The 2016 NFL season all comes down to this: two teams in one final game for one shiny trophy. Congratulations to the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots for making it to Super Bowl LI on February 5th at NRG Stadium. If we’re lucky, we’ll get a battle as good to the last drop as the most recent championship hosted in Houston. A buzzer-beating three-pointer by Kris Jenkins won the NCAA Men’s Basketball crown for Villanova, seconds after North Carolina’s Marcus Paige nailed his own double-clutch triple to tie the score. NRG Stadium served up one of the best finales in hoops history. The roar of the crowd and the celebration that ensued were unforgettable. (I will always remember getting pelted with flying seat cushions as they sailed down from the upper deck!) Is similar drama too much to ask of the Super Bowl?
With an extra week before kickoff, we’ll hear the strengths, weaknesses, matchups and predictions dissected a million ways to Sunday. The standard and not-so-standard questions will be asked repeatedly. Can the Patriots defense ground the high-flying Falcons? How will the teams handle the distractions? What about the history at stake? And most importantly, how much are you getting paid for your Facebook Live video from inside the locker room? The extended pregame borders on the sublime; but the wait creates even greater anticipation and allots time for the football fraternity, media throngs and fans to descend upon the chosen city.
The Patriots and Falcons are the reason for all the fuss, but they’ll do their best to rise above the fray. With so much prior experience on the New England coaching staff and roster, the four-time Super Bowl champs are more prepared for this process and the unavoidable sideshows. Everything from family travel arrangements to non-stop ticket appeals to Media Day to interview requests threatens to clog up players’ schedules (and their brains). The Patriots know what they’re walking into, and they won’t be caught off guard by the extra attention and pressure of sports’ biggest stage. Been there, done that. They’ll set the new NFL record by appearing in their ninth Super Bowl in Houston, breaking a tie with the Cowboys, Broncos and Steelers. In the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era, New England is competing in a seventh Super Bowl, which is the most among head coaches and quarterbacks.
At the other end of the spectrum, Atlanta is seeking its first title in only the second championship game in franchise history. The Falcons haven’t been here since the “Dirty Birds” 18 years ago. Only a handful of Falcons can claim Super Bowl experience, and they are primarily defensive reserves. No active offensive player has ever made it this far. At least head coach Dan Quinn knows the drill, as he makes his third trip in four years. As defensive coordinator with the Seahawks, he faced the Pats in Glendale, Arizona, two winters ago — and lost on Malcolm Butler’s goal line interception in the waning seconds. Because Falcons owner, Arthur Blank, doesn’t take these opportunities for granted, he’s footing the bill for every team employee and associate to travel to Houston and attend the game, all 500 of them.
The experience factor is just one way these teams are starkly different. Defense is another. The Patriots were the toughest team in the NFL to score against this season. They allowed just 15.6 points per game, and they were especially stingy against the run. New England’s defense surrendered a mere six rushing touchdowns all year, fewest in the league, thanks to wide bodies like Alan Branch clogging the middle. Opponents of the Falcons put up 25.4 points per game on average, though a closer look reveals a dramatic drop in scoring over their six most recent outings. As the young Atlanta D got more snaps and reps, it turned a corner. Second-year lineman Vic Beasley spearheaded a much-improved pass rush and finished tops in the NFL with 15.5 sacks. Safety Keanu Neal is among four rookies who started and passed a major test against Aaron Rodgers and the high-octane Green Bay offense in the NFC Championship. Since the beginning of their current win streak, the Falcons have conceded more than 21 points just once.
Another major contrast between the AFC and NFC winners is Julio Jones. The Falcons have him; the Patriots don’t have anything like him. He’s tall, physical, speedy, athletic — built for the jump ball — and a bonafide superstar. He’s the only wide receiver who averaged more than 100 receiving yards per game in 2016. Despite concerns about a lingering toe injury, he torched the Packers for 180 yards and a pair of touchdowns. They had no answer for Julio. While Chris Hogan’s numbers were identical for the Patriots against the Steelers, neither he nor New England’s top receiver, Julian Edelman, possess Jones’ body or credentials. If the Pats succeed in limiting him with double teams, they’re taking a risk with other weapons like Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman and Taylor Gabriel. Pick your poison. With Matt Ryan at the helm, the Falcons’ offense soared to 33.8 points per game and 540 total points, which is a full 100 more than New England this season.
Despite their varying styles, alternate paths and dissimilar histories, there can be no doubt the Patriots and Falcons are the best of the best. They’ve survived the mental and physical grind of 18 games and months of practice and preparation. They’ve navigated injuries and setbacks. They’ve found a rhythm and groove with only one loss between them since Thanksgiving. They’ve earned the ultimate football road trip.
Houston, we have liftoff!
A well-traveled veteran and pioneer of sports radio and television, Amy Lawrence is the host of CBS Sports Radio’s late-night program ‘After Hours with Amy Lawrence.’ The show can be heard weekdays from 2-6am ET on the nation’s largest 24/7 major-market radio network. Follow her on Twitter @.