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Falcons vs. Patriots Super Bowl: Biggest storylines

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A list of the biggest storylines heading into Sunday. The superstar quarterbacks, Julio Jones, and secondary is featured.

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NFL: Super Bowl LI-Commissioner Roger Goodell Press Conference Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

This isn’t a parody article: The Atlanta Falcons have reached the Super Bowl. After not receiving any buzz in August, they exceeded expectations and earned every ounce of recognition. Only six offenses scored more points in the regular season than this high-powered machine. None of them managed to win the Super Bowl, which could put Matt Ryan and company in the history book, as the most successful offense in NFL history. Defeating the New England Patriots is the only roadblock left to prevent the Falcons from achieving that accomplishment.

Compared to other Super Bowl teams, this isn’t the most talented Patriots’ team on paper. They don’t have a game-changing receiving option without Rob Gronkowski or fearsome pass rusher. Rather than having premium talent at those positions, the coaching staff continues to do a tremendous job elevating limited and young players.

Tom Brady remains efficient as usual. The offensive line is more stabilized than last year. Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon have developed into one of the better tackle duos in the league. The Falcons’ speedy defense harassed two Super Bowl winning quarterbacks into subpar performances during this playoff run. Can they hit the trifecta.

Here are the biggest storylines going into Sunday.

Two exceptional quarterbacks take center stage

Many analysts consider this to be one of the best quarterback matchups in recent memory. The greatest quarterback of all-time versus the best quarterback of 2016 will take place on Sunday. Both quarterbacks have been playing at a ridiculously high level this season. Brady is his usual poised self, despite not having his favorite weapon in Gronkowski. Ryan has followed a similar route during his evolution as a top-tier player. By distributing the ball to his array of weapons and showing much better ball placement, it’s not difficult to understand why he will be crowned the NFL’s Most Valuable Player.

New England’s secondary poses a difficult challenge, yet it’s not as imposing as their previous matchups against Denver and Seattle. Ryan shouldn’t be under intense pressure on Sunday compared to those other games in hostile environments. When Ryan receives protection, no quarterback has been more lethal. According to Pro Football Focus, his passer rating is 131.1 when kept clean. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia will likely prioritize on making sure his defense is prepared to keep plays in front of them. That shouldn’t bother Ryan, who carved up Seattle in the divisional round from throwing mostly underneath and intermediate passes.

Generating a four-man rush is the only logical route towards stopping Brady. Defenses need to make him move around, which usually lead to some panicking. The stellar quarterback doesn’t like getting hit. Some coaches would prefer to blitz more, yet they usually end up regretting it. According to Pro Football Focus, Brady’s passer rating is 129.6 against the blitz. His quick release, timing, and anticipation as a pocket passer is incredible. Unless Brian Poole runs a nickel corner blitz from the right side, Dan Quinn should focus on making sure his secondary is organized. Vic Beasley won’t be asked to spy for the first time in the playoffs. The emerging star pass rusher should have plenty of chances to get after Brady. It will be on him to carry an overachieving pass rush.

Julio Jones against the evil genius

When it comes to specific matchups, there is nothing more compelling than seeing how Atlanta’s superstar wide receiver handles New England’s bracket coverage. They didn’t employ it very often against Antonio Brown in the AFC Championship. Malcolm Butler did an excellent job against Brown in man coverage. Due to Jones’ size, they won’t use Butler to shadow him. Belichick prefers using him against shorter, speedier wide receivers. Logan Ryan covered DeAndre Hopkins for the majority of the game three weeks ago. They decided to put Butler on rookie burner Will Fuller.

Anything is possible with New England’s unpredictable coaching staff. Ryan seems like a better fit against bigger wide receivers based on his previous success against Hopkins. The physical cornerback struggled against Eli Rogers in their previous matchup. Obviously, they won’t allow Ryan to cover Jones for a significant period of time without safety help. Devin McCourty will line up near his side as much as possible. The ball-hawking free safety needs to be accounted for at all times. How Shanahan moves Jones around will play a critical role in their success.

To counter Green Bay’s bracket coverage designs, they utilized Jones in the slot. That wise decision generated big plays and made him a bigger focal point in the offense. Jones lined up in the slot on his memorable 73-yard touchdown. Explosive plays aren’t likely going to occur again based on New England’s well-structured secondary. They forced Brown into relying on crossing routes and slants to remain productive. While the Falcons’ wide receiver group is filled with playmakers, Jones isn’t going to find many downfield opportunities. His presence should create opportunities for Mohamed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel, and other receiving options. For Jones to stay productive, expect him to run more intermediate routes similar to what he did against Seattle in the divisional round.

From both sides: How the running backs and linebackers match up

Both teams possess multi-dimensional running back duos and versatile linebackers. Whoever gets the upper hand could play a major role in determining the outcome. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman form the most dynamic running back pairing in the league. With Dion Lewis returning from a torn ACL, Brady is utilizing James White and him on a weekly basis. They have torched opposing defenses with each running back. It shouldn’t be a surprise to see both running back duos thriving in their respective offenses. Kyle Shanahan and Josh McDaniels are two of the best offensive coordinators in the league. Each linebacker is going to be faced with a difficult coverage task at some point.

Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell have steadily improved during this six-game winning streak. The rookie middle linebacker is known for having blistering speed and solid range in coverage. To become an above-average linebacker, developing strong instincts and awareness is essential for a young player’s growth. Jones already possesses both attributes, which makes him a difference maker in this young defense. Although Campbell is still a work in progress, he physically makes up for those deficiencies. The fourth round pick can cover acres of space and shed blocks far better than Jones.

New England’s linebackers were fortunate that Le’Veon Bell couldn’t play through a groin injury. They weren’t tested very often against Pittsburgh. Dont’a Hightower is an excellent linebacker, but doesn’t have great cover skills like other standout linebackers. The Patriots’ coaching staff has done a remarkable job reviving the careers of Shea McClellin and Kyle Van Noy. These are physical rangy players, who can disrupt Freeman and Coleman at the line of scrimmage. This is a very fascinating matchup between both offensive coordinators wanting to apply their running backs into the passing game on every drive and both head coaches trusting their linebackers to make plays in coverage.

Young secondary faces their most complex test

Brady smoothly eviscerated Pittsburgh’s zone defense. He found soft openings and mismatches at every level. Chris Hogan gained at least 140 of his 180 receiving yards on coverage busts and excellent play designs. From Julian Edelman abusing Lawrence Timmons to Malcolm Mitchell being wide open on numerous occasions, Brady couldn’t have asked for an easier setting. Quinn’s defense may play more man rather than zone coverage in their single-high safety look.

This is a difficult decision based on New England’s unique wide receiving core. They are crafty route runners with excellent hands and high football IQ’s. Nobody runs rub routes better than them. A physical cornerback like Robert Alford or inexperienced player like Jalen Collins could be exploited on those particular plays. Besides New Orleans, they haven’t faced a diverse offense of this magnitude since Desmond Trufant suffered a season-ending injury.

Collins is going to be heavily tested. Veteran quarterbacks such as Carson Palmer and Drew Brees repeatedly targeted him. While Collins continues to play well, he is used to covering mostly bigger wide receivers. Michael Floyd is likely going to be inactive. That leaves Hogan as their tallest receiver at six foot one. This is a new challenge for Collins against smaller wide receivers that create separation off their route running ability or play design rather than speed or size. The entire secondary must remain disciplined against their quick hitting offense. Not allowing extra yards after the catch and recognizing pick plays are key steps towards keeping their passing game in check.

Potential final game

It hasn’t received much recognition, but three notable players could be playing their final game. Dwight Freeney, Jonathan Babineaux, and Chris Chester are going to play key roles. Knowing three veterans likely have one final opportunity to win a championship is noteworthy. Chester has performed valiantly, despite struggling in pass protection. Instead of worrying about New England’s pass rush, blocking rising star Malcom Brown is going to be his biggest challenge. Lined up alongside Alan Branch, the enormous duo doesn’t allow interior offensive lines to push them around. How Chester fares on Shanahan’s signature outside zone run plays and makes those critical second level blocks will be huge for the running game as well.

Babineaux’s first Super Bowl appearance is a beautiful story. He was drafted in the 2005 draft. After selecting Roddy White in the first round, the Falcons picked Babineaux to pair with star defensive tackle Rod Coleman. The twelve-year veteran has endured many crushing moments. From Bobby Petrino quitting on the team to several brutal playoff losses, Babineaux’s perseverance should be admired. They will need him to prevent LeGarrette Blount from having a monster performance.

Freeney is easily one of the biggest x-factors in this game. The legendary pass rusher is known for producing in the biggest games. Not many edge rushers have given standout left tackle David Bakhtiari problems this season. Freeney hasn’t been shy about retirement in recent interviews. Despite not recording a sack in two months, he is still generating decent pressure. It’s difficult to sack Brady based on his quick release. Forcing the Hall Of Fame quarterback to move his feet could rattle him. It’s difficult to put expectations on rotational players. At some point, you would expect a player of Freeney’s caliber to make his presence felt.