How does the 2017 Patriots Offense compare to the 2012 team?

The Patriots followed up their Superbowl comeback for the ages with a fantastic offseason, and many are already penciling them in as Superbowl favorites yet again. The offense has found a way to become even more talented, and while this unit will inevitably draw comparisons to the 2007 team, I’m not sure that’s a valid comparison. People try to make that comparison pretty much every year, but that was a special team in a unique set of circumstances. That was the year the Patriots acquired Randy Moss, one of this game’s few truly transcendental players, capable of escalating the play of and changing the identity of an offense regardless of where he plays and who he plays with–not to mention how the defense approaches you. He was a guy who was, at his peak, unstoppable. Even if he was well covered, he would often still find a way to make the play, simply because of his sheer unmatched physical talent. The Patriots had to change a lot of their passing concepts to incorporate Randy Moss into the game plan, and they haven’t really been the same kind of downfield passing offense since. Throw in the fact that that Patriots offense in many ways revolutionized the way the game is played; they were the first offense to use shotgun formation more than 50% of the time (the NFL average in 2006, the year before, was 19%, while the NFL average this previous season was 68%). They were also unique in just how pass heavy they were in certain games, often not even trying to run the football (although I don’t have the numbers for that). They still do that more than a lot of teams, but it truly was unusual and relatively unseen in 2007 when they rolled out that record setting offense. Throw in the fact that Tom Brady, at least in the regular season, had arguably the best season of his career, that the Patriots secondary WR’s of Donte Stallworth and Jabar Gaffney were more traditional downfield receivers than they’ve had since, and that the league just wasn’t ready for the way the Patriots planned to use Wes Welker (the small, shifty, dink and dunk slot guy in a primary role), and 2007 was a unique year for the Pats in that they really were ahead of defenses, and that the offense they ran, in virtue of all the factors I just mentioned, was a unique one, even for the Tom Brady/BB era.

I thought a better / more interesting comparison would be to compare the 2016 Patriots Offense with that of 2012. 2012 isn’t really looked at as that special a year for the Patriots, but looking back on that roster on offense, they were pretty stacked at just about every position, and pretty balanced in terms of run/pass as well. I thought it would be useful to compare this year’s Patriots with that unit, and maybe in doing so, we can decide if all the Patriots offseason hype is justified.

Quarterback: Tom Brady (2017) vs Tom Brady (2012)

 

Brady is a better QB now than he was in 2012. I was not super impressed with Brady’s 2012 and viewed it as a step down from his spectacular 2011 season (and spectacular 2010 season, for that matter). The numbers were still good, and it was still a good season overall, but I thought his pocket presence was lacking and had taken a step back, and I viewed most of the good numbers as a result of the system as well as a relatively weak schedule. And although the overall numbers were good, there were signs of decline: his yards per attempt and completion percentage were the lowest they’d been since 2006. This decline spilled into the 2013 season–where he struggled significantly, especially for the first half of the season, and his numbers were notably worse–after he lost essentially all of his receivers in the offseason.

What I did not predict was the degree to which Brady would bounce back. He’s won two Superbowls in the past three years. This past year, 2016, was especially impressive. Not only did he fix his pocket presence, but he’s actually become a much better functional mover than he was before. It’s evident watching him that he’s a LOT more comfortable making plays late in the down and moving when he has to get off his base. It’s pretty impressive. He’s still improving his game even at this age, and he’s no longer just a quick rhythm passer. He’ll move around and make improvisational plays if you need him to. Even more impressive is that last year, he made a notable improvement to his deep ball and throwing to the outside–general areas of weakness for him throughout his career with the exception of the 2007 season, and especially after his ACL injury in 2008. These were notable areas of weakness I saw for Brady in 2012 (playing late in the down, pocket presence, and throwing deep and to the outside), and that he’s essentially corrected them is a testament to how great he is.

At Tom Brady’s age, the decline could essentially come at any time. History has not been kind to 40+ year old Quarterbacks. But assuming he keeps up the level of play he showed last year, the Patriots are in very good shape.

Advantage: Brady (2017)

WR1: Julian Edelman (2017) vs Wes Welker (2012)

 

Stats:
Julian Edelman 2016: 98 Rec, 1106 Yards, 11.3 Y/R, 3 TD
Wes Welker 2012: 118 Rec, 1354 Yards, 11.5 Y/R, 6 TD

You’re more or less talking about the same guy here. I was a big Welker fan, did not like how the Pats treated him after the 2012 season, and was skeptical that Edelman could replicate his production. But he has, and he’s arguably a more versatile player, with the ability to play on the outside, get deep, and return kicks. Welker could do all those things too, but Edelman probably does them better. As a pure slot WR, Welker is still the gold standard: Very few have his lateral agility, football IQ, change of direction, twitch, toughness, motor, and start/stop ability. Still, we’re essentially splitting hairs.

Welker was on the back end in 2012 (he started to have some issues with drops), but his production didn’t show it. Edelman is probably more in the prime of his career now than Welker was in 2012, but at some point, all the hits he’s taking are going to pay a toll. Again, Edelman is probably the more versatile player, and that along with what he likely has left in the tank, should merit me ranking him above Welker. Still, considering the respect I have for Welker, as well as how reliable was and well he played his role in 2012, I’m not sure I can put him below Edelman.

Advantage: Push

TE1: Rob Gronkowski (2017) vs Rob Gronkowski (2012)

 

Stats:
2016: 25 Rec, 540 Yards, 21.6 Y/R, 3 TD
2012: 55 Rec, 790 Yards, 14.4 Y/R, 11 TD

No one does a better job of filling the “just as you’re ready to call him the greatest tight end ever, he gets hurt again” role better than Gronkowski. I was actually surprised at how low his 2016 numbers were, but again, that has more to do with availability than anything else. It’s also shocking that the Patriots completed that comeback in the Superbowl without him, as his loss is usually what sinks them in the playoffs.

Still, when Gronk’s healthy, it’s pretty clear what he offers and what a dominant and unstoppable force he is. It’s pretty self-evident, everyone knows it, and there’s not much else to be said. His play speaks for itself. It’s even more a testament to his greatness that he’s been able to be this productive after Aaron Hernandez left, showing that he and he alone truly is the difference maker.

It is fair to wonder how much Gronk has left in the tank after yet another injury. But when you have a player as good as he has been, I’ll have to see it with my own eyes before I write him off.

Advantage: Gronk

TE2: Dwayne Allen (2017) vs Aaron Hernandez (2012)

 

Hernandez gets the easy edge here. He was a pretty special player before his poor choices (putting it lightly) off the field caught up to him. He wasn’t a great blocker, but he was a really good receiver. He was in many ways a movable chess piece. He could line up as an inline tight end, could run routes from the slot (where he was arguably most valuable), and even would line up in the backfield on occasion. He was a very smooth athlete, more of a hybrid player than a true tight end.

Dwayne Allen is a nice player and a talented player, but he never really lived up to expectations in Indy. They gave him that gronk-like megadeal around 2014, essentially betting on his potential to become a big tight end. That never really happened, and he was released this past offseason after being outplayed by Jack Doyle. He’s more of an inline tight end than a guy that’s going to split out or line up in the slot like Hernandez did. Expectations should be fairly low for NE, although you never know with them.

Advantage: Hernandez

Runningback: Mike Gillislee (2017) vs Stevan Ridley
(2012)

 

Stats:
Gillislee (2016, Buffalo): 101 carries, 577 yards, 5.7 y/c, 8 TD
Ridley: 290 carries, 1263 yards, 4.4 y/c, 12 TD

Ridley had a really nice year in 2012 and revitalized the running game for the Patriots. I always viewed him as a solid back, but his fumbling issues in New England, along with the second coming of Blount, made him expendable, and he never really rebounded after leaving NE.

Gillislee is a nice pickup, another nobody from Buffalo who is likely to have a big year in New England (last year it was Chris Hogan). He was backing up LeSean McCoy in Buffalo last year, so his yards per carry numbers likely won’t be as high if he’s the primary this year.

Ridley gets the edge only because Gillislee is somewhat of an unknown, but there’s no reason he can’t be just as valuable, even if the volume numbers aren’t quite as high.

Advantage: Ridley

Receiving Backs: Dion Lewis, James White, Rex Burkhead (2017) vs Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen (2012)

 

The pats have never been a team to be lacking in backs, and they will likely run a committee this year, as they usually do.

James White really came on last year, especially in the Superbowl with 14 receptions (Vereen had 11 receptions in their 2014 sb win), and I expect the Patriots to continue utilizing the backs in the passing game. They really showed how valuable the mismatches a receiving back creates can be, especially when you split them out wide and get them on a linebacker. This continued utilization of backs in the passing game is likely where the NFL is headed; we saw a similar dominance with Atlanta, the other team in the SB, often using Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman on the field at the same time, and having Coleman run routes out wide against linebackers, as can be seen with Coleman’s receiving TD in the Denver game.

The Patriots added another great fit for their system in Rex Burkhead, who, if it works out, would likely play a Danny Woodhead type role. There’s no doubt the Pats are loaded at this position.

I did go back and forth on this one. If Burkhead works out this is a pretty scary trio. But he’s still an unknown. I think Woodhead and Vereen are a slightly more talented pairing. Keep in mind Dion Lewis has had injury issues, and Woodhead and Vereen could both run the ball, while White isn’t much of a runner. This is a close one. Similar to what I said about Gillislee and Ridley, I think these three could absolutely prove equal or greater worth to the 2012 group, but for now I’m going to put the 2012 group ahead as I see them as a slightly more talented group with greater production.

Advantage: Woodhead and Vereen

Outside Receivers: Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell (2017) vs Brandon Lloyd and Deion Branch (2012)

 

Stats:
Chris Hogan: 38 Rec, 680 Yards, 17.9 Y/R, 4 TD
Malcolm Mitchell: 32 Rec, 401 Yards, 12.5 Y/R, 4 TD

Brandon Lloyd: 74 Rec, 911 Yards, 12.3 Y/R, 4 TD
Deion Branch: 16 Rec, 145 Yards, 9.5 Y/R, 0 TD

The Patriots have gotten themselves a talented pair of receivers here, and Tom Brady’s newly emerged outside/deep passing abilities certainly don’t hurt the situation. Chris Hogan is the Patriots latest rags to riches project, as who would have guessed he would have become such an effective deep threat? Malcolm Mitchell is an intriguing young athlete as well, and it seems like BB finally may have broken his curse of not being able to draft WRs.

Branch was a reliable possession guy and savvy route runner for Tom Brady (he was a deep threat earlier in his career, but that was all but gone after his Seattle days), but as you can see by these numbers, he was pretty much done in 2012. Brandon Lloyd is an underrated receiver and had respectable numbers with Brady, but that connection never really blossomed with Brady as he was never really a great fit for their offense. He was more of a deep threat/spectacular catch guy than a timing and rhythm quick-strike guy.

Hogan and Mitchell both exceeded expectations and they both had big games in the Superbowl. If Brady can maintain his success throwing outside the numbers, expect them to continue to contribute.

Advantage: Hogan and Mitchell

Second Slot WR: Brandin Cooks (2017) vs Aaron Hernandez (2012)

 

Stats:
Brandin Cooks (2016 Saints): 78 Rec, 1173 Yards, 15 Y/R, 8 TD
Aaron Hernandez: 51 Rec, 483 Yards, 9.5 Y/R, 5 TD

This is the offseason acquisition everyone is talking about. Cooks was a playmaker in New Orleans. He was also mostly a deep threat in New Orleans, and he’s likely to be more of a quick option route typical slot WR in NE. However, smart football minds / film gurus like Andy Benoit and Greg Cosell are confident that he’s capable of doing that, even though that’s not how they used him in New Orleans. I’m also assuming he’ll play in the slot, but who really knows. The Pats always seem to have almost entirely slot guys on their WR core and just end up putting some on the outside (Amendola, Edelman, Welker). Don’t expect Cooks’s numbers to look like they did in New Orleans after moving away from Drew Brees, but he’s still likely to be an asset. Although WR in New England has historically been a question mark, especially when it comes to free agents coming in and learning the system, Cooks is too good a player to not contribute.

I doubled up on Hernandez here because as I mentioned, they essentially did treat him as a WR, often splitting him out wide. I was going to put Edelman here too, but if I remember correctly they mostly used him on the outside rather than the slot in 2012 since they already had Welker, and he didn’t get much playing time on offense anyway.

Advantage: Cooks

WR4: Danny Amendola (2016) vs Julian Edelman (2012)

 

Stats:
Danny Amendola (2016): 23 Rec, 243 Yards, 10.6 Y/R, 4 TD
Julian Edelman (2012): 21 Rec, 235 Yards, 11.2 Y/R, 3 TD

This just shows you how deep the 2017 Patriots depth chart is. Amendola is a guy that is perfectly capable of playing a primary role (he was essentially Welker in the slot in St. Louis), but they just have so many bodies that he doesn’t get the chance. Yet he always ends up making some crucial plays in the postseason after you forget about him in the regular season. And he keeps coming back for less and less money each year.

It’s not that Amendola is a better player than Edelman (he’s not), but that the 2012 Patriots just didn’t go this deep. Edelman was mainly a special teamer for them, while Amendola contributed greatly to the 2014 and 2016 postseason runs.

Advantage: Amendola

Summary:

 

QB: Brady (2017) vs Brady (2012)

Advantage: Brady (2017)

WR1: Edelman (2017) vs Welker (2012)

Advantage: Push

TE1: Rob Gronkowski (2017) vs Rob Gronkowski (2012)

Advantage: Push

TE2: Dwayne Allen (2017) vs Aaron Hernandez (2012)

Advantage: Hernandez (2012)

Runningback: Gillisslee (2017) vs Ridley (2012)

Advantage: Ridley (2012)

Receiving Backs: Lewis, White, Burkhead (2017) vs Woodhead, Vereen (2012)

Advantage: Woodhead, Vereen (2012)

Outside WR: Hogan/Mitchell (2017) vs Lloyd/Branch (2012)

Advantage: Hogan/Mitchell (2017)

Second Slot WR: Cooks (2017) vs Hernandez (2012)

Advantage: Cooks (2017)

WR4: Amendola (2017) vs Edelman (2012)

Advantage: Amendola (2017)

Point Summary:

2017 Team: 4 Points
2012 Team: 3 Points

_

Conclusion

 

As you can see, these are both very talented offenses that matchup very well to each other. The 2017 team has to get the advantage because of their ridiculous depth (especially at WR), an improved Brady, and a better defense. I also feel very good about how they will use their backs in the passing game, especially if Gronk gets hurt again.

Back to the Superbowl for the Patriots?

 

Now that we’ve looked at the offense from top to bottom, and compared it to one of their more talented and balanced squads from the past (the 2012 Patriots lost in the AFC Championship to Baltimore, 28-13), let’s revisit our initial driving question: Is this Patriots team good enough to get back to the Superbowl, just as all the pundits are predicting?

Perhaps I didn’t phrase that well enough. The answer is yes, of course they are talented enough to get back and win it again. A better question is, will they?

The Patriots absolutely deserve the benefit of the doubt after last year’s Superbowl. The 25 point Superbowl comeback was unprecedented (the previous largest comeback in the Superbowl was 10 points, also set by the Patriots), and essentially forced ESPN and all the stats guys to rewrite their win probability models (many of which had the Falcons at close to 100% probability of winning at many points in the game). As Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders wrote after the win, the Patriots have become the NFL’s toughest kill. And with that comeback granting Belichick and Brady a fifth ring in this decade, you have to give them credit, even if they were assisted by what I believe was an epic chokejob from the Falcons.

Furthermore, what was alarming about the SB win is that it’s allowing the Patriots to game the system even more. Belichick is an excellent businessman, and they’ve always been great at working the draft as well as picking up players that may not be the most talented but are smart and fit their system, players that are often overlooked and because of that come really cheap. And if one of their guys is up for a new contract and there’s any doubt about the future, they won’t overpay him. Coaching absolutely plays a role in their success too, and these factors combined, in addition to having a HOF QB (and playing in a weak division), have allowed the Patriots to remain consistently competitive in a salary cap era that is supposed to lead to parity.

But to me, what this offseason showed is that, the Patriots have gotten so good that players are willing to come to the Patriots and not be paid that much, if only to get a shot at winning a ring. That should be very alarming for the rest of the league, as it allows the Patriots to get good players for a fraction of their worth.

I also think the AFC Landscape is ripe right now for more rings for the Patriots simply because of the competition level. Let’s take a look at who the Patriots have lost to since 2005 in years that they haven’t been winning rings:

2006: Colts (Peyton Manning)
2007: Giants (Superbowl)
2008: No Brady
2009: Ravens
2010: Jets
2011: Giants (Superbowl)
2012: Ravens
2013: Broncos (Peyton Manning)
2014: Ring (Beat Ravens, Colts, Seahawks)
2015: Broncos (Peyton Manning)
2016: Ring (Beat Texans, Steelers, Falcons)

See a theme here? When the Patriots haven’t been getting to the Superbowl, outside of the Jets loss (back when they had that dominant 2 year stretch under Rex), it’s been either the Ravens (twice), or a Peyton Manning led team (3 times) stopping Brady. When they do get to the Superbowl, only the Giants have been able to stop them, although the Seahawks and Falcons came painfully close (as did the Rams and Panthers, really…).

But Peyton Manning is retired. Brady struggles against that Broncos D, but they’re unlikely to make it back to the Playoffs anytime soon without Peyton Manning. The Ravens era of dominance has been seemingly over too, ever since they paid Flacco. They’ve only made the playoffs once since then, and that was when Gary Kubiak (who won the SB with Denver in 2015) was their OC. To be fair, they did lose to the Patriots that year that they did make the playoffs, but they still played them really well, as the Pats had to come back from down 14 twice in that game. It’s also worth mentioning that the Patriots beat the Ravens in the 2011 postseason, but the Ravens really had that game in their grasp and some very good luck helped the Patriots (who had struggled on offense that day) secure the win: Lee Evans dropped what would have been Flacco’s game winning touchdown pass to put the Ravens up 4 with 27 seconds left, and then Billy Cundiff, rushing onto the field thanks to some scoreboard shenanigans (coincidence???), rushed his kick, and missed the 32 yard chip shot. (Not to worry though, in addition to getting their Superbowl the following year, the Ravens would sign Justin Tucker, who is not only on his way to being the greatest kicker of all time, but also the most swag kicker of all the time). So not only did the Ravens end 2 of the Patriots postseason runs, but they also almost beat them two more times.

So who does that leave in the AFC Landscape to challenge the Patriots? The two main contendors, in my view, are the Steelers and the Chiefs, and I don’t see either of them beating the Patriots because of lackluster coaching. Andy Reid is a good coach, but he always seems to screw up clock management in the playoffs. We saw it with the Eagles lack of urgency down 24-14 in Superbowl 39, with Alex Smith’s intentional grounding on a screen pass against the Colts in 2013 during the Chiefs’ final drive, and with, again, a drive that was way too slow against the Patriots in 2014, down 2 scores late in the 4th. The chiefs continued to huddle up (just like they did in Superbowl 39), failed to score before the 2 minute warming, and had to try an onside kick. It’s really amazing how these issues keep coming up for Reid.

Then you have the Steelers, who no matter who’s on the team, continue to play like crap against the Patriots. This has been the case for over a decade. You continue to see blown coverages, zones that are way too soft, falling for play action fakes and trick plays, and just a general lack of preparedness to play the Patriots high speed offense. Last years AFC Championship game was embarrassing. The number of receivers New England had running free, in a game of that magnitude, is inexcusable. As Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders once said on Twitter, Tom Brady could come out of retirement at 45 (assuming he’s not still playing then) and still put up 300+ on the PIT defense. I blame coaching for this. PIT is too good a team to consistently underwhelm like this. (Side Note: Let’s not forget they also lost to Tim Tebow in the 2011 playoffs, who had 31.6 yards per completion in that game…)

If New England were to go to Kansas or Pittsburgh in the playoffs, I think we could have  the potential for a really good game. But with home field advantage, they’re basically a lock for the Superbowl. And we know PIT is going to blow some game to a team that ends up going 1-15, as Mike Tomlin for years has been playing down to the competition. Those games make a difference in playoff seeding. Many people have been hyping up the Raiders this offseason, but a general rule for teams that are perennial losers is that, until you see them stop losing, continue to expect them to lose.

Bottom line is, on paper, it all looks good for the Patriots this coming year. They deserve the benefit of the doubt to get back to the Superbowl after their historic comeback against the Falcons, and they’ve capped it off with a tremendous offseason. They have the best coach in the league, one of the most talented rosters in the league, are in a weak division and conference, and their QB is seemingly timeless.

Having said all that, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s really hard to win two Superbowls in a row in this league. The Patriots only did it once under Belichick and Brady, and that was back in 03-04. With the single elimination format the NFL uses in the playoffs, all it takes is one off day from Brady and the offense. Even if you have all the talent in the world, it’s still tough to show up and score points each and every week. Can the Patriots do it again? Only time will tell.

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Super Bowl LI Thoughts

I’m really excited for this Super Bowl matchup. Its one of the best I can remember in recent years. I’ll start by saying although the Giants are my number 1 team, I’ve always liked and rooted for the Falcons, mostly because of Matt Ryan. First of all, he just seems like a really good dude. You can tell in his interviews; he’s always humble, candid, and honest. It never seems fake. His answers are neither of the meaningless, rambling sort, nor are they of the snide, arrogant sort. At the same time, he’s a fiery competitor, a leader, a hard worker, someone who has matured with the team, and someone whose teammates want to play with him. Of course, I can’t know these things for sure, but this is the sense I get from following the NFL.

I also like and respect who Matt Ryan is as a player. He’s always been a very good Quarterback, but the type of Quarterback that often gets overlooked by the casual fan and mainstream media. He’s not a top 5 Quarterback, a Brees/Manning/Brady that is going to carry his team to the playoffs every year, he’s not a guy who has had a lot of playoff success or any superbowl rings to fall back on, and he’s not flashy: he has neither a cannon arm, top notch speed, nor a controversial personality, and he’s not an up and coming young guy. As a result, the casual fan probably views him as nothing more than an average Quarterback, along with the likes of Matt Stafford (although, he’s on the rise this year), Sam Bradford, Alex Smith, Andy Dalton, Joe Flacco, Kirk Cousins, etc. Many people may even view Flacco as better than Ryan, since Flacco has a Superbowl ring.

This is not the case. Matt Ryan is and always has been a very good Quarterback, a guy who’s in the second tier of Quarterbacks just outside your top 5, “elite” guys. But because of our lack of nuance in Quarterback analysis, he isn’t looked at this way. Like I said, you’re either an elite guy, you have a ring/playoff success, you have some flashy skill, or you suck. (Or you’re “a great leader”, which usually just means you have playoff success. Or you yell at people a lot.) It’s unfortunate. Matt Ryan isn’t a guy who does one thing extremely well; he’s a guy who does a lot of things really well, things that are often overlooked. He’s very accurate, he makes good decisions (for the most part), he’s mechanically very sound, he has good, quick footwork, he gets rid of the ball quickly and on time, he’s good at reading the defense, and he’s not hesitant: he’s not afraid to pull the trigger and throw into coverage. I’d say his signature trait is his anticipation. Anticipation means that rather than waiting until you see the receiver break open and throwing to that spot, you anticipate where he is going to be once he breaks open. You throw it to that spot before he in fact does break open, but by the time it gets there the receiver is running right under it. Peyton Manning made a living doing this. It’s a big time, very important professional Quarterbacking trait, and its usually something you either have or you don’t; it isn’t really something that can be taught.. (Although you can be a great QB without having great anticipation. For example, Aaron Rodgers, for the most part, doesn’t anticipate throws to the degree that some QBs do, but he can typically get away with it because he has unbelievable arm strength and an unbelievably quick release.) Anticipation is important because the earlier the you throw the ball, the less likely it is that the pass rush gets home. In addition, receivers are rarely wide open in the NFL. Anticipating routes allows the offense to beat even very good coverage, because ultimately, the defense doesn’t know where the receiver or the ball is going. And lastly, throwing with anticipation gives the defense less of an opportunity to react. If you wait until a receiver is open before you throw the ball, it will typically be too late, because by the time the ball gets there, the defense will have had time to react and break up the pass.

Matt Ryan’s anticipation was evident ever since he came out of college and into the draft. It was evident on the first professional pass he ever threw in a regular season NFL game: a 62 yard Touchdown to Michael Jenkins. Matt Ryan wasn’t great right away, but he was always above average, even from the start, and he has improved his game steadily as the years have gone by. Early in his career, he generally took a back seat to Michael Turner and the running game–although he was always special when it came to late game comeback and go-ahead drives. As the years have gone by, he’s improved his arm and core strength, has become more functionally mobile and more quick twitch, and has become better throwing from a crowded pocket. Now in his ninth season, he’s at the peak of his game. He turned in a well deserved MVP season, and he did it without that great of a cast of wide-receivers, outside of Julio Jones. You could argue its not even the best cast of wide receivers he’s played with. (When you consider that he had Roddy White, Michael Jenkins, Tony Gonzales, and Harry Douglas, it’s definitely not. Would you take Taylor Gabriel, Mohammed Sanu, and Austin Hooper over any of those guys in their prime?)

There are also very few asterisks to go along with Matt Ryan’s season. He’s been consistent from start to end. Although he’s had some bad moments, he really hasn’t had any bad games in their entirety. He’s played the 2nd toughest slate of defenses, and although his defense has improved as the season has gone on, it’s still one of the worst statistical defenses to reach a Superbowl.

I’m just really happy for Matt Ryan and that he’s been able to make it this far. Nine seasons in, the hard work has finally paid off in spectacular fashion, both at an individual and team level. His first five years were as good as they come, with playoff berths each year except 2009 (9-7). and then things fell apart. In 2013, 2014, and 2015, the Falcons went 4-12, 6-10, and 8-8, respectively, and although Matt Ryan wasn’t playing that bad individually, he was unable to elevate the circumstances around him. After arguably his worst season in 2015, it was fair to wonder if Matt Ryan was closer to the end than the beginning. Last year was also the first year for Head Coach Dan Quinn and Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan, and I can tell you, after reading some comments on thefalcoholic.com, the Atlanta fans HATED Kyle Shanahan. They thought he broke Matt Ryan and wanted him gone. And now look at where we are. Matt Ryan’s had the best season of his career, the Falcons are in the Superbowl, and Kyle Shanahan is being looked at as one of, if not the, hottest young coaching prospect in the business.

And this all plays into the story of the Superbowl and why I think it’s such a good matchup. You have the Atlanta Falcons, the new kids on the block. They’ve generally been good guys in this league. They don’t get a lot of hype and don’t make a lot of noise. And they’ve never won a Superbowl. The closest they’ve been in recent years is 2012, when they gave up a 17 point lead to Colin Kaepernick and the Jim Harbaugh led 49ers (remember that?) and were stopped on 4th down about 10 yards out from the endzone, and  2004 when the Michael Vick miracle run was halted by the Eagles. We all know how that saga ended. And then you have the Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and the Patriots, the reigning kings of the NFL. The galactic empire everyone’s aching to see taken off their throne. They also have this ridiculous “us against the world” mindset like they did in 2007 post spygate. They think they and Brady were legitimately wronged by Roger Goodell, and the New England fans simply won’t let it go. Albert Breer recently did an article about specifically that for the MMQB: Why the NE fans won’t let go. And Brady’s dad just came out a few weeks ago and said something to the tune of he doesn’t want Roger Goodell handing his son the trophy, or something like that. Cry me a fucking river. Seriously, does anyone even feel bad for this team or this franchise? They had their starting QB banned for four games, and still went 3-1 without him. They’re going on their 14th division title, 7th Superbowl appearance, and going for their 5th win since 2001. And New England’s fans insist on playing the victim mentality, crying about the haters, and whining about something that’s over and has been over for quite some time. Maybe if the Patriots had just participated in the investigation and Tom Brady hadn’t destroyed his phone, this wouldn’t have happened. The Patriots have shown a repeated affinity for spotty gamesmanship, and this wasn’t so much about the deflated footballs than it was about Goodell sending a message to Belichick and the Pats that they’re not above the league. They get off easy in 2007; Goodell never should have destroyed the tapes, and I think this was him putting his foot down. And enough with the complaints that Goodell is a dictator and above the law. This is the NFL, people, and Goodell is the commissioner. Due process need not apply. Maybe he is an authoritarian leader, and maybe that’s wrong, maybe it’s not. But its a private institution. If Goodell wants to run it like that, he’s allowed to do so. It’s so petty for Pats fans to compare this to like, actual real world legal matters like they’re somehow analogous.

And yes, I have issues with Goodell, issues that I’ve often been vocal about. But botching and covering up concussion and injury situations and excusing rape and domestic violence is very different than crying because your star Quarterback was banned for a quarter of a fucking season. For Pats fans to attempt to draw any comparison is immature and irresponsible.

And just to be clear, I really don’t give a fuck about Spygate. I think the Patriots titles are legitimate and not tainted. I’m just sick of Pats fans whining and playing the victim card for something that was arguably justified but even if it wasn’t, is long over and really isn’t that big a deal.

So yea, that’s my spiel. A little off topic there, but point is, does anyone outside of New England really want to see Tom Brady win his fifth Superbowl??? I would love for nothing more than to see the Falcons walk away with the Lombardi in this one. Now enough of that. Onto the actual game.

The Game

This has been painted as the No 1 offense vs the No 1 defense because that’s what it is, statistically, but I think that’s a misleading title. This is nothing like 2013 Denver vs Seattle, which really was offense vs defense. I view this more like 2014 Seattle vs New England, two well rounded and balanced teams, except I would argue this is even more offense oriented. I would expect a relatively high scoring affair and I would expect it to be close. These are two very sound, well-coached teams. Overall, you have to give New England a slight edge just because of experience and the Belichick factor, and because their defense has been slightly better. When it comes to holding a lead late, unless they’re playing the Giants (or the other Manning brother in 06 and 09), New England’s defense always seems to come through, no matter who’s playing for them. But Atlanta definitely has a shot and could very well win this game as well. Not only in terms of story but in terms of the actual teams, this is a very good and even matchup and unless something crazy happens, should be a great game.

You certainly can’t discount Atlanta and their offense coming in. Yes, it’s New England, and yes, there’s a tendency for big time offenses to fall apart on the big stage. But you have to understand that Atlanta has been battle tested this season, and they’ve passed every test with flying colors. Even in 2007, New England’s offense started to cool down down the stretch, to the point where you could argue their defense bailed them out in the 07 AFC Championship game against the Chargers after a poor game from Brady. While Denver’s total shutdown of the Carolina offense was somewhat surprising last year, Carolina’s offense was not as good as Atlanta’s is now. They didn’t heat up until halfway through the season, faced a much easier schedule, Cam Newton’s year wasn’t as good as Matt Ryan’s is this year (he played fairly poorly when pressured), and they were very much aided by starting field position thanks to their defense getting turnovers. The only reason their loss was somewhat surprising was because they basically destroyed a pretty good Arizona team in the Championship game the week before.

Meanwhile Atlanta has been the bedrock of consistency, and against a pretty tough schedule. They haven’t slowed down as the season has gone on. Matt Ryan has set a new NFL record, breaking the previous by over a yard, of 7.91 yards per attempt in all 18 games this season. They scored 540 points this season, the most in the NFL, and seventh most in NFL history. They’ve scored an opening drive TD in something like eight straight games this season. Outside of a 15 point outing at Philly in week 10, they’ve scored at least 23 points all season. In fact, I only count four games where they were under 30 points all season. These were all losses. They ripped through Seattle and Green Bay like it was nothing in the Playoffs. They’ve performed well against Denver, KC, and twice against Seattle (although the KC game and one of the Seattle games were losses, they were still only by a combined 3 points).

Point being, there’s enough reason to respect Matt Ryan and the Falcons offense coming into this game and not think it’s just going to be a blowout. They’ve been consistent all season long from start to end and have done so against a challenging schedule. They also have the ability to score in different ways and aren’t reliant on any one weapon. The Pats, on the other hand, have had a very easy opposing QB schedule, and you could argue that that’s a liability for that NE defense. Overall, we have two good offenses and two okay but vulnerable defenses. Atlanta’s is bad but has improved as the season has gone on. New England’s has been good but hasn’t faced that much challenging opposition. I expect both defenses will be playing bend but don’t break, so we might see a lot of long scoring drives.

For Atlanta’s offense, I think the key will be some balance running the football. They don’t have to (and likely won’t) have too many long runs, but they just need to have some semblance of balance to stay ahead of the down and distance. They’re a primarily two tight end team and their pass game works off of that. They’ve been successful running the football all season long. Devonta Freeman is a quick but tough and gritty runner, and Shanahan’s zone running scheme with some hurry-up mixed in certainly helps the running game and helps those lineman to get into a rhythm. But I always feel like when teams need to run the football, the Pats tend to shut it down, so that will be key for Atlanta. If the run game is totally stuffed and Matt Ryan has to throw 50+ times, I think that spells win for New England.

Atlanta’s young defense has been improving as the season has gone on. That tends to happen with young players. They’re talented, but key for them will be not making mental mistakes against the very schematically complex NE offense. And you know Josh McDaniels and Bill Belichick will throw in some new wrinkles for them that they haven’t shown all season. They just have so much formation diversity and do so much shifting to get favorable matchups, they can be tough to keep up with. They also have a lot of option routes built into the offense, and we know someone like Julian Edelman is a very precise route runner and can fake you out in a jiffy. He always tends to show up for the big games. Atlanta has to be disciplined and not be constantly in reactive mode. Make them earn it. Don’t blow coverages, and don’t miss tackles. Dan Quinn’s defenses usually are pretty disciplined, but like I said, its never easy against the NE offense.

Brady torched Quinn’s defense during Superbowl 49 when Quinn was with the Seahawks. You’d like to think he’s learned from that game and will be more aggressive with his coverages and not play as much soft zone. After what happened to the Steelers in the AFC Championship and how much everyone has talked about it, you would think no one will ever play zone against the Patriots ever again for all of ever. Dan Quinn’s foundation is cover 3, but despite that and what people tend to think, he’s actually been playing much more man this season, and I expect he will do the same against New England. They just have to some way to handle all the mismatches New England will be prepared to throw at you, because they’re so good at isolating the matchup they want. During Superbowl 49, they used Gronk as a moveable chess piece, which allowed him to get over the top for a TD. No Gronk today, so we’ll see what they do. Expect to see NE trying out a lot of different things early to gather information about how Atlanta is going to play them.

It may come as somewhat of a surprise that there’s been a lot of talk not about the receivers but about the backs of these teams. That makes sense to me. A hybrid or receiving running back that can not only run out of the backfield but detach out wide and create mismatches is one of the biggest weapons in the NFL. Teams typically don’t look at them in that position or don’t expect them to be in that position, as someone you have to account for as a receiver. Especially so because they line up all over the place. Teams tend to not have guys that can cover them. Think about someone like Sproles when he was with New Orleans. Think about how the Detroit passing game kind of died this year once Theo Riddick got hurt. Go all the way back to Marshall Faulk with the greatest show on turf, and how Belichick essentially got the better of the Rams in Superbowl 36 by taking Faulk out of the game. These receiving backs are way more valuable than people realize. New England has known this and has been king of the receiving back, going way back to and starting with Kevin Faulk in the early 2000s, one of the prototype receiving backs in the NFL. They then had, among others, Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen, and now James White and Dion Lewis. Shane Vereen had 11 catches in Superbowl 49, which is ridiculous for a back. The Pats love to split James White out wide, so Atlanta has to be cognizant of that and know who they want covering him. The same can be said for Atlanta. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman have been arguably the NFL’s best two headed running back monster. The Denver defense talked about, after their week 5 loss to Atlanta, how they were surprised to see Atlanta send their backs out wide, and how they weren’t expecting that and how it reminded them of, none other than the NE Patriots, when the played them in the 2015 AFC Championship. Tevin Coleman lined up in the slot and beat a LB in the Seam for a TD in that game. Atlanta should be very proactive with both Coleman and Freeman in the receiving game. Other than that, you know Kyle Shanahan will have this offense schemed up to perfection, so NE has to hope they can be ready for the pace, don’t give up big plays, have some idea of staple route concepts Shanahan likes to run (and what defenders are supposed to do against certain route concepts meant to put defenders in a bind and break down coverages), and try to be physical and knock receivers off their rhythm. You want to say they have to make Atlanta beat them with people other than Julio Jones, and I still think that is key, but even so, Atlanta’s been fine this year when Julio has been taken out of the game. And Greg Cosell of NFL Films said that he believes Malcolm Butler won’t cover Julio Jones because he typically doesn’t take bigger more physical receivers (and I believe he said Logan Ryan wouldn’t either but I’m not sure could be wrong on that one), so you just wonder what they will do to/with Julio.

I expect both Quarterbacks to have good, efficient games. One or two key turnovers could be the key in this one. I’m trying to think if I’ve forgotten anything…

Oh yea. To blitz or not blitz Brady? A lot of people are saying don’t blitz Brady. Teams that have beaten Brady have tended to get pressure on him without blitzing, which, isn’t saying that much of anything crazy. My first thought was that you have to speed up Brady somehow. Houston had some nice blitz designs and threw Brady off a bit in their AFC Divisional Round loss. But I don’t know that Atlanta is that style of defense. Atlanta did blitz Rodgers heavily early in that game and it worked. But Rodgers, as great as he is, is not the rhythm player Brady is, and people had been so scared of and passive against Rodgers that it almost seemed like they weren’t expecting it. I don’t think you’ll see that much blitzing against NE. Again, this isn’t anything groundbreaking, but I think you should blitz Brady if you can get there!! But again, given everything I’ve said about how I expect this game to play out, I would expect a very bend don’t break, disciplined, physical approach from both teams.

Lastly, I’m sure some of you are wondering what my prediction is. Truthfully, I don’t really like predictions. The NFL is so unpredictable that I prefer analysis. But, it is the Superbowl, so I suppose I should give one just because why not. Like I said, I do give New England a slight edge (I also tend to always feel that way about teams I’m rooting against), but I don’t want to pick New England because Atlanta does have a chance and I really do want them to win. I like the 28-24 number, but that’s what Superbowl 49 was so that’s a bit of a copout, so let’s just sayyy, ahh I don’t know….

31-27 Atlanta.

Well there you go! That’s just about everything I have to say. Now let’s go ahead and sit back, relax, and enjoy one of the greatest sporting events this (sometimes) great country has to offer! Truthfully, I think the Superbowl is one of, if not the, best football games of the year. And that’s because it’s just pure football. Its the one game where you’re not thinking about anything else. There’s no other scores, no fantasy, no implications for other teams or waiting for other games. Its just it, this right now, do or die. I think there’s something cool, intense, but also kind of relaxing about that.

Hopefully this game will be as good as expected. And that will wrap up the 2016 NFL Season! If you liked this post, please consider subscribing. I know my posts are long, but I try to offer as much quality content as possible, and I only write when I really have something to say. I would very much appreciate the support.

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