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Super Bowl LI shaping up to be stellar match up

As a New England Patriots fan, I should be happy about my team making it to the NFL Super Bowl yet again. But I’m going to be honest, the concept of facing off against the Atlanta Falcons this coming Sunday scares the heck out of me.

Last week, I mentioned that I consider the Patriots and the Packers to be similar teams in terms of structure, in that both have offenses centered around top-tier quarterbacks that can enhance the other offensive players’ ability to make plays and get in the end zone. Outside of that, neither team has a wealth of truly elite offensive playmakers (excluding Jordy Nelson and Rob Gronkowski, both of whom seem to get injured at the worst times possible).

Compare this to the Atlanta Falcons, who have premier offensive players at just about every position on the field. Their stout offensive line has performed measurably better than previous seasons. Wide receiver Julio Jones continues to be an unstoppable presence among the league’s very best receivers. Running back Devonta Freeman powered through his second straight 1,000 yard season. Even quarterback Matt Ryan has thrown his way out of mediocrity and into the conversation for a possible 2016 league MVP pick.

The comparison between these two types of offenses was apparent in last Sunday’s NFC championship game, in which the Falcons dismembered the Green Bay Packers to the tune of a 44-21 final score. Aaron Rodgers put forth a valiant effort, posting up a respectable 287 yards and 3 touchdowns, but his performance was dwarfed by the Falcons’ dominance on both sides of the ball. This is an unsettling omen for the Patriots, who will have to hope that Tom Brady’s stellar performance this season will somehow produce points in a way that Rodgers and the Packers couldn’t. The offensive superiority of the Falcons is also ominous for the Patriots’ defensive unit. Although New England’s allowed a league-low average of 15.6 points per game, they haven’t faced off against an opposing offense this lethal all season.

Indeed, one of the great joys of being a Patriots fan is that the AFC East is a laughably easy division to compete in, with the opponents (Miami Dolphins, New York Jets and Buffalo Bills) being reliably awful.

There are some slivers of hope for Patriots fans in the upcoming matchup. First, this is Atlanta’s first Super Bowl appearance since 1998, while the Patriots have been here an NFL record-setting nine times. Many of the veteran players on New England have a Super Bowl ring or two on their resumes (or in Brady’s case, four). For what it’s worth, they have the upper hand in terms of mental preparation. Second, New England’s coaching staff led by Bill Belichick is notoriously crafty. They figured out a strategy to isolate and shut down elite WR Antonio Brown in last week’s AFC championship game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, holding him to 7 catches for 77 yards in the Patriots’ 36-17 win. Many other coaches in the NFL have remarked that the Patriots consistently find ways to win important games, even if those ways are somewhat unconventional (like Julian Edelman’s double-pass TD throw or the Patriots’ use of designating multiple offensive linemen as eligible receivers in their AFC championship win against the Baltimore Ravens two years ago).

Will it be enough to take down the Falcons? It’s hard to say. I hate to use a worn-out sports platitude here, but this game might just come down to the question of which team ‘wants it more.’ Both teams have a big stake in the game (other than the obvious winning the Super Bowl). The Falcons are out to prove themselves as an elite, championship caliber team for the first time since their founding in 1965, whereas the Patriots would like nothing better than to win the game and force NFL commissioner Rodger Goodell to hand the Lombardi trophy to Brady, who was controversially suspended for the first four games of this season following the ‘Deflategate’ legal battle.

In any case, it should be an interesting game, and is almost guaranteed to be a better matchup than last year’s stinker. The Super Bowl kicks off this Sunday in Houston, TX at 5:30 pm on FOX.

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