For the 7th time in the Brady-Belichick era, the Patriots find themselves in the Super Bowl. It’s the second straight year that the South division represents the NFC, this time in the form of the Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons were not a trendy pick entering the playoffs, but after dismantling the Seahawks in the divisional round, they were the favorite against a red-hot Green Bay team, and ultimately made it no contest, winning 44-21.
Although the Falcons proved they’re the most deserving team to represent the NFC, they are more of an unknown commodity than teams like the Packers, Seahawks, or Cowboys. They aren’t a top market, fly under the radar even when they’re good, and don’t have many (any?) standout personalities like a Rob Gronkowski. They only played in two prime-time games this year, week 3 at the Saints and week 9 at the Buccaneers (they won both games and put up 40+ in each).
All that being said, a quick breakdown of their roster seems to be in order to help get better acquainted over the next couple weeks. Let’s take it position group by position group, starting with the offense (all stats, unless otherwise stated, courtesy of Pro Football Reference).
Starter(s): Matt Ryan
Stats: 373/534 (69.9% completion), 4,944 yards, 38 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, 117.1 QB rating
Breakdown: Matt Ryan has enjoyed the best year of his career, and is going to win MVP. This is his second season working under offensive guru Kyle Shanahan, and it has paid off big-time. Many thought that Ryan was no longer a good quarterback entering this season, and he has proved them all wrong big-time. Atlanta has the highest scoring offense and somewhat resembles the Rams “Greatest show on turf” team, in large part thanks to Ryan.
Starter(s): Devonta Freeman
Key Reserve(s): Tevin Coleman
Leading Rusher: Freeman, 227 carries, 1079 yards (4.8 YPA), 11 touchdowns, 1 fumble, 54 receptions, 462 yards, 2 touchdowns
Breakdown: One of the biggest boosts to the Falcons offense has been the emergence of their two young running backs. Freeman burst on the scene last year, and Coleman emerged this year in his sophomore season as a good second punch to Freeman. Coleman was particularly effective in the passing game, catching 31 passes for 421 yards and 3 touchdowns over 13 games, none as the starter. Stopping these two will go a long way to a Patriots victory.
Starter(s): Julio Jones, Mohammed Sanu
Key Reserve(s): Taylor Gabriel
Leading Receiver: Jones, 129 targets, 83 receptions, 1,409 yards (17.0 YPR), 6 touchdowns
Breakdown: Everyone knows Julio Jones. He’s arguably the best WR in the NFL, and has had his third straight season with more than 1,400 yards receiving. What has transformed this group is the role players around him. The Falcons signed Mohammed Sanu—someone the Patriots were interested in—this past free agency period, and claimed Taylor Gabriel off waivers just before the season started when the Browns decided they didn’t need him for some reason.
Sanu hasn’t lived up to his contract, but has been a much-needed second option, and Gabriel has provided a big play threat any time he touches the ball. Behind them, Justin Hardy and Aldrick Robinson serve as depth guys who aren’t key parts of the offense but had 41 catches, 526 yards, and 6 touchdowns between them this season, so if you forget about them the Falcons aren’t afraid to look away from the big names and get it their way.
Starter(s): Levine Toilolo
Key Reserve(s): Austin Hooper
Leading Receiver: Hooper, 27 targets, 19 receptions, 271 yards (14.3 YPR), 3 touchdowns
Breakdown: The teams main starter, Jacob Tamme, is out for the year after only playing in 8 games, but the tight ends behind him are doing well. Levine Toilolo is a great blocker who can make a play in the passing game when necessary, but the real key of the group is the guy behind him.
Austin Hooper is a rookie out of Stanford who has really emerged since Tamme got hurt. Although his numbers aren’t great, he is a good blocker who is dangerous as a receiver, and tight end is a position the Patriots historically struggle with. Hooper very well could end up being a key to the game.
Starter(s): LT Jake Matthews, LG Andy Levitre, C Alex Mack, RG Chris Chester, RT Ryan Schraeder
Key Reserve(s): Ben Garland*
PFF Grades: Matthews 75.3, Levitre 84.4, Mack 89.9, Chester 53.4, Schrader 87.3
Breakdown: Alex Mack was, hands down, the best signing of the most recent free agency period. Mack is the best center in football, and has completely transformed that offensive line now that he’s reunited with Shanahan after their time together with the Browns. Matthews is a former 6th overall pick who had a mostly solid season but is playing his best football in the playoffs.
Levitre is a veteran enjoying one of the better years of his fine career, and Schraeder has come out of nowhere to be one of the better right tackles in football over the past couple years, earning himself a nice payday after going undrafted in 2013. Chester is the weak spot of the line, but even he is playing better as of late. They don’t go to subs unless there is an injury, and this will be yet another tough OL matchup for the Patriots defensive line.
Starter: Matt Bryant
Stats: 34/37 field goals (6/8 from 50+), 56/57 XP’s
Breakdown: The 41 year old Bryant is one of the best kickers in the league, and is virtually automatic inside of 50 yards. Misses should not be expected, although they would be huge if they happen.
The Falcons offense has skill and depth at every position, and it’s clear why they boasted the best offense in football. The Patriots defense is going to need to bring their A-game just to limit this team. Anything under 24 points would be extremely impressive.
Check in later in the week for a breakdown of the Falcons defense!