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Super Bowl Predictions

Posted Feb 2, 2017

The BBC's Mike Carlson makes his Championship game predictions!

JOE VELLANO BOWL! The only guy on either team to have played for both! Though there is a bigger connection in the front office, as you'll see. Super Bowl LI was always going to look like a shootout, regardless of how the Conference championship games turned out. The four teams left in the playoffs were all high-powered offenses, quarterbacked by inarguably the league's four best quarterbacks this season. But this Sunday's matchup of the Patriots and Falcons, with Tom Brady versus Matt Ryan throwing the ball, actually matches the teams which were, statistically speaking, the league's two best.

The cliché is that 'defense wins championships', which is always true except when it isn't. Last year's Super Bowl matched the league's top two defenses, and the one that was better won. This year we not only get the league's two best offenses, but the teams which, according to the stats-geek formulations, like Football Outsiders DVOA or Football Perspective's ANY/A play good enough defense to rank them one-two. In both cases it's very close, and in both cases Atlanta have a slight advantage, one that virtually disappears if you look at the Patriots' 14-1 record with Brady (he missed the first four games of the season as punishment for, well, something in the Ballghazi affair).

In terms of old-fashioned stats, New England has actually allowed the league's fewest points, though they rank in the middle of the pack in yardage allowed, and admittedly did not face an array of fearsome offenses during the season. Atlanta's defense, on paper, isn't as impressive, but it has improved late in the season as their three key rookie starters have grown into their roles. Given that Atlanta scored 44 and beat Green Bay by 23 two weeks ago, while the Pats scored 36 and beat Pittsburgh by 19, expectations are for a points-fest, but it's the defenses that may hold the key to the game.

WHEN NEW ENGLAND HAVE THE BALL: The Falcons play a defense that is very much like Seattle's, which is no surprise since head coach Dan Quinn was their defensive coordinator two years ago when they lost to the Pats in Super Bowl 49. And guess which team handed the Brady Pats' their only loss? It was Seattle.

The Falcons front office is filled with Pats' alumni: General Manager Tom Dimitroff, his assistant Scott Pioli, and director of pro personnel Joel Collier all studied at the feet of Bill Belichick, and they have been excellent at giving Quinn the pieces he needs. Consider the three rookies: everyone else looked at Deion Jones as a Thomas Jones-style outside linebacker: the Falcons wanted him to be their Mike, where his speed and ability to read plays turns him into a mini-Bobby Wagner. Keanu Neal, their first pick, raised doubts about his range; Quinn saw him as his version of Kam Chancellor. And nobody saw De'Vondre Campbell as the rangy outside backer who could run sidelines to sideline and cover, their version of KJ Wright.

There's more, with Vic Beasley as their edge-rusher and a collection of versatile, quick interior linemen who are especially dangerous when big RaShede Hageman is occupying blockers in the middle. They miss cornerback Desmond Trufant, but last year's number two pick, Jalen Collins, has come on quickly, and undrafted rookie Brian Poole is a force on the blitz.

This is the kind of group that can align against the Pats and run with them, whatever matchups New England's formation groupings throw up, and if they can do that well enough to allow Beasley in particular to be active in pass rush, they can throw the Pats off their offensive game. In week 10, Seattle accounted for Rob Gronkowski pretty well, and the Pats don't have Gronk, and they swarmed round the shorter patterns which were New England's bread and butter. The game, as most close ones do, came down to one or two bad plays, and one or two calls, and Seattle escaped Gillette with a win. Atlanta could do the same, especially if the New England D starts slowly.

WHEN ATLANTA HAS THE BALL: The Falcons are a better offensive team than Seattle, indeed, than almost anyone. Matt Ryan has a bona-fide superstar game breaker in Julio Jones, one tall target and one small speedy guy as the other two wideouts, a talented tight end rotation, and two tailbacks who can run or catch. Coordinator Ryan Shanahan has been every bit as good as Josh McDaniels in terms of getting matchups, and his run game draws on the old Denver zone-blocking that traditionally gave New England teams fits. So how to the Pats cope?

First, they are better in the secondary than they were in week 10. Eric Rowe on the outside allowed Logan Ryan to move into the slot corner spot, replacing Justin Coleman. They have played primarily zone all season, not allowing big plays or massive yards after the catch. They have been excellent against the run playing mostly in a 4-2-5 alignment, usually with three safeties (big nickel) but don't be surprised if you see some new wrinkles. I wouldn't be surprised if they showed a Seattle style cover-3, with the outside corners virtually playing man, and Devin McCourty the single-high safety a la Earl Thomas. Turnabout and all that.

Their key will be how well their front two big men (a rotation of Alan Branch, Malcom Brown, and rookie Vince Valentine) hold up against the run, and whether they can commit to the rush with Trey Flowers (who often slides inside in passing downs) Rob Ninkovich and maybe one of their three-headed replacement for Jamie Collins (Kyle Van Noy, Shea McClellin, rookie Elandon Roberts). Again, I wouldn't be surprised to see the unusual, like all-out blitzing in the right situation, because we know the Pats will try to neutralize Jones first, and make someone else, like Sanu (a good matchup for Rowe) or Gabriel (a speed problem for Ryan deep) beat you.

Both these teams run riot in first quarters, but the Pats have never scored a first-quarter TD in any of Brady-Belichick's six previous Super Bowls. If they fall behind early, as Green Bay did after the Ripkowski fumble and Crosby missed field goal cost them 10 points, they may have problems controlling Atlanta's offense. New England were similarly lucky to build a lead against the Steelers: if Sammie Coates and Cobi Hamilton make plays, and if the Steelers punch it in from six inches, it's a different game. But shoulda coulda woulda is exactly the stuff you say after you lose. PICK: PATS

CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIPS: 1-1 PLAYOFFS: 9-1

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