New England Patriots
Even more than last year, the New England Patriots played with chips on their shoulders all season after quarterback Tom Brady was suspended for the first four games due to his role in the 2015 Deflategate scandal. Brady himself turned in another MVP-caliber campaign despite his suspension, only strengthening a team that was a preseason Super Bowl contender into the overwhelming favorite upon his return. New England opened as a three-point favorite against the Atlanta Falcons for Super Bowl LI.
The Patriots are the NFL’s best team against the spread this year, going 15-3 and failing to cover the number in only one of their wins (22-17 versus the New York Jets as 9.5-point road favorites in Week 12). They have lost just once with Brady under center, falling to the Seattle Seahawks 31-24 at home as 7.5-point chalk in the Week 10 Sunday Night Football matchup. That was a rematch of Super Bowl XLIX won by New England 28-24 two years ago when current Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn was Seattle’s defensive coordinator. Coincidentally, Quinn’s Falcons routed his former team the Seahawks 36-20 in the Divisional Round en route to this Super Bowl LI matchup.
While New England has long been known for offense thanks to Brady, the team’s defense under head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia has more than helped to carry the load at times with the franchise making its record ninth Super Bowl appearance. Belichick’s remarkable ability to take out his opponent’s top offensive weapon over the years deserves just as much credit as Brady’s heroics when it comes to discussing the secrets to the team’s incredible success as a dynasty.
In the AFC Championship Game, the Patriots were able to diffuse running back Le’Veon Bell early on and hold wide receiver Antonio Brown in check throughout a 36-17 blowout win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. That is a typical example of how they have been able to dominate foes defensively and then let Brady simply put points up on the scoreboard.
No team has been better at scoring this season than Atlanta, which is another reason oddsmakers have set the highest Super Bowl over/under total of all-time. The Falcons have their own MVP candidate in Matt Ryan, who is the favorite to win the regular-season award and the second choice behind Brady to win the Super Bowl honor as well. After averaging 33.8 points during the regular season to lead the league, Atlanta has outscored Seattle and the Green Bay Packers by a combined score of 80-41 in two playoff games, with Ryan totaling 730 passing yards and seven touchdowns. The over has cashed in eight straight for the team and is 16-2 overall this season.
Of course Ryan probably would not have been able to post career-best numbers without arguably the NFL’s top running-back tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. The dynamic duo combined for 1,599 rushing yards, 883 receiving yards and 24 total touchdowns. They have complemented the passing game perfectly and taken pressure off Ryan along with leading receiver Julio Jones (83 catches for 1,409 yards and six touchdowns), who remains a matchup nightmare for any defense and was able to miss two games during the regular season without his team missing a beat offensively.
Defensively, the Falcons have been modeled after the Seahawks, featuring a hard-hitting secondary and fierce pass rush, led by Vic Beasley Jr. (NFL-high 15.5 sacks). Beasley has yet to register a sack in the postseason but will be one of the key players to watch in the Super Bowl to see if he can put pressure on Brady like Von Miller of the Denver Broncos was able to do in last year’s AFC Championship Game.
This Atlanta team got off to a strong 5-0 start last season before losing seven of eight and giving way to the eventual NFC champion Carolina Panthers in the NFC South. The Falcons are much better offensively than those Panthers and ride a six-game winning streak into the Super Bowl (5-1 ATS). Whether or not their defense can find a way to stop Brady and New England’s nine-game winning streak remains to be seen though.