By Steve Keating
HOUSTON (Reuters) – The Atlanta Falcons will try on Sunday to remove their name from the list of teams never to have won a Super Bowl while the New England Patriots seek to rewrite the record book as the National Football League kicks off a new era with a vintage matchup.
Upwards of 180 million Americans and a worldwide television audience are set to tune in for a contest that possesses all the hallmarks of a classic, as Atlanta’s explosive top ranked offense piloted by quarterback Matt Ryan clashes with New England’s number one defense in a Texas showdown for the Vince Lombardi trophy. (Graphic: http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/NFL-SUPERBOWL/010031NZ3V9/inde…)
The high-flying Falcons averaged 33.8 points per game during the regular season, best in the NFL, as Ryan enjoyed a most valuable player-caliber campaign tossing 38 touchdowns, second only to Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers. (Graphic: http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/NFL-SUPERBOWL-RATINGS/010031J1…)
While Ryan’s New England counterpart Tom Brady, as usual, controlled the spotlight it was the Patriots’ defense that paved the road to a record ninth trip to the Super Bowl allowing a league low average of just 15.6 points per game.
“They are a great football team, a team that plays complementary football from offense to defense to special teams,” said Ryan. “Their success has been their longevity and consistency, something all people admire.
“New England has a great defense and watching them on film, their ability to keep people out of the end zone has been unbelievable all year.”
While Ryan is still trying to establish his credentials as an elite quarterback, Brady and coach Bill Belichick have already amassed Hall of Fame resumes.
A win on Sunday would give Brady five Super Bowl rings, breaking a tie with Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw, while Belichick would go to the top of the all-time coaching list, also with five titles, surpassing Pittsburgh Steelers’ Chuck Noll.
Widely considered the NFL’s most hated team, the Patriots, despised as the ‘Evil Empire’ outside of their New England fortress, arrive at the Super Bowl wearing a chip on their collective shoulder.
For New England and their fans this season has been hyped as the Patriots against the world after commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Brady for the first four games for his part in Deflategate, the 2015 scandal over deflated footballs.
“Every year is different,” said Brady. “Every year, every team starts with the same goal. Every teams wants to win it. Every team has hope.
“The fans believe in it, and there’s a lot of promise and hope. At the end of the day, there’s only one team that wins it.
“The fact that I’ve been able to do it before, it just means I’ve been a part of some really great teams, and this team is trying to be one of those really great teams that finishes a job, not one of those teams that comes up short.”
A potentially provocative halftime performance, politics and protests could also feature in Super Bowl 51 as the biggest showdown in American sports moves into its second half-century.
President Donald Trump will kickoff Super Bowl Sunday with a pre-game televised interview and Lady Gaga will grab the halftime spotlight but the focus will remain on the field where a Patriots dynasty will confront a Falcons franchise desperate to make their mark.
Over the last decade it is a rare year when Boston has not celebrated a sports championship, with the National Basketball Association (NBA) Celtics getting a parade in 2008, the National Hockey League (NHL) Bruins in 2011, and Major League Baseball’s Red Sox in 2007 and 2013.
But it is the Patriots who have been the toast of New England as they prepare to play in a seventh Super Bowl since 2002, having won four of them.
Atlanta meanwhile has had little to celebrate.
Their NHL team, the Flames left town and moved to Calgary, while the NBA Hawks have not won a title since moving from St. Louis in 1968. The Atlanta Braves claimed a World Series in 1999 but last season tied for the worst record in the National League.
The Falcons have made only one other trip to the Super Bowl in their 51-year history, losing to the Denver Broncos in 1998.
“I’m really happy for the city of Atlanta,” Ryan said. “I’ve played here for nine years, it’s an unbelievable place to live.”
(Editing by Andrew Both)