This matchup is being advertised as the best offense in the league (Falcons) against the best defense in the league (Patriots). Yet, it is only half true. The Falcons were undeniably the best and most efficient offense in the NFL this season, ranking first in Football Outsiders’ Offensive DVOA by a strong margin. The Patriots have the highest ranked scoring defense in the NFL, yet rank only 16th in Defensive DVOA and lag in most other categories as well. Thus, while the Falcons run a well-oiled offensive machine, the Patriots’ real strength is also their offense, where they rank 2nd in Offensive DVOA, and are one of the few teams in the NFL that can keep up with the Dirty Birds.
For the Falcons, the key to this game will be starting hot and forcing the Patriots to become completely one-dimensional on offense. While the Pats are usually pass-heavy regardless, the more you can pin them into passing situations, the more you can unleash Vic Beasley and the rest of the defensive line to pin their ears back and relentlessly rush the passer. The emergence of Matt Ryan this year has been spectacular, as he has spread the ball around evenly in most games this season. Both Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel have had big games this season, while Julio Jones is obviously the focal point of the offense and able to take over a game at any time. However, the rushing attack of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman balances the Falcons’ potent passing attack and keeps the opposing defense on its toes. Last week, it was almost as if the Packers were going to have to “tap out”, as the Falcons’ receivers were running routes wide open and the running backs had holes that you could drive a truck through. It was a dominating offensive performance, enough to make even Bill Belichick sweat.
This week poses an interesting matchup for the Patriots, because their usual patented defensive strategy is to take away the opponent’s best player, and make them win with their secondary players. This might not work against the Falcons, however, as Julio Jones has had games with 3 or fewer catches on numerous occasions where they won and Matt Ryan had no issues spreading the ball around to his other receivers. Not only do the receivers do the damage catching the ball, but also the running backs. Freeman is an able ball-catcher, and Coleman is dangerous with the ball in his hands as a receiver. Thus, Ryan can spread the ball around and mitigate the likely gameplan by the Patriots to take away Julio Jones. In addition, shutting down Julio Jones is easier said than done, and Jones may be the best physical specimen at the receiver position in the NFL. Just because the Patriots choose to clamp down on him does not mean he will be stopped.
On the opposing side, the Patriots offense is just as formidable and scary as the Falcons is in numerous ways. This is mostly due to Tom Brady, as his supporting cast is not nearly as dangerous as Matt Ryan’s. Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, and Danny Amendola are the main weapons in the passing game, with Malcolm Mitchell also getting some looks. Brady likes to spread it around and get the ball out quickly, with an average snap to pass time of 2.3 seconds. This makes it extremely hard for opposing defenses to get into the backfield and disrupt him, so the Atlanta secondary will have to work hand in hand with the defensive line to force Brady into throws under pressure. LeGarrette Blount is mostly known for his goal-line work, and rightfully so, but can contribute with some bruising runs between the 20’s. Dion Lewis is the game-changer out of the backfield, as he has proven his worth as both a pass catcher and a kick returner, as well as running the ball out of the backfield. Lewis is shifty and elusive, and poses a matchup nightmare for opposing linebackers. Look for him to be very involved if the game turns into a shootout, which it likely will.
The Falcons will need to jump out to a quick lead and keep the pressure on the Pats to have a chance in this game. If they are able to force the Pats to become one-dimensional, they have a chance to pressure Brady and force some bad throws or sacks. However, it is still Tom Brady, and in some cases no matter what the defense does is sufficient. If Brady has a classic 25-30 for 350 yards and 3 TD’s game, there is nothing the Falcons will be able to do. However, if Matt Ryan sets the pace of the game and dices up the New England defense, Brady and the Pats could be in an uncomfortable situation in playing from behind, and this is likely the only way the Pats will falter. I am willing to take the upset here and predict a Falcons win, as the Falcons seem literally unstoppable on offense right now. No matter what Belichick is able to conjure up for this week, Matt Ryan is playing out of his mind and the defense is opportunistic enough to get some stops and put pressure on Brady in passing situations. In a high scoring affair, I like the Falcons 34-31. In either case, I am praying for a good game, as these playoffs have had too many stinkers for my liking.