Super matchup

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Super Bowl Sunday is always a bittersweet day for me. Yes, it’s the most important day of the professional football season, but it’s also the last one.

Pro football is my favorite sport, and as soon as one season ends I’ll start counting the days until another begins.

Sometimes the game is a dud: In 1998, I had to make an unplanned emergency trip to the grocery store and returned to find that the San Francisco 49ers had scored two touchdowns in the game’s first five minutes en route to a 49-26 victory.

Other times, it’s a nail-biter: for instance, the New England Patriots’ 28-24 victory over the Seattle Seahawks two years ago. (That Patriots victory was made possible, of course, by the most bone-headed play call in Super Bowl history; don’t waste your breath arguing that point.)

This Sunday seems to have the ingredients for a close, entertaining game. I sure hope so. My plan is to spend most of the day watching the various pregame shows while I slow-cook a big batch of chili, then settle into my recliner and watch the game with the rest of the CCN newsroom crew.

I’ve only seen the Falcons play once this year — in their blowout victory over Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game — but I’ve paid close enough attention that I think I understand the matchup.

Atlanta has the NFL’s highest-scoring offense, led by quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones.

Ryan has been a very good NFL quarterback for several years now but he’s never played as well as he has this season — with a career-high 38 touchdown passes and a career-low seven interceptions. Part of the credit has to go to offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who will be named the San Francisco 49ers’ new head coach any second now.

Jones’ production actually dropped off a bit this year — from a mind-boggling 136 receptions for 1,871 yards and eight touchdowns in 2015 to 83 catches for 1,409 yards and seven touchdowns this season. But that says more about the Falcons’ offensive balance than any issues with Jones’ performance. At 6-3, 220 pounds, with 4.3 speed, he’s a matchup nightmare for defensive coordinators. If he isn’t the league’s best wide receiver, Jones is at least part of the conversation.

The Falcons also have a rock-solid running game, anchored by 1,000-yard rusher Devonta Freeman, who averaged almost five yards a carry and scored 11 of Atlanta’s 20 rushing touchdowns.

Add all that up, and the Atlanta offense is a force to be reckoned with.

But — here’s the but — the key to this game has little to do with the Atlanta offense.

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past 15 years, you’re probably familiar with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. A two-time Super Bowl MVP, Brady has led the Patriots to four Super Bowl victories altogether. On Sunday, he’ll try to become the first quarterback ever to win five Super Bowls. If he’s successful, many fans and football experts likely will anoint him the greatest quarterback ever — ending the debate over whether that title belongs to Brady or longtime 49ers great Joe Montana.

The Brady-led Patriots have been so dominant — they’ve made six consecutive trips to the AFC Championship Game and this will be their seventh Super Bowl appearance in Brady’s 15 healthy seasons as their starting quarterback — that some observers might begin to take their excellence for granted.

Like Ryan, Brady had one of the best seasons of his career, with 28 touchdown passes and just two interceptions in 12 games after starting the season on a four-game

suspension. At the age of 39, Brady shows no signs of diminishing performance.

The Patriots aren’t particularly flashy on offense or defense — just mind-numbingly consistent.

Unlike Montana, of course, Brady has been beaten in the Super Bowl — not once but twice. And those two losses — along with New England’s loss to Denver in last season’s AFC Championship Game, probably provide Atlanta’s most realistic blueprint for winning on Sunday.

The Giants beat New England twice, and Denver did it once, by finding a way to make the normally unflappable Brady uncomfortable. Relentless pressure is the only way to rattle Brady and the only way to really slow down the Patriots.

Atlanta is capable of generating a strong pass rush. Vic Beasley led the NFL with 15.5 sacks this season and the Falcons had 34 altogether. If Beasley has a big game, Atlanta has a chance to win.

But with two weeks to prepare, my guess is the Patriots will find a way to get Beasley blocked. I expect a very entertaining, high-scoring game, and I expect Brady and the Patriots to come out on top. New England 38, Atlanta 27.

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Scott Loftis is managing editor for Carroll County Newspapers. His email address is CarrollCountyNews@cox-internet.com