The Atlanta Falcons have not done much over the last two games to engender confidence from the fanbase. When you’re headed into a Super Bowl rematch with one of the NFL’s best franchises, and you’ve dropped two straight games to the Bills and Dolphins while scoring a combined 34 points, you really can’t ask people to be wildly enthusiastic about your chances.
Yet I do believe the Falcons can win what promises to be a shootout, if they can just avoid the big, costly mistakes that have plagued them in recent weeks. The Patriots do not look invincible, even if they still clearly have one of the NFL’s most talented rosters, and you don’t have to squint very hard to see the Falcons getting that passing attack on track and beating the hell out of Tom Brady en route to a tight victory. There are no guarantees, though, that the Falcons team that shows up on Sunday night will be better than the one that has so thoroughly disappointed us the previous two weeks. It’s as close to a coin flip as I’ve seen this season.
Here’s one reason to feel confident, and one reason to worry.
Feel confident about finally getting the offense rolling
There’s no way to put this nicely, so I simply won’t bother. The Patriots’ defense has been bad, something your average New England fan is very willing to admit.
If Steve Sarkisian and Matt Ryan can’t get the passing game going against a team missing two of its better players in the secondary, considering that it has been one of the most error-prone secondaries in the NFL, that’s a legitimate problem. The front seven has been playing a bit better over the last couple of weeks, which is a cause for concern, but the Falcons whipped a better version of this Patriots defense a year ago, and whatever decline we’ve seen offensively is matched by what’s happened to the New England D.
There are a couple of key matchups to watch here. Young cornerback Johnson Bademosi has size and intriguing potential, but is going to struggle mightily to handle Julio one on one. The second is Tevin Coleman and Taylor Gabriel working against this defense, period, because their incredible speed allows them to break big plays, and the Patriots have allowed way too many big plays in 2017. As long as the Falcons don’t hunch up and play overly conservative football, four scores (or more) seems perfectly reasonable.
Be worried about stopping the Patriots
Honestly, if the Falcons somehow are able to hold the Patriots under 30 points at home on Sunday Night Football, they probably have an excellent chance of winning this football game. We’ve seen this defense make real strides when they’re not picking up drive-extending penalties, but they haven’t had to face an offense this talented all year, and it’s probably going to be problematic.
Brandin Cooks is an explosive option, Chris Hogan is quite good, and Dion Lewis and James White are problematic pass-catching backs who can break long gains if the Falcons can’t wrap up and tackle properly. Stopping Rob Gronkowski can be done, but it will require excellent play from De’Vondre Campbell and Keanu Neal to get there. Mike Gillislee isn’t a great back, but he can also carry the load a bit on the ground and wear down the Falcons defense. As always, the Patriots are just bristling with weapons, and Brady hasn’t been any less effective despite the hits he’s taken thus far.
Get after Brady enough, shut down Gronk, and play disciplined football and you might be able to pull this off. It’s fair to wonder whether Atlanta will, though, and I’m concerned about just how productive New England will be.