stage so many times and so often has answered the competitive call. He's facing an Atlanta defense that is very young and statistically is not very good. The Falcons finished 28th against the pass, 25th in total defense, 27th in points allowed, 26th in sacks per pass play and 26th on third down. The group has played a bit better down the stretch, but is still statistically one of the worst units to ever play in the big game. There is no question that Brady should have chances to make plays through the air against Quinn's troops. Maybe this is unfair, but it's almost hard to imagine Brady not throwing for 300 yards against this Atlanta unit.
Turnovers - The Patriots and Falcons tied for the top spot in the NFL in giveaways with just 11 each on the season. New England's 23 takeaways were one more than Atlanta's. Given Belichick's history of preaching the correlation between turnovers and winning, it's little surprise that the No. 3 and No. 4 squads in terms of turnover differential are meeting in the big game. Despite carrying a heavy load of the offense, both Brady and Ryan take care of the football for the most part. With the season now down to probably no more than around a dozen possessions and 70 or so offensive plays for each side, turnovers have never been more critical. One or two big plays by the defenses or mistakes by the offenses could literally change the course of football history. Atlanta may not definitively need turnovers to pull off the upset, but it sure would help. If Brady and the Patriots play their usual clean game - avoiding things like what happened against Houston in the divisional round - it would be another solid step toward a trophy.
Backs to business - Neither of these teams has running backs who are faces of the franchises. But, it wouldn't be crazy to think the athletes lining up behind the MVP-caliber franchise quarterbacks could end up being huge, game-changing factors. Though they've found the end zone, the New England backs have been a bit quiet in recent weeks. But LeGarrette Blount's power running against a speedier-than-stout front may be an option to close out the year with a balanced approach. Dion Lewis and James White should also get their chances against Atlanta's young, aggressive linebackers and safeties. More importantly, Freeman and dangerous backup Tevin Coleman might just be the key to the Falcons attack. The duo runs the ball and catches it with equal success. Coleman averaged nearly 14 yards a catch during the season. The pair combined for 24 total touchdowns during year and four more during two postseason games. How guys like Dont'a Hightower, Patrick Chung, Kyle Van Noy and others match up and tackle against Freeman and Coleman is a major question for the Patriots defense. Run-after-catch yards for the backs and underneath receivers for both teams could go a long way toward deciding this battle of offensive juggernauts.
Prediction - On paper the Patriots match up very well with the Falcons. New England has so many advantages in terms of coaching, experience and statistical production from the regular season. But all that goes out the window in a unique, one-game setting like the Super Bowl. The Falcons don't need to be the better team in theory, they just need to be the better team for three-plus hours of time on Sunday night. While it's not hard to imagine that happening - a fast Falcons start could key an Atlanta fight - it's not easy to predict Brady's Patriots to lose in this big-game matchup. So we won't. We'll go with the numbers and the percentages. The Patriots offense can hang the Falcons, especially considering Atlanta's questions on defense. Keep NFL sack leader Vic Beasley from doing a Von Miller MVP impression and Brady should find success through the air. Ryan will likely get his, but it might only take a couple forced punts or bend-but-don't-break stops forcing field goals to swing the game. The Patriots defense may not dominate, but it has those types of plays in it. The energy and environment breed big plays, but the Patriots need to keep that from being an issue. If that happens, New England should be able to take care of business. Brady should be able to spread the ball around, likely including a big night for Julian Edelman. The offense should be able to drive with consistency, staying on the field, putting up points and putting pressure on Ryan to maximize every chance he has. He won't. A fifth Lombardi will find its way to Gillette Stadium with a 31-20 victory. One more win. One more ring. One more chapter in the legendary run for Kraft, Belichick and Brady in New England.
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