Tom Brady gets the headlines for the New England Patriots, and rightfully so, he’s quite possibly the greatest quarterback in NFL history. But Bill Belichick’s Patriots teams have always been built on defense, and this year, with no true big names, he’s put together one of his best units. On Sunday, in Super Bowl LI, that group will face it’s biggest test against an Atlanta Falcons offense that is absolutely on fire right now.
This season the Patriots finished first in the NFL in points allowed (15.6 per game), eighth in yards allowed (326.4 per game), 12th in passing defense (237.9 yards per game) and third in rushing defense (88.6 yards per game). While the defense did have two Pro Bowlers — Dont'a Hightower and Devin McCourty — it was largely an anonymous group. In fact, you could argue that the defense’s two most talented players were traded away by Belichick. Chandler Jones was shipped to the Arizona Cardinals in the offseason, while Jamie Collins was sent to the Cleveland Browns in the middle of the 2016 season.
The fact that New England’s defense didn’t miss a beat without Jones and Collins was simply remarkable and a testament to what Belichick and defensive coordinator (and owner of the NFL’s best beard) Matt Patricia have built.
On Sunday that defense could finally meet its match. The Falcons are on a next-level roll offensively right now. They led the NFL in points per game during the regular season (33.8) and are tied for seventh all-time with 540 points in a single season. Atlanta ranks second in total yards per game (415.8), third in passing yards per game (295.3) and fifth in rushing yards per game (120.5).
That offense has helped push the Falcons to six straight wins by an average margin of 19.7 points per game.
The Falcons also boast a quarterback who will almost certainly be the MVP in Matt Ryan, a man who is likely the best wide receiver on the planet in Julio Jones and a pair of versatile running backs who can decimate the competition in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. If that’s not enough, they also have an offensive coordinator in Kyle Shanahan who looks every bit the wunderkind genius and will be in his final contest with the team.
The Patriots have a great offense of their own, but if they want to win Sunday’s big game they will have to rely on their defense to get stops. That’s the only way Brady and Belichick will get their fifth rings. If they somehow pull this off and stop Atlanta’s offensive juggernaut, it might be time to actually learn the names of the guys on that side of the ball in New England.