HOUSTON – There has been a lot of talk about the wide receivers prepping to make big plays in Sunday's Super Bowl LI.
Comparisons between New England's corps of pass catchers and the Falcons playmakers have been varied and, at times, seemingly controversial.
NFLN analyst and Hall of Fame Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin has said that Atlanta's Julio Jones may be the most physically gifted player in the history of the position.
Fellow former NFL receiver Keyshawn Johnson had more pointed comments targeting the Patriots targets last week.
"When you see guys that fail and play for other teams at the receiver position, they can go to New England and excel and everybody goes, 'Oh my God, Oh my God, these receivers are top of the game.' Well, they couldn't excel with other teams because of the system," Johnson told Atlanta's 92.9 The Fan. "If they were on other teams right now, they probably wouldn't be on the 53-man roster."
While it's not a stretch to anoint Jones the best receiver taking part in the big game and maybe the best in the league right now, the disrespect of Tom Brady's troops is a little hard to swallow.
Jones had 83 catches for 1,409 yards during the regular season, averaging 17.0 yards a catch while hauling in six touchdowns. In two postseason games to this point he's caught 15 balls for 247 yards (16.5 avg.) and three scores.
By comparison Julian Edelman paced the Patriots during the season with 98 catches for 1,106 yards and three touchdowns. In two postseason games he's tallied 16 receptions for 255 yards and a score. Chris Hogan has 13 catches for 275 yards and two touchdowns in a pair of playoff games.
Jones and Hogan each had exactly nine catches for 180 yards and two scores in the NFC and AFC title games, respectively.
Respect or not, Edelman and Co. are a tight-knight group ready to show their stuff one more time in the biggest game in sports.
"We definitely have a bond. We have a room that has a group of guys that like to work, that are dedicated to making their craft better," Edelman says. "Not just with receiving and catching, but competing with the run game. So anytime you have those types of guys together that is kind of how we want our room. We got every guy in that room is a team guy; mentally tough, physically tough and you wouldn't want it any other way."
Interestingly, it was New England's defensive players who most vocally came to their receivers' defense this week.
"He played in this league and did tremendous things so I have nothing but the utmost respect for him, but I would say our receivers work hard," Harmon said of Johnson, via WEEI.com. "Coach [Bill] Belichick does a great job of utilizing everybody's strengths. He puts people in positions to succeed. I mean whether he thinks our receivers wouldn't crack a 53[-man] roster or not, I'm taking my receivers.
"They come up and make big plays in big moments each and every week. Chris Hogan and Julian Edelman have been playing out of their minds this postseason and they are going to continue to put in the work each and every week, each and every practice. They study, they prepare. I love my receivers and I love competing against them. They make me better every day.
"For what Keyshawn has got to say, each guy has their opinion, but I know what I see every day."
New England defensive end Chris Long was similarly defensive of Edelman not generally being mentioned among the top receivers in the game despite his elite statistics.
"I think people that know football know he's one of the best," Long said. "The way he works, the way he brings it every day, the role he's played here is very good for what we do, and great at breaking tackles. Tough player. I think he's got, obviously, everybody's respect in our locker room. I think football players that really know the game know he's one of the best."
The man who benefits from the depth and breadth of the receivers certainly likes the group he has to work with entering a battle for another Lombardi Trophy.
"That is the kind of team you want to build," Brady said. "You want to build a team that is very difficult to defend. If they are going to cover one guy, then you have to throw it to the other guy and we have to make the plays. If they are going to stop the pass then you have to hand it off and make yards in the run game. That is what makes it challenging for defenses and that is the kind of pressure we need to put on them."
Really, though, all the comparisons and opinions aren't worth much. Both teams and both receiving corps will have their chance to do their talking with their production Sunday night at NRG Stadium.
"I am not worried about what people are saying. I am worried about what they are doing," Edelman concluded. "I have said that week in and week out. We ignore noise, and we really just to try hunker down on preparation, our practice and going out and trying to play our best games on Sundays."
And the final Sunday of the season is fast approaching.
Like father, like son?
Bill Belichick has his own very unique style and personality. His son, New England safeties coach Steve, is no carbon copy of his Hall of Fame father.
The younger Belichick is also in a unique spot in that he works with a defensive backfield that includes guys he actually played with at Rutgers in safeties Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon as well as cornerback Logan Ryan.
"I'd say it's a lot different. Bill is Bill. We all know Bill. And I'd say Steve, he's not there to point of Bill, but he's at a point where he's still a teacher," Harmon said of his first-year position coach. "He's demanding in his own way, but I'll say he's not a yeller. He likes our input. He works well with us and he's really great to have. Him being relatively our age, it's good to have a guy who can think more like us and go in there and give our point of view to the coaches and try to get what we think is good for us, as well."
Foes to friends
New England's offensive line has been a key part of the Patriots success this season. The group is balanced out by impressive seasons from veteran tackles Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon sandwiching a young group of impact interior players.
Solder and Cannon are the aged leaders in the unit, but interestingly, according to the left tackle, the two weren't always copacetic contributors after landing in New England as first- and fifth-round picks, respectively, in the 2011 draft.
"Well it's an awesome relationship. The neat thing is we were both up to be drafted the same year and I think there was a little bit of animosity between us and when we ended up on the same team, it quickly became heavy animosity throughout the season," Solder recalls. "But over the year, that next offseason, we were the two that were hanging out with each other every day. So we've become very close friends. I think we both appreciate and respect each other's abilities and talents. Our families know each other, they spend time together, so it's really been a blessing."
Early on, apparently the love just wasn't there as the two young tackles tried to forge their professional careers.
"There was plenty of talking done but it was almost like your brother, you know what I mean? You almost want to punch him because you can't stand him sometimes," Solder added.
The left tackle then revealed that a shared challenge – Cannon had to overcome cancer as a rookie, while Solder's son Hudson has undergone an ongoing battle with the disease – helped bring the two blockers together.
"Marcus was one of the first people and one of the most meaningful people that came and talked to us and he said, 'You know, I understand the nightmare you're going through but just know that the nightmare does end,' and he's seen both sides of that. That was a huge impact on our lives and we had a huge connection on the field where he says something, 'Nate, play with all your heart with Christ with you,' whatever it is, it really, really means a lot to me. I'm so thankful to have him in my life," Solder concluded.
New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons coaches and players met with the media at each of their team hotels on Tuesday, January 31, 2017.