HOUSTON – Super Bowl LI pits history vs. mystery, vice vs. nice, the “Rise Up” Falcons vs. the locked-down Patriots.
If you’re a neutral observer, you’ve got to pull for the Falcons. Right?
Atlanta’s quarterback is nicknamed “Matty Ice” but he should add a consonant. As friendly and thoughtful as a high school guidance counselor, he might be the league’s nicest valuable player.
Atlanta’s coach, Dan Quinn, is the kind of motivator who can make you do pushups before you get out of bed.
Atlanta’s owner, Arthur Blank, is an accessible self-made billionaire who danced on the field after the NFC Championship Game and flew every team employee to the Super Bowl.
Atlanta’s best player is Julio Jones, the rare star receiver with the ego of a backup tackle.
Atlanta’s second receiver is Mohamed Sanu, a Muslim who had to spend the week parrying questions about the United States’ immigration ban.
Atlanta’s third receiver is Taylor Gabriel, a 5-9 blur from Abilene Christian nicknamed “Turbo” who said he cares more about honoring his late mother than taunting the Cleveland Browns for releasing him.
Atlanta’s general manager, Thomas Dimitroff, started his football career as an equipment manager for the Guelph football team in Canada and met Bill Belichick when he mowed lawns and cleaned tarps at the Browns’ facility. Dimitroff will also wear a visor backward and upside down, framing his spiky hair, which makes him the visual antithesis of the NFL’s tense, paranoid aura.
While the Patriots are trying to win a fifth Super Bowl with a coach and quarterback who already have Hall of Fame reservations, the Falcons are trying to win their first in their second-ever try.
The Falcons have never been accused of spying on opponents or deflating footballs, although they, like the Vikings, have a history of enhancing crowd noise at their home dome.
The Falcons feature two former Gophers — Ra’Shede Hageman and De’Vondre Campbell — who are thoroughly enjoying the big stage.
Spending the week around both teams, you get the sense that Dimitroff and Quinn might invite you over for dinner and that Patriots coach Bill Belichick would summon Dobermans if you approached his moat.
While the Falcons want more, the Patriots have it all. Belichick hangs out with rock stars. Tom Brady is married to a model known by one name who has made more money than he has. Rob Gronkowski has a party bus and is the protagonist in erotic novels. They need rings like Iowa needs corn.
But if you haven’t banished the Patriots to sports purgatory for sins real and suspected, there are reasons to pull for New England, too.
The Patriots are perpetually interesting. Last year’s Super Bowl between Carolina and Denver would have been much better with Darth Bill on the sideline. The Patriots have played in six Super Bowls featuring Brady and Belichick. None has been decided by more than four points.
Two years ago, the Patriots and Seahawks played one of the best Super Bowls in history, replete with philosophical differences, personality contrasts, dramatic momentum swings and a stunning ending. The Patriots’ losses to the Giants rank among the most compelling Super Bowls ever.
Football is better when the Patriots matter. If they win, they make history. If they lose, they bring joy to a fractured nation.
And they’re not all bad. Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett has one of the most joyful personalities in the league and danced with cheerleaders on the field after the Patriots won the AFC title game.
Like or loathe them, the Patriots are fascinating. In a league filled with head coaches who can’t seem to count under pressure, Belichick can simultaneously manipulate clock, scheme and opponent. Pete Carroll was poised to become the eighth coach ever to win consecutive Super Bowls until Belichick gave him some kind of cross-field tractor-beam brain cramp in the final minute and stole a championship.
A Falcons victory would be nice and unusual, like having someone pay for your coffee before you reach the drive-through window. A Patriots victory? That would be venti.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MalePatternPodcasts.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib Email: firstname.lastname@example.org