Patriots’ Defense Will Decide Super Bowl LI Matchup Against Falcons

HOUSTON — Roger Goodell made an almost cogent point to begin his annual Super Bowl news conference Wednesday when talking about the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons.

“They were dominant through the season, but particularly dominant throughout the postseason, and no one can argue that these two teams are the most deserving and the ones that should be here,” Goodell said as part of his open. “The No. 1 defense in the NFL (Patriots) versus the No. 1 offense (Falcons). It’s going to be a great matchup, and I wish both teams well.”

What Goodell failed to mention is the Patriots also have a really, really, really great offense while the Falcons have a below-average defense.

All of this is why the Patriots’ defense, which was No. 1 in points allowed, as Goodell alluded to, will ultimately decide who wins the Super Bowl.

To simplify the Super Bowl LI matchup into its purest form, the Patriots’ offense will be able to move the ball on the Falcons’ defense. The Patriots’ defense just needs to provide slightly more resistance when the Falcons’ offense is on the field to win the game.

Including playoffs, the Patriots’ defense ranked first in points allowed while the Falcons’ ranked 23rd. The Patriots ranked eighth in yards allowed, the Falcons 22nd. The Patriots were 10th in third-down conversion percentage while the Falcons ranked 24th, and New England was seventh in red-zone defense while Atlanta was 32nd.

The Patriots’ defense, despite a weak strength of schedule, is considerably better than the Falcons’, while their offenses are much more similar.

The Patriots’ defense certainly made strides in proving they can stop a high-powered offense two weeks ago against the Pittsburgh Steelers, too. The Steelers were without star running back Le’Veon Bell for most of the game, but the Patriots only allowed 17 points, and seven of those were in garbage time.

The Patriots’ defense’s toughest test is stopping Julio Jones. How do they do that? The same way they neutralized receivers like DeAndre Hopkins and Antonio Brown this season: with double coverage.

While much has been made of Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler tweeting back in 2012 that he’d love to cover Jones, it seems unlikely he’ll draw the lion’s share of the assignment Sunday in Super Bowl LI. That would potentially leave Patriots cornerback Eric Rowe on Falcons wide receiver Taylor Gabriel, which would be a speed mismatch. It seems more likely we see Rowe with safety help on Jones, Butler on Gabriel and Logan Ryan on Mohamed Sanu. Rowe hinted as much last week when he said Ryan has the size to take on Sanu in the slot.

And if Rowe fails, then the Patriots can adjust, which is something they do even better than taking out a team’s best offensive weapon.

The reason the Patriots are favored in Super Bowl LI, and why confidence seems high in a New England victory is because their defense has played so much better than the Falcons’ over the last 20 weeks. It’s simple.

Thumbnail photo via Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY Sports Images