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2017 Super Bowl preview: Atlanta Falcons vs. New England Patriots On Paper

Our statistical breakdown takes on Super Bowl 51.

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

Super Bowl 51 is now just days away. Soon all the of theatrics from the past two weeks will be over and we will all sit around a television to actually watch a football game. It’ll be the last one for seven months, so we might as well treasure it.

Part of treasuring it is preparing for the game like we always do at Pride Of Detroit: One last go at On Paper. Sure, the Lions aren’t playing, and sure, we probably don’t care about the statistical breakdown like we do when the Lions are playing, but what the hell? The season is about to end. Let’s give this car one more joy ride.

If you’ve found your way to this website and have no idea what On Paper is, you can find a quick rundown here.

Patriots pass offense (2nd in DVOA) vs. Falcons pass defense (19th)

Tom Brady has not lost a step at 39 years old. His 2016 campaign was one of his best seasons in his 17-year career. His completion percentage of 67.4 is the second highest of his career and his 8.2 yards per attempt is second only to his 2007 season where he threw for 8.3 YPA. Look at his 112.2 passer rating; it’s a full 15 points higher than his career average.

What Brady has done in the twilight of his career is nothing short of miraculous. He has shown no signs of breaking down, and he’s managed to do so without his favorite tight end target, Rob Gronkowski, and a bunch of little-known names outside of his No. 1 receiver Julian Edelman.

Despite Brady missing the first four games of the season, the Patriots still rank second in overall passer rating (109.5), third in YPA (8.1) and sixth in passer rating (66.9).

What’s perhaps underrated is New England’s ability to eliminate negative plays from their passing offense. The Patriots threw just two interceptions during the entire regular season—though it’s worth pointing out Brady has thrown two interceptions in the playoffs, too—and New England has allowed just 24 sacks all year (fifth-fewest). There is just no chink in this armor.

A common narrative for the past two weeks has been how bad the Falcons defense is, and that was definitely true earlier in the season. However, look toward the bottom of the graph: Atlanta’s defense has shut down some of the best pass offenses in December and January. They’re streaking at the right time, and that could actually give the Patriots some trouble.

In the past four games alone, the Falcons have forced six interceptions, while allowing eight passing touchdowns. That’s not exactly dominant, but it’s much better than their getting credit for.

Still, the overall numbers paint a dreary picture for the Falcons’ defense. Atlanta ranks 22nd in passer rating allowed (92.5), 22nd in completion percentage (64.4) but oddly t-11th in YPA allowed (6.9). It’s truly a mixed bag with this defense. They’ve allowed the fifth most passing touchdowns in the league, nearly two per game with 31, but they’ve tallied 34 sacks (t-16th) and 12 interceptions (t-18th).

A lot of their recent success defensively relates to their pass rush. In their last four games, they have racked up a total of nine sacks, with at least two sacks per game.

Player to watch: Chris Hogan. Hogan has been a beast in the postseason, pulling in 275 yards receiving and two touchdowns in as many games. Hogan matches up well against a Falcons’ defense that does well against No. 1 receivers, but struggles against those that line up in the slot.

Advantage: Patriots +2.5. The Falcons’ recent play mitigates some of the damage here, but it’s still clear the Patriots have a significant advantage. It’s hard to imagine holding Tom Brady down, especially on the biggest stage, where Brady has had a passer rating above 100 in three of five opportunities.

Patriots run offense (17th) vs. Falcons run defense (29th)

When you think of a typical Patriots offense, you think of a balanced attack that can beat you with whatever game plan they choose to use that week. That is not the case this year. This is not a good running game by almost every measure. LeGarrette Blount gets a lot of attention in this fantasy world we live in because he has a league-leading 18 rushing touchdowns, but the truth is he is averaging just under 4.0 yards per carry.

As a team, New England is averaging 3.9 YPC, tied for 24th in the league. They earn a first down on 22.6 percent of rushes, which is exactly the league average.

Don’t expect many splash plays from the New England running game, as they only had eight rushes of 20+ yards during the entire regular season (t-17th).

The good news for the Patriots is the Falcons’ run defense is absolutely horrible. The Patriots may be averaging under 4.0 yards per carry, but the Falcons haven’t held an opponent below that mark since Week 9 against the Buccaneers.

That’s an especially strange stat considering how the Falcons are usually playing with a lead, but teams are still managing to run up the rushing yards against Atlanta’s defense, because they know it works. Atlanta is allowing 4.5 YPC (t-25th) and is giving up a first down on 25.7 percent of carries (t-29th). They’re really bad.

Player to watch: Blount. I don’t expect the Patriots to run all over the Falcons, but Blount in the red zone is nearly unstoppable. It’s hard to imagine the Falcons keeping him out of the end zone if New England is near the goal line.

Advantage: Patriots +1.5. New England hasn’t dominated a team on the ground in several weeks, but they may want to give it a shot on Sunday. The Falcons are extremely vulnerable, and while the Patriots don’t have any dynamic weapons in the backfield, it doesn’t take much against this Atlanta defense. I expect the Patriots to hit around 110 yards and 4.1 YPC.

Falcons pass offense (1st) vs. Patriots pass defense (23rd)

You know a few paragraphs ago when I called Tom Brady’s play miraculous and the Patriots passing attack nearly flawless? Well, the Matt Ryan and the Falcons managed to one-up New England in every statistical category.

Ryan is having the best year of his career and it will undoubtedly end in a rightful MVP award. Here are all the statistical categories that the Falcons lead the league in:

  • Passer rating (116.8)
  • YPA (9.2)
  • Plays of 40+ yards (17)
  • Percentage of passing plays earning first downs (44.5 percent)
  • Points per game (33.8)

They also rank third in completion percentage (69.6 percent), second in passing touchdowns (38) and third in passing yards per game (295.3).

They also have a guy named Julio Jones who ranks first in receiving yards per game (100.6), fourth in yards per reception (17.0) and second in 20+ yard receptions (27).

Much like the Falcons’ pass defense, New England struggled early in the year, but really turned it on in December and beyond. They’ve only allowed four opposing quarterbacks to hit a passer rating of 100, and haven’t done so since Week 12.

Overall, the Patriots’ defense stands somewhere in the middle despite their poor DVOA ranking. New England ranks eighth in passer rating allowed (84.4), t-seventh in yards per attempt (6.8) and 11th in completion percentage (61.7).

As you would expect from a Patriots team, they minimize big plays (t-eighth in TDs allowed, t-2nd in plays of 40-plus yards allowed), and capitalize on big defensive plays (t-12th in interceptions, t-16th in sacks). Still, this looks more like a mediocre unit than a good one, despite the recent improvement.

Player to watch: It’s an easy answer, but Julio Jones has the ability to take over games. The Patriots are just 20th in DVOA against No. 1 receivers, and they haven’t faced a player like Julio all season—yes, even including Antonio Brown.

Advantage: Falcons +2.5. This matchup is nearly identical to when the Patriots are throwing the ball. An unstoppable passing attack will face a below average pass defense that is hitting its stride just at the right time.

Falcons run offense (7th) vs. Patriots run defense (4th)

The biggest difference between the Falcons and Patriots offense is Atlanta’s proliferation of a running game. The two-headed running attack of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, who are averaging 4.8 and 4.4 YPC respectively, has made this offense multifaceted. They have been a bit inconsistent throughout the season, and somewhat ineffective in the playoffs, but overall this is a very good running team.

The Falcons rank t-fourth in YPC (4.6) while earning first downs on 25.7 percent of carries (fifth). They can break out a huge play at a moment’s notice, as they finished the regular season with 15 rushes of 20-plus yards (t-fourth) and four rushes of 40-plus yards (t-fourth). Like the Patriots, they have no problem scoring on the ground, rushing for the third-most touchdowns in the league (20).

The Patriots’ run defense is the real deal. Only one team all season outgained their season rushing yard average, while only three eclipsed their YPC average. Not only that, but only two of their last 10 opponents managed to rush for more than 3.8 YPC in a game.

Though New England is allowing 3.9 YPC on the season (t-12th) and 22.0 percent of rushes to earn first downs, both of those numbers are on the downswing thanks to stout defensive play from the Patriots defense over the past two months.

Player to watch: Alan Branch. The former Wolverine has been the face of the Patriots defensive line, leading the way with eight tackles for loss during the season. Branch is battling a toe injury, so he could be a little less effective than normal, but he is key to the New England run defense.

Advantage: Draw. The Falcons rushing attack gives them a balanced, efficient offense, but I could see the Patriots defense making Atlanta completely one-dimensional. Whether that will matter is a different story, but in truth, I can see this matchup going either way. I could see New England shut them down completely, and I could see the Falcons break off one or two huge runs. The least likely scenario, in my opinion, is the Falcons consistently running successfully against this Patriots defense.

Prediction:

The Patriots come out with a small +1.5 advantage. Despite the disappointing playoff games leading up to the Super Bowl, this one promises to be much more competitive.

Here’s how I see the game playing out:

If the Falcons are going to win, it’ll have to be predominantly because of Matt Ryan’s arm. He’s been able to do it without the help of a running game during the playoffs, but the Patriots will be the best pass defense they face in the postseason. Ryan has met every challenge he’s faced this season, but he’ll likely be without a running game, and this will be the biggest stage he’s ever performed on.

For the Patriots, I can see them winning using several different strategies. Though New England can’t run the ball extremely well, that’s where the Falcons defense is most vulnerable. If they want to try to play keep away from Matt Ryan, they could very well do it by maintaining the clock. That being said, I could very well see Tom Brady coming out on top in a shootout against Matt Ryan, too.

Because the Patriots have that versatility and because you can never count out Touchdown Tom, give me the Patriots by a hair. Patriots 27, Falcons 24.