The big reason the Falcons have the edge here is because of strength in numbers. The Falcons have two equally dynamic running backs: Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman averaged 4.8 and 4.4 yards per carry respectively. New England’s rushing attack goes through LeGarrette Blount, and the team’s second option, Dion Lewis, is much less of a threat. Blount averaged just 3.9 a carry, while Lewis failed to record a touchdown all season.
Atlanta’s running backs also pose a challenge the New England backfield simply doesn’t. Blount and Lewis combined for just 132 receiving yards all season. Freeman and Coleman had 883 receiving yards together. The Falcons have two running backs who can create space and make explosive plays through the air. This could be a huge wrinkle that works in favor of the Falcons.
Speaking of receiving, Falcons QB Matt Ryan has thrown a touchdown pass to 13 different receivers this season. The Falcons have more weapons for the Patriots to defend, and they also have the best receiver in this game. It is hard to put an exact value on what Julio Jones can do. In the NFC title game against the Packers, he finished with 180 receiving yards and two touchdowns. A receiver of his talent can’t be completely shut down.
Even when Jones is not at his best, the Falcons are still good. In games during which Jones either didn’t play or had fewer than four receptions, the Falcons have been 5–0 and averaged 36.8 points. They are putting up good numbers when the best receiver in the NFL isn’t performing. If he is firing on all cylinders on Sunday, the Patriots could be in for a long evening.
The Falcons statistically have one of the best offenses in NFL history. Their playmakers are obviously a huge part of this, but it all starts up front. Atlanta is the only team in the NFL this season to have started the same five offensive linemen in every game. The chemistry those guys, especially center Alex Mack, have with Ryan is an enormous advantage for the Falcons.
The five up front for the Falcons have given up fewer sacks and led their running backs to a higher yards-per-carry average than the Patriots have in the postseason. This indicates that they are better in both run- and pass-blocking, and at the end of the day, that is where games are won and lost.
This is no Pats vs. Texans; there’s no clear winner with Tom Brady vs. Matt Ryan. They had passer ratings within five points of each other and completion ratings within two points of each other. Both averaged about 2.3 touchdowns and 300 passing yards. Ryan threw seven interceptions, to Brady’s two.
It’s their postseason stats that separate them. Ryan’s playoff winning percentage is below .500, compared to Brady’s .727. Ryan has thrown for a quarter of Brady’s touchdowns. Brady has much more Super Bowl experience, with six games and four wins. Ryan has never played in a Super Bowl. They're both amazing QBs and will likely finish first and second in NFL MVP voting, but Brady is more experienced and will likely be the better of the pair in the Big Game.
Look, Dan Quinn is a great coach, especially for such a young one. (He’s 46, and he is in his second season as an NFL head coach.) As the defensive coordinator with the Seahawks, he faced the Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX, and we all know how that went. Quinn has found success, but he’s up against the most successful coach in history, Bill Belichick. Belichick's winning percentage is .739, with 237 wins and 115 losses. To top it off, it will be Quinn’s first time facing Belichick. Guess what Belichick's record is against coaches he hasn’t played before? 22–3. That’s a winning percentage of almost .900. Quinn may be smart, but he’s not smart enough to beat the man in the hoodie.
Photographs by (from top): Streeter Lecka/Getty Images; Elsa/Getty Images