For good reason, it's expected to be the highest-scoring NFL championship game ever.
By almost every metric, the offenses of the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons are the league’s best, and some of the best in history.
Atlanta comes to Houston for the 51st Super Bowl as the No. 1 offense by total yards produced and passing yards, while New England is third overall in yards and second in passing. Efficiency metrics like Football Outsiders’ DVOA, a stat which measures the effectiveness of an offense at producing yards and points, put the two teams neck and neck, with Atlanta slightly edging out New England. Football Outsiders also tracks how teams are playing at the end of the season, and the Patriots topping Atlanta by a narrow margin as the hotter team.
In his seventh trip to a Super Bowl, Tom Brady is inexplicably playing the best football of his career. The former MVP and All-pro completed 67.4 percent of his passes, throwing for 3,554 yards and 28 touchdowns despite missing four games due to suspension. Brady led the league in interception percentage at 0.5 percent, rarely turning the ball over or making costly mistakes. Pro Football Focus gave Brady a grade of 99.5, the best ever recorded by their site.
Digging deeper unearths even more amazing Brady – and offensive line – stats. According to Pro Football Focus, Brady was sacked only 10.6 percent of the time when pressured, the lowest recorded this season and even more impressive given Brady’s lack of mobility. This does not bode well for Atlanta, who know that the blueprint for stopping New England starts with pressuring Tom without bringing too many pass rushers.
Atlanta may well try to shut down New England’s run game before it can get started, forcing more predictable play calling from the Patriots. Football Outsiders ranks New England’s rush attack 17th, and while it may not be prolific, it provides an important function for the offense. LeGarrette Blount led the league in rushing touchdowns with 18, but only managed 3.9 yards per attempt. James White and Dion Lewis provide the change of pace, with White third among all running backs with 551 yards receiving. Atlanta will try to stop Blount early, taking their chances with White and Lewis in obvious passing situations.
In the pass game, Brady has an arsenal of playmakers at his disposal that will cause issues for the Atlanta defense. Wide receiver Julian Edelman attracted 28.7 percent of all of Tom Brady’s targets, catching 98 passes and gaining first downs for the Patriots 55 times. Chris Hogan is the down-the-field threat for the Patriots, averaging an impressive 17.9 yards per catch. Brady will spread the ball around and, if afforded time, easily pick off Atlanta. The Falcons must get pressure from a four-man front if they hope to slow down the New England offense.
Atlanta’s best shot to win may not be slowing down New England, but trying to out-score them. The NFL’s best offense is led by quarterback Matt Ryan, who completed 69.9 percent of his passes for 4,944 yards and 38 touchdowns. Ryan led the league in adjusted-yards per attempt, yards per completion, QB Rating, and QBR.
As with Brady, the deeper you dive into Ryan’s stats, the more impressive his season becomes. According to Scott Barrett of PFF, Ryan had the best depth-adjusted completion percentage of the past decade, a stat which measures the difference between expected completion percentage and actual completion percentage, adjusted for passing distance. Ryan outperformed his expected completion percentage by 8.6 percent, taking down Drew Brees’s previous record set in 2014.
Ryan’s playmakers on offense are some of the most talented in the league. It all starts with Julio Jones, who finished second in the NFL in yards with 1,409 and recorded the highest yards per reception of any player with more than 60 catches. Earlier this week, Josh Norman, one of the league’s best cornerbacks, was asked about defending Julio Jones. Norman, never the quiet type, waxed poetic describing his experiences.
“The sweet sensation of death without dying,” Norman told Bleacher Report. “You’re trapped in time. A split second feels like a lifetime in the moment of a play. So for me, it was like I was trapped in that butterfly effect. People say that they go through this when they know they’re about to have an accident. They think about everything within that moment. That is where we were at. We were in that moment for what seemed like the entire game.
Behind Jones is Mohamed Sanu, who excels in the possession receiver mold, and Taylor Gabriel, who has the ability to break a big play at any time. Ryan and Gabriel registered as the best tandem in the NFL with a 148.1 QB Rating when connecting. For perspective, Brady and Hogan rank second with a 129.9 rating.
While there are several intriguing matchups to watch in this game, the one which will tip the scale most is Julio Jones against Super Bowl XLIX hero Malcolm Butler. PFF ranked Jones first at his position and Butler sixth. Jones has the size and speed advantage over Butler, but the Patriots will put Butler in positions where he can succeed and will try to limit obvious mismatches. Jones will have to be on the end of a few big plays if Atlanta hopes to stay with New England.
Atlanta has the talent, speed, and ability to stay in this Super Bowl until the very end. This contest will likely be decided by one score. While Atlanta may have what it takes, New England is still led by Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, a duo you do not want to side against. The Lombardi Trophy goes back to New England.