Super Bowl LI starts at 6:30 p.m. Sunday at NRG Stadium in Houston. It will be televised on FOX with announcers Joe Buck, Troy Aikman and Erin Andrews.
It is the 14th meeting between the Patriots and the Falcons. The Patriots lead the series, 7-6. They won the last meeting, 30-23 on Sept. 29, 2013, at the Georgia Dome.
Keys to the game
The Falcons’ high-scoring offense will need wide receiver Julio Jones (toe) and center Alex Mack (fibula) to have a chance against the Patriots.
“You’d like to have everybody out there practicing, but it’s not realistic at this time of year,” Atlanta quarterback Ryan said. “Both those guys, to me, are guys who have played so many snaps for us this year they’ll be ready to go.”
Mack calls the signals for the line and Jones, who had nine catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns in the NFC Championship Game, powers the passing attack.
The Patriots’ offense will try to keep the momentum going from an impressive AFC title game in which they sliced up the Steelers’ suspect zone coverages. Tom Brady really didn’t need to use his full depth of weapons in that win, with Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan combining for 17 receptions and 298 yards. The Falcons’ defense has been better over the second half of the season, but Dan Quinn’s zone-based scheme is susceptible to spread sets.
Look for offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to open with such looks, including Dion Lewis in the backfield. He may even go with some of the four-receiver formations New England used against Pittsburgh, taking advantage of a now-healthy corps of receivers. That approach will be balanced out with just enough LeGarrette Blount running at a speed-based Falcons front and the team’s nickel packages.
Really, the only question is whether the New England offensive line produces at the level that has been more than good enough nearly all season or if it struggles like it did in the playoff opener against Houston. If the line is up to the task against Vic Beasley (league-best 15.5 sacks) and an otherwise lackluster rush, Brady should like what he sees.
Defensively, the Patriots face their biggest test of the season for the second straight week. While the talk heading into the AFC title battle with Pittsburgh surrounded the Steelers’ trio of elite playmakers — Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown — Atlanta’s No. 1 scoring offense is even more dangerous. The Falcons have elite talent in likely MVP Ryan and Jones, but it’s the overall depth — Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman, Mohamed Sanu and others — that drives this offense.
The first goal will be to keep Jones — fresh off his 180 yards and two touchdowns in the NFC title game — from going off. That could include double coverage with a safety over the top of either Malcolm Butler or Logan Ryan, some style of the Cover 2 approach that has served New England well much of the season.
The Patriots also will need to tackle well on underneath throws from Ryan to Freeman and Coleman, who combined for 85 catches during the season.
The key could be how Ryan works the middle of the field against the Patriots’ linebackers and safeties. On paper, that matchup would seem to favor the Falcons, so it’s up to Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to find a way to keep Ryan from getting too comfortable with his outlet options as New England’s No. 3 third-down defense deals with the No. 11 third-down offense.
The No. 1 scoring defense continues to play with a chip on its shoulder as the group faces one final opportunity to prove its mettle and win a Super Bowl ring.
Matchups to watch
— Falcons WR Julio Jones vs. Patriots FS Devin McCourty. While there is a question regarding which cornerback the playmaking Jones will see — New England could go with Malcolm Butler or Logan Ryan — the scheme will definitely involve a lot of help from Pro Bowl safety McCourty. Jones is the key to the big plays in the Falcons’ passing attack, as he showed against the Packers to get to the Super Bowl. McCourty has been the key to New England avoiding giving up big plays all season.
— Patriots C David Andrews vs. Falcons DT Grady Jarrett. The Texans were able to get some pressure on Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Andrews and left guard Joe Thuney were the main victims. Andrews and his crew tightened things up against the Steelers. Jarrett, a quick and penetrating tackle, will need to win his share of battles with Andrews. The Falcons need to mount an interior pass rush, and Jarrett can lead it.
Falcons C Ben Garland. A converted defensive lineman, Garland is the backup center who played six snaps against the Packers. Garland, 6-foot-5 and 308 pounds, has been more helpful playing on the defensive line this season. He recorded a safety against the Seahawks in the divisional round. Garland has played 42 snaps on offense, 42 on defense and 160 on special teams. He’s considered a potential future starter at center or guard. If starting C Alex Mack is hampered or shut down by his fibula injury, Garland would be thrust into the biggest spotlight any player can imagine.
Patriots QB Tom Brady threw for 4,225 yards and completed 67 percent of his passes despite missing the first four games of the season for his role in “Deflategate” during the 2015 playoffs. Brady had 33 TD passes and four interceptions. … Patriots RB LeGarrette Blount hasn’t played as big a role in the playoffs, but he rushed for a franchise-record 19 TDs and 1,239 yards this season. … DE Tyler Flowers, a classic Patriots value pick, notched seven sacks to lead the team. … Falcons QB Matt Ryan threw for 5,674 yards and hit on about 70 percent of his passes, with a 45-7 TD-interception ratio. … Falcons WR Julio Jones overcame a nagging toe injury to catch 98 passes for 1,656 yards and nine TDs this season. He’ll likely see some version of double coverage from the Patriots. … Falcons DE Vic Beasley Jr. led the NFL with 15.5 sacks, blossoming as the Falcons played often with leads. Many feel the presence of legendary pass rusher Dwight Freeney, who can still bring it from time to time at age 37, was a factor in Beasley’s breakout season.
The highest-scoring team in the league has reached the Super Bowl six times since 2000 and won just once. This doesn’t bode well for the Falcons, nor does it bode well that its young defense will have to find a way to neutralize Brady and a Patriots offense that can change from week-to-week and beat you in many ways. The big key could be how Jones is officiated by Carl Cheffers’ crew. The talk is that the Patriots will play him physically, much like they played the Rams’ Greatest Show on Turf in Super Bowl XXXVI. That game was loosely officiated, and it benefited the Patriots greatly. If Jones is taken out of the attack by a physical defense, it’s hard to see a scenario in which the Falcons can win. Look for Brady and Co. to win their fifth Super Bowl and create the most awkward Lombardi Trophy presentation since Pete Rozelle handed it to Al Davis after Super Bowl XV. Game score: Patriots, 32-22.