A lot of talk the last two weeks has been about the Falcons offense and how the Patriots will try to slow them down. The trick for the Patriots is to not fall into the trap of trying too much, but rather play their game. The Patriots need to establish a quick lead and put the Falcons on their heels out of the gate and take them out of their element. A quick lead gives the Falcons a bit of doubt and the Patriots a confidence boost because experience becomes irrelevant once the ball is kicked off.
Score first: The Patriots should opt to receive first should they win the toss. With Tom Brady at QB and a healthy offense that’s had two weeks to rest, the Patriots are best served to take the lead first. That strategy proved to be very effective in the AFC Championship Game, as the Patriots scored a FG on the opening drive and never trailed. The same strategy should be employed here because Belichick would rather have his HOF QB take the field first than risk being down 7-0 to the league’s top offense before the first offensive snap. The Patriots are 1st in the NFL in 1st half (+133) and 1st quarter scoring differential (+98), so they know what to do.
Force the Falcons to tackle in the open field: One of the weaknesses this year for the Falcons defense has been tackling. The Patriots are very good at exploiting their opponent’s weaknesses, and this aligns very well with a strength of the Patriots offense. The Patriots should try to isolate Julian Edelman, James White, and Dion Lewis into one-on-one tackling situations where they can show off their ability to shake off tacklers in space. One of the successes in the Patriots offense against Dan Quinn’s defense in Super Bowl XLIX was the ability to get those yards after the catch, against a defense that didn’t give up YAC all season before the Super Bowl.
Inflict Blount Force Trauma: On the Pulpit, we’ve talked a lot about the Falcons’ young and light defense. The Falcons have traded size for speed in hopes of being able to swarm the ball. The Patriots can counter with a 250-pound back who is a load to tackle when he gets going. Another benefit of a good run game is being able to control the clock and limit the number of possessions that the Falcons explosive offense can have. These runs will be important because they extend drives and open up play action, where the Patriots really hit their opponents. Against a fast and young defense, a good run game will allow the Patriots to open windows between the 2nd (LBs) and 3rd (Safeties) levels of the Falcons defense and hit them in the middle of field with crossing and dig routes with TE Martellus Bennett or WR Chris Hogan.
Limit Matt Ryan’s secondary weapons: The Patriots know they aren’t going to take Julio Jones away, but the key will be to limit the production of the other receivers. That means the Patriots have to win their one-on-one coverage battles against Mohammed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel, the TEs, and the RBs. Logan Ryan, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, and Malcolm Butler need to do their job and eliminate the complementary receivers and force Matt Ryan to rely on Jones, who will be doubled most of the night. If the Patriots can handle those match-ups well, the Falcons offense is going to struggle to put up points.
Make the Falcons offense earn everything: The key will be preventing big plays. No big gash runs, no explosive plays out of the passing game, no mistakes, no nothing. The Patriots are one of the best teams at defending the big play, something to the point of frustration as team move the ball a bit before stalling near midfield or in the Red Zone. That could mean the Falcons throwing short routes to the backs out of the backfield and to Julio Jones. The key will be to not give Atlanta what they want and force them to take what is there. That means no runs to the edge, no play action, and no deep passes. That requires the defensive line to be able to control their gaps in the run game and the secondary defenders to play disciplined. The Falcons have struggled against teams that have been able to shut down their running game and attack the middle of the pocket. That doesn’t necessarily mean blitz the A-gaps, but rather the DTs pushing the guards into Ryan’s lap.
Avoid field position mistakes and turnovers: If the Patriots play a clean game, I like their chances of winning on Sunday. The Patriots do an excellent job of controlling field position and they will need a championship effort from their 4th down units in order to deliver the bacon. That means forcing long fields for the Falcons having to take what the Patriots defense gives them. In addition, the Patriots cannot turn the ball over and give the Falcons any chance for cheap TDs on short fields. That means Brady needs to continue to make great decisions and the Patriots skill players to not put the ball on the ground. If the Patriots are able to win the battle for field position, I don’t see how they lose.
Score Prediction: Patriots 34, Falcons 24. The Patriots offense will be able to move the ball at will, attacking the Falcons light front with the run with Super Bowl LI MVP LeGarrette Blount rushing for 117 yards and 2 TDs on 25 carries. Brady goes 25-35 for 231 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT, including an opening drive TD pass to Malcolm Mitchell. With the Falcons consistently having to play catch-up it plays right into Belichick’s hands as the Patriots continue to move the goalposts for how much the Falcons have to score. At the half, the Patriots will hold a 24-16 lead, then use Blount and Lewis to salt the clock away in the second half.