The Mancunion

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Preview: Super Bowl LI

With this year’s NFL season reaching its crescendo, Toby Webb gives his opinion on the next installment of ‘The Greatest Show On Earth’, and where you can watch it in Manchester

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This Sunday, the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons will battle it out to be named the champions of Super Bowl LI.

The team’s stories could not be more dissimilar. For the Patriots, this is their 7th Super Bowl appearance since 2000, a time span defined by the excellence of head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady. Together, they have formed a footballing dynasty unrivalled in the history of the NFL: they are pursuing their 5th Super Bowl win together. Conversely, the Falcons have progressed to the Super Bowl for only the 2nd time in their history, their only previous appearance being a 34-19 loss to the Denver Broncos in 1999. At once, this is a match-up of experience and inexperience: the Patriots are Super Bowl aristocracy, while the Falcons are undeniably ‘the new kids on the block’.

The Patriots and the Falcons have overwhelmed teams on their paths to the Super Bowl. The Patriots finished the season with a record of 14-2, wins to losses, while the Falcons finished 11-5. Moving into the playoffs, both teams secured a bye for the first week, the Patriots the 1st seed in the AFC while Atlanta were 2nd seed in the NFC. Subsequently, the Patriots defeated the Houston Texans 34-16 and the Pittsburgh Steelers 36-17 to progress, while the Falcons defeated the Seattle Seahawks 36-20 and my beloved Green Bay Packers 44-21 on route.

Coming into the playoffs, there were questions over the Falcons’ pedigree in knock-out football, especially as quarterback Matt Ryan had a losing record of 2-4 in playoff matches. However, Ryan has been infallible in both games; against the Packers, he became the first QB to throw 4 touchdown passes and run for a touchdown in a playoff game. On the flip side, the Patriots were uncharacteristically inaccurate and error-ridden against the Texans, although crucially picking up the win. Against the Steelers, they were sensational, Belichick and Brady conjuring an almost perfect game.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In my opinion, the NFL’s current system has functioned successfully, with the season’s two best teams progressing to the Super Bowl. My preview will begin with an analysis of the teams.

Firstly, the Atlanta Falcons. This team has an offence to rival the best the NFL has ever seen. The team has been likened to the 1999 St Louis Rams: they were nicknamed ‘The Greatest Show On Turf’ because of their incredible offensive power. The Falcons have consistently scored points all season; they were the league’s highest scoring team, averaging 33.8 points per game. They are spearheaded by Ryan in combination with Wide Receiver Julio Jones, who topped the league in receiving yards with 1409. Jones has the build of a tight-end combined with speed; his 73 yard touchdown run against Green Bay was incredible, demonstrating a formidable blend of pace and power. Similarly, Ryan is largely predicted to be named the league’s MVP after an exceptional season.

While Jones gets all the plaudits, the Falcons’ potency arises from a range of offensive weaponry. If it’s not Jones making plays, Mohamed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel and Running Back Devonta Freeman have been doing damage. Part of Ryan’s success this season has been the variety of options he has on offence. The Falcons offensive power has allowed the defense to be very aggressive in the pass-rush. Vic Beasley Jr. has had a fantastic season, amassing 15.5 sacks. Ultimately, they present a complex and threatening task for the Patriots.

The Patriots’ aptitude goes without saying: 7 Super Bowl appearances since 2000 shows the permanence of class. In Bill Belichick, they have the greatest head coach in NFL history, no arguments to be had. In Tom Brady, they have arguably the greatest QB in history. Brady’s playoff record, 24-9 wins to losses, is leagues ahead of the next best, Joe Montana with 16-7. Whether Brady is truly the ‘greatest of all time’ is a debate for another day. However, a 5th Super Bowl win for Brady will immortalize him as the most decorated QB in history. The Patriots are the most fundamentally sound team in the NFL. Their consistent level of execution is so much higher than anyone else; they force their opponent to make mistakes, subsequently capitalizing. While Brady is their star, injury to Rob Gronkowski has meant the Patriots’ Super Bowl run has been sustained by the team as a unit. Recently, Chris Hogan, Dion Lewis and Julian Edelman have all made game-changing contributions. They lack the star-studded line-up of the Falcons, but are much more consistent.

The Patriots and Falcons pose a tantalizing match-up. Analysts are predicting it could be one of the most offence-driven Super Bowls in recent memory. The QB battle is fascinating. Brady is sure to perform while it will be interesting to see how Ryan functions. Moreover, the coaching battle will be similarly crucial: who can edge the other? Belichick has luxury of massive experience, while the Falcons Head Coach Dann Quinn is only in his second year in the job.  The Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has been the orchestrator of their incredible scoring power. However, he is yet to face a defense as fundamentally watertight as the Patriots: ingenuity and guts will be required. The offence/defense battle will be crucial in the early stages. I expect the game to be high-scoring, with defensive stops a rarity. The game will come down to one or two big plays on defense.

If the Falcons can win, it will signify a changing of the guard. However, I will go with the safe bet: history suggests the experience of Belichick and Brady will pay dividends for New England. I expect both teams to score at least 4 touchdowns, with the Patriots securing a victory of around 37-31.

Finally, if you are interested in watching the game, the American Football Society are covering it at Revs Fallowfield. The American Studies Society will also be there. Entry is £3, with proceeds donated to CRUKSoc.