We’ve had nearly two weeks to dissect Super Bowl LI between the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons. Sometimes it feels like Tom Brady and Matt Ryan will be the only two players on the field, Sunday in Houston.
Quarterbacks get all the publicity, especially when you put up numbers like Brady and Ryan. Both are MVP candidates. Both have the ability to make all the big plays on the biggest stage.
But only one will be going up against a defense that’s — statistically, at least — one of the best in the NFL.
Which brings me to the most overlooked story line of Super Bowl LI: New England’s D.
By now, you know what the numbers say. In the regular season, the Patriots’ defense allowed the least amount of points per game at 15.6. They only allowed 250 total points. The team closest to them was the New York Giants, ranking second in the league, allowing 284 total points.
To draw a comparison relevant to the Super Bowl, Atlanta’s defense ranked 27th in the league, allowing 25.4 points per game and 406 total points.
You can’t argue the numbers. The Patriots’ defense is the stingiest in all of football. However, they still aren’t getting the proper respect, heading into the big game.
Now, I’m not one of these guys that’s going to tell you this is Bill Belichick’s best defense. That seems blasphemous.
But they shouldn’t have to be the best Patriots defense of all-time to get the respect they deserve. They just have to be the best right now. And seeing just how bad the Falcons’ defense was this season, New England’s defensive advantage in Super Bowl LI is far greater than perhaps anyone is willing to recognize.
Those who disagree will argue that the Patriots weren’t tested by many elite quarterbacks in the regular season. The best quarterbacks they faced were Carson Palmer, Russell Wilson, and Joe Flacco. Wilson and Flacco have each won a Super Bowl, and I only put Palmer in this conversation because he did finish top-10 in the NFL with 4,233 passing yards and 26 touchdown passes this season. And I was tempted to throw Andy Dalton’s name into the mix because it wasn’t too long ago that every analyst and their mother were salivating over the Dalton-to-AJ Green connection.
Alright, so the Patriots’ defense didn’t have to try and stop Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees. But don’t start acting like the NFL is full of elite quarterbacks. Because it’s not.
Super Bowl Sunday will be the biggest test of the season for New England’s defense. Atlanta’s offensive punch is statistically the best in the game, averaging an NFL-best 33.8 points per game. And in the Falcons’ two playoff wins over the Seahawks and Packers — both in Atlanta — they’re averaging 40 points per game.
Meanwhile, the Patriots’ defense hasn’t allowed more than 17 points per game in their two playoff wins over the Texans and Steelers — both in New England.
And ok, so shutting down Brock Osweiler and Houston’s offense is nothing to write home about. But I find it amusing that holding Ben Roethlisberger to one touchdown and 17 points in the AFC Championship is being portrayed as a “so what” accomplishment.
As if Big Ben doesn’t have two Super Bowl rings. As if he isn’t an elite quarterback. And as if he isn’t throwing to one of the best — if not the best — wide receivers in the league in Antonio Brown.
Le’Veon Bell left that game early with a groin injury. But when you shut down an elite quarterback-receiver duo, you shut down an elite quarterback-receiver duo. I don’t care how it’s done.
The Patriots’ defense did just that. And now comes the biggest challenge of them all.
Sure, it’s not the best defense Belichick has had. But all of his championship defenses had one thing in common. They all improved as the season went on. And this year, so far, been no different.
And in a Super Bowl that’s putting most of the spotlight on the quarterbacks, it’s the Patriots’ defense that could be the biggest difference-maker.
That’s a story line that shouldn’t be overlooked.
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