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Super Bowl LI: What to look for when you’re looking at the New England Patriots

The enemy! Who are they?

New England Patriots Practice Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

We have picked apart this Falcons roster and reassembled it over the last several weeks, chronicling the many ways they can beat an opponent. We’ve done this because they’ve been so busy beating opponents, and forgive us, we’re a little giddy these Falcons made it all the way to the Super Bowl.

We haven’t spent a ton of time on the Patriots, however. Considering they’re an experienced, dangerous opponent, that’s our bad. I haven’t done this because I’m afraid of a jinx or because I’m underestimating this team—I’d wager few Falcons fans are as familiar with New England as I am, simply by proximity—but because there’s so much to say about this Atlanta team. Eventually, though, we must turn our eyes to the Patriots, and we’ll start today.

Let’s go unit by unit and figure out what makes this Patriots team tick, and how they might go about trying to beat the Falcons.

If you’re interested in learning more, you should check out the experts at Pats Pulpit, of course.


This offense centers on one man, Tom Brady, who has proven to be one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. Even by his own lofty standards, this dunderheaded, politics-avoiding deflater of footballs had one of his finest seasons. Sorry, had to get some venom in there.

Brady threw only two interceptions in 12 games this regular season, while Matt Ryan threw 7 in 16 games in what should be an MVP season. Throughout his career, Brady has turned so-so wide receivers into productive ones, has shown amazing care with the football, and makes stellar throws seemingly at will. About the only thing you do to throw him off is to get him angry enough to throw a hissy fit (which does happen) or get directly in his face with pressure (which rarely happens). The Falcons have never needed quality performances from their defensive tackles, and maybe a little quality trash talk, than they do against Brady.

This year, with Rob Gronkowski out, the Falcons are chiefly going to be dealing with Chris Hogan and Julian Edelman at wide receiver, Dion Lewis at running back, and Martellus Bennett at tight end. Hogan is the man most likely to challenge you on a deep route, and he’ll likely draw Robert Alford or Jalen Collins in this one, while Edelman wins underneath. Bennett has the size and physicality to bully safeties and linebackers—not that we expect that problem against Keanu Neal—and Lewis is dangerous because he can use his speed and agility to turn a short throw into a significant gain. The Patriots’ passing game will feature some deep throws along the way, but their bread and butter is keeping things moving and fatiguing a defense.

That goes well with what they try to do via the run. The ground game has the potential to be interesting against Atlanta, which has been beaten by teams like the Eagles and Chiefs who were willing and able to establish the run and not shy away from it. LaGarette Blount is a classic workhorse back who offers power and not a ton of speed, averaging 3.9 yards per carry and getting the majority of the early down work in New England, and he’s a legitimate problem near the goal line where that power plays so well. The man did score 18 touchdowns.

Lewis is again a problem here, though. The Falcons have improved against opposing running backs chiefly by taking opposing ground games out of it via big offensive outbursts, which they may not be able to do against a very good Pats team. If that’s the case, Lewis’ speed is a marked contrast to Blount, you don’t know if Lewis is going to be getting the ball on the ground or through the air, and he’s broken some very big gainers this season. He’s the one player I’m wary about as the Falcons go about trying to stop one of the league’s better attacks.

The offensive line has been very good, by and large, and Marcus Cannon versus Vic Beasley promises to be a bit of a frustrating matchup for the gifted young pass rusher, given how adept Cannon is at tangling up speed rushers. Again, the Falcons will need to attack the (relatively) soft interior of this offensive line, but they’ll need stellar games from Grady Jarrett and Ra’Shede Hageman if they’re going to succeed.


This is a good defense—they wouldn’t be ranked near the top of the league if they weren’t—but I do think they haven’t seen an offense like Atlanta’s just yet.

The pass rush is buoyed by Trey Flowers, who had seven in the regular season and has been a force for New England in the postseason. Veteran Chris Long can still bring the heat, too, and the Patriots use their linebackers masterfully to get after quarterbacks, with Rob Ninkovich and Donta Hightower accounting for 6.5 sacks and a ton of pressure. The interior of this defensive line is good and deep, with Malcolm Brown, Vincent Valentine, and Alan Branch playing well against the run in particular, but the latter two are a bit banged up, which can only benefit Atlanta. This isn’t an elite run defense, just an extremely good one, and they offer a good but not great pass rush. Bill Belichick is the best in the business at masking defensive weaknesses and emphasizing strengths, and he’s going to need to bring his very best game plan to slow down a Falcons team that has only been mildly challenged since the bye week.

The secondary is just good and opportunistic, a dangerous combination. Malcolm Brown will draw Julio Jones on occasion but figures to see more of Mohamed Sanu, and he had four picks this season because of an excellent ability to anticipate throws. Ryan’s going to throw early and often here, and I’m still not sure how the Patriots intend to try to shut down Julio Jones, but they’ll need to be careful of a secondary that is surely going to be aggressive and gamble a bit in the hopes of getting a game-changing turnover.

Special Teams

Stephen Gostkowski is a quality kicker who has a handful of misses this year, most notably a couple from the 30-39 yard range. He’s not Matt Bryant, and that could very well matter to the outcome.

Ryan Allen, meanwhile, averaged 44-plus yards per punt and does a nice job of dropping the ball inside the 20 yard line when he has the opportunity to. He is not Matt Bosher.

The Patriots have had a lot of different players involved on returns, which makes it a little tougher to look at the film and anticipate what they’re going to do. The best case scenario is that they wind up utilizing Cyrus Jones, who has made his fair share of mistakes on special teams, but I think you’ll see more of Danny Amendola and Matthew Slater, unfortunately. Amendola is particularly dangerous with the ball in his hands, and I think he’ll be more of a factor on special teams than as a receiver.


The Patriots will do everything in their power to feature their ground game, grinding away yardage, wearing out this Atlanta defense, and keeping the Falcons offense off the field as much as humanly possible. Their defense, meanwhile, will try very hard to put pressure on Matt Ryan and force the kind of mistake that can turn the tide of the game, because they’re not good enough to slow this attack otherwise.

There’s a blueprint for a win here, but it’s going to hinge on the Patriots getting the ball away from the Falcon’s offense and executing their game plan perfectly. I’m betting against New England here, but none of us should be guilty of taking them lightly.