Even if statistical precedent paints a less-than-rosy picture, the cause is by no means lost. We note that, even though the Patriots yielded the fewest points, they weren’t the NFL’s best defense. They finished eighth in yards against. The Falcons have beaten teams that ranked No. 2, No. 4 and No. 5 in total defense. They can score on anybody.
We also note the level of postseason competition. The Falcons faced Seattle and Richard Sherman (but not Earl Thomas) and Green Bay and Aaron Rodgers; they won by the aggregate score of 80-41. The Pats faced Houston, which had a terrible offense, and Pittsburgh, which lost Le’Veon Bell in the first quarter; they won by an aggregate 70-33. New England has looked good in these playoffs. The Falcons have looked great.
There’s no question that Belichick-with-two-weeks-to-prepare will be a greater test for the Falcons’ offense than Seattle sans Thomas or Green Bay with the NFL’s second-worst pass defense. But those two weeks cut two ways. Kyle Shanahan will find weaknesses in the Patriots’ defenders — for example, who can shadow Julio Jones? — and there’s no other NFL offense capable of attacking from so many angles. There’s this, too: Even without Bell, the Steelers managed 362 yards and 22 first downs.
The Patriots have been the NFL’s flagship team for 15 years. They went 14-2 in a season that saw Tom Brady miss the first four games due to his long-deferred Deflategate suspension. Brady might well be the greatest quarterback ever, but he’s 39, which means he doesn’t scare you quite the way Rodgers does, and he doesn’t have Rob Gronkowski, who’s to New England as Julio is to the Falcons.
The hidden unit in this matchup is the Falcons’ defense, which ranked 25th over the regular season but has found its feet. (And those feet, as mentioned a time or two, are really fast.) The Falcons yielded a touchdown to Seattle on the opening drive of the Divisional Round game; when next the Seahawks scored a touchdown, it was to cut their deficit to 36-20 with 3:21 remaining. On Sunday, the Packers’ first points came with 9:19 left in the third quarter and them trailing by 31. This defense keeps outperforming its tepid numbers.
As Quinn said Sunday: “We’re playing faster now than we did earlier in the season. Our speed hasn’t changed – we didn’t go lower our 40 times – but because of our communication, because of the style and attitude that we’re able to play with, we’re able to play faster.”
There’s no smarter team than New England, no team so well coached. But the belief here is that the Falcons have the better players — six Pro Bowlers to the Pats’ four — and can anyone say that, at this moment, the raging Ryan is a lesser quarterback than Brady? Even with two weeks to cogitate, the great Belichick will be hard-pressed to scheme his way around this offense.
The up-from-oblivion Falcons are underdogs, but not by a lot. It would be no great upset if they won this game. Heck, I’ll be surprised if they don’t.