SUPER BOWL LI
PATRIOTS (16-2) VS. FALCONS (13-5), 6:30 p.m.
TV: Ch. 5; Radio: WFAN (660, 101.9)
Patriots by 3; O/U: 58.5
It’s been a forgettable postseason, with an average margin of victory of 15.7 points. Only two games have been decided by three or fewer points, while the rest have been yawn fests. Forget about them, though. Super Bowl LI has all the makings of an instant classic, one that you’ll want to DVR (make sure to extend the recording) so you can watch it again a few times during the offseason.
Expect an offensive fireworks show between the Falcons and Patriots. Since Week 5, when Tom Brady returned from his Deflategate suspension, the Falcons (32.3) and Patriots (30) are 1-2 in points per game in the NFL. Atlanta, on a six-game win streak, and New England, winners of nine in a row, have proved they’re the league’s best two teams. New England led the NFL in point differential with a remarkable plus 191, and Atlanta was second at plus 134. They’ve continued that dominance in the playoffs. The Falcons steamrolled past the Seahawks (36-20) and Packers (44-21) while the Patriots pushed aside the Texans (34-16) and Steelers (36-17).
Both Super Bowl teams also had great records against the spread (ATS). The Pats are 15-3 on the season, while the Falcons are 12-6. Not a big believer in trends, but this one is super news for those betting the underdog: The last five underdogs in the Super Bowl have not only covered but won outright. Eight of the last nine favorites have not covered.
Brady and Belichick are why New England is a small favorite, but don’t just think the Pats are a lock to win because they’re the Pats. The duo has never had a dominant win in the Super Bowl, with their four wins being by 3, 3, 3 and 4 points. The two losses were by 3 and 4, so expect another close game. (Can this be the first Super Bowl to go to overtime? See the prop bets below).
Super Bowl LI marks the seventh time the NFL’s top scoring offense (Atlanta at 33.8 points per game) faces the league’s No. 1 scoring defense (New England at 15.6). In the previous six matchups, the defense — as the saying goes — won the championship five times. But don’t let that stat determine your pick. While the Pats do have a strong defense, analysts and commentators are gushing about it so much that you would think it’s the 2000 Ravens or the 2013 Seahawks. This Pats’ defense is not on that same level, so don’t expect a repeat of last year’s Super Bowl, when a dominant Denver defense shut down Carolina.
The Patriots’ defense hasn’t faced an offense like Atlanta’s all season, feasting on quarterbacks such as Jared Goff, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Bryce Petty and Brock Osweiler (twice). Matt Ryan led the NFL with a 117.1 quarterback rating, and he’s continued his MVP-type season in the playoffs. Even with Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia having two weeks to prepare, the Patriots will be the latest team to see the Falcons fly up and down the field.
The Falcons are the pick to not only cover but win Super Bowl LI because of their offense. They’ve scored a touchdown on their opening drive in eight straight games, including the playoffs, and are 8-1 when scoring first this season. The Falcons have scored 28 or more points in seven straight games, and they’ll do it again on Sunday. They had six 40-plus point games, and their 540 points in the regular season was tied for seventh most in NFL history. Ryan (7 TD/0 INT in postseason after 38/7 in regular season) has been so efficient, spreading the ball around to star receiver Julio Jones, the underrated Mohamed Sanu and speedster Taylor Gabriel. The backfield duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are also excellent pass catchers, so expect them to be heavily involved in Kyle Shanahan’s offensive game plan. Ryan threw a touchdown to an NFL-record 13 different receivers this season.
Expect Shanahan to dial up a lot of imaginative play calls, from a flea flicker to even a pass by a wide receiver. Did you know that Sanu — who should have a big night with all eyes on Jones — was a high school quarterback? He has thrown five passes in the NFL, all while he was with the Bengals, and completed all five of them for 177 yards . . . and two touchdowns! He’s never attempted one with the Falcons, and this could be the perfect game for Shanahan to let Sanu show off his arm (he also threw four TDs at Rutgers).
While the Falcons and Patriots don’t have any history with each other, this presents a rematch of Super Bowl XLIX for Dan Quinn. The Falcons coach was the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator in that game. Quinn’s current defense isn’t anywhere as good as his old one, but don’t underestimate Atlanta’s young squad. Vic Beasley led the NFL with 15.5 sacks, and if he can get to Brady, watch out. You’ll also hear a lot of Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen, Atlanta’s hard-hitting safeties.
On Championship Sunday, there was a funny stat on Twitter: Brady and Belichick are 4-0 against teams with animal monikers in the Super Bowl, beating the Rams, Panthers, Eagles and Seahawks. But this Falcons offense presents the biggest challenge.
Belichick, in typical Belichickian fashion, said after the AFC Championship Game that he didn’t even know the Falcons had won earlier in the day. Sure, Coach. Well, come Sunday night, he won’t need anyone to remind him the Falcons won. Ryan will accept the MVP trophy from Roger Goodell (sorry, Deflategate revenge story line) after the Falcons capture their first Super Bowl title. Falcons 34, Patriots 30
The pick: Falcons
The Prop Shop
There are hundreds of Super Bowl LI prop bets to choose from. Here are five options.
1. Jersey number of player to score first touchdown: Under 18.5 (-110): The guess here is that the ball will be flying around, so take a chance that the first TD will be through the air. With the top four targets being Julio Jones (11), Mohamed Sanu (12), Julian Edelman (11) and Chris Hogan (15), go with the under 18.5.
2. Taylor Gabriel longest reception: Over 19.5 yards (-110): The Falcons’ speedy receiver can break free for a long catch or take a wide-receiver screen for a big gain. This is a strong play.
3. Will the Falcons score in all four quarters? Yes (+160): Atlanta’s high-powered offense is going to put up points. Plus 160? Sign me up!
4. Will there be overtime? Yes (+700): No Super Bowl has ever gone to overtime. This one probably won’t, either, but considering these are two well-matched teams and it’s plus 700, it’s definitely worth a shOT.
5. Which song will Lady Gaga sing first? “Edge of Glory” (+600): One of her best songs, it’s got just the right feel to kick off the halftime show.
Staff picks and standings
Regular season: 136-109-11
Super Bowl LI pick: Falcons 34, Patriots 30
Regular season: 129-116-11
Super Bowl LI pick: Falcons 31, Patriots 27
Regular season: 138-107-11
Super Bowl LI pick: Patriots 37, Falcons 25
Kimberley A. Martin
Regular season: 116-129-11
Super Bowl LI pick: Patriots 31, Falcons 27