Falcons vs. Patriots: 5 things to watch, predictions

Bob McGinn
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick watches a drill during practice Friday for Super Bowl LI on Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons in Houston.

WHEN: 5:30 p.m. Sunday.

WHERE: NRG Stadium, Houston.


RADIO: AM-920.

SURFACE: Artificial.

LINE: Patriots by 3.

SERIES: Patriots lead, 7-6.

COACHES: Atlanta’s Dan Quinn (21-13) vs, New England’s Bill Belichick (262-125).


HEAT WAVE: In the only other Super Bowl played at this stadium (February 2004), officials closed the retractable roof about an hour before kickoff due to a threat of rain. “It almost felt like we were playing in a sauna,” Patriots WR Troy Brown said a few years later. “I remember having my jersey after the game and throwing it in my bag. It was just soaking wet, like we played outside in the rain. All the players on both teams were really getting tired. It was just catching up to everybody.” The Patriots outlasted the Panthers, 32-29. Patriots coach Bill Belichick is prepared for a repeat. “Either they’ll open the roof and it’ll be warm or they’ll close the roof and all the lights and TV people and people in there, it will be warm,” he said. “You’re getting a game that’s three hours and it’s going to be closer to four. With pre-game warmups and all that, you’re looking at 5 ½ hours. It’s going to take a lot more staying power in this game than a normal game.”

MEN IN THE MIDDLE: The Falcons might have a problem in the middle of their offensive line. Alex Mack, their Pro Bowl center, suffered an injury to his left fibula against Green Bay and was hobbled Thursday during the team’s last heavy practice of the week. “I’m not panicked, but I’m concerned,” coach Dan Quinn said after the workout. Third-year free agent Ben Garland, the backup center, played just 42 snaps on offense during the regular season. The center will be matched against Alan Branch, a 350-pound giant who probably is playing the best football of his 10-year career. “You can’t move him and he gets push on the pocket,” said one personnel man.

GOING VERTICAL: When the Patriots try to sneak TE Martellus Bennett deep down the seam, and they will, LB De’Vondre Campbell will be asked to run with Bennett as far as he goes. The Falcons use the base Cover 3 scheme that Quinn coordinated in Seattle. They drafted Campbell in the fourth round out of Minnesota largely because of his 4.56 speed and 33 5/8-inch arms. “We ask our linebackers not only to man cover but we take vertical routes by receivers all the time,” LB coach Jeff Ulbrich said. “Not only does Campbell have the speed to do it but he has the length to discourage quarterbacks from even trying him.”

THE BACK END: Just how equipped is the Patriots’ secondary to control the Falcons’ elite passing game? Their personnel includes CBs Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan, nickel back Eric Rowe, FS Devin McCourty, SS Patrick Chung and dime safety Duron Harmon. “Butler ran 4.63 coming out but he plays faster than that,” one scout said. “They’re able to hide his lack of long speed … Ryan is smart, instinctive with ball skills. If you play a ton of man he’ll have issues … Rowe’s big and can run. You have to use him for what he can do, which is press … McCourty is an ex-cornerback who can match up. Solid open-field tackler … Chung is playing much better this year. Athletic, smart. Not a physical player. Not a big hitter … Harmon is decent.”

STABILITY UP FRONT: Atlanta ranks No. 1 and New England ranks No. 2 in highest playing-time percentage by an NFL starting offensive line this season. According to one scout, he rated the Patriots’ starters in this order: LT Nate Solder, RT Marcus Cannon, LG Joe Thuney, RG Shaq Mason and C David Andrews. The group is coached by Dante Scarnecchia, 68, who returned this season after a two-year retirement. “(Scarnecchia) is like Rod Marinelli in Dallas,” the scout said in reference to the long-time defensive line coach and coordinator. “He maxs guys out. They don’t beat themselves. That’s the key.”

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VIDEO: Predictions for Super Bowl LI



Believe in Bill Belichick to win the sidelines. Believe in Tom Brady to beat an improved but unseasoned defense. Believe in LeGarrette Blount to plunge for two TDs. Believe in Alan Branch to belabor the Falcons’ middle. Patriots 37, Falcons 18


As much as I would like to pick Atlanta over New England because it would be nice to add another franchise to the Super Bowl title list, I can't get over some of the Falcons' weaknesses on defense. The Patriots will be able to control the ball and their defense will come up with the interceptions Green Bay dropped in the NFC championship game. Patriots 34, Falcons 27


If there is anyone in the National Football League capable of throttling down the Falcons' offense, Bill Belichick might be the guy. With two weeks to prepare and a stellar quarterback of his own, Belichick should get it done in Houston. Patriots 34, Falcons 33


It’s never smart to pick against Brady and Belichick, so here it goes: This game will show whether the only player who matters in New England is Brady. My guess is that not having injured Rob Gronkowski finally catches up with New England, and that Julio Jones will be the difference for Atlanta. Falcons 28, Patriots 24


Two weeks ago, I picked the better quarterback (Aaron Rodgers) to beat the more talented team (the Atlanta Falcons) in the NFC championship game. Clearly, that prediction flopped. Yet here I am again, picking the better quarterback (Tom Brady) to beat the more talented team in Super Bowl LI. The difference this time will be Bill Belichick, who will have two weeks to figure out the Falcons' Rubik's Cube offense, ample prep time to slow down Matt Ryan and Julio Jones just enough for Brady to pick apart a Falcons defense that took its lumps all season. Patriots 31, Falcons 28

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