The Super Bowl arrives Sunday. Which means it’s time for me to quit going back and forth about who I think will win the game and finally make a pick and stick to it.
Whether MDS or I agree on the outcome of the Patriots-Falcons game doesn’t matter; he already has clinched the postseason contest, which is a nice bookend to his regular-season victory in our picks competition.
Still, everyone wants to get the last game of the season right, and either we both will — or we both won’t.
MDS’s take: The oddsmakers in Vegas are expecting this to be a high-scoring game, with the over-under set at 58.5, the highest ever for a Super Bowl. And I think it may be an even higher-scoring game than that.
Tom Brady and Matt Ryan aren’t just the media darlings during Super Bowl hype week, they’re the two best players in the NFL right now. Brady shook off his four-game Deflategate suspension to turn in what may have been his most impressive individual performance ever, while Ryan is expected to collect his first ever regular-season MVP award on Saturday night.
So how does this shootout play out? I see the Patriots and Falcons going back and forth in an exciting game, but the Patriots’ defense making a late fourth-quarter stop that turns out to make the difference. After a postseason full of dull games, I like the Patriots to win a classic at Super Bowl LI.
MDS’s pick: Patriots 35, Falcons 31.
Florio’s take: Patriots coach Bill Belichick has a history of concocting a defensive game plan that takes away what the opposing offense does best. It’s widely believed that, as it relates to the Falcons, Belichick will try to eliminate receiver Julio Jones.
Beyond Super Bowl XXXVI, where Belichick dared the Rams to run the ball and coach Mike Martz stubbornly didn’t, the template for this one possibly comes from Super Bowl XXV, when Belichick convinced the Giants defensive players that the way to outscore the Bills would be to let them run the ball.
“You guys have to believe me,” Belichick told his players, via David Halberstam’s The Education of a Coach. “If [Thurman] Thomas runs for a hundred yards, we win this game.”
It was hard sell, given that the team’s defense had been premised on shutting down the run. But Belichick got his players to embrace the strategy, and the Giants won the game by a single point.
While Belichick may not have spent the last two weeks lobbying the Patriots to let Devonta Freeman and/or Tevin Coleman to rush for more than 100 yards, Belichick is likely to ensure that the Atlanta passing game and running game won’t generate yardage in big chunks, forcing the Falcons to patiently work their way down the field and sustain drives and set up showdowns in the red zone, where New England’s defense has improved dramatically throughout the course of the season.
So it’s about more than taking away Jones. It’s about taking away quick-strike touchdown drives and shortening the game.
That’s why the New England offensive game plan will be critical, too. Running plays and short passes that simulate runs should be the preference, with Tom Brady showing the kind of patience that Belichick will try to force the Falcons to display. By keeping Matt Ryan and company on the sidelines for as long as possible, they’ll have fewer chances to wreak havoc or to get in the kind of a rhythm that has seen them rack up big leads in both playoff wins.
Ultimately, the goal will be to keep the game close and trust Brady and/or the defense to deliver with the championship on the line. That’s how the six prior Brady-and-Belichick Super Bowls have gone, with four of them going the way of the Patriots and the other two resulting in defeat only when Eli Manning managed two of the most impressive clutch throws the NFL has ever seen.
Florio’s pick: Patriots 27, Falcons 24.