New England vs Atlanta, the match-up was probably not the first one that came to mind before the season started but this game may be a “blessing in disguise” considering the fact this post-season has mostly been a “joke” to watch. Can Bill Belichick win another Super Bowl? Will the “Dirty Birds” shock the football world and deny Tom Brady his fifth ring? Here’s some insight into what I believe needs to happen for each team to win.
1. Be Physical. Whether it is pushing Julio Jones at the line of scrimmage or Alan Branch dominating the line of scrimmage, the Pats have to establish toughness against the Falcons. We have seen teams be successful when their cornerbacks have pushed Jones around (Josh Norman for example). Also, New England’s defensive line is very stingy against the run. Atlanta wants to run the football, to me that is the key to their success to their offense. The Pats will have to stop the run and make the Falcons one-dimensional. Also, their offensive line has to punish a defensive line that is decent, but not special.
2. Hold Atlanta to 30 or less. The magic number maybe 30 for the Patriots. Atlanta is 12-0 when they score over 30 points, and 1-5 when they score 30 or less. The Falcons lead the NFL in touchdowns per game, and they are seventh in the NFL in red zone touchdown efficiency. New England is 8th in the NFL in yards allowed and number one in points allowed. They just don’t let teams score points, especially in the “red zone” as they are seventh in the league in opponents “red zone” touchdown scoring. Can New England afford for this game to become a shoot-out?
3. The Back Seven. I think the defensive line can hold their own, what I wonder about is the linebackers and secondary. Atlanta’s offense is so good because they have skill all over the place whether it be at wide receiver or at running back. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan does a fantastic job creating match-up problems for defenses, especially putting Freeman and Tevin Coleman out in space in the passing game. The Patriots’ back seven will need to limit the big plays if they want to have success.
1. Have success running the ball. For all the talk about Atlanta’s passing game, the Falcons can run the football a bit as well. They are fifth the league in rushing yards per game. Devonta Freeman ran for 1,079 yards and Tevin Coleman added over 500 yards rushing this season. I feel Atlanta does not want Matt Ryan to have to throw the ball 50-60 times in this game. Balance will be extremely important.
2. Stay disciplined. The one thing Dan Quinn and GM Thomas Dimitroff has done over the last couple of seasons is they found speed to put on the field with guys like Vic Beasley and Deion Jones (what a find he was). That speed sometimes can go against them if they do not keep discipline and communicate. New England does a lot with formations and how they move their skill players. Last week, the Patriots used Chris Hogan in a similar manner as Rob Gronkowski. Hogan ran seam routes to stretch Pittsburgh vertically. Atlanta must do a good job communicating and not get loose in coverage and open up space for the Patriots, something that Pittsburgh did a horrid job of in the AFC title game.
3. Take what the Patriots give them. Part of the reason I think Atlanta has a real shot at winning is because of Matt Ryan. The biggest thing I have seen from Ryan this season is his patience and not looking for Julio Jones so often. Jones’ targets went from 203 last year to only 129 this season. Ryan is more willing to target other receivers like Taylor Gabriel and Mohammed Sanu. He will continue to have to do that next Sunday. New England is great at taking the opposition best weapon away, so Julio will be the guy they focus on. If Atlanta wants to have success throwing the football, Ryan has to be patient and try not to get too greedy downfield. Use those other guys if New England allows it.
Who to Watch
New England: Martellus Bennett. Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels are uncanny in creating game plans to unleash guys who are not expected to do much. Bennett has been very quiet for a while(injuries have played a big factor), but it would not surprise me if he is a factor. He did have 55 catches this season(3rd on the team in catches). I could see him catching passes to keep drives alive, which New England will have to do because I don’t think they want to give Atlanta a bunch of possessions with punts. Bennett has had 70 yards receiving only once since week 10, so the odds are against him having a productive game. With Josh McDaniels though, he is a guy to watch.
Atlanta: Front Seven. If the Falcons want to win defensively, the front seven has to perform well. Getting pressure on Brady is important. Can Vic Beasley and friends hit and most of all disrupt his rhythm? Atlanta get a lot of the pressure from the outside, which could spell trouble because Brady can see the outside rush. Where Brady struggles at is throwing while facing interior pressure, can Atlanta get interior pressure? Will Deion Jones and the linebacker group be able to match up in space with guys like Dion Lewis (who gets high usage in the Pats offense)? These factors will play a huge part in the result.
Prediction: Patriots 28-24