The New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons are almost certainly the two best teams in their respective conferences. The Falcons feature one of the most high powered offenses in the NFL, while the Patriots statistically have the best scoring defense in the NFL. While both teams have faced different adversities, they both have a common goal on winning on a Lombardi trophy. Here are five massive x-factors I believe could swing Super Bowl 51:
1. The Ability to Adjust On Defense
These are the two best offenses in the NFL. Both teams will almost certainly give up 300+ yards of total offense and find the end zone on multiple occasions. The Atlanta Falcons led the league in points per game at 34.4, while the Patriots ranked third at 28.4 points per game, while missing Tom Brady for a quarter of the season.
Like I mentioned above, both of these teams are going to be able to move the ball on offense. However, the Patriots feature the #1 scoring defense in the NFL, while the Falcons have statistically one of the worst defenses in the NFL. The Patriots, led by Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia, are going to be able to adjust if the Falcons throw them a curveball, but I am not sure what they can do to stop the Patriots' defense. Force Matt Ryan out of the pocket, make him complete passes on the throw, and limit Julio Jones. It may be easier said than done, but I have confidence the Patriots will be able to make life difficult for Atlanta.
But the Falcons? I am not so sure about them. If the Falcons try to blitz Tom Brady, he will recognize it at the line of scrimmage and complete quick passes all the way down field. If the Falcons try to drop seven or eight into zone coverage, Tom Brady will pick them apart, just as we saw against the Pittsburgh Steelers. If the Falcons try and, by an act of Gob, successfully limit Tom Brady, the Patriots can unleash their three-headed monster at running back.
It will be crucial for Dan Quinn and company to adjust their game plan depending on what the Patriots throw at them.
2. Bill Belichick vs. Dan Quinn
The motivator vs. the X's and O's guy. Dan Quinn has had some success, whether it was as the defensive coordinator with the Seattle Seahawks when they faced the Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX, or as a second-year head coach that has already made it to the Super Bowl. However, he is going to be going head-to-head with the greatest coach of all time. If you make one mistake, Bill Belichick will notice it and make you pay. Can Dan Quinn limit the amount of mistakes he makes and develop a game plan that will catch the Patriots off guard? Perhaps, but I doubt it.
Additionally, Dan Quinn has this Pete Carroll style about him. On 98.5's midday show, Beetle & Zo, they mentioned the fact that Quinn is more of a "bro guy" instead of a numbers guy like Bill Belichick. Sure, Carroll has won a Super Bowl, but those type of head coaches usually do not get Lombardi Trophies.
3. Atlanta's Inexperience
This may be overlooked in the hustle and bustle of the Super Bow and the weeks leading up to it. However, the Patriots are a battle-tested and hardened team. Their key players and contributors on both sides of the football are seasoned veterans that have already played in and won a Super Bowl. Dont'a Hightower, Devin McCourty, and Malcolm Butler, essentially the leaders of the Patriots defense, all participated in Super Bowl 49 against a much better Seattle team. On offense, it goes without saying, but the Patriots have seasoned veterans Tom Brady, Julian Edelman, and Danny Amendola.
On the other hand, the Atlanta Falcons have almost no serious playoff experience, especially at key positions. Prior to this season, Matt Ryan had been 1-4 in the postseason. Does anyone believe that someone can flip a switch that easily and suddenly become one of the most dominant players in the NFL? I sure as hell don't. Sure, Matt Ryan may have a terrific Super Bowl game, win the Super Bowl MVP award, then go on to suck next season as the Falcons go 6-10. The Falcons have an extremely young team and the lights may get just too bright for this team after an entire week of media availability.
This is truly a massive wildcard in this game.
4. Secondary Play
It kind of goes without saying, but whichever group of defensive backs plays a better game will probably win the Super Bowl. The Falcons ranked 27th/28th in passing defense in the NFL this season (depending on which website you look at), while the Patriots ranked 14th. To be fair, the quarterbacks faced by both teams in extremely difference, as the Falcons had to face much better quarterbacks.
Regardless, the Falcons play a zone coverage that is extremely similar to the Pittsburgh Steelers last week. Tom Brady was able to torch the defense and throw for almost 400 yards and 3 touchdowns. If the Falcons do not recognize the problems that are bound to happen and fix them in-game, then this could be over by halftime.
Have you noticed a theme with these past few? It is all about the defense. Offense wins games, defense wins championships. The Falcons may look like the shiny and sexy toy that everyone wants, but a gritty and battle-tested squad usually wins the Super Bowl, not the team that throws the football all across the field and tries to win in a shootout.
5. Two Weeks To Prepare
For an extremely young and, if we are being completely honest, less talented Atlanta Falcons team, two weeks to prepare for the New England Patriots is a huge bonus. Undoubtedly, Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels, and Matt Patricia are going to throw some serious curveballs to a team that lacks experience in the playoffs. Sure, Dan Quinn was the defensive coordinator with the Seattle Seahawks when they played the Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX, but this is a completely different Patriots team from two years ago. Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner aren't leading the secondary, Vince Wilfork isn't clogging up the middle, and Rob Gronkowski catching fade passes in the end zone.