Heading into Super Bowl weekend, media members and fans alike have been fixated on both offensive and legacy-related story lines. Some feel Sunday’s game will emphasize a battle of two of the NFL’s top offences. Others are focused on what a record fifth Super Bowl ring would mean for Tom Brady’s legacy. Some focus on the emergence of Matt Ryan. While these are viable storylines, not enough people are paying attention to these two teams’ defences. In particular, how these defences will decide who wins Super Bowl LI.
Despite Brady and the Patriots’ offence being the main subject of discussion, not enough credit has been given to the team’s defence. New England ranked first in scoring defence during the regular season, allowing only 15.9 points per game. Per USA Today’s Nate Davis, this year’s Patriots defence was the first New England defence to lead the league in fewest points allowed since 2003. Through two playoff games, the Patriots’ defence has continue its dominance, having allowed only 33 points total (16.5 points per game).
Looking closer at the Patriots, their pass coverage is the defence’s most glaring deficiency. New England allowed 237.9 yards per game during the regular season, which ranked 12th most league-wide. The key for New England is to stop Atlanta’s top passing offence, particularly Ryan and receivers Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu. The Patriots’ secondary, most notably Super Bowl L hero Malcolm Butler, will have to play the best they have all year if they hope to contain the Falcons. Butler will have a tough coverage assignment in Jones.
Speaking of Matt Ryan and the Falcons, Atlanta’s offence finished the regular season ranked first in points per game at 33.8. And the offence has showed no signs of slowing down; if anything, it’s only gotten stronger. Through two playoff games, Atlanta has average an incredible 457.5 yards in total offence, along with 40 points per game. With Ryan in the midst of a career year and firmly in the MVP conversation, Falcons’ fans are hoping the star quarterback can wrap up the team’s dream season with its first ever championship. If that is to happen though, the Falcons’ offence has to continue its scorching level of play so that Brady and company are under immediate pressure to score.
The importance of getting out to an early lead for Atlanta is crucial, especially when you consider the team’s defensive unit. The Falcons allowed a whopping 25.4 points per game and 266.7 passing yards during the regular season, which ranked 27th and 28threspectively. Those numbers improved over a smaller postseason sample size, with Atlanta allowing 238 yards per game and 20.5 points per game in two playoff games. Despite small defensive improvements across two playoff games, the Falcons defence will need big plays if they hope to stop Brady and the Patriots potent offence. Both Atlanta and New England ranked tied for second in turnover margin at +0.8, meaning both teams create approximately an extra possession off a turnover each game. This means that both teams will have to take full advantage of offensive opportunities. Look for guys like NFL sack leader Vic Beasley and linebacker Deion Jones to lead the charge against a Patriots’ offence that put up 27.6 points per game, third-best during the regular season.
Once you get past the Super Bowl plot-points that focus on the offences or the quarterbacks, the most important storyline in determining the result of the game emerges: defence. That very storyline will make or break one of these two team’s Super Bowl aspirations.
If history is indicator, New England has the edge ahead of the Super Bowl. That’s due to the fact that the Patriots have the stronger defensive unit of the two teams. Looking back at past Super Bowls that slated the league’s top offence and defence against one another, the defensive team won the majority of the time (five out of six Super Bowls, excluding 1989 between San Francisco and Denver).
While high-powered offence may steal headlines, it’s evident a strong defence puts you in better position to win a Super Bowl.