The 2017 NFL Playoffs has been one of the worst in recent memory. Out of the ten games played so far, eight of them have been blowouts by an average margin of 17.5 points. This includes the two conference championship games on January 22nd, where the Atlanta Falcons defeated the Green Bay Packers 44-21 for the NFC championship, and the New England Patriots triumphed over the Pittsburgh Steelers 36-17.
Out of the two competitive games, one was an absolute classic Divisional round game where the Packers defeated the Dallas Cowboys 34-31 thanks to late game heroics by quarterback Aaron Rodgers, while the other competitive game featured a team in the Steelers winning 18-16 against the Kansas City Chiefs in the Divisional round, despite scoring no touchdowns and kicking six field goals.
Despite the more than disappointing games in these playoffs so far, there is still optimism that Super Bowl LI will produce a classic, back and forth game that will leave all neutrals satisfied. It certainly looks likely as the matchup in Super Bowl LI features two juggernaut offenses in the Patriots and the Falcons that are both sure to put up a lot of points on the scoreboard. With that being said, below are a few storylines to watch for in Super Bowl LI.
- Brady/Belichick Legacy
The New England Patriots have been the team of the twenty-first century, establishing a dynasty that has extended for almost two decades. What is even more impressive is that they have done this in the modern NFL, during the salary-cap era which was specifically designed to eliminate the possibility of dynasties such as the Patriots from even existing. The two common figures in the Patriots four Super Bowl titles in 2002, 2004, 2005, and 2015 has been head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady. They are at the forefront of a winning culture and soon to be seven Super Bowl appearances. Both are seen as one of, if not already the greatest quarterback and coach in NFL history. Both are tied for the most Super Bowl wins by a coach and quarterback in NFL history, Belichick with Chuck Noll, and Brady with Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw. They already have the record for the most appearances, but a fifth Super Bowl title would put both at the mountain top in terms of wins, and virtually end all debate of who the greatest coach and quarterback is.
- Matt Ryan Tier 1 QB?
Ever since Matt Ryan, nicknamed “Matty Ice,” entered the league in 2008 with the third overall pick in the draft, he has been a solid franchise quarterback for the Falcons. Despite this, he has never taken the stride to “elite” status and has hindered near the top of tier 2 qbs. Furthermore, up until this season he had not lived up to his nickname and had seen a drop in production in his 5 playoff appearances. In fact up until this season, he had a record of only 1-4 in the postseason as starter and his yards per game, touchdown to interception ratio, and quarterback rating had significantly dipped in the playoffs.
However, this season Matt Ryan has proven all of his doubters wrong, putting together an MVP season. In fact he should be and is the favorite to win the award after having a historic season, passing for over 4,900 yards, and throwing 38 touchdowns with only seven interceptions, while also leading the league in passer rating with 117.1 and yards per attempt with 9.26 yards, an NFL record. Most impressively perhaps, he also threw at least one touchdown pass to a staggering 13 different players, also an NFL record. Ryan has done all this while leading the league's number one offense, as well as earning his team a first round bye with the number 2 seed in the NFC, thanks to an 11-5 record in the regular season.
Despite his MVP season critics doubted Ryan entering the postseason, questioning if he could perform well in playoff games, something he had not proved he could do. Once again he proved his critics wrong. In the two playoff games he has played, Ran has passed for 730 yards, thrown seven tds with no interceptions while leading the postseason in passer rating with a remarkable 132.6. To put that into perspective the two next closest to him are Aaron Rodgers of the packers and Dak Prescott of the Cowboys with a passer rating of 103.8, and 103.2 respectively.
Still however, whether fair or not, quarterback are judged on the championships they win more so than the stats they pile up. So if Matt Ryan wants to be known as an “elite” quarterback with the likes of Brees, Rodgers, and Brady he must prove it in the biggest game of the year. Furthermore, if he wants to go down as one of the best quarterbacks of his generation, he must get a ring in his career. For Ryan, there is no better way to change people’s perspectives of him than to outduel one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time in Brady, and beat the perineal team of the NFL in the New England Patriots.
- Brady vs Commissioner Roger Goodell
On January 25th’s episode of ‘The Herd’, analyst Colin Cowherd asked the commissioner of the NFL, Roger Goodell about the possibility of handing the Super Bowl trophy to Brady and the Patriots. He specifically asked if “[Goodell] would be slightly uncomfortable” doing so, to which he replied by saying “not for a second” and even stated that “it would be an honor.”
While his words might say otherwise, it is obvious to anyone who has followed the “deflategate” scandal over the past two years, that commissioner does not want the Patriots to win. There would be some sort of awkwardness in handing out the Vince Lombardi trophy to a player that he suspended for four games this season and had court battles with. Furthermore another Super Bowl title would mean that Tom Brady and the Patriots would be the one to get the last laugh on this whole scandal.
Goodell’s “rivalry” with the Patriots is extended even more by the fact that most Patriots’ fans feel that “deflategate” was a hoax and that Goodell unjustly punished their team, as well as tried to tarnish the legacy of their franchise quarterback. This has lead to many fans angrily threatening the commissioner and calling for him to lose his job. Perhaps this is why Goodell has not been present during a single patriots game at Foxborough for over two years, since the 2015 AFC championship game.
All of this has set the perfect narrative heading into the big game on Sunday, with Patriots’ fans craving the moment of what they feel is vindication for their quarterback. And there is no doubt that if the Patriots find a way to beat the falcons, the trophy presentation will be the defining moment of the 2016-17 NFL season as well as one of the most iconic moments in the history of the NFL.
- What defense will step up?
Super Bowl LI is almost guaranteed to be a shootout as is it features the number one scoring offense in the Falcons, as well as the number three scoring offense in the Patriots. Both offenses are extremely hard to neutralize, which makes for an exciting match-up but begs the question which defense will step up?
While the Patriots also have the number one defense in the league, giving up an average of 15.6 points per game, that stat is extremely misleading due to the patriots schedule. In the regular season, the patriots were extremely fortunate in facing offenses featuring pedestrian quarterbacks. The only above average qb the patriots have had to deal with was the Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson, to whom they game up a season high 31 points in their week 10 matchup. So do not expect the patriots to contain the Falcons, as they have not faced an offense close to what the Falcons have.
The Falcons defense is much worse however, 27th in the league in scoring defense, allowing an average of 25.4 points per game. Their defense has had the misfortune of playing against some of the top offenses in the league including twice the Packers and the New Orleans Saints both whom are the top four in points per game.
Despite both defenses not being anything special as opposed to the Denver Broncos defense that featured in the Super Bowl last year, and the Seattle Seahawks defense that featured in the Super Bowl for two years prior to last year, both the Patriots and the Falcons defense features stars that are playmakers. For the Patriots, star linebacker Dont’a Hightower controls the middle of the field including the running game, as well as corner Malcolm Butler, and safety Devin McCourty who are both pro bowlers and excel in coverage. The Falcons defense features pass rusher Vic Beasley, who had a breakout season this year and lead the league in sacks with 15.5 of them. Beasley causes havoc and is a relentless pass rusher who also creates a lot of turnovers via the strip sack.
Although the Super Bowl will surely be an offensive shootout, the winner of the game might be decided by which defense gets key stops on third downs and forces turnovers, which both defenses are capable of doing.