The Atlanta Falcons head to Houston seeking their first ever Super Bowl victory, but must first take down the New England dynasty. In preparation for the biggest game of the year, here are five keys to success for the Falcons to upset the Patriots and take home the Lombardi trophy.
1) Start strong: Breaking news: the Falcons offense is really good. Atlanta amassed 540 points over the course of the regular season, an average of 33.8 points per game, the most in the NFL this year and the seventh-most in league history. They also led the league in touchdowns, yards per play, points per drive, and too many other categories to list. But most of this success hinges on coming out hot. The Falcons led the league in first quarter scoring drives—with the Patriots in second place. Atlanta has scored a touchdown on their opening drive in eight straight games, and are 9-1 this season when they score first. Taking an early lead would also put New England in unfamiliar territory: the Pats haven’t trailed since November.
2) Contain Dion Lewis: After a phenomenal three touchdown performance against Houston, New England’s Dion Lewis was nowhere to be found last week against the Steelers. He rushed for just 11 yards on six carries, and added two receptions for a mere eight yards. As a result, the Patriots’ whole run game struggled mightily, averaging only 2.1 yards per carry. LeGarrette Blount, the team’s starter, is a solid back, but he’s too one-dimensional, as he’s not a receiving threat out of the backfield and is more of a bruiser than a workhorse. Lewis, on the other hand, is a dynamic athlete, especially as a receiver. Containing Lewis on the ground, and defending him tightly in the passing game, would deal a major blow to New England’s offensive gameplan.
3) Feed Taylor Gabriel: In early September, the Cleveland Browns cut a little-known wide receiver named Taylor Gabriel. When the Falcons claimed him a day later, few would’ve thought that six months later, Gabriel would be perhaps the most important X-Factor in the Super Bowl. That is not to say that Gabriel is Matt Ryan’s most talented option. If you haven’t heard, there’s this guy named Julio Jones who’s pretty good. But Jones’s talent is no secret, and the Pats defense will undoubtedly do everything in their power to shut him down. As a result, Gabriel will certainly have some room to operate. He’s simply electric when he catches the ball, turning short passes into huge gains with an elite combination of speed and elusiveness. He is an absolute game-changer, and could be primed for a huge performance on the NFL’s biggest stage—a long way from Cleveland.
4) Pressure Brady: In last year’s AFC championship, the Broncos solved Tom Brady. He was hit 17 times, sacked four times (2.5 from Von Miller), intercepted twice, and finished with a 39.4 QB rating. Brady is without question one of the greatest quarterbacks ever, but his most glaring weakness is clear: he struggles under pressure. His decision-making declines, his accuracy drops, and while he’s more agile than he gets credit for, he is hesitant to take off when the pocket collapses. Enter Vic Beasley. The regular season sack leader with 15.5, Beasley is not yet the developed pass rusher that Miller is, but he’s equally explosive. Given the inconsistency of the Falcons’ secondary, Beasley will be relied on heavily to pressure Brady—and if he does, the Pats offense is in trouble.
5) Get creative with running backs: The Falcons have the unique advantage of having not one, but two star running backs in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. This was disastrous for fantasy owners who took Freeman early in drafts, but it has paid dividends down the stretch for Atlanta. Freeman is the more traditional ground-and-pound back, while Coleman is a dynamic receiving option out of the backfield. However, each can fulfill either role, and that’s what makes defending them so difficult. Few teams, however, have been better at stopping the run than the Patriots. New England hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher all season, and has surrendered only one rushing touchdown in their past ten games. Freeman and Coleman are Matt Ryan’s best friends, and giving them touches, whether on the ground or through the air, will be crucial to their success.