The Patriots and Falcons will go at it in front of the NBC cameras on Sunday Night Football at Gillette Stadium, and while the stakes will be considerably lower than the last time the teams met in the Super Bowl but there's still plenty on the line on each side.
The Falcons are looking at some redemption but they're also trying to shake off a two-game losing streak – both games at home where Atlanta coughed up late leads. The Patriots are on a two-game winning streak but looking to establish a level of consistency after some sluggish play.
Both offenses are capable of putting up points and therefore have received most of the attention, but the focus was on the defense – specifically Atlanta's – during Bill Belichick's Friday press conference.
Among the items of note were the Falcons young and athletic linebackers, cornerback Desmond Trufant and the Falcons bevy of dangerous receivers.
Basic instincts –The Falcons don't boast the biggest corps of linebackers in football but they are a very active and athletic bunch. Belichick was asked how the group manages to hold up against the run so well despite limited size. The coach wasn't necessarily in agreement with the overall assessment.
"[De'Vondre] Campbell's a pretty good-sized guy. I mean, he's got some length and runs well. [Deion] Jones is a little smaller in stature, very instinctive, obviously fast, quick, really does a good job of finding the ball, reads things quickly. [Duke] Riley plays in their three-linebacker defense and some of their nickel stuff with Campbell, but Jones pretty much never leaves the field.
"They're a one-gap defense and so there's always one more guy than you have. However many you have, they always add one more in there, so the linebackers fill their gap and then they run well on perimeter plays. Again, defensively, they rely, I think, a lot on their ability to penetrate, to disrupt plays and have more people than you have, and those guys get to the ball. They're quick and they're hard to fit up on and just move out of there. They get off blocks well."
On the corner –One key member of the Falcons who wasn't on the field for the Super Bowl is cornerback Desmond Trufant. Trufant missed the big game with an injury but he's back in the starting lineup and is arguably Atlanta's best cover guy.
Belichick was asked about his impact on the Falcons defense.
"He definitely helps them. I mean, he's a good, solid player," Belichick said. "He can play outside and inside. They mainly play him outside, but he's certainly capable of moving inside with matchups, or I'm sure if they needed him in the slot, he could play in there. But, he's quick, he runs well, he's got good ball skills, an experienced player, so he's a good player on that defense."
Catching on –It's no secret that the Falcons are dangerous offensively and that due in large part to the amount of weapons quarterback Matt Ryan has at his disposal. In addition to a two-pronged rushing attack with Davonta Freemanand Tevin Coleman, the Falcons have a wide array of options at the receiver position.
Julio Jones is the lead dog and therefore generates most of the accolades, but he is by no means alone. Belichick explained how Mohamed Sanu is dangerous in the slot and has the versatility to move elsewhere, and he also discussed the lesser-known Taylor Gabriel, who tortured Malcolm Butler for a huge play in the Super Bowl.
Belichick was asked what Gabriel brings to the table.
"A lot of explosive plays," he said. "I mean, he's a good receiver on all three levels – certainly deep, intermediate routes and he's had some big plays on slip screens and under routes and things like that. He's a fast, explosive player. If he gets a little bit of space, he can turn it into a big play in a hurry.
"So, really, all those guys are pretty good in a lot of ways. I mean, they're fast, they can get down the field, they're hard to tackle for one reason or another, whether it's size or quickness or speed. And, again, they stretch the defense all the way through, so if you back off them, they get the ball in space. If you get up on them, then they can get over the top, and they're pretty good intermediate route runners – comebacks, in-cuts, curls, things like that, timing plays that are featured in this West-Coast type of offense."
In addition to their skills, Belichick also mentioned the challenge the various Falcons skill players present when it comes to tackling.
"[Gabriel's] fast and he's quick. He's a hard guy to get a solid hit on. But, look, they're all hard to tackle. I mean, Freeman's hard to tackle because of his power and his balance and, I would say, his vision. Coleman's hard to tackle because he's hard to get to. He's fast and he's elusive and he's got good quickness.
"Sanu's hard to tackle because he's big and he's strong. I mean, he's a hard guy to wrap up. Jones is like that, too. Gabriel's quick. He's elusive. [Andre] Roberts is hard to tackle because he runs hard and he's fast. If you don't get a solid hit on him, he's through the arm tackles. So, guys have different styles."