Let’s get these inconvenient truths out of the way. This will mark the sixth Super Bowl to match the NFL’s highest-scoring team against the one that yielded the fewest points. The highest-scoring team is 1-4.
The Falcons scored 540 points, seventh-most in NFL annals. Of the other teams in the top dozen, only the 1999 Rams won the Super Bowl.
Bill Belichick, the essence of charm, made his reputation on two Super Bowl takedowns of the NFL’s highest-scoring teams – in January 1991 as the Giants’ defensive coordinator against the fast-break Bills and then with the Patriots in February 2002 against the Greatest-Show-On-Turf Rams. Final scores of those games: 20-19 and 20-17. (Also of note: Asked about the Falcons after New England took its latest AFC title, Belichick said he didn’t know they’d won.)
For decades if not time immemorial, the belief has been that defense wins championships. Even in an NFL skewed toward offense, we’ve seen recent Super examples of good pitching stopping good hitting. The 2013 Broncos, scorers of a record 606 points, were beaten 43-8 by the Seahawks, whose voracious defense was overseen by Dan Quinn. In January 2003, the Raiders, owners of the league’s No. 1 offense via total yards, were beaten 48-21 by the Buccaneers, who led in fewest points and yards. Those losing teams were quarterbacked by that season’s MVP.
The Patriots are a three-point favorite in Super LI, which makes sense. They’re the known commodity. This is their seventh Super Bowl under Mr. Warmth and Mr. Gisele. They’ve won four times. The Falcons stunk out the joint in their one Super Bowl, which was 18 years ago. They entered 2016 off seasons of 4-12, 6-10 and 8-8. Even Arthur Blank conceded Sunday that he hadn’t expected this just yet. But here they are.
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.