Tuesday, January 31, 2017

J-Speaks: Super Bowl LI Preview

This Sunday at NRG Stadium in Houston, TX, Super Bowl LI will take place between the American Football Conference Champion (AFC) New England Patriots versus the National Football Conference Champion (NFC) Atlanta Falcons. This will also be a matchup of two teams trying to make history. The Patriots are looking to add to their incredible resume, while the Falcons are trying to build one of their own. This is also matchup between two quarterbacks with one hoping to add to his future Hall of Fame resume and the other is looking to prove he belongs in the pantheon of the elite signal callers in the National Football League (NFL) today. For both squads, reaching Super Bowl LI and being on the door step to the Vince Lombard Trophy has not been an easy journey.
In the case of the AFC East champion New England Patriots (16-2-including the 2016 playoffs), their journey began without their all-world quarterback MVP candidate and future First-Ballot Hall of Famer Tom Brady, who served a four-game suspension for “deflate gate” back in the 2015 AFC title game versus the Indianapolis Colts.
The Patriots as they have done in the Brady/ head coach Bill Belichick era did not panic. They turned the keys to the offense over to backup Jimmy Garoppolo under center the first two games of the season, winning at the Arizona Cardinals (7-8-1) 23-21 on Sept. 11, 2016 and versus the Miami Dolphins (10-7) 31-24 one week later.
Third string rookie Jacoby Brissett came in late in the second game of the season for an injured Garoppolo, while also starting the next two games. In his first start in Week 3 on Sept. 22, 2016, he helped the Patriots take down the eventual AFC South champion Houston Texans (10-8) 27-0. The Pats unfortunately lost the next week versus division rival the Buffalo Bills (7-9) 16-0, which brought their record to 3-1.
Brady returned the next week for the Pats Week 5 Oct. 9, 2016 matchup at the Cleveland Browns (1-15) and they took down their opponent in their own stadium 33-13 and they never looked back.
The Patriots, who won their eighth straight AFC East crown, going 11-1 the remainder of the season, which included a seven-game winning streak to close the 2016 campaign.
The only loss during that stretch was a 31-24 setback versus the NFC West champion Seattle Seahawks (11-6-1) in Week 10 on Sunday night Nov. 13, 2016 on NBC.
Brady came back from his suspension to have perhaps the best touchdown to interceptions ratios in NFL history with 28 passing TDs for the third time in his career and just two interceptions. His 67.4 completion percentage was the second-best season of his career and the 8.2 yards per pass completion was the third-highest of his career as well. His 14.0 touchdown-interception ratio was the best in the 97-year history of the NFL.
What makes what Brady did so remarkable is that this all occurred with the Patriots’ best pass catcher in tight end Rob Gronkowski, whose season concluded after eight games  because of an injured back that required surgery.
With him gone, the rest of the Patriots receiving core stepped up and things kept moving on as always. Wide receiver Julian Edelman had 98 receptions, the second most in his seven-year career for a career-high of 1,106 yards in the regular season. Tight End Martellus Bennett had a solid season for the Pats with 55 receptions for 701 yards and seven touchdowns.
New addition Chris Hogan also played well for the Pats in his first season after spending his first three with the rival Bills with career-highs of 57 catches for 680 yards and tied a career-best with four scores and he would play prominently in the team’s postseason run. More on that later.
Another contributor to the Patriots’ passing attack was running back James White, who finished second on the team in receptions with 60 catches for 551 yards and five touchdowns.
Even Rookie wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell was effective with 32 catches for 401 yards and six touchdowns.
The Patriots offense in the regular season was also powered by running back LeGarrette Blount, who had a career-high of 1,161 rushing yards and rushed for a career-high and franchise record 18 touchdowns.

"We have a saying around here, 'A physically tough team is a team that can run the football. Stop the run and cover kicks,'" Edelman said. "In order to be a smart, tough football team, I would say that we have to definitely have a good run game."
Add it all up, you had an offense that was ranked third in the league in points per game at 27.6; seventh in rushing yards per contest at 117.0; fourth in passing yards per game at 269.3 and finished third in total points at 441. The Patriots finished in the Top 5 in points scored for the seventh consecutive regular season.

On top of that, seven different Patriots scored multiple touchdowns in a game this season, tied for the most in the NFL.  
That solid offense was complimented by an even great defense, which led the NFL in points allowed at 15.6, the first time leading in that category since 2003, when they won Super Bowl XXXVI 20-17 against the St. Louis Rams. 

To put that number into context, only the 2013 Seattle Seahawks, who won the Super Bowl that season allowed fewer points at 14.4 in the last six seasons.
The Pats defense, which was orchestrated by Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia also finished tied for third in rushing yards per game allowed at 88.6 and eighth in total yards allowed at 326.4.
That defense would play a key role in the Patriots’ 34-16 win in their Divisional Playoff contest versus the Texans on Jan. 14.
The Patriots held the Texans to just eight first downs; 285 total yards, with just 180 threw the air. They held the Texans to just threw third down conversions in 16 chances and just one touchdown in three red zone opportunities. They sacked Texans’ signal caller Brock Osweiler three times and intercepted him three times.
The Patriots defense made up for the team’s offense that was ineffective on third down themselves going just 5 for 14. While Brady had 287 yards passing and two touchdown throws, he was just 18 for 38 with two interceptions and was sacked twice.
To put Brady’s night into context, the 47.4 completion percentage he had on the evening was the lowest of his postseason career.  
Things were completely different in the AFC Championship Game eight days later, which was the Patriots sixth consecutive appearance in succession, an NFL record and their 13th overall, ranked second only to their opponent, the Pittsburgh Steelers 16th.
In the team’s 36-17 win over the AFC North Champion Steelers (13-6-including playoffs), which was their fourth all-time in five tries in the postseason and their second all-time in the title game. The win earned the Pats their seventh trip to Super Sunday in the Brady/Belichick era and an NFL record ninth trip overall.
Brady, despite being sacked twice was 32 for 42 for 384 yards and three touchdowns. He helped the Pats earn their 17th win in 20 tries at home in the postseason with him under center and Belichick on the sideline.
“This team showed a lot of mental toughness over the course of the year. It was a great win tonight. I’m just happy for our team,” Brady, who set a career and Patriots franchise record with his passing yard and touchdown performance said to CBS Sports sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson after the win.
It was not only Brady’s seventh career win in the AFC title game, it was his third against the Steelers. He improved his record, regular and postseason combined against them to 6-0 at home and has thrown 19 touchdowns and no interceptions.
This was also his third career 300-plus yard passing game in the AFC Championship Game, which tied him with future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning for the most all-time.
He also tied Hall of Famer Joe Montana with his ninth career postseason game with three-plus touchdown throws, the most in NFL history.
Hogan had 180 of those passing yards and two of Brady’s scoring throws. Edelman also had a solid game with eight catches for 118 yards and a touchdown.

This was Edelman's fourth game in the postseason in his last five opportunities with 100-plus receiving yards. 
The Patriots were 11 for 17 on third down; went 3 for 5 in the red zone and gained 431 yards of total offense and had no turnovers.
Defensively they held the Steelers “Killer B” trio in check for most of the game. Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was 31 for 47 for 314 yards and one touchdown and an interception. Running back Le’Veon Bell, who set an NFL record with 337 yards rushing combined in the first two playoff games of his career as well as set Steelers’ franchise records was held to just 20 yards rushing and sustained an injury to his groin that shelved him for the remainder of the game. Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown was had seven catches for just 77 yards and no touchdowns.
The Steelers had just 54 yards rushing and converted just one red zone trip in three chances.
“Players played hard. Played smart. We took care of the ball. Played good defense. Holding this team to nine points for 50 minutes is pretty good,” Belichick said to CBS’s Jim Nantz during the presentation of the Lamar Hunt Trophy after AFC Championship Game victory.
It was also the 207th combined regular and postseason win in the Brady/Belichick in New England, which is the most for an active quarterback and head coach duo. Second on that list is Steelers’ head man Mike Tomlin and Roethlisberger with 102.
This was also the 24th playoff win for Belichick, the most in NFL history. Right behind him is Hall of Famer Tom Landry, who had all 20 of his postseason victories as the head man on the sidelines for the Dallas Cowboys in the 1970s.
Standing in the way of the Patriots making history on Sunday are the NFC South Champion and No. 2 Seeded Atlanta Falcons (13-5-including 2016 playoffs).
Last season under first-year head coach Dan Quinn, the Falcons began 5-0, but won just three games in their last 11 chances to finish 8-8 and they missed the playoffs.
Two straight losses this regular season dropped their record to 4-3 and it seemed like another lost season.
The team however flipped the script and won seven of their last nine games to win their sixth division crown in franchise history and clinched a first-round bye.
The Falcons turnaround this season has a lot to do with the quarterback Matt Ryan (69.9 Comp. pct., 4,944 yards passing-2nd NFL, 38 TDs-2nd NFL, 7 INTs), who really grasped offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s offense.
Ryan’s favorite target in wide receiver Julio Jones had a monster season with 1,409 yards on 83 receptions and six touchdowns. He also led the NFL in receiving yards per game at 100.6 and his 96.3 receiving yards per game are the most in NFL history
The difference from season’s past is that the Falcons had complimentary pass catchers surrounding Jones in the likes of new editions Mohamed Sanu (59 receptions, 653 yards, 4 TDs) and Taylor Gabriel (35 receptions, 579 yards, 6 TDs).
The other big difference with this offense is the fact that they have versatile and efficient running backs in Devonta Freeman (227 rushes, 1,079 yards, 11 TDs) and Tevin Coleman (118 rushes, 520 yards, 8 TDs). Both were just as lethal in the passing with Freeman catching 54 balls in the regular season for 462 yards and two touchdowns and Coleman caught 31 passes for 421 yards and three scores.
To put the explosiveness of the Falcons’ balanced offense this season, they led the NFL in offensive plays of 20-plus yards with 84. They led the league in points per game for the first time in franchise history at 33.8; fifth in rushing yards per contest at 120.5 and yards per rush at 4.6 and tied for third in rushing scores with 20.
The Falcons passing attack finished third in yards per game at 295.3 and first in passing yards per attempt at 9.2.
What allowed Ryan and the Falcons to have such an effective offense whether it was on the ground or through the air was an offensive line that was anchored by veteran center Alex Mack; offensive tackles Jake Matthews, Ryan Schraeder; guards Andy Levitre, Chris Chester and tight ends Austin Hooper, Levine Toilolo and Jacob Tamme, who also had a combine eight touchdowns in the regular season.

"Everybody's going to have to do a great job at their responsibility," Belichick said this week. "No one guy can stop the Falcons.
Even with a great regular season, the question that many had about the Falcons is what could they do in the postseason, especially Ryan, who entered the playoffs with just a 1-4 record.
Ryan and the Falcons answered all those questions emphatically in the Divisional Round versus the Seahawks on Jan. 14 with a 36-20 win thanks to a 19-3 second quarter.
In his first postseason action since 2012, Ryan was 26 for 37 for 338 passing yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
While Coleman and Freeman were held in check with just 57 and 45 rushing yards respectably, the Falcons were very effective through the air with Freeman having four catches for 80 yards. Gabriel had four catches for 71 yards. Jones had 67 yards on six grabs and a touchdown catch, and Sanu had four catches for 44 yards and a touchdown of his own. Coleman also had a touchdown catch.
The defense, which had its ups and downs throughout the season really rose to the occasion against the Seahawks.
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson was 17 for 30 for 225 yards and two touchdowns, but was sacked by the Falcons defense three times and threw two interceptions. Seattle only converted one of their three red zone trips and after scoring a touchdown on their opening drive, had just two Steven Hauschka field goals over in the second and third quarters and their only one other touchdown came in the fourth quarter.
The competition got tougher in the NFC Championship Game on Jan. 22 versus the NFC North Champion Green Bay Packers (12-7-including playoffs),but the Falcons rose to the moment once again, taking them down 44-21 to advance to their second Super Bowl in franchise history. 
Ryan, who helped improve the Falcons record to 2-2 in the NFC Championship Game went 27 for 38 for 392 yards, four touchdowns, no sacks and no interceptions. Ryan’s 392 passing yards are the second most ever in an NFC/NFL championship game.
“It’s exciting,” Ryan, who helped the Falcons close out the Georgia Dome in style, the team’s home since 1992 said to Evan Washburn of CBS Sports after the game. “We played well all year. We played as well as we could today. I’m happy for our guys. We’ll enjoy this, but we got some work to do and hopefully we can bring the city a championship in two weeks.”
Jones, who was questionable all week to play because of an injured toe was incredible with nine catches for 180 yards and two scores. One of the scores came on a spectacular 73-yard run in the third quarter that gave the Falcons a 31-0 lead.
“Throughout the week, we put that work in. These guys came out here. They battled for me. I didn’t practice that much throughout the week, but today I came out here and gave it all I had,” Jones, whose 180 receiving yards are the third most in NFC/NFL Championship Game history said to Bradshaw after the win during the NFC Championship Trophy presentation.
In the Packers eight-game winning streak dating back to the regular season, Rodgers was smoking hot with 21 touchdowns passes and just two interceptions.
In the Packers Week 8 setback 33-32 at the Falcons on Oct. 30, 2016, Rodgers was 28 for 38 for 246 yards, 60 rushing yards and four passing touchdowns.
In the NFC title game, while he had 287 yards passing, Rodgers was just 27 for 45 and all three of his touchdowns came when the game was decided. He was sacked twice and threw an interception and was never comfortable when the game was still in the balance.  
As previously mentioned when the Falcons meet on Sunday for Super Bowl LI, one team will be looking to add to their great history, that being the Patriots, while the Falcons will be looking to start making history of their own.
For the Patriots, this again will be an NFL record ninth appearance in the Super Bowl.
Since Week 13 of the regular season, the Patriots have for 88 percent of their games and been tied just 12 percent of those. The last time they trailed in a game was in Week 12 at the New York Jets (5-11) on Nov. 27, 2016 and they won that game 22-17.
Since purchasing the team on Jan. 21, 1994, owner Robert Kraft has seen the Patriots win 69.3 percent of their games, win 16 AFC East Division crowns, and participate in 40 playoff games during this time, winning 26 of them, including four Super Bowls. This all lead the NFL.
To put how far the Patriots have come into a clearer context, in their first 41 seasons of existence, they made the Super Bowl just twice losing both. In the last 16 seasons, they made seven Super Bowl appearances, winning as mentioned four of them.
If Brady leads the Patriots to victory in Super Bowl LI, it will give him five and break a tie with Montana and former Steelers signal caller and current NFL on FOX pregame and postgame analyst Terry Bradshaw.
This will be Brady’s sixth Super Bowl start and he leads all AFC signal callers in that category since 2001. Manning has made four starts on Super Sunday and Roethlisberger has had three.

If Brady wins MVP of Super Bowl LI, it will be his fourth and it would break another tie he has with Montana.

In the history of the Super Bowl, there have been 50 MVPs of the game, 27 of them  have been awarded to the quarterback of that game. Seven have gone to a running back; six to a wide receiver; four to a linebacker and six to other positions.
“I know we’re going to be playing a great team in a couple of weeks, but it be great to finish it off,” Brady said to Wolfson.
Belichick will be looking to win his fifth Super Bowl, breaking a tie with former Steelers head coach in Hall of Famer Chuck Knoll and with his seventh appearance on Sunday will break a tie with another Hall of Fame head coach in Don Shula.
He already has a resume that will have him in Canton, OH as a first-ballot Hall of Famer. That resume consists of a 201-71 record; a 24-9 postseason record; four Super Bowl wins and three NFL Coach of the Year Awards.
That success as Belichick said during the AFC Championship Trophy presentation, none of what the Patriots accomplished this year and in the past, does not happen without the players buying into the program and making the system work.
“Great players. It’s all about the players,” Belichick said to Nantz about how the Patriots reached the point of being one win away from another Super Bowl title. “We got great players. They work hard. Their unselfish and their tough.”
While it may not mean much right now, the Patriots will have a major advantage entering Super Sunday because they have won four of their five visits to NRG Stadium and it was here they won their second Super Bowl, when they defeated the Carolina Panthers 32-29 in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
For the Falcons, they are looking to become the first pro sports team in the place that is referred to as the “ATL” since the Atlanta Braves of MLB won it all back in 1995.
The Falcons are also seeking on Super Sunday to become the first highest scoring team in terms of total points in a season to win a Super Bowl. Seven other teams, who scored more in the regular season than the Falcons and failed to win it all.
“I think we’ll be confident for sure,” Ryan said to Washburn. “We’re a team that’s gotten better the entire year and I’m proud of it. I think good teams do that. You start at one spot and you keep getting better week in and week out and I really feel like we’ve done that.”
On top of that, Brady is 4-0 all-time versus the Falcons and they are one of six NFL teams he has not lost to in his career.

If the Falcons beat the Patriots on Super Sunday, they would join the 2009 Saints as the only teams to beat three straight Super Bowl winning quarterbacks in a postseason. It will be even sweeter considering the fact that they have not faced a signal caller that ranked in the Top 10 in passer rating all season long.
“Tom has had an unbelievable year. Played extremely well and been extremely efficient,” Ryan said of Brady at the close of last week.
Ryan also gave props to Tom Brady on how he has continued to be great as he has gotten older saying how he has always been consistent throughout his career. How incredibly dedicated he is to his craft from how he takes care of himself both mentally and physically and that he trains all year around so he is ready to roll when the season starts.

Brady shared similar thoughts about Ryan when he said earlier in the week that he's had an "MVP season."

"He doesn't need any advice. He's led his team to this point and he's an incredible player and he has been for that franchise and I have a lot of respect for Matt. Our defense has its work cut out for them."
It also does not help the Falcons cause that their defense will be going up against an offense that has had seven different players over the course of the regular season and postseason have multiple touchdowns in a game, tied for the most in the NFL.
One big advantage that the Falcons, who lost to the Denver Broncos and Hall of Famer John Elway 34-19 in Super Bowl XXXIII in Miami, FL have entering Super Bowl LI is that their offensive signal caller has been on a tear with four straight postseason games of three touchdown passes or more dating back to 2012.

The Falcons also are a team that knows how to start games as they were second in the NFL during the regular season with 130 points scored in the first quarter.
Who was No.1? The Patriots with 139 total first quarter points, but in their Super Bowl history have never scored a touchdown in the opening stanza in the Brady/Belichick era.

"We don't want to play this game from 24-0 or 24-3 or something like that where Green Bay ended up last week," Belichick said about the Patriots starting out fast on offense. "We got to avoid that."
This will also be the sixth contest of this season that the Falcons were an underdog coming into a game. History has served them well in this fashion because they have won four of the prior five contest outright.
The Falcons though will be going against a defense that this postseason is giving up on average of 16.5 points in their two games; just 247 passing yards; 79.5 yards rushing and they have five takeaways.

Counting the postseason, the Patriots have not allowed a 90-yard rusher in 25 straight games.

"They force you to sometimes be patient as a quarterback and to take what's there," Ryan said about the Patriots defense on Media Day earlier in the week. "When we do get out chances, we will have opportunities to make plays and score touchdowns."
If there is one thing that will make the difference for teams on Super Sunday, it will be which defense can slow down their opponent’s high octane offense.
For the Falcons, it will be up to linebacker Vic Beasley, Jr., who had 15.5 sacks on the season to get some pressure on Brady and for the defensive backs like Robert Alford, Keanu Neal, Brian Poole, and Ricardo Allen to contain the Patriots pass catchers.

"I'm just blessed to be on the same field as Tom Brady," Beasley said this week. "Future Hall of Famer. I got a lot of respect for that man."

In a joking kind of way, 15-year veteran defensive end Dwight Freeney of the Falcons, who saw a lot of Brady when he played with the Colts, especially in the postseason said, "It's just funny. Year 15 and I'm still seeing these guys here. I still got to worry about Tom Brady. "It's kind of like, 'Alright come on man. Have we had enough battles over the years.'"

"We're going to need to be at out best for those 70 plays and all the effort that we put in over the course of the season has come down to this," Brady said earlier this week about the Falcons defense that was ranked 27th in points allowed; 25th in total defense and 16th in takeaways.
The Patriots defensive unit of will have their hands full as well. It will be up to the defensive line of Chris Long, Alan Branch, Trey Flowers, Malcom Brown, Rob Ninkovich, and Jabaal Sheard to get pressure on Ryan, who will have gone two full months without throwing an interception when Super Bowl LI kicks off on Sunday night.

"You go a smart coach. A smart quarterback and smart players," Freeman said about the Patriots as a whole. "Off-course there going to figure out ways and scheme to stop us and game plan around us, but you know we got the same thing too."
The linebacker unit of Dont’a Hightower, Shea McClellin and Kyle Van Noy to contain Freeman and Coleman in the run game and intermediate passing game.
The defensive backs of Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, Duron Harmon, Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Cyrus Jones, and Nate Ebner will have their hands full with the Falcons pass catchers, especially with Jones, who since entering the NFL in 2011 has the second most receiving yards with 7,610. Only Brown of the Steelers has more in that span with 8,210.

"Malcolm Butler is a great cornerback. What he is great at is jumping routes and the ability to get in and out," Jones said. "If they're going to double me, I have all the confidence in the world that my brothers are going to do their job.

"I see it as an even playing field. It's football," Sanu said. "They have to lineup the same way we have to and put on their cleats the same way and you got to go out there and play football."  

Coleman concurred by saying that, "It's going to be tough. This defense is so good. So great that there going to take Julio away, so it's going to leave opportunities for the backs to do some big things."
One thing is for sure we have two solid teams that will be facing each other in Super Bowl LI and each understands that reaching this point took a lot of blood sweat and tears, not to mentioned sacrifice and a commitment to the ultimate prize. This is something the Patriots understand all too well.
“We’ve won a lot of different ways under a lot of different circumstances,” Brady said to Nantz. ‘it’s mental toughness man. That’s what it’s all about and this team got it. We’ll see if we can write the perfect ending in a couple of weeks. It’s going to take a big effort. We’re going to need a couple of weeks to prepare because we’re playing a great team, but it’s going to be a hell of a game.”
Ninkovich, who has led the NFL in fumble recoveries since 2010 said something to that effect before the AFC title game two Fridays ago on ESPN’s “NFL Live” to Trey Wingo by saying that the Patriots journey to get to Super Bowl LI started in the off-season.
“So, for us, it’s having a good off-season,” said the guy with 46 career sacks and 10 forced fumbles. “Going into OTA’s [Off-season Training Activities], minicamps, training camp and understanding that you’re going to have to put the work in to get to the point that we’re at right now.”

Freeney concurred that point by saying about the Patriots that, "They consistently year in and year out, playoffs. Every other three or four years, Super Bowl. That is not something that is regular at all."
The fight for the right to be champions of Super Bowl LI and for the Pats to make more history or for the Falcons to start their own will take place at NRG Stadium at 6:30 p.m. Sunday night on FOX with Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Chris Myers, and Erin Andrews.
Information, statistics and quotations are courtesy of 1/20/17 ESPN 2 Bottom Line news crawl; 1/20/17 3 p.m. edition of ESPN’s “NFL Live,” with Trey Wingo, Mark Schlereth and Tedy Bruschi; 1/22/17 “State Farm Postgame Show,” following the 3 p.m. NFC Championship Game Green Bay Packers versus Atlanta Falcons on FOX with Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Chris Myers and Erin Andrews; 1/22/17 “Subway Postgame Show,” following the 6:40 p.m. AFC Championship Game Pittsburgh Steelers versus New England Patriots on CBS with Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Tracy Wolfson and Jay Feely; 1/26/17 Super Bowl news from ESPN Bottom Line news crawl; 1/27/17 6 p.m. CBS Sports Network’s edition of “Time to Schein,” with Adam Schein; 2/3/17 4:30 p.m. edition of "SportsNation," on ESPN with Marcellus Wiley and Shawn Merriman; www.espn.com/nfl/team/_/name/new/new-england-patriots; www.espn.com/nfl/team/_/name/atl/atlanta-falcons; http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Super_Bowl_XXXVI; http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Super_Bowl_Most_Valuable_Player_Award http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_England_Patriots; http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlanta_Falcons and http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Super_Bowl_XXXIII.   

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