While the media has focused much of their pre-Super Bowl conversation on how awkward it will be if Roger Goodell has to hand the Vince Lombardi Trophy to Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, the real question is whether the highest scoring offense in the NFL can continue their magic against a New England defense that was ranked first in the NFL in scoring defense.
Considering that the Patriots allowed their opponents to score fewer than 20 points 13 times this season, including each of the last five games, while the Atlanta Falcons offense has scored at least 28 points for eight straight weeks (and 14 times this season), something has to give.
Dating back to their first of seven Super Bowl appearances in the Belichick-Brady era against the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, the Patriots have generally been successful in grounding a high-flying offense. Only the Carolina Panthers with 29 points and the Seattle Seahawks with 24 have been able to exceed 21 points. Ironically, the Patriots were able to win both of those games.
However, not since facing the “Greatest Show on Turf” have the Patriots faced a team with the offensive firepower of their upcoming opponent. Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and the rest of the Atlanta offense have been a matchup nightmare all season.
Ryan is the likely NFL MVP after passing for 4,944 yards and 39 touchdowns with just seven interceptions. Jones had a 300-yard receiving game against the Carolina Panthers and caught 83 passes for 1409 yards despite missing two games with injuries.
Since dropping a 29-28 contest to the Kansas City Chiefs on December 4th in a game that was decided on a defensive extra point return, the Falcons have stepped their offensive production up to an even higher level. They have averaged 39 points per game in winning their last six games and have exceeded 40 points three times.
The question against the Patriots may not be whether the Falcons can score a lot of points, but whether their offense can score more than their defense allows.
Atlanta’s defense surrendered 25 points per game during the regular season. However, since the Kansas City loss, they have cut that average to 19 points per game over the last six contests.
While the Patriots have “only” reached the 40 point mark twice this season, compared to six times for the Falcons, they have averaged 31 points per game in the 14 contests (including playoffs) in which Tom Brady has played.
Despite pushing his 40th birthday, Brady has been at his statistical best in 2016 connecting on 67% of his passes with 28 touchdowns and two interceptions during the regular season. In two playoff wins, he has passed for 671 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions.
The leader of the Atlanta defense is second year linebacker Vic Beasley, who was a first team All-Pro with 15.5 sacks in just his second NFL season. Another emerging star is rookie linebacker Deion Jones, who was the leading tackler for the team and scored two touchdowns on interceptions during the season.
Though Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn is making his first appearance as a head coach in the Super Bowl, he was the defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks when they dropped a 28-24 decision to New England in the Super Bowl two years ago.
Quinn and the high-powered Atlanta offense are the only things standing between a fifth Super Bowl title for Belichick and Brady and what promises to be a television moment to remember with Commissioner Goodell.