HOUSTON — Super Bowl LI game week is finally here, with the Falcons landing in Texas on Sunday and the Patriots set to arrive Monday afternoon.
We will hear plenty from both teams this week, as the players and coaches are required to conduct four full days of interviews, starting with Media Night on Monday. And we’ll hear a lot about the big themes of the week: Will Tom Brady and Bill Belichick stick it to Roger Goodell? Would the Patriots become the greatest dynasty of all time if they win their fifth Super Bowl? Can anyone stop the Falcons’ high-flying, No. 1-scoring offense? Will NRG Stadium have any Falcons fans?
Those stories are fun, but we’re more concerned with the actual game — the X’s and O’s, the coaching adjustments, the top matchups to watch, and so on.
Here are our top story lines for Super Bowl LI, which kicks off at 6:30 p.m. Sunday:
1. What wrinkles can Dan Quinn come up with?
This is the most important story line of the game. On paper, the Patriots’ offense vs. the Falcons’ defense looks like a major mismatch: the No. 3 scoring team against the No. 27 scoring defense (and No. 25 in yards allowed). The defense isn’t too complex, usually lining up with four defensive linemen, a deep safety patrolling the middle of the field, and cornerbacks and linebackers that often show if they’re in man or zone coverage before the snap. It’s a “what you see is what you get” defense that relies on the athletic prowess of the players. The defense is simple enough that, in theory, players can play fast and instinctively once they know the scheme cold.
Falcons fans argue that the Atlanta defense is better than the numbers suggest, and they have a point. The Falcons’ offense has been so great that the other team is forced to throw the ball a ton and score garbage points in the fourth quarter, skewing the stats. And indeed, 38.8 percent of the Falcons’ points allowed this year (156 of 402) have come in the fourth quarter. The Falcons have also defeated Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers the last two games.
But Brady and the Patriots are a different animal than any other offense the Falcons have faced. No quarterback is better than Brady at sniffing out the defense pre-snap. And with a full arsenal of audibles and hot routes at his disposal, Brady has historically picked these defenses apart. (Think the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX or the Jaguars in Week 3 in 2015).
It is vital for Quinn and the Falcons to come up with some sort of wrinkle to throw Brady off his game, whether it’s more zone blitzing, dropping eight into coverage, or showing man coverage but rotating into zone.
The Falcons have an extra week to prepare, but interestingly, they may not use it. Quinn said last week that the Falcons wanted to install the entire game plan before arriving in Houston, though they may add minor tweaks throughout this week.
“It’s just about going through it again, getting the rules down, getting the information down exactly like we want to so we can play at max speed,” Quinn said. “And that’s when we’re at our best, when that speed comes to life.”
Bill Belichick, by contrast, said the Patriots will have more than half of the game plan installed before arriving in Houston, but will add more as the week progresses.
Hope the Falcons are using their time productively.
2. How will injuries affect Julio Jones and Alex Mack?
One story line that hasn’t gotten much buzz is the fact that two of the Falcons’ most crucial pieces on offense are dealing with significant injuries.
Jones, the dominant All-Pro receiver, has been dealing with turf toe over the last month. The injury affects his planting and cutting. Even though Jones went for 180 yards and two touchdowns against the Packers, don’t assume that he’s fully healthy and ready to run all over the Patriots’ secondary. The injury is significant enough that it kept him out of practice for most of last week. Expect the Patriots to jam him at the line of scrimmage early and often, especially with a linebacker if he lines up in the slot.
And Mack, the anchor of the Falcons’ offensive line and one of the best interior linemen in the NFL, is dealing with an ankle sprain that kept him out of practice last week. He will play in the game, but expect the Patriots to bring heavy pressure up the middle and attack Mack’s hampered mobility.
3. How will the Patriots’ cornerbacks match up?
The Falcons have two big receivers and one small, speedy one. Jones is 6 feet, 3 inches and 220 pounds, Mohamed Sanu is 6-2 and 210, and Taylor Gabriel is 5-8 and 167. Logan Ryan and Eric Rowe typically handle the opposition’s bigger receivers, but can either hang with Jones? And would putting Malcolm Butler on Gabriel be the best use of the Patriots’ No. 1 cornerback? A Butler-Jones matchup would be must-see television, but then who covers Gabriel?
There are several permutations in play here, and each one has a downside for the Patriots. Don’t be shocked if the Patriots play mostly zone coverage — probably Cover 2, with two deep safeties, to take away the deep ball — and force the Falcons to piece together long drives with their role players.
Interestingly, the Falcons are 4-0 this year when Jones is held to 35 or fewer receiving yards, and 4-4, including the postseason, when he has 100 or more yards. When the Patriots defeated the Falcons in 2013, Jones had six catches (on 13 targets) for 108 yards. Tony Gonzalez also had a huge day (149 receiving yards, two touchdowns), yet the Patriots won handily.
4. Will a third receiving option step up for the Patriots?
The offense has been top-heavy without Rob Gronkowski during the playoffs. Chris Hogan (275 receiving yards in two games) and Julian Edelman (255 receiving yards) have accounted for 79 percent of Brady’s passing yards and 66 percent of the team’s total yards this postseason.
Of course, the Patriots won both games by double digits, so perhaps they can keep it going. But whether it’s Malcolm Mitchell, Danny Amendola, Martellus Bennett, Dion Lewis, James White, or Michael Floyd, someone needs to step up in the Super Bowl and give the Patriots more variability.
5. Can the Patriots snap their bye-week blues?
Whether it’s a cause for concern or merely a coincidence, the Patriots’ two worst performances this season came following a bye week. (This does not include the 16-0 loss to Buffalo in Week 4 in which the Patriots started a rookie third-string quarterback with a broken thumb). In a 31-24 home loss to the Seahawks in Week 10, the defense came out flat and the offense couldn’t punch the ball in from the 1-yard line in the closing seconds. The 34-16 playoff win over the Texans was a lot uglier than the score suggests, especially on offense.
The Super Bowl, of course, is also played after a bye week. Whatever Belichick did in the other two bye weeks, he might want to try something different.
Watch: A look inside the fan fest in Houston
Follow Ben Volin on Twitter @BenVolin.