The New England Patriots will play in the pre-Minneapolis Super Bowl. Tom Brady will try to become the first quarterback and Bill Belichick the first coach to win five Big Bowls.
The historic implication: With a victory over the Atlanta Falcons in two weeks in Houston, the Patriots can prove themselves one of the most dominant franchises in NFL history, if not all of sports.
They will face a franchise, Atlanta, which lost its only Super Bowl appearance, after upsetting the Vikings in 1998. The Patriots will be expected to win, perhaps will be expected to dominate, and yet the most interesting aspect of episodic dynasty is that they rarely dominate in the games that have made their reputation.
In six Super Bowls featuring Brady and Belichick, the Patriots never have won or lost by more than four points. Their composite score in those six games: 135-129.
In Atlanta, they will face an offense that has surrounded star receiver Julio Jones with worthy skill-position threats, which enabled quarterback Matt Ryan to have his best season, one in which he probably will be named the league MVP.
Belichick is known for taking away an opponents’ best weapon, but the Falcons’ dominance and health, combined with the Patriots’ Super Bowl history, hints that Super Bowl LI will be dramatic.
The Patriots’ largest margin of victory in a Super Bowl came against the Seattle Seahawks two years ago. New England won 28-24 only because rookie cornerback Malcolm Butler intercepted Russell Wilson at the goal line in the waning seconds. Otherwise, Belichick’s Super Bowl record might be 3-3 instead of 4-2.
The Patriots’ other Super Bowl victories: 20-17 over the St. Louis Rams; 32-29 over the Carolina Panthers, also in Houston; and 24-21 over the Philadelphia Eagles. Their Super Bowl losses: 17-14 and 21-17 against Giants teams considered inferior.
The NFL could use a dramatic Super Bowl. Two blowouts Sunday continued a trend. Only two playoff games were decided by fewer than 13 points, and they both came on the Sunday of the divisional round. The Steelers beat the Chiefs 18-16 without scoring a touchdown. The only game that could accurately be called entertaining was the Packers’ 34-31 victory over the Cowboys.
The Falcons’ franchise history paints them as underdogs but there are blue chippers among them.
Their coach, Dan Quinn, will be coaching in his third Super Bowl in four years. In the first two he was the Seahawks defensive coordinator. He was on the sideline when Butler’s interception kept him from a second consecutive ring.
Ryan was the third pick in the 2008 draft. He is the first quarterback ever to produce at least three touchdown passes in four consecutive playoff games.
His passer rating of 117.1 this season was the fourth highest in NFL history.
Sunday, Jones joined Jerry Rice and Fred Biletnikoff as the only receivers ever to produce 180 receiving yards in multiple postseason games.
Atlanta is not a traditional NFL power, but it has earned its place in Houston. If the Falcons win the Super Bowl, they will have done so by beating in succession Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, three of the highest-rated passers in league history.
The Falcons took what has become a well-traveled route to the big game. They are the fourth NFC representative in the Super Bowl to earn a bye week and then win two home playoff games.
If the Vikings hope to play at U.S. Bank Stadium in Super Bowl LII, they would be wise to play all of their postseason games in downtown Minneapolis.
Belichick has a future Hall of Fame quarterback yet is thriving with players once considered spare parts. Brady was a sixth-round draft pick. Belichick’s leading receiver on Sunday (Chris Hogan) caught 12 passes at Monmouth College and played three years of lacrosse. His best runner, LeGarrette Blount, also went undrafted and is on his fifth NFL stop with four teams. His best receiver, Julian Edelman, played quarterback at Kent State and was drafted in the seventh round.
After a drab regular season and shoddy postseason, the NFL owes us a dramatic Super Bowl. The Patriots and Falcons are likely to deliver.