The Call by Mark Craig
Four not-so-obvious players to watch
New England receiver
Since tight end Rob Gronkowski went down because of a season-ending injury, the tough little receiver has really stepped up in the slot with the kind of difficult catches that require concentration and complete fearlessness. With Chris Hogan as the sudden headline-grabbing deeper threat, Edelman will have room to work on the slants and shallow crossing routes that keeps Tom Brady in rhythm.
The Falcons were 27th in points against and total defense this season. But they have speed, having added three starters in the top four rounds of the 2016 draft. Jones and former Gopher De’Vondre Campbell are linebackers who could be difference makers. Jones has the size and speed to help take away two of Tom Brady’s underneath targets in tight end Martellus Bennett and running back Dion Lewis. The Falcons might also want to use that speed on blitzes up the middle.
New England cornerback
In two short years, he has gone from unsung Super Bowl hero to perhaps the No. 1 key player in New England’s ability to defeat the league’s No. 1 scoring attack. Butler is expected to cover Julio Jones, the best athlete and most difficult matchup in the game. He’ll no doubt have some help over the top from the safeties. But the better Butler does, the more coach Bill Belichick can divert defenders elsewhere.
Atlanta running back
Freeman and fellow back Tevin Coleman are weapons to be accounted for. They are a solid 1-2 running punch. Freeman is the more dangerous receiving threat. He’s averaging 15.2 yards with a TD on eight postseason catches. He can make defenders miss in space. The Patriots aren’t exactly slow defensively, but their linebackers could have difficulty with Freeman.
Three keys to the game
1. Can Falcons keep pocket clean?
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan posted the fifth-highest passer rating in NFL history (117.2) while leading the league in yards per attempt (9.26) and completions of 20 or more yards (69). A big reason for that lies in how clean the front of the pocket is. He is able to step into throws routinely. You can bet the Patriots will be trying hard to push the front of that pocket. The pressure is on Pro Bowl center Alex Mack, the fantastic free-agent pickup from Cleveland.
2. Which team will start faster?
Sorry, Atlanta, but the defense has won six of the last seven Super Bowls that featured the No. 1 scoring team against the No. 1 scoring defense. The struggle for the upper hand will start from the get-go if Atlanta has first possession. The Falcons have scored a touchdown on their first possession in an NFL-record eight straight games. But the Patriots had an NFL-leading plus-98 point differential in the first quarter this season. Atlanta was No. 2 at plus-71. In New England’s last eight games, opponents have opened with seven punts and a field goal.
3. Will Tom Brady be made uncomfortable?
Houston didn’t have enough offense to upset the Patriots in the divisional round, but the Texans did disrupt Brady with two first-half sacks and pressure throughout the game. Particularly troubling for New England was the mismatch Houston found up the middle with linebacker Whitney Mercilus, who was too fast and quick for center David Andrews. The Falcons have to get creative with rushes that force Brady to move off his spot. Perhaps they can have NFL sack king Vic Beasley Jr. do some rushing from over center in addition to his usual spot on the left side.
One unsung hero
New England cornerback
Rutgers went 0-9 in the Big Ten, but it has a Super Bowl-high four former players starting Sunday. Ryan is one of them. Malcolm Butler will be the cornerback who concerns the Falcons the most. That could have Matt Ryan looking the other way early in the game. Under pressure both physically and mentally, the Super Bowl rookie will make that early mistake, and it will be Logan Ryan who notches the pick-six. Logan Ryan has one interception and one sack in the postseason.
Early meltdown for “Matty Ice”
Matt Ryan hasn’t thrown an interception since Dec. 4. That’s six straight games in which he’s thrown 18 touchdown passes with no picks. Atlanta will get first possession and its streak of eight straight games with an opening touchdown drive will end when the Patriots overload the front of the pocket, causing a nervy Ryan to throw a pick-six that Atlanta will never recover from. Brady throws for 400 yards and four touchdowns as New England wins its fifth Super Bowl 42-24.