The New England Patriots have everything going for them. Bill Belichick. Tom Brady. A ton of Super Bowl experience. They’ve won nine games in a row and 13 of 14 since Brady came back from his “Deflategate” suspension. They’ve averaged 30.7 points in those games while allowing more than 20 points just three times. They beat the Houston Texans with ease in the divisional playoff round, then beat the Pittsburgh Steelers with ease in the AFC championship game.
I still like the Atlanta Falcons’ chances in the Super Bowl.
Atlanta’s defense was the question before the Falcons beat Green Bay in the NFC championship game, and it will be again leading up to Super Bowl LI on Feb. 5.
But I’d feel pretty good if I were Atlanta coach Dan Quinn. There are worse scenarios when facing the Patriots – Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was in a much worse situation last week.
Pittsburgh is what it has always been: The Steelers want their three down linemen. They want their four solid, stud linebackers. They want one of their outside linebackers to come off the edge, if not both of them. Or, they’ll use the two inside linebackers to do some kind of cross stunt and get pressure on the quarterback up the middle. But that’s hard when teams spread you out, because you’re going to have to put those linebackers who are used to rushing into coverage.
The Patriots have Chris Hogan, who can take the top off a coverage and is great downfield. Julian Edelman is just a matchup nightmare. He runs option routes on every play – he’s crossing the field, always moving away from the leverage of the defender. You really can’t win.
Look at how Seattle beat New England this season. The Falcons are a carbon copy of the Seahawks five years ago. They’re a young team that flies to the ball. They have some experienced cornerbacks, and they have some good young talent up the middle.
New England got the Steelers in some uncomfortable spots early by emptying the backfield and making outside linebacker James Harrison cover, taking them out of their strength. Two huge early plays resulted from that. On one, Harrison didn’t get to where he was supposed to and they gave up a big 12-yard play. On the other, because he didn’t get to his spot, the corner tried to save him and he rolled up to try to make a play and the Patriots hit a big one down the middle to Hogan.
That’s the nice thing about Atlanta. It plays a four-down-lineman front on every snap whether you’re in a run formation, pass formation or spreading it out. Those guys don’t have to move. Vic Beasley, he’s not going to be in coverage. If the Patriots walk a running back or a tight end, a Hogan or someone, out there, Beasley doesn’t have to cover. He’s still gets to rush the passer. The Giants, when we played against the Patriots, that’s what our guys did. Those four down guys, they’re going after the quarterback. You have to get pressure on Brady, and this Falcons group can do that.
The ability to pressure the quarterback with four rushers is key. In the Green Bay game, Beasley was in the backfield and a couple of the Falcons’ defensive tackles, they didn’t have a ton of sacks, but they hit Aaron Rodgers. They were bringing guys off the edge. They weren’t scared to bring an extra guy.
And they fly to the ball. You watch them and there are two or three guys at the ball every time. Their two most impactful players, middle linebacker Deion Jones and strong safety Keanu Neal, bring a physicality you need to beat a team like New England. Look at how Seattle beat New England this season. The Falcons are a carbon copy of the Seahawks five years ago. They’re a young team that flies to the ball. They have some experienced cornerbacks, and they have some good young talent up the middle.
That’s what Quinn built when he was the defensive coordinator in Seattle and he brought it to Atlanta – and the scary part is this Atlanta offense is better than any Seattle offense since Pete Carroll has been there. If this defense can turn into something like they had in Seattle – like the Seahawks still have when they’re all healthy – the Falcons can be pretty special and very difficult to beat.
Everything in the world is going against the Falcons right now – a lot of those guys have never been to a Super Bowl and they’re playing a team that has been there a billion times. Brady is going to his seventh Super Bowl, so this is going to be just another game for him. That’s the trick. Can you make it just another game? Can these young guys for the Falcons, particularly the defense, make it just another game? Quinn has been through it, and I think he’s going to help them through this process.
They were bringing guys off the edge. They weren’t scared to bring an extra guy. And they fly to the ball.
Just from standing on that sideline, as soon as those first few plays are over and the flashes go off from all the cameras and everything, it all dies down and it can be just another game. If the Falcons can make it that, then they can wind up winning.
Question of the week
From Wally Zoerb: Being drafted No. 1 was a dream come true. Being drafted by the Texans not so much. In retrospect, do you think getting drafted later by a more established team would have been a better scenario for you?
I was fortunate enough to be selected first to play a game I love and it was fantastic. I remember specifically in The Fresno Bee or on ESPN they would roll out a draft board and I remember seeing my name up there. I was like, “Man, OK, that’s cool. Let’s see how high we can get this thing.” That’s what these college guys are trying to do right now – they’re trying to bump their name up those boards. At the Senior Bowl, they’re competing for every rep. That’s what I was doing my last year when I went to the Senior Bowl. I was trying to prove I belonged there, being from a small school.
It was awesome being the first pick. I remember sitting down with Texans general manager Charley Casserly at a restaurant in Fresno and he told me he was going to take me and that was two weeks before the draft. It was awesome. It was a pretty cool experience.
But if you’re the first pick, your team is terrible. That’s the battle I had to deal with and I had no idea how difficult that was going to be. I remember when Ben Roethlisberger came into the league, I was already there in Houston. You’re thinking Pittsburgh is a really good team. If they could get a quarterback, they would be fantastic and then, boom, Ben gets there and rolls off however many Super Bowls he has. Rodgers goes late in the first round and he gets to sit behind Brett Favre and play for a great team. It’s pretty cool, that scenario, too. Even when Derek was in the draft, I was like, “Man, I hope you get drafted late in the first round” and sure enough he gets picked in the second round.
It’s great to be the first pick. But the battle, I didn’t realize how tough that would be to take a brand new franchise and try to do something with it. When I got to New York, I realized how far away we were. The Giants were coming off a Super Bowl win and I realized that even when we were scratching around trying to be 8-8, we weren’t even close. We were a long way away. That was an eye-opening experience, walking into New York and seeing how a championship team works.
David Carr is a former Fresno State quarterback, NFL No. 1 draft pick and Super Bowl champion. Now he’s an analyst for the NFL Network and writing a weekly column in collaboration with The Bee’s Robert Kuwada. The column is sponsored by Valley Children’s Hospital.
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