Falcons vs. Patriots
When: 6:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: NRG Stadium, Houston
On TV: Fox
More Super Bowl coverage
Coming Sunday: look for a special section in Sunday’s Times previewing the Super Bowl, including player features, Falcons season in review and the team’s history in Flowery Branch.
HOUSTON — Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are so interchangeable in the Atlanta Falcons backfield, Matt Ryan gets a little mixed up at times.
“He doesn’t even know who’s in the game,” Coleman said, breaking into a huge smile.
Quite a 1-2 punch, these two are.
It really doesn’t matter who you put at “1” and who goes at “2.”
Sure, Freeman is the starter, but there’s no drop-off or any reason to change things up when Coleman comes into the game, a back-and-forth arrangement that keeps both backs fresh and gives fits to opposing defenses.
But their relationship runs beyond the field.
Far beyond it.
“That’s my brother,” Freeman said in the lead-up to Sunday’s Super Bowl against the New England Patriots . “When you see someone, you see that they want to be a part of something special, they’re working hard, they’re working their butts off, you have no reason but to love that person and have the utmost respect for that person.”
They’ll savor it while they can, because chances are this won’t be a long-term partnership.
They’ll be friends for life, that’s for sure, but the realities of the NFL — with its salary cap and other devices that make it difficult to keep a team together — will likely lead to a breakup in the not-too-distant future.
Freeman, a fourth-round pick out of Florida State in 2014, already created a bit of a stir early in Super Bowl week by bringing up his desire for a new contract.
He rushed for more than 1,000 yards and has been selected for the Pro Bowl each of the past two seasons. Not surprisingly, he wants to be paid like one of the league’s top backs.
Then there’s Coleman, a third-round pick out of Indiana in 2015. Despite missing three games with an injury this season, he rushed for 520 yards and eight touchdowns. At some point, he’s going to deserve more money and probably a larger role in someone’s offense.
“We’ve thought about this a lot,” Coleman said. “But that’s going to be my brother always, wherever we’re at.”
Ryan, the Falcons’ All-Pro quarterback and one of the leading MVP contenders, knows how fortunate he is to have two backs such as these.
“They complement each other so well,” Ryan said. “The unique thing about us and about them is that they’re both three-down backs.
“They’re guys that can run the ball between the tackles, they catch the ball extremely well out of the backfield, and they’re both excellent in pass protection. It’s rare that you have one guy on your roster like that, and we happen to have two that are really, really talented.”
Indeed, as they rotate back and forth on virtually every offensive series, Freeman and Coleman give the league’s highest-scoring offense two of its most dynamic, versatile weapons.
In addition to combining for just short of 1,600 yards on the ground, they are nearly as dangerous in the passing game.
Freeman had 54 catches for 462 yards and a couple of scores, while Coleman hauled in 31 passes for 421 yards and three TDs.
Now you can understand why Ryan sometimes forgets who’s in the game.
It doesn’t really matter.
“That makes it difficult for a defense to account for those guys, because there’s really no change with what we do with either of those guys in there,” Ryan said. “It doesn’t allow for them to key in on certain things.”
Off the field, there’s no sense of any jealousy.
These guys genuinely seem to like each other.
“It’s just second nature to support him while he’s in the game,” Coleman said. “When he makes a play, he’s like, ‘Go get you one.’”
Freeman was raised in one of Miami’s most notorious housing projects, but he was determined to make a better life for himself. Football was that outlet, and his appreciation for the game is reflected in the way he plays.
This isn’t a job to him.
This is pure joy.
“Growing up, I had to deal with frustration, stress, anxiety,” he said. “Trying to dodge a bullet was stressful. When you’re playing on the football field and a shootout starts, dodging those things, that was stressful. That was frustrating. Things like that.
“Having to walk through the projects sometimes — that stuff was real frustrating and stressful with anxiety and stuff like that. Now it’s just fun. I get to sit back and do what I love to do.”
In Coleman, he sees someone who approaches the game with that same passion.
“I love grinders,” Freeman said. “When you’re a grinder, I love it.”
But these two are more than just grinders.