NFL: The Game That Matters

NFL: The Game That Matters

Feb 3, 2017, 10:47:55 PM Sport

Is there a football game this weekend? All I know is I have a tray of honey barbecue wings, guacamole, salsa, macaroni and cheese, fruit salad and a night full of flatulence in my very near future. The paint-by-numbers analysis can be found elsewhere so I'm going to focus on a few key areas that I find important.

The confetti has to fall onto someone, right? Here goes: 

1. New England's Defense (and Special Teams) vs. Atlanta's Offense: Throughout the season the Patriots' defense has been overlooked - and I think that's directly attributed to the fact that they don't have that one, splashy, star name as the leader of the unit. Looking deeper though, the Patriots hold up splendidly by allowing just 15.6 points per game which sits at the top of the league; numero uno. They are the best defense in the league; I rate surrendered points over yards as MY measure for defensive ranking. 

Most of the talking heads are out of breath trying to gush over the possibility of a shootout; I'm not sure the game materializes in that fashion over 60 minutes. Matt Ryan has led his offense by spreading the ball around to all of his options. Julio Jones will be a target of the defensive strategy but did you know that when he's been held to under 60 yards receiving the Falcons are 5-0? (When held under the century mark for the day the Falcons boast a fantastic 7-1.) That's a massive little nugget that could short-circuit the best plans of the Patriots. Ryan will hit Taylor Gabriel, Mohamed SanuTevin Coleman, Justin Hardy, Devonta Freeman, Jacob Tamme and Austin Hooper if his top target is covered by the Patriots' cheerleaders and fan section. 

One facet I like tremendously about the favorite here is their kicking unit. They aid their underrated defense by ensuring the opponent has to drive 85-90 yards on every offensive possession. As the number of plays that have to be run to get into scoring range increase so do the opportunities for the defense to directly hone in on tendencies. Additionally, longer drives produce more chances of a bad snap, a tipped pass, a fumble, an interception, etc. You get the idea. Starting field position isn't a glossy statistic, term or topic worthy of much fanfare but I admire the way in which the Patriots use it as an integral element in their defensive approach. 

The Patriots can be taken advantage of in the secondary and I fully believe that a competent quarterback taking snaps for the Houston Texans would've sent the Patriots home a few weeks ago. There isn't a defense that can take away every weapon taking the field so where will the Patriots focus their defensive energy and where will Ryan look to attack in response?

2. Coleman and Freeman vs. Patriots' Linebackers and Safeties: When Freeman is in open space - or any space to be honest - the advantage arrow will point to him. There's no debating that. His ability to read on the run while remaining elusive and slippery has to be an area of concern for a Patriots unit that isn't built with a tremendous athlete on the second and third levels. As a runner, Coleman is more punishing of the two but Freeman invites contact as well. Coleman runs with a burst and for some strange reason he's viewed as a bruiser when his game is a mix of both styles. 

Bill Belichick is going to take something off the menu for the Falcons, a novice should be able to see that but there's no defense that can limit everything. The Patriots are going to have to take proper angles and use group tacking techniques in the hopes they can cause a few fumbles. Coach Hoodie can possibly take both backs away in the rushing game but both are adept receivers, either out of the backfield or in the slot as traditional receivers. Devin McCourty and Malcolm Butler can't cover both backs while also worrying about the Falcons' corps of pass catchers. An offensive strategy that floods Patrick Chung's perimeter with routes could yield dividends for the birds.

3. Patriots' Offensive Line vs. Falcons' Defensive Line: To have a high level of success against any quarterback, you have to decide how to produce pressure. Do you manufacture a passing threat from the edges? What about up the middle; directly through the A and B gaps? Do you collapse the pocket with the front four and drop all the linebackers into coverage surrendering precious real estate for eager receivers? Do you mix in the zone blitz where the point is to hide your rusher until the last possible moment?

What to do?

Decades of footage prove that cooking up pressure with the defensive line - and only the defensive line is the best way to upset any quarterback and stall his offense. The Patriots can teach a master class about that after their two losses to the New York Giants - and their endless line of fast, elite and powerful linemen. Can the Falcons copy/paste that performance on Sunday?

Unless they have one of those unexpected Super Bowl flash-type games, they're not constructed in that fashion upfront. What works in their favor is that the protectors of Tom Brady have had bouts of inconsistency all season. They've been great over the last half of the regular season but if the Falcons can stay in their faces and rotate athletes to dominate line-play, they can make it interesting for Brady in the pocket.

If the Falcons' playbook is full of five and six-man blitzes, just mail the trophy to Robert Kraft's hotel suite on Saturday evening. 

I don't like the Patriots. I don't and I won't hide that. I do respect the team and their accomplishments. Their fans are insufferable and seem to have forgotten how much of a diarrhea sandwich the franchise used to be. The Patriots are probably going to win this game and definitely turn me off to the NFL until Brady retires and Belichick becomes the 45th man to govern in the White House. Whatever...

Pick: Falcons over Patriots, 29-23.  

Conference Title Week: 1-1
Playoffs: 7-3
Regular Season: 169-87

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