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Super Bowl LI: 3 things to watch for as Patriots take on the Falcons

Matt Ryan and Tom Brady will square off in a matchup of elite quarterbacks in SupeGetty Images

We meet again, Super Bowl.

It's easy to take for granted just how impressive this run has been for the Patriots, and the case can be made that the Bill Belichick and Tom Brady-era Patriots are the greatest dynasty in sports history, win or lose.

Sunday will mark the organization's ninth Super Bowl appearance, and seventh with Belichick and Brady (which is an NFL record among players). Brady, 39, sees no end in sight in terms of his playing career. And who are we to question how much longer he can perform at this level? He's proved every doubter wrong to this point.

Also, with a win on Sunday - after everything the Patriots and Brady have been through regarding Deflategate - would mean a heck of a lot, even when you consider they've already won a Super Bowl since the Deflategate nonsense began in early 2015.

The Falcons are the one team left standing in their way. While the Patriots have plenty of offense on their side, they took a more balanced approach to reaching this point, finishing with top defense based on points allowed. Atlanta, on the other hand, ranked 27th in that category, allowing 25.4 points per game. That’s the second-most ever by a team to reach the Super Bowl, according to ESPN.

Whether or not defense really does win championships can be debated, but this stat also courtesy of ESPN has to make Patriots fans feel better:

Super Bowl LI will be the sixth Super Bowl since the 1970 merger where the top-scoring offense (Falcons) meets the top-scoring defense (Patriots) from the regular season. The top-scoring defense has won four of the five previous meetings.

1. Zig when they zag

Tom Brady and Matt Ryan had the two best seasons among NFL quarterbacks and remain two of the top quarterbacks in the NFL. Lots of fans think this will be a shootout - Brady vs. Ryan - and the last QB who has the ball will throw the game-winning touchdown. If the Patriots win, all Patriots fans undoubtedly want to see Brady named Super Bowl MVP, so that NFL commish Roger Goodell is forced to hand him the trophy. But Brady may not win game MVP. The Patriots have turned to the run more this season than any other since 2010, with LeGarrette Blount finishing second in the NFL in carries (299) and first in rushing touchdowns (18). As previously mentioned, the Falcons defense is not great, and they allowed 4.6 yards per carry this season, 26th-worst in the NFL. The Pats ran the ball almost 47 percent of the time this season, and it would not be a surprise if they turned to it again - especially with Dion Lewis now fully in the mix. Whether it's a run up the gut with Blount or a quick out with Lewis or James White, expect the running backs to have a huge say in the outcome of this game. In fact, you may want to throw a little cash on their MVP odds.

2. Keeping up with Mr. Jones

There is absolutely no doubting Julio Jones' ability. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound wide receiver has shown the ability to single-handedly tear apart secondaries. Just ask the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game, when Jones caught nine passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns. Jones feasted, but despite how talented he is, he shouldn't expect those numbers on Sunday. The truth is, the Patriots have been able to limit stud receivers all season long. There were just four receivers who eclipsed 100 receiving yards in a game against the Pats this season, with 106 being the most. Whether it's been Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, or safety help over the top, New England's secondary is a big reason why they led the league in points allowed. But here's big stat courtesy of ESPN: The Falcons are 7-1 in games Jones has been held to under 100 yards and 5-0 in games that he's been held to under 50 yards. The Falcons are not a one-trick pony. With weapons like Mohamed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel, and Devonta Freeman - Matt Ryan has plenty of options. No wonder they finished with the No. 1 offense in the NFL.

3. One mistake may be one too many

You can usually tell the mark of a good football team by looking at their giveaway/takeaway stats. Sure enough, the Patriots and Falcons finished third (plus-12) and fourth (plus-11), respectively, in that category this year (the Jets were last, minus-20). When it comes to turning the ball over, the Patriots and Falcons were tied for the fewest with 11. That being said, protecting the rock is paramount on Sunday, as the team that turns it over may not get one back. Brady has surprisingly thrown two interceptions in the postseason, matching his number from the entire regular season. Ryan, meanwhile, has not thrown an interception since Dec. 4, and has a 7-0 touchdown to interception ratio in the playoffs. Does MalcolmButler have another big interception in him?

Staff picks

Matt Burke - Patriots 41, Falcons 34

Evan Macy - Falcons 38, Patriots 34

Kristian Dyer - Patriots 27, Falcons 24

James Toscano - Patriots 30, Falcons 20

Gordon Donnelly - Patriots 31, Falcons 28

 

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