FOXBOROUGH – (Special to Digital Sports Desk by The Sports Xchange) – Football cliche — and history — tell us that defense wins championships. It has certainly been a key part of the New England Patriots’ dynastic success in the Super Bowl over the years. Though head coach Bill Belichick’s team is known for the Tom Brady-led offense, the defense was critical to the title runs in 2001, 2003 and 2004.
Certainly, New England’s last title came in large part thanks to cornerback Malcolm Butler’s gave-saving interception in Super Bowl XLIX.
Still, much of the two weeks of hype leading up to Super Bowl LI in Houston will focus on the glamour of the Brady-led No. 3 scoring attack taking on Matt Ryan’s No. 1 Falcons scoring offense. But, it’s really how New England’s No. 1 scoring defense matches up with Ryan, Julio Jones and the full complement of Atlanta playmakers that could key the Patriots’ drive for a fifth Lombardi Trophy.
Malcolm Butler (21)
Historically, the No. 1 defense has taken on the No. 1 offense five times in the Super Bowl and won four of the battles.
It’s up to coordinator Matt Patricia’s Patriots defense – one that’s played the disrespect card with a chip on its shoulder all season – to figure out a way to stop an offense that cruises into NRG Stadium.
“Obviously with the quarterback position, Matt Ryan, and then Julio Jones and all the skill players that they have, they have tremendous dynamic weapons,” Patricia said as the Patriots began preparations for their biggest challenge of the season. “But Julio Jones is just, to me – we saw him a couple of years ago and studied him. He’s probably just one of the most dynamic players in the league. I usually don’t wind up comparing him to other people; I wind up comparing other people to him just because of his skill set and his ability. The things that he does for them and what he can do is he does a great job of moving around into different positions.
“Coach (Kyle) Shanahan puts him in different spots. He’ll try to get him working different positions to get a matchup that he likes, or a particular formation that gives the defense problems, and then they’ll really use him in a variety of ways. He can run underneath routes, he has great speed, he has great hands, he has great body control, and he’s very, very strong.”
Jones had nine catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns in the NFC title game. During the regular season he piled up 83 catches for 1,409 yards and six touchdowns despite missing two-plus games to a toe injury.
“A bigger corner, smaller corner, whatever it is, he can push on the (defensive backs), lean and be able to play physical at the line of scrimmage, plus physical downfield with them, and still come up with the ball,” Patricia continued. “He does a great job of tracking the ball in the air, can go up and high-point it and get it. He’s got great hands and like I said, does a great job after the catch. Just his ability to get the ball, get vertical into the defense towards the end zone, stiff-arm a defender, break a tackle, run away from guys, it’s just he’s such a dynamic player in that aspect that he can give you a lot of problems.”
Jones is far from the only weapon for Ryan to turn to. Running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman aren’t just threats on the ground, but the duo combined for more than 80 receptions.
“With this offense, what they’ve been able to do, with as much attention that goes into the passing game, rightfully so, it’s allowed them to run the ball extremely well,” Patricia said of Freeman and Coleman.
“They do a great job up front blocking. Alex Mack is in the middle there and he kind of controls everything. They do a great job of kind of identifying the fronts and getting the ball run through, I’ll call it the space of the defense, and both of these backs have an explosive ability to see the scene, get downhill quickly, get into the defense quickly. They run with good pad level, good body control, very good short-space quickness, and then some long speed too or speed you’d be able to get outside if you don’t have the edge of the defense in a good force position.”
Both backs averaged well over four yards per carry while also contributing to the passing game. In addition to his 1,079 yards rushing, Freeman added 54 catches and scored 13 total touchdowns while Coleman averaged an astonishing 13.6 yard per catch on his 31 receptions. He added 11 combined touchdowns.
“It’s a one-two punch. They both have some good power. There are some slight differences between the two and some quickness and some short space stuff,” Patricia added. “They read the blocking scheme very well. Atlanta does a great job of just kind of running their runs. They practice the particular running style, the stretch game that they run. They do a good job of creating separation of the defense both horizontally and vertically, so as those backs take those angles and really get the defense to run kind of in a sideways manner, they open up those holes where these guys, they stick that foot in the ground and they just come downhill and they hit that thing at 100 miles per hour.
“That’s very difficult to defend, especially if the front may be a little bit light, depending on what you’ve got to put on the coverage aspect of it to handle the passing game.”
History says Patricia and his No. 1 defense may be in good position heading into the Super Bowl challenge of Ryan and the No. 1 scoring Falcons. But it won’t be easy.
Hogan reeled in nine passes from Brady for 180 yards, also a franchise postseason record, and a pair of touchdowns. Naturally, he credited it all to Brady.
Brady and Ryan will steal the spotlight, but they are far from the only players to watch in Super Bowl LI on Feb. 5 at NRG Stadium.
Five matchups to watch
–Patriots QB Tom Brady vs. Falcons QB Matt Ryan: Brady, who will play in his record seventh Super Bowl, seeks to cement his legacy as the greatest to play the position. Brady’s four rings has him tied with Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana for the most by a quarterback, but a fifth would put him in uncharted territory — and would be especially meaningful after his four-game Deflategate suspension. While Brady is in the back nine of his career, Ryan is smack dab in the middle of his prime — perhaps one of the new faces of the NFL — and is silencing the doubters who said he couldn’t win the big game. The former Boston College star put up far better numbers during the regular season than Brady, giving him a leg up in the MVP race. Of course, you can toss those numbers out the window in Houston. As well as Ryan played this year, he has never played in The Big Game. Advantage Brady.
–Falcons WR Julio Jones vs. Patriots CB Malcolm Butler: Perhaps the most intriguing matchup outside of Brady vs. Ryan, the likely battle between the Falcons’ No. 1 receiver and the Patriots’ No. 1 corner could very well determine who hoists the trophy in two weeks. Both played spectacular games on Sunday. Jones torched the Packers for 180 yards and two scores on nine catches. Butler, meanwhile, limited Steelers star wideout Antonio Brown seven catches for 77 yards and no scores. Butler made his name on his end-zone interception now known as “The Pick,” the play that sealed Brady’s fourth title in Super Bowl XLIX against the Seattle Seahawks. He has developed into a serviceable corner, albeit one who can be beaten in downfield coverage, but he has yet to face a receiver as explosive as Jones. How does he plan to stop him? “Going too far, man,” Butler told The Sports Xchange after Sunday’s game. “I’m enjoying the moment, brah. Enjoying the moment.”
–Patriots RB LeGarrette Blount vs. Falcons’ rush defense: Simply put, Blount is due for a big game — and he will need one to give the Patriots a balanced attack and a chance to hang with the high-octane Falcons. After besting Curtis Martin’s New England mark for the most rushing touchdowns in a single season with 18, Blount was a virtual non-factor in the Patriots’ first two playoff games, totaling just 78 yards on 24 carries, including 47 yards on 16 attempts against the Steelers. Blount showed flashes of his historic regular-season form against his former team on a carry late in Sunday’s third quarter, practically carrying the entire Pittsburgh defense on his back on an 18-yard gain to set up first-and-goal at the 1. He scored on the next play, his eighth career postseason rushing touchdown. Atlanta’s rushing defense is average, having allowed the 16th-most rushing yards per game (104.5) during the regular season. The opportunity is ripe for Blount to enjoys a breakout performance.
–Falcons K Matt Bryant vs. Patriots K Stephen Gostkowski: The most underappreciated men on the roster often wind up needing to make the biggest plays on the grandest stage. Bryant and Gostkowski are both proven veteran kickers. Bryant was 34 of 37 on field-goal attempts in the regular season with a long of 59 yards. He is 3 of 3 in the playoffs. Gostkowski was Mr. Automatic before this season, when he finished 27 of 32 with a 53-yard long. He fell into a bad rut midway through the year but has bounced back, going 5 of 5 in the postseason, although he did miss an extra point Sunday. Statistically, Gostkowski has had a better Patriots career than legendary kicker Adam Vinatieri, but he is short on the marquee kicks; Vinatieri made decisive kicks in two Super Bowls. These games often come down to kicks, so either Bryant or Gostkowski may need to come up in the clutch.
–Patriots coach Bill Belichick vs. Falcons coach Dan Quinn: The second-year Atlanta boss has his work cut out against a man widely recognized as one of the greatest coaches in football history. However, if Quinn can scheme up a game play to vanquish The Hoodie, he would join former New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin as the only coaches to knock Belichick in the Super Bowl. Quinn doesn’t have much history with the Patriots, but his general manager does. Thomas Dimitroff worked under Belichick from 2003 to 2007 as New England’s director of college scouting before taking the GM job with the Falcons, so he may be able to provide Quinn with some insight on how the Belichick machine works. It would be shocking to see Quinn outcoach Belichick in The Big Game, but it wouldn’t be unprecedented
Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass
FOXBOROUGH – (Special to Digital Sports Desk by The Sports Xchange) – The song, “One More Time,” by Daft Punk, blared over the stadium system. Martellus Bennett, borrowing a pair of pompoms from a cheerleader, led the women in dance. Rob Gronkowski, dressed in street clothes because of his injured back, celebrated with his teammates. The New England Patriots, who started the season under the cloud of the Deflategate ruling that left Tom Brady suspended for the first four games, hammered the Pittsburgh Steelers 36-17 Sunday in the AFC Championship Game and are headed to play the Atlanta Falcons in the Super Bowl.
New England will appear in a record ninth Super Bowl, the seventh with Brady at quarterback and coach Bill Belichick running the show.
“For a number of reasons, all of you in this stadium understand how big this win was,” owner Bob Kraft said as he accepted the AFC championship trophy.
This Super Bowl trip, with the Pats seeking the fifth title under Brady/Belichick, is special after the Deflategate battle with commissioner Roger Goodell.
Goodell, hardly a favorite at Gillette Stadium following his war with Brady, was not at the game, but Patriots fans chanted “Where is Roger” in the fourth quarter. That came after the crowd was urged on by club radio analyst Scott Zolak, who hung a “Where Is Roger” sign out of the press box late in the third quarter.
“It was a good day. We’re going to the Super Bowl, man, (expletive), you gotta be happy now,” Brady said after shredding the Pittsburgh defense for a team-playoff-record 384 yards and three touchdowns in what turned into an easy win.
Asked by CBS’ Jim Nantz on the field if there was extra motivation for him to get this far, Brady said, “No, this is my motivation right here, all these fellas (teammates) in front of me.”
Brady said he didn’t hear the Goodell chants.
Belichick didn’t comment of the Falcons, insisting, “I didn’t even know they won.”
With help from Chris Hogan, who enjoyed a career receiving game, Brady again led the way. The team improved to 13-1 since the 39-year-old quarterback’s return.
Hogan, who signed as a free agent last offseason, caught nine passes for a club-playoff-record 180 yards and the first two-touchdown game of his career. The second TD was a 34-yarder on a flea-flicker that saw Brady hand the ball to Dion Lewis, who then flipped it back to Brady for the pass.
“I’m glad we got him,” Brady said of Hogan. “He’s just done an incredible job for us.”
In a game played in a fine mist, Brady, who also hit Julian Edelman with a TD pass, was 32 of 42 with his 59th and 60th postseason scoring passes. It was his 11th career postseason game with 300 yards, extending his own NFL record, and he recorded his ninth three-touchdown playoff game, tying Joe Montana for the most all time.
Edelman had eight grabs for 118 yards, the fourth 100-yard postseason game of his career, tying Deion Branch for the club mark. Edelman also passed Branch and became the club leader for postseason receiving yards.
The Patriots ran for just 57 yards, but 18 of them came with LeGarrette Blount carrying what seemed like every player on the field to the Pittsburgh 1. He scored from there on the next play.
New England fashioned a goal-line stand late in the first half, and Pittsburgh kicker Chris Boswell, who kicked six field goals to allow his team to advance last week, missed an extra point. The Patriots also stopped Pittsburgh at the New England 2 in the fourth quarter, the Steelers scoring but having it called back because Cobi Hamilton went out of bounds and came back in for the catch.
Le’Veon Bell, a focal point of the Pittsburgh offense, sustained a right groin injury in the first half, tried to return and couldn’t. He wound up with 20 yards on six carries.
“It was on the second play of the game,” Bell said. “Obviously, I got banged up, but I still tried to give it a go. I still tried to play.
“It’s real disappointing. We work so hard to get here. I felt like I had done a lot to help us get here. To not play and not go to battle with my teammates, it hurts.”
Asked if he was frustrated, Bell said, “Of course, given how far we came.”
D’Angelo Williams came on for Bell and ran for 34 yards and a touchdown on 14 attempts. Williams also caught seven passes for 51 yards.
Antonio Brown, whose Facebook video caused a distraction for the Steelers early in the week, wasn’t a factor, catching seven passes for 77 yards.
Roethlisberger, registering his fourth 300-yard postseason game, was 31 of 47 (and had some dropped) for 314 yards with one interception. He moved past Dan Marino into sixth place on the all-time postseason yardage list. Roethlisberger hit Hamilton with a 30-yard TD pass and Williams with a two-point conversion pass with 3:36 left.
Stephen Gostkowski kicked three field goals and missed an extra point in the victory, the Patriots’ ninth in a row.
The Steelers’ nine-game winning streak ended.
“I tip my cap to those guys, they are the champions of the AFC and rightfully so, you know,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said. “Not a lot went our way tonight, not only in terms of the final score, but just how the game was played. They are to be complimented for that.
“We didn’t get the things done that we wanted to get done really, on offense, defense and special teams in a consistent manner for it to be competitive and close.”
NOTES: WRs Chris Hogan and Julian Edelman became the first pair of Patriots to record more than 100 receiving yards in a playoff game since 1963. … Patriots WR Malcolm Mitchell returned after missing two games with a knee injury, with WR Michael Floyd inactive to make room. … Pittsburgh TE Ladarius Green missed his fifth straight game due to concussion symptoms. … Former Pittsburgh WR Hines Ward and New England LB Tedy Bruschi were the honorary captains — the Patriots improving to 9-0 in games where Bruschi was honored. … Patriots president Jonathan Kraft, on the team’s radio pregame show, was asked about the firing of Indianapolis GM Ryan Grigson and answered with a Deflategate connection, saying, “That game might have been Ryan’s pinnacle, I don’t know.”
Atlanta 44, Green Bay 21
When: 3:05 PM ET, Sunday, January 22, 2017
Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta
ATLANTA — When the Atlanta Falcons earned their only other Super Bowl berth, the NFC Championship Game victory was in Minnesota. This time, their home fans got to help celebrate, and it was quite a way to close down the Georgia Dome.
Matt Ryan, showing that he could be just as good in the playoffs as in the regular season, threw for four touchdowns and ran for another, and the Falcons routed the Green Bay Packers 44-21 on Sunday.
“We’ve got some more business at Houston in two weeks,” Ryan said after the Falcons were presented the NFC trophy.
Ryan completed 27 of 38 passes for 392 yards. The Packers’ defense had no answer for the quarterback and star receiver Julio Jones, who caught nine passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns.
“They’ve got the best receiver in the NFL, and Matt is going to be the MVP for a reason,” Green Bay safety Morgan Burnett said. “That’s a tough offense to stop, and they’re really clicking.”
It took an overtime field goal by Morten Andersen after the 1998 season for the Falcons to advance to their other Super Bowl, where they lost to the Denver Broncos. This NFC title, though, came in a rout.
The Falcons led 31-0 early in the third quarter after a 73-yard touchdown connection from Ryan to Jones, who caught a 5-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter.
Ryan went a sixth straight game without throwing an interception and wasn’t sacked as the Falcons converted 10 of 13 third-down opportunities and amassed 493 yards.
“We played a hot team. You’ve got to give them credit,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “Matt is playing incredible right now, and that’s a very good offense.”
Said Atlanta wide receiver Mohamed Sanu, who had five catches for 52 yards and a touchdown, “When we’re all playing together at a high level, we all feed off each other. When we get rolling, we’re hard to stop.”
Rodgers, who had led the Packers to eight straight victories, completed 27 of 45 passes for 287 yards and three touchdowns. He was sacked twice and threw an interception.
The Falcons drove 80 yards in 13 plays after the opening kickoff, Sanu scoring the touchdown on a 2-yard underhand flip from a scrambling Ryan. The trend for the game was set.
The lead was 10-0 at the end of the first quarter after Matt Bryant booted a 28-yard field goal following a miss by the Packers’ Mason Crosby from 31 yards. Crosby previously was successful on 23 consecutive postseason kicks, an NFL record.
It looked as if the Packers would to cut into the Falcons’ lead early in the second quarter, but Jalen Collins stripped Aaron Ripkowski at the 11-yard line and recovered the fumble in the end zone for a touchback.
Soon, the Atlanta lead was 17-0 as Ryan scrambled in from 14 yards out to climax an 80-yard drive.
“Man, you look fast today,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said he told Ryan after his TD.
The Falcons couldn’t hold a similar lead in the 2012 NFC title game, losing 28-24 at home to the San Francisco 49ers. There would be no repeat against the Packers.
Ricardo Allen picked off Rogers, and the Falcons went 68 yards to make it 24-0 at halftime on a 5-yard toss from Ryan to Jones.
“I feel like we hurt ourselves in the first half more than they really stopped us,” Rodgers said.
Ryan was 22 of 32 in the first half for 271 yards, completing passes to eight different players.
The Packers, down 31-0 in the third quarter, didn’t reach the end zone until Rodgers hit Davante Adams from 2 yards. Jordy Nelson caught a 3-yard TD pass later in the third quarter, but that came after Ryan connected with Devonta Freeman from a yard out.
The Falcons scored their sixth touchdown on a 3-yard run by Tevin Coleman early in the fourth quarter before Rodgers hit Jared Cook from a yard out on a touchdown pass.
NOTES: The Packers lost G Lane Taylor (knee), S Micah Hyde (shoulder) and S Kentrell Brice (knee) to injuries in the first half, and G T.J. Lang (foot) and LB Jake Ryan (shoulder) in the third quarter. Brice was hurt making a tackle on the opening kickoff, while Hyde and Taylor left in the second quarter. … Green Bay T Bryan Bulaga left the game in the fourth quarter to be evaluated for a possible concussion, and RB Ty Montgomery (knee) went out in the third quarter. … Packers WR Jordy Nelson wore a Kevlar vest to protect his broken ribs. He had been listed as questionable along with WR Davante Adams (ankle), WR Geronimo Allison (hamstring), S Morgan Burnett (quad) and CB Quentin Rollins (neck). All played. … It was the fourth time the Falcons and Packers met in the postseason and first time since Green Bay won 48-21 at Atlanta in the 2010 divisional round. … Mercedes-Benz Stadium, being completed next door to the Georgia Dome, will host the 2019 Super Bowl.