HOUSTON — Matchups for the Super Bowl between the Atlanta Falcons (13-5) and New England Patriots (16-2) in Houston:
When the Falcons have the ball
Atlanta led the NFL in points (540) by a wide margin, thanks to a career year from QB Matt Ryan (2), who along with WR Julio Jones (11) are All-Pros. If that combination comes close to its production during the season and, in particular, the nine connections for 180 yards and two TDs in the NFC championship game against Green Bay, the Falcons will be difficult to stop.
While 2015 Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler (21) will see plenty of Jones, New England schemes so well that fellow cornerbacks Logan Ryan (26) and Eric Rowe (25), and safety Devin McCourty (32) will be no strangers to Jones, either.
If the Patriots can contain Jones, Atlanta wideouts Mohamed Sanu (12) and Taylor Gabriel (18) must come through in a big way. The Falcons don’t have a lot of weapons at tight end, which means RBs Devonta Freeman (24) and Tevin Coleman (26) will be keys in the passing game, too.
Freeman rushed for 1,079 yards and 11 TDs, Coleman for 520 and eight, but this is a pass-first team. There’s so much versatility, though, that the Falcons are capable of keeping the Patriots’ D off-balance.
New England coordinator Matt Patricia has players for specific roles on the line and behind it, though DE Trey Flowers (98) is the top pass rusher. DEs Chris Long (95) and Jabaal Sheard (93) and LB Rob Ninkovich (50) can do pretty much everything, while LB Dont’a Hightower (54) is the leader of the front seven.
Their matchups with a vastly improved Atlanta blocking unit led by C Alex Mack (51) and tackles Jake Matthews (70), a Houston native, and Ryan Schraeder (73) will be critical. Look for Patriots DTs Malcom Brown (90) and Alan Branch (97) to try to overpower the guards, especially Andy Levitre (67) on the left side.
When the Patriots have the ball
One thing we know for sure: The Super Bowl environment won’t be too much for QB Tom Brady (12), a three-time MVP in the game.
As Brady seeks an unprecedented for the position fifth ring, he will use just about everyone except mascot Pat Patriot as receivers. The star in the AFC title game was newcomer Chris Hogan (15), who matched Jones’ numbers and apparently was invisible to Pittsburgh defenders. He could wind up being a fifth or sixth option for Brady behind Julian Edelman (11), Danny Amendola (80), rookie Malcolm Mitchell (19), and RBs James White (28) and Dion Lewis (33).
Even though his favored target, TE Rob Gronkowski (87) is sidelined, Brady has developed a strong relationship with the backup, Martellus Bennett (88).
Atlanta has no chance if it doesn’t get pressure on Brady, especially up the middle so he can’t set up for the throws he prefers. Make him throw too soon, or hit him relentlessly and Brady can have some issues. Then again, the guy has won seven conference crowns and makes everyone around him better.
The onus is on NFL sacks leader DE Vic Beasley Jr. (44)), Tyson Jackson (94), Brooks Reed (50) and veteran Dwight Freeney (93) to get in Brady’s face. Doing so is challenging considering the Patriots’ underrated offensive line led by C David Andrews (60), RT Marcus Cannon (61) and LT Nate Solder (77) rarely lets Brady get bothered.
Should Brady have time to throw, rookie LB Deion Jones (45) and the entire secondary will be tested on every pass. A relatively inexperienced secondary of rookie S Keanu Neal (22), CBs Robert Alford (23) and Jalen Collins (32) could be in for a long day.
Adding to New England’s offensive prowess are RBs White and Lewis, mostly as receivers, and LeGarrette Blount (29), who scored 18 TDs rushing this season while running for 1,161 yards.
Eric Weems (14) gives the Falcons dependable returning on kickoffs and punts. He ranked sixth in punt runbacks (11.4 yards per) and would have ranked the same on kickoffs at 23.0 had he made enough returns to qualify. Matt Bosher (5) is steady but punted only 44 times this season and only five times in two playoff games, which says a ton about the offense.
Matt Bryant (3) is in his 15th pro season, but has never been to a Super Bowl. His leg remains powerful at age 41, and he doesn’t get nervous.
Veteran K Stephen Gostkowski (3) is among the NFL’s most reliable in all situations. He also still recalls missing a PAT in the conference championship game last year.
P Ryan Allen (6) ranked seventh in net average and the coverage squads are solid. New England is unafraid of using Edelman or Amendola on punt runbacks. Coverage man Matthew Slater (18) is an All-Pro.
Dan Quinn is a disciple of Pete Carroll and was Seattle’s defensive coordinator when the Seahawks lost to the Patriots in the final minute two years ago. That defense handled Brady quite well for three quarters, then he torched it in the final period.
Quinn won’t be overwhelmed by the moment, and in Kyle Shanahan — the likely next head coach in San Francisco — Quinn has a reliable, innovative offensive coordinator. The way the approaches of Shanahan and Ryan melded this season has been impressive.
Atlanta’s defense figures to be more aggressive than was Pittsburgh’s last Sunday at Foxborough. It’s essential, so look for more man coverage and, definitely, more scheming to get pressure on Brady.
Bill Belichick is tied with Chuck Noll for the most Super Bowl titles with four, and his 25 postseason wins are an NFL mark. He has taken the Patriots to seven Super Bowls of their record nine appearances, going 4-2.
Belichick and his exceptional staff will find ways to limit the production of an opponent’s best threat. Atlanta has many of those, but clearly Jones will be the target defensively, and Beasley will get the most attention when New England has the ball.
The Patriots also will use plenty of no-huddle offense; will frequently alternate their running backs; and will stick with the game plan, especially on defense, far longer than some other teams.
The Falcons have not won an NFL title in their 51 seasons.
Quinn has the memory of the last-minute loss to New England two years ago as further incentive.
It would be a great way to head into their new stadium later this year, as Super Bowl champions.
For the Patriots, need we say more than “Deflategate?” The entire organization, not to mention nearly everyone living in New England, believes Commissioner Roger Goodell and the league had a vendetta against Brady and the team.
Standing on the awards podium accepting the Lombardi Trophy from him would, to them, provide vengeance.