New England (-3) vs Atlanta (O/U 58.5)
Here we are, once again at the end of a football season, just one game between us and 7 months of no real football. It's a bittersweet time, when we're both looking forward to the pinnacle of this football season and dreading the dead time between tomorrow and...probably at least March Madness. But rather than dwell on the bad, let's dive right in to the matchup.
When the Falcons have the ball:
In what will be a running theme, the offense has the advantage. To call Atlanta's offense a well-oiled machine is a dramatic underselling. Atlanta is ruthlessly efficient and incredibly dynamic. They have a two-headed monster to running back that almost perfectly blends redundancy with uniqueness. Both backs are lethal out of the backfield. Both can hit the hole hard. And both can turn the corner if given the crease. And while talk of their receivers seems like it could start and end with Julio Jones, the supporting cast has shown the ability to carry the show multiple times this season either due to a Jones injury or an aggressive game-plan targeting their star. Add in an offensive line that has taken about 6 strides forward with Alex Mack installed at center, and it's hard to oversell how good this offense is. And I haven't even mentioned the likely 2016 NFL MVP's name. Matt Ryan has made the uber-leap this year. He came into the league a pretty polished product, but he never really found that next, transcendent level of an Aaron Rodgers in 2010 or Joe Flacco in the 2012 playoffs. He's found it this year.
Can the New England defense keep up? Overall the answer is no. Don't be fooled by the #1 offense vs the #1 defense talk (namely that #1 D's tend to shut down #1 O's). It's true that this matchup qualifies, and it's true that's the usual #1 O vs #1 D result, but while Atlanta is easily the top offense in the league this year, the Patriots are a fairly soft #1 overall defense. This defense has feasted on weak opposing quarterbacks all year long. That being said, their best performance was against a good quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger 2 weeks ago, but as I have been shouting for weeks, Roethlisberger has been a completely different quarterback on the road over the past 3 seasons. This doesn't mean the Pats aren't a good, even great defense, but their not the far and away top D in the league like Denver last year, or Seattle in 2013. But the question shouldn't be can the Pats D win this matchup, it's can they perform better than the Falcons' D against the Patriots offense?
When the Patriots have the ball:
The Patriots aren't the best offense in the league this year, but they're at worst top-3 on that side of the ball. And while the Pats defense isn't the best, the Falcons' defense may not be top-half. Much like the Pats D, the Falcons defense seems to be improving each week (though playing against the Seahawks offensive line and the Packers depleted WR corps doesn't hurt), but they started from a much lower perch than New England's unit.
The New England offense looks about as dangerous as a Gronk-era offense has ever looked sans-Gronk. With Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell as legitimate deep threats and Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola doling out death by a thousand cuts, Brady looks as comfortable with his receiving weapons as ever. But what's really pushing this unit over the top is the running game and the offensive line.
With the O-Line, this season essentially shows that the gap between Dante Scarnecchia and the next-best O-Line coach is roughly equivalent to the gap between Bill Belichick and the next-best head coach. Just look at right-tackle Marcus Cannon. He as much as anybody essentially torpedoed New England's Super Bowl hopes last year by being forced into action and performing the role of turnstile against the Denver defense. This year you never hear his name despite him starting all season long. As for the running game, well, the O-Line gets the lion's share of the credit for that as well, and LeGarrette Blount didn't all of a sudden get better. But he's finding more (and bigger) holes, meaning when the Patriots need to ground down the clock with a lead, they can actually do it for the first time in a decade. And with a healthy Dion Lewis and James White, New England can essentially run any type of rushing attack (or passing attack out of the backfield) that they want to. It allows them to be the chameleon Belichick loves to be.
To counter this the Falcons essentially have speed, speed, and more speed. Atlanta's defense is molded in the image of Seattle's, but they're young, and they don't have the talent Seattle does in the back end (that's not a slight, nobody has that). It's tempting to look back at Super Bowl XLIX to refute the chances of Dan Quinn's defense stopping the Patriots, but
1) This is a pretty different New England team than 2 years ago
2) Seattle's secondary was all injured, so the downgrade from that secondary to this one is negligible
3) Seattle did shut this offense down until half of their pass rush (Cliff Avril) left the game with a concussion, which totally changed Brady's ability to get comfortable in the pocket.
What the game comes down to
- Turnovers. It's simple. It's trite, but both defenses are great at generating turnovers, and the offenses tied for the fewest giveaways in the league this regular season. If there's an early turnover or two, it likely puts the offending team very much behind the 8-ball.
- Atlanta's pass rush. When New England has struggled on this stage, it's because Brady has be harassed and chased off of his spot all night. The Giants did it twice, and Seattle did it for 2.5 quarters (again, until Cliff Avril's injury made Michael Bennett a one-man pass rush). Atlanta has sack-leader Vic Beasley, DT Grady Jarrett, and not much else. Two-man games can (and have) worked (look at the Texans game), but these two have to be consistently disruptive. I don't think we've seen that a lot this season, but the talent is there to accomplish it.
- Atlanta's performance against New England's running game. With speed comes a lack of size, and I'm concerned that Atlanta's defense will get run over by Blount and the Patriots. The Falcons need to be able to force some third-and-longs to have a chance to get off of the field a few times. If Blount et al are ripping off 4-5 yards per carry, that's not going to happen.
- The bounces. Whether it's a turnover, a miraculous throw/catch (cue Pats fans groaning), or a big call, there's going to be something that swings play 2-3 times tomorrow night. Who makes those plays (or gets those calls)?
- Finally, which chessmaster is the biggest winner in his macthup? Shanahan, McDaniels, Quinn, or Belichick? It's hard to go against Belichick here, though I have a ton of respect for Kyle Shanahan.
In the end, I see a close game, and I can't pick against Belichick and Brady making one more play at the end.
The pick: Patriots 34, Falcons 30 (New England -3, OVER)
And with that, I announce my retirement from picking games. I started this as a chance to try and quickly dive into each match-up each week because, being out of market for my favorite team, I tended to stay up on the league in general since I didn't have much of an opportunity to dive into my team's games. With technology and options being what they are, I'm able to see more and more Seahawks games, which makes in harder to stay on top of the league in general. At least on top enough to speak intelligently on 16 matchups per season for each team. More and more, just getting the picks done was becoming more and more of a chore. I'm contemplating some even bigger changes to my blogging career next season, but I'll take some time to think on those a bit, but I will say that weekly picking of NFL games will no longer be part of my blogging. Thank you for having read through my picks for these past 4+ years (all 5 of you), and I hope you never put any real money up based on anything I ever said.
Enjoy the Super Bowl!
2016 Playoffs: 5-5