It's not easy to beat Tom Brady in the playoffs, but the blueprints on how to pull it off aren't hard to find. Just about every team who has managed to take down the Patriots over the past decade has done so with pass pressure. The Giants wrote the book on this during the 2007 playoffs, overcoming an undefeated Pats team by getting home with their four star defensive linemen. They repeated the same recipe four years later.
The Giants weren't the only ones. The Ravens upset Brady in 2009 by getting out to an early lead, in part thanks to a Terrell Suggs strip sack. A year later, the Jets won with Mark Sanchez in New England by sacking Brady five times. Last year, the Broncos controlled an incredible Patriots offense by pressuring Brady on 31.1 percent of his dropbacks and knocking him down a staggering 17 times. You can even point the turnaround of New England's win in Super Bowl XLIX to Seahawks pass-rusher Cliff Avril leaving with a concussion in the third quarter; with the pass rush exhausted on the final two drives of the game, Brady went 13-of-15 for 124 yards with two touchdowns while being knocked down just once.
Given the Falcons' dominant offense, it's not a prerequisite for the Falcons to get pressure on Brady if they want to win Super Bowl LI, but it's awfully close to one. If the Falcons do get pressure, they probably will slow down Brady to the point where their offense will be good enough to win. If they don't, they're going to need a perfect performance on the other side of the ball to come out victorious, and that's a lot to ask against a Bill Belichick defense with two weeks to prepare.
Will Atlanta get that pressure? It depends on which Falcons defense shows up.
The Falcons have been an entirely different pass defense during the playoffs, both in terms of style and performance. Here's Atlanta's blitz rate and pressure rate, split by the regular season and the postseason:
It appears that Dan Quinn surreptitiously hired Rex Ryan during Atlanta's playoff bye week, because the Falcons are suddenly one of the most aggressive defenses in football. The Falcons' 36 percent blitz rate in the playoffs would have ranked fifth during the regular season, and their 44.9 percent pressure rate would've been the best in football by a considerable margin. Denver, which led the league in pressure rate, finished the year at 33.6 percent. And while it makes sense that Atlanta would improve its pressure rate by doubling its blitz percentage, its blitzes have been far more successful than you'd expect. During the regular season, the Falcons turned 35.8 percent of their blitzes into pressure, which was 19th in the league. The Giants led the league at 46.8 percent. This postseason, Quinn's defense has turned 53.1 of its blitzes into a quarterback pressure.
It's one thing to bully the sculpted blocking sled of pass protectors the Seahawks rolled out in the divisional round, but the Falcons were able to pressure Aaron Rodgers on 42 percent of his dropbacks in the NFC Championship Game. In part, their decision-making was probably driven by what they wanted to do behind those blitzes. Rodgers carved up Atlanta's zone coverage the first time the two teams played, in Week 8, leading Quinn to dial up man coverage more frequently two weeks ago. Rodgers still made plays, but the Falcons did just enough to disrupt him at the right time. Take the final third down of Green Bay's opening drive, when Rodgers had Randall Cobb open at the sticks but couldn't get the ball to him because the blitzing Deion Jones came untouched:
What's interesting about this sudden upswing in the Atlanta pass rush is that it has become a threat without getting much of an impact from the player who led the league in sacks during the regular season. Vic Beasley Jr. had 15.5 sacks before the playoffs but hasn't even knocked down an opposing quarterback once during the postseason. His only contribution on the stat sheet has been one tipped swing pass against Green Bay. Beasley has been a part of those blitz packages, of course, but he hasn't been the one sealing the deal in January.
In part, that's because the 15.5-sack number overstates Beasley's impact on a week-to-week basis. Every edge rusher picks on bad quarterbacks and linemen, but Beasley enjoyed a disproportionate amount of success against rookies. He got in for 3.5 sacks against Paxton Lynch with the Broncos starting an injured Ty Sambrailo at right tackle. Beasley beat up Jared Goff, who posted the eighth-worst era-adjusted sack rate since the merger, for three sacks, including a strip sack Beasley picked up himself and returned for a score. He sacked Carson Wentz twice, one of which was a coverage sack and another where Wentz didn't feel the pressure around backup right tackle Hal Vaitai and failed to protect the football.
You also don't get 15.5 sacks entirely by accident, and Beasley can be an absolute terror rushing around right tackles. Virtually all of his sacks came lining up as a left defensive end and sprinting around the edge. Beasley's first, second, third and fourth moves are going to be to use his speed to get underneath the right tackle and try to either slap the ball out of a quarterback's hands or take him down. Even his primary countermove, as you can see on this strip sack of Philip Rivers, is to feign an inside rush before cutting back outside.
For a few reasons, I'm skeptical Beasley will be able to have a huge impact on this game in his typical role. (Note: This now guarantees that he will rack up six sacks and win Super Bowl MVP.) One reason is that the Falcons love to line Beasley far outside the right tackle's outside shoulder in what is sometimes referred to as a "wide-nine" technique (an incorrect reference when there's not a tight end out there). It plays to Beasley's strengths as a speed rusher, but it also requires a little bit of extra time for Beasley to get to the quarterback, given that he's taking a longer route. That's not a recipe to get pressure on Brady, who has excellent footwork in the pocket and gets the ball out as quick as anyone in football. Over the past three seasons, Brady has taken 2.32 seconds to get rid of the football, the third-fastest rate in the league.
The second reason is that the Patriots have a right tackle who can hold up against Beasley. Entering the season, Marcus Cannon was viewed as a wildly frustrating utility lineman, blamed, often fairly, for brief spurts of disastrous pass protection when the Pats needed him most, including in that aforementioned 2015 AFC Championship Game. Offensive line stats are murky, but Cannon had been credited for eight sacks across 19 starts in his first five seasons.
Locked in as the team's starting right tackle with Sebastian Vollmer out for the season, Cannon has thrived under the tutelage of legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, who returned to the Patriots after two years in retirement. Scarnecchia has worked with Cannon on his technique, specifically by getting him to use his 34-inch arms for additional leverage. Throw in improved conditioning, and Cannon has been a revelation at right tackle, where he has allowed just two sacks all year en route to a contract extension and a second-team All-Pro nod.
Cannon versus Beasley looms as a huge matchup in this game, but the Patriots also might push Beasley off the field with their personnel choices. The Falcons don't like to leave Beasley on the field in running situations, because teams can take advantage of his aggressiveness around the edge with draws. The Packers also exploited Beasley on a fourth-and-2 in the NFC Championship Game with a zone-read play; Rodgers noticed Beasley cheating into the backfield and held onto a handoff before running around Beasley's vacated edge for a first down.
When opposing teams have three or more wideouts on the field, Beasley has played 74.6 percent of snaps. When they have two wideouts or fewer, Beasley's playing time dips to just 19.7 percent of snaps. The Patriots were in those two-or-fewer looks 49.9 percent of the time on offense, which was the fourth-highest rate in the league during the regular season. (That fell to seventh after Rob Gronkowski was injured in Week 10.) Beasley has played only four such snaps during the postseason, so the Falcons will have to make a choice about how they want to use their star edge rusher.
It might seem surprising that the Falcons would be so judicious about using their most athletic lineman, but they're as aggressive as anyone in football in rotating players up front. There's no perfect way to define a rotation, but let's work with this. Beasley, who was moved to strongside linebacker before the season but essentially plays left defensive end, given how frequently he's being used in sub-packages, played 60.8 percent of Atlanta's defensive snaps this season.
None of Atlanta's other pass-rushers -- players who go after the quarterback and don't drop into coverage on a minimum of 70 percent of pass plays -- hit that mark this season. No team in the league had their most heavily used pass-rusher get such a light workload. The Cowboys were next at 63.2 percent, and the league average was 77.5 percent. Furthermore, the Falcons had eight linemen rotating onto the field to go after the quarterback on at least 25 percent of dropbacks. The only team in the league that topped that mark was the Colts with nine.
There's an obvious way for the Patriots to exploit that tendency, and I would be surprised if Belichick and Josh McDaniels missed their opportunity. The Patriots certainly have a quarterback who is comfortable going into the no-huddle while forcing the Falcons to either rush their defensive linemen onto the field or keep tired linemen on the field in roles they don't normally enjoy. It certainly makes sense for the Patriots to be selectively aggressive with tempo and the no-huddle.
For whatever reason, though, the Patriots have mostly avoided the no-huddle for most of the 2016 season. After Brady threw 94 passes out of the no-huddle in 2015, he threw only 20 in the 2016 regular season, going 17-of-20 for 154 yards with two touchdowns. Most of those throws came with the Patriots rushing just before halftime in their two-minute drill.
But New England has gone back to the no-huddle more frequently in recent weeks as Dion Lewis has gotten healthier, which could be telling. The Patriots love to exploit Lewis' versatility by rushing up to the line after a pass play and handing the ball to Lewis against a box full of defensive backs. It would be smart of them to make the same sort of move against the Falcons, who often dare opposing teams to run the ball in smaller boxes. Atlanta put five men or fewer in the box 66 times this season, 22 more times than anybody else in football. Offenses averaged 6.3 yards per carry on those runs and generated 17 first downs while adding 7.7 expected points to their ledger.
After averaging less than three no-huddle plays per game in the regular season, the Pats have gone to the no-huddle 17 times in two playoff games, including 11 snaps against the Steelers in the conference championship game. As Ben Volin of the Boston Globe noted, the Patriots scored two touchdowns and a field goal early on against the Steelers on drives where they upped the tempo.
The wild card, as always with Brady and the Patriots, is the opponent getting interior pressure. In the divisional round, the Texans had a lot of success lining up edge rushers Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus in the middle of their defense against the Patriots' interior linemen, particularly in the first half. Clowney blew up a screen, and Mercilus spun past center David Andrews for a drive-ending sack. But the Steelers, as Volin also noted, mysteriously opted against rushing Bud Dupree or James Harrison from similar spots during the conference championship game.
The Falcons had a useful interior pass-rusher in Adrian Clayborn, but he went down with a season-ending biceps tear in the first half of the divisional-round win over the Seahawks. Beasley could line up over center, but it seems unlikely the Falcons would move him there. Atlanta occasionally shifts him inside before the snap to serve as a spy on opposing quarterbacks, and he picked up a couple of sacks by closing on scrambling passers in that role, but he seems locked on the right side of the offense.
The player who could have the most impact as an interior pass-rusher -- and the one who has been at the heart of Atlanta's dynamic defense over the past two games -- is rookie linebacker Deion Jones. He might be the most important player for the Falcons' defense in this game, given his ability to make an impact in multiple ways. Just as it's difficult to imagine Atlanta winning this game without generating pressure, it's hard to figure out how they'll succeed against the Patriots' offense if Jones doesn't play well.
Jones was the anchor in the Atlanta defense during their two playoff wins. He had the critical assignment of spying Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers really hurt the Falcons the few times they chose to avoid spying, such as here, where Jones takes Aaron Ripkowski coming out of the backfield and Rodgers runs for 28 yards.
Jones also worked as an occasional blitzer, picking up that critical knockdown of Rodgers on third down to set up a missed field goal on the opening drive. In addition to all of that, Jones is Atlanta's rangiest linebacker in zone coverage, and he also has to occupy the middle of the field on most snaps, with the goal of disrupting drag routes and taking away throwing lanes on slants. Clowney did an incredible job of that near the goal line in the divisional round, disrupting three routes before closing on Brady and laying him out as he tried to scramble for a touchdown.
The Brady problem
The problem with blitzing Brady is that he's Tom Brady. Nobody in the league is better than him against the blitz. When defenses blitzed him this year, Brady went 61-of-99 for 838 yards with 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions, taking just two sacks in the process. His 125.7 passer rating and 90.4 QBR both ranked No. 1 overall. Over the past three years, Brady has posted a league-best 92.2 QBR and 113.6 passer rating against blitzes while taking sacks just 2.7 percent of the time, all the best in the league by a comfortable margin.
And yet, I'm not really sure the Falcons have much of a choice. If they don't blitz, they are probably going to struggle to get pressure on Brady. They have a league-best 40.4 percent pressure rate in the postseason when they haven't blitzed, but that's a 57-dropback sample. During the regular season, Atlanta's pressure rate without blitzing was 22.7 percent, which ranked 21st in the NFL. Brady posted a 119.9 passer rating this year when teams rushed four or fewer and failed to bother him; the only quarterback in the league with a better rating on those same plays was ... Matt Ryan.
While Quinn probably would prefer to have Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman in his defensive backfield and just drop into Cover 3 every single play, the Falcons probably will have to sprinkle in a good amount of man coverage behind those blitzes, along with some fire zones to try to bring an extra man while taking away Brady's hot read. But there's nobody in the league better at transitioning through his reads quickly and knowing where he needs to go with the football than Brady. (Remember those stats I just mentioned?)
When the Falcons do go into that Cover 3 shell, Brady will have plenty of Cover 3 beaters to pick Atlanta apart, including Y-Stick, which I wrote about at length in previewing the Patriots-Seahawks Super Bowl a couple of years ago. I figured in that game the Patriots would target Seahawks slot cornerback Jeremy Lane, and while Lane had an interception before leaving with several serious injuries, the Patriots abused Byron Maxwell in the slot and replacement Tharold Simon on the outside.
The Falcons are down their best defensive player in Desmond Trufant, and while they've been able to get by without Trufant on the field this year, it would sure be nice to have him in the lineup. Instead, they've replaced Trufant in the lineup with 2015 second-rounder Jalen Collins, who has improved after an uneven rookie season and the four-game PED suspension he served to start 2016. At 6-foot-2, Collins has the physicality to compete with bigger Patriots receivers such as Chris Hogan.
Elsewhere, though, the Patriots should be able to create mismatches against Atlanta's two smaller corners, 5-foot-10 Robert Alford and 5-foot-9 undrafted free agent Brian Poole, who will line up in the slot. Against the Packers, Alford and Poole mostly had to hold up with their speed against isolation routes. McDaniels will instead force them to fight through picks when the Patriots run slant/flat combinations. The Packers went with similar concepts near the goal line, with Davante Adams beating Collins on a slant/out combo for a score.
Martellus Bennett is also capable of representing a mismatch in coverage, especially if he's running better after having two weeks to rest his ailing ankle. Gronkowski would have been a major problem in this game, but even without Gronk, the Patriots will try to split out Bennett and isolate him against Alford for back-shoulder throws. When the Falcons are in man coverage, they'll undoubtedly line up rookie safety Keanu Neal against Bennett and hope he can hold up. The Packers went after Neal when he was in coverage on tight end Jared Cook, and Cook caught seven passes for 78 yards on 12 targets (with two drops).
The biggest concern for the Falcons' pass defense, though, might be on throws to James White and Dion Lewis. Atlanta was 26th in the league in DVOA on throws to running backs this year while allowing a league-high 53.5 receiving yards per game to backs. Teams haven't been able to exploit that in the postseason, in part thanks to injury: The Seahawks were without C.J. Prosise, and the Packers lost Ty Montgomery twice during the game and had their starting running back on the field for only 23 snaps.
Quinn is loath to play without at least one deep safety, which means Ricardo Allen will almost always be in center field as the Falcons play Cover 1 Man or Cover 3. The job of covering the backs will fall to Poole, Jones or another rookie, linebacker De'Vondre Campbell. They all have the speed to hold up in coverage, but the Patriots are so clever in creating favorable routes for their backs that it's difficult to foresee Atlanta locking them down all game. In the Super Bowl two years ago, the Patriots were kept alive at times by Shane Vereen, who finished with a team-high 11 catches and six first downs. The Patriots can stretch the Falcons in Cover 3 by using their backs as part of snag concepts, getting into the flat for safe completions while daring the outside corner to stop sinking on the deep corner route.
And, of course, New England's third back lurks as a problem for the Falcons. LeGarrette Blount, the Patriots' power back, is not much of a receiver, but he could give Atlanta fits. The Falcons finished the year 29th in rush defense DVOA, and that was with Clayborn in the lineup. It hasn't really been a concern the past two games, though, in part because the Falcons got ahead in the first half. They did shut down Thomas Rawls for 34 yards on 11 carries, and the combo of Montgomery and Christine Michael went for 28 yards on nine carries. If the Patriots have success throwing early and force Neal out of the box, chances are good they'll be able to run the ball effectively with Blount and hold onto a lead.
A distinct challenge
On paper, the flip side of the ball features a mouthwatering matchup between the league's best offense and its best defense. That's half true. The Falcons do have a truly transcendent attack, featuring what is probably the best first-down offense in the history of football. This unit has averaged 40 points per game in the postseason.
The Patriots' defense isn't quite as good as their No. 1 rank in points allowed. They're 16th in defensive DVOA, with the difference owing to their schedule of opposing offenses (the league's easiest) and the field position afforded them by their offense and kickoffs (the league's best). They've been good in the playoffs, but that also has come against Brock Osweiler and a Steelers team that lost Le'Veon Bell after one quarter. This will be the first time all season they will play a passing offense that ranked any higher than eighth (Pittsburgh) in DVOA.
So do the Falcons have a huge advantage? I'm not so sure. Atlanta's offense is better than New England's defense in a vacuum, but the Patriots seem to match up pretty well with what Atlanta does best on offense. Styles make fights, and specific matchups can create nightmares for what might be the better team in a vacuum, as was the case when the Seahawks romped over an historically dominant Broncos offense three years ago. Let's run through some of those ideas and see if the Patriots represent a particularly bad matchup for one of the great offenses in league history.
Stopping Julio ... and everyone else
I don't need to tell you about Belichick's philosophy of taking away the opposing team's best weapon, right? Most commonly brought up in reference to the Patriots beating up Marshall Faulk during their dramatic upset victory in Super Bowl XXXVI, Belichick's defensive scheme is designed to eliminate the opposing team's best player and trust that the rest of his unit can hold up against a weakened offense. Your move, Julio Jones.
When the opponent's best player has been a wide receiver, the Patriots have been pretty consistent. Instead of assigning their No. 1 cornerback to the opposing team's top wideout, they've given that assignment to their No. 2 cornerback and given him consistent help over the top with a safety. The No. 1 cornerback has then gone on the opposing team's second-best wide receiver, and for the Patriots, things usually have gone swell.
As Domonique Foxworth noted for The Undefeated two weeks ago, though, the Patriots have mixed things up more in 2016. Malcolm Butler, their top cornerback, has covered some opposing No. 1 wideouts. He saw a lot of Antonio Brown in Week 7 and again regularly matched up with him in the conference championship game.
The Patriots might have a reputation for taking away the opposing team's best weapon, but how effective are they when they go up against truly transcendent wide receivers like the one they're about to face Sunday? They just held Brown to seven catches for 77 yards in the AFC Championship Game, and like Jones, Brown was a first-team All-Pro. How have Belichick's defenses done on the whole against first-team All-Pro wideouts, though?
I went back through 2000 and identified every time a first-team Associated Press All-Pro wide receiver faced off against the Patriots, either in the regular season or playoffs. (I didn't include wide receivers who made the All-Pro team for their duties on special teams, such as Devin Hester.) I took out their stats against the Patriots to find their average regular-season performance that year and then compared it with what they did against New England. Playoff games are asterisked. The numbers are pretty interesting:
In 14 games, the first-team All-Pros basically performed like they were first-team All-Pros against the Patriots. The notable difference came in touchdowns, which is in part because I chose to round the totals to make it easier to read. If I went with partial touchdowns for each of the 14 regular-season estimates, these stars would have been expected to score 10.1 touchdowns in 14 games. The Patriots holding them to seven is still preferable, but I'm not sure how meaningful a difference that is, given the variance of touchdowns. New England also was 8-6 in those 14 games.
The last time Belichick faced Jones was in 2013, in Week 4 of what ended up as a five-week season for Jones, thanks to a foot injury that continues to cause him problems, although problems are all relative. Jones, after all, was reportedly suffering from three separate foot injuries heading into the NFC Championship Game and ran through the Packers for only 180 yards and two touchdowns. We all need to injure our feet.
Back in 2013, it's fair to say Belichick and Jones battled to a draw. Julio finished the day with six catches for 108 yards, most of which came in the fourth quarter as the Falcons launched a comeback. After Brady fumbled away a fourth-and-1 sneak to seal the game, Ryan hit Jones on a 49-yard pass to set up first-and-10 from the Patriots' 13-yard line, down 30-23 with 59 seconds to go. Atlanta promptly went four-and-out, though, handing the game to New England.
Jones needed 13 targets to get to 108 yards. He spent most of the day going up against New England's top cornerback at the time, Aqib Talib, who got in his face at the line of scrimmage and tried to redirect or disrupt his routes with handfighting. Jones' success in the second half was almost exclusively against opposite corner Alfonzo Dennard, who was overmatched even with safety help over the top. Talib seemed to spend a fair amount of the game against Jones without much help, although the Patriots spent a fair amount of time in Cover 2 or Cover 4 and dared the Falcons to run with Jacquizz Rodgers against a light box.
And that brings me to an important point: The Falcons' running game and whether it's successful will dictate a lot of what the Patriots are able to do with their defense Sunday. When the Patriots played with two deep safeties and defended the run with six men in the box during the regular season, they allowed 4.13 yards per carry, the third-best rate in the league. The Falcons rarely ran against light boxes -- 126 times to be exact, the lowest mark in the league by 20 attempts -- and weren't able to take advantage of the opportunity, averaging a league-low 4.04 yards per carry on those plays.
Atlanta was instead the second-best team in the league (5.36 yards per rush) against boxes stacked with eight men or more. The Patriots held up in those situations, though; they allowed just 53 yards on 28 rushing attempts, an average of 1.89 yards per attempt. As you might suspect, a run defense that is good regardless of how many men it has in the box rates out as pretty effective: The Pats finished the year fourth in rush defense DVOA.
Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman truly excelled in creating big plays, which will be a point of huge contention Sunday. The Falcons had seven runs of 30 yards or more this year, a figure topped only by the Bills, who ran the ball 78 more times than Atlanta's 421 attempts. The only problem is that the Patriots allowed just one run of 30 yards or more, and that was to David Johnson in the season opener.
Atlanta's running backs aren't the only ones who create big plays. Their receivers do an excellent job of generating huge gains, particularly after the catch. You might remember Jones stepping over LaDarius Gunter on an innocuous-looking in route before taking it 73 yards to the house in the NFC Championship Game. Eight Falcons receivers had a catch of 30 yards or more this year. Levine Toilolo had four. Levine Toilolo! The Falcons had 29 such receptions this year, the second-highest total in the league behind ... the Patriots, who had 30.
Ryan's receivers do their best work after the catch, which will be a huge deciding factor in this game. Something will have to give. Although Ryan's passes traveled an average of 8.3 yards in the air, which was 11th in the league, the Falcons were the most devastating team in football after the catch. They averaged 6.2 yards after catch (YAC) on Ryan's completions, the highest rate in the league. The only other team over 6 yards per catch was Brady's Patriots, whose average pass traveled nearly 1 full yard less than Ryan. Shorter passes tend to produce more YAC.
The Patriots' defense will have something to say about that. They're the best defense in the league in slowing down receivers with the football in their hands. Matt Patricia's unit allowed a league-low 4.1 YAC on opposing receptions this season. New England allowed only 16 pass plays of 30 yards or more this season, the fifth fewest in the league and an impressive figure, given that teams threw the seventh-most passes in the league against them. The Patriots probably can't stop Ryan altogether, but if they tackle after the catch and force the Falcons to march down the field, they have a decent shot of coming up with stops and/or forcing them into field goals.
Belichick doesn't blitz much with this current group of players; the 20.9 percent blitz rate the Patriots posted during the regular season was similar to that of the Falcons, but the 26.8 percent pressure rate New England generated was just about league average. The Pats have been more likely to get pressure with four rushers before the playoffs, and because their secondary is better, they're better at holding up when they don't get after the quarterback. The 91.7 passer rating they allowed without pressure doesn't sound great, but it was the seventh-best mark in the league.
Belichick has to be more judicious about where and when he blitzes Ryan than Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who threw out a blitz at the wrong time during the NFC Championship Game. With seven seconds left in the first half and the Falcons facing a third-and-1 on the Packers' 5-yard line with no timeouts, Capers could have told his defensive backs to just grab the opposing receivers and drag them down for holding, which would have blown up the play and forced Atlanta to either kick a field goal or attempt one play for a touchdown from the 2½-yard line. The NFL basically allows teams to do this once, as the 49ers did to the Saints earlier this season.
Instead, Capers sent a big blitz at Ryan, perhaps hoping to get a sack, which would have ended the half. He also left Gunter one-on-one on the sideline against Julio Jones with no safety help. The result was an undefendable back-shoulder toss to Jones for a 5-yard score.
The game plan for the Patriots isn't as simple as stopping Jones and assuming the Atlanta offense will fall apart as a result. While it might have been true in the past that the Falcons revolved around their star wideout, Kyle Shanahan has built an attack that can thrive with or without Jones on the field, at least this season. Including the playoffs, Ryan has thrown 468 passes with Jones on the field, producing a 118.2 passer rating and an 86.5 QBR. With Jones on the bench, either for a rest or during the games he missed with an injury, Ryan has thrown 141 passes and actually been even more productive: 121.9 passer rating and a QBR of 88.5.
The Patriots do an excellent job of communicating on defense and transitioning coverage responsibilities between defenders, which is extremely important when teams place an emphasis on stacking receivers to try to create confusion and mismatches before and immediately after the snap. The Steelers are one of the better teams in the league at doing so, and the Falcons aren't far behind.
Pittsburgh did create mismatches at times against one specific defender, though, and he'll need to play better in the Super Bowl. Eric Rowe has had an up-and-down season during his debut year with the Patriots, and the Steelers repeatedly went after him during the AFC Championship Game. Pittsburgh targeted him with a go route out of the slot on the first third down of the game, with Roethlisberger narrowly overthrowing Sammie Coates. The Steelers later went with Cobi Hamilton in a reduced split and cleared out the field to have him run a deep out against Rowe, but Roethlisberger's throw was again off the mark and gave Rowe a chance to recover.
Rowe would pick off a badly underthrown Roethlisberger pass in the second half, but Roethlisberger also picked up two 30-yard gains against Rowe's side of the field in zone coverage. (One was a perfect throw, splitting Rowe and Devin McCourty in Cover 2.) The Falcons aren't naive. They're going to try to get Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel alone against Rowe in space and hope their receivers win a matchup that should pretty clearly be in their favor.
Belichick will not hesitate to make in-game changes if necessary. During his last Super Bowl trip, the Seahawks only found offensive success at first by turning to little-used backup receiver Chris Matthews, whose 6-foot-5 frame made him a mismatch for 5-foot-10 slot corner Kyle Arrington. But midgame, Belichick benched Arrington and moved 6-foot-4 Brandon Browner onto Matthews, neutralizing him. The player he inserted into the game in Arrington's place, of course, was Malcolm Butler.
These two teams are roughly similar in terms of overall special-teams performance, with the Patriots ranking seventh in special teams DVOA and the Falcons eighth. They got there in different ways, though. The Falcons were driven by Matt Bryant's work on field goals, which was worth 10.9 points of field position, the second-best mark in the league. They were roughly league average across the rest of the special-teams continuum.
The Patriots, meanwhile, did excellent work on kickoffs, where they ranked second in the league, and punts, ranking third, but were middling on returns and scoring kick attempts. There are reasons to think they might be better in the Super Bowl. They've stuck Julian Edelman on punt returns, where he has been much better than Danny Amendola and Cyrus Jones. They also have Lewis on kick returns after Lewis missed most of the season; he had just two kickoff returns during the regular season, but he took a 98-yard return to the house against the Texans in the divisional round.
It also seems dangerous to count out New England's star kicker, Stephen Gostkowski, even though this has been a wildly frustrating season for him. Gostkowski struggled early in the year, going 11-of-14 (78.5 percent) on field goals and 24-of-26 on extra points. After the Week 9 bye, he has been better: 21-for-23 (91.3 percent) on field goals and 29-for-31 on extra points, missing one against the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game. Gostkowski was an average kicker on the whole this year -- he was worth 0.1 points of field position -- but years of excellent performance suggest the first half of 2016 was an outlier. I would suspect the Patriots have a special-teams advantage Sunday, although they will have to hope Nate Ebner is cleared after suffering a concussion in the AFC Championship Game.
Ebner is the notable injury for the Patriots. The Falcons are dealing with injuries to two star offensive players in Jones and Alex Mack, both of whom will play barring some stunning turn of events. Mack missed the week of practice after the NFC Championship Game with an ankle injury, although he came back after suffering the injury in the second quarter against the Packers while missing just seven plays. Mack probably has a high ankle sprain, which won't be fun and could limit his effectiveness in reaching defensive tackles as the Falcons run the football, but it shouldn't prevent him from suiting up. Ask the Packers if Jones can run with his foot ailments.
It's also fair to say the Falcons you've seen this postseason have been a little lucky. They deserved to win both their games, but they received some help in terms of fumble recoveries. Atlanta has recovered each of the five fumbles in its two games, which is essentially a gift. Evidence suggests fumble-recovery rates are entirely random after accounting for where they occur on the field, and the best number to use as an estimate of each team's expected recovery rate is 50 percent. Indeed, the Falcons were 14-of-29 (48.3 percent) on recoveries during the regular season.
Those fumbles have come in valuable situations. Against Seattle, the Falcons recovered a botched snap and scored a touchdown two plays later, although a Seahawks fumble recovery would have been wiped out by offsides. Ryan was later strip-sacked on his 23-yard line, which would have given the Seahawks a short field early in the fourth quarter.
They were even more important against Green Bay. Jalen Collins stripped Aaron Ripkowski as he was running toward the end zone, preventing a first-and-goal situation, and Collins recovered the ball in the end zone for a touchback. The Falcons fell on a poorly timed snap that hit Gabriel on a would-be jet sweep at midfield even though Packers linebacker Jake Ryan had a clear first crack at it. And then they managed to recover a bad snap to Ryan on the Packers' 1-yard line before scoring on the following play.
In a closer game, those plays are far more meaningful than they ended up seeming otherwise. The Falcons aren't "due" to miss out on some fumbles -- that's the gambler's fallacy -- but we would expect them to recover about half of the fumbles in the Super Bowl. The Patriots, meanwhile, have been 2-for-3 on their recoveries this postseason.
This game keeps coming back to that pass-rush problem for me. It's tough to believe the two most recent games we've seen, with the Falcons suddenly morphing into the '85 Bears of pass pressure, are more meaningful than the 16 other games we saw, where their pass rush was relatively tame. If they move Beasley over center and target Joe Thuney and David Andrews in pass protection or get an incredible game out of Deion Jones, maybe the pass rush shows up, but they haven't gotten much pressure with four men and are facing a quarterback who kills blitzes before they even get home.
Likewise, the Patriots take away the big plays the Falcons thrive upon on offense. The Falcons are excellent at using their offense on first down to set up manageable third downs, but the Patriots have a great run defense and should be able to hold up against Atlanta's secondary receivers in coverage. Atlanta is converting on an unreal 64 percent of its third downs this postseason, up from 42.1 percent in the regular season, but that's not really sustainable.
Don't get it twisted: The Falcons are a great team. It's not a fluke they made it here, and I think I probably would have picked them to beat just about any of the other teams from the AFC. The Patriots are just a nightmare matchup for what the Falcons do well. Unless they manage to hold onto the suffocating pass rush they've shown over the past two games, the Falcons seem likely to come up short.
Patriots 34, Falcons 17