The New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons, who match up very evenly on paper, have had drastically different fortunes throughout history. New England will be playing in their ninth Super Bowl and seventh in the last sixteen years. They’ve been perennial AFC favorites for so long that it’s almost a surprise when they don’t make it to the big game. Atlanta, on the other hand, has only made it to the Super Bowl one other time (they lost to the Broncos in Super Bowl XXXIII). Incredibly, the only time in franchise history the Falcons have even made the playoffs in consecutive seasons was from 2010-2012.
However, this is not the same Falcons team of old. Atlanta was the only team in the NFL to finish in the top five in both passing and rushing yards per game, and finished first in points per game (33.8) by a margin of more than four points over the next best team, the New Orleans Saints. That certainly doesn’t mean anything will come easy, as New England finished third in that category and also possess the top scoring defense in the NFL.
But the while the Falcons don’t have the championship pedigree of the Patriots or even the same national recognition as some of the teams they beat to get here, this is not a team that is built for just one year. Newly minted MVP Matt Ryan had a career year, but maybe it was more of a career breakout. Ryan has always had the talent and this year, everything came together for him in a big way. Julio Jones is still relatively young and is quite possibly the most talented wide receiver in the NFL. And Atlanta’s running back tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman is as formidable as any other duo in the league.
Everyone loves to talk about Atlanta’s high-powered offense, and rightly so, but their defensive turnaround may be their most impressive feat this year. That starts with head coach Dan Quinn, whom the Falcons hired prior to the 2015 season after a pair of lackluster years. Quinn was already well-regarded as a brilliant defensive mind, serving as the defensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks for their two Super Bowl appearances before getting hired by Atlanta. But after a scintillating 5-0 start in his first year, things went south and the team finished the year at .500. In addition to a middle-of-the-pack offense, one of the main problems was the lack of any kind of pass rush. The Falcons finished dead last in the NFL with 19 sacks in 2015. Fast forward to 2016, and Atlanta improved that total to 34 (16th in the NFL), while Vic Beasley had 15.5 sacks all by himself.
Beasley’s rise to stardom is just one of many reasons Falcons’ fans have to be excited for what the future holds, win or lose. Quinn has built this defense from the ground up, and there’s reason to believe it’s going to get a lot better. Along with the second-year pro Beasley, the Falcons have three rookies starting on defense, and two of them (Deion Jones and Keanu Neal) were first and second on the team in tackles.
In fact, the way the Atlanta’s roster is constructed mirrors their Super Rival, the Patriots. While Tom Brady deserves all the credit he gets for his consistency and continued success, Bill Belichick also prides himself on building standout defensive teams. Like Quinn, Belichick has a defensive background and has routinely been able to develop stars on the defensive side of the ball. Plus, Belichick has always maintained a good balance with his offense, just like this year’s Falcons. Despite having one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play, New England almost always has a good rushing attack, even if they tend to use quite a few different running backs every year.
The Falcons and Patriots both have teams that are built for success over the long haul, but it’s fair to say that most of their fans aren’t worried about that today. It’s all about one game in Houston tonight. For the Patriots, another championship would enhance the legacy of their dynasty even further, and for the Falcons, the franchise’s first championship would be a moment to cherish forever.
With any luck, Super Bowl LI will be a much better matchup than we’ve seen throughout this postseason. Aside from the divisional matchup between the Cowboys and Packers, we haven’t really seen any competitive games. A thrilling finish tonight would be great for the sport, and with the offensive talent both of these teams have, it could be a high scoring, back and forth affair.