Super Bowl LI features the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots, two teams that are polar opposites. The Falcons are the #1 offense in the NFL, while the Patriots are the #1 defense. Aside from that, making the Super Bowl was an expectation for the Patriots, while the Falcons were not even expected to make the playoffs by the most intelligent NFL analysts. One article featuring the most well renowned analysts included preseason Super Bowl predictions for the 2016-2017 NFL season, and not one of them picked the Atlanta Falcons. Interesting.

The Atlanta Falcons are the underdogs in Super Bowl LI as they take on Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, who have a great deal of experience on the NFL’s biggest stage.  The Atlanta Falcons, a franchise that was founded in 1966, have only been to the Super Bowl one time prior to Super Bowl LI and lost to the Denver Broncos in 1998. The New England Patriots, on the other hand, have been to 8 Super Bowls prior to Super Bowl LI and have won only four of them.  However, those four wins all came while Tom Brady was the Quarterback and Bill Belichek was the Head Coach.

The Falcons will surely have a tough task in trying to take down what many consider to be the best team in the NFL, but it is not impossible. This young Atlanta Falcons squad will have to step up and play their best football of the season if they plan on beating the greatest quarterback-head coach tandem in NFL history.

1.Matt Ryan, Quarterback

2016-2017 Stats: 4,944 Pass Yards, 38 Pass TDs, 7 Ints, 69.9% Completion Pct, 117.1 QBR

Matt Ryan, the quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons, has led his team to the Super Bowl behind an MVP-like season.  The combination of offensive guru Kyle Shanahan with Matt Ryan and the many receiving options on the team has allowed this team to become the 8th highest scoring offense in NFL history.

The Falcons were projected to have a 7-9 record by Vaughn McClure in an article, which just shows how underrated this talented squad was.  Matt Ryan put up mediocre stats throughout the years that the Falcons missed the playoffs, which shows how significant an impact his play has on the Falcons’ level of success.

There are many variables that contribute to Matt Ryan’s level of success and the front office of the Atlanta Falcons did a magnificent job addressing those issues.  Matt Ryan was under heavy duress by opposing teams’ pass rush game-after-game and that led to disappointing passing statistics. The acquisition of Center Alex Mack and the improvement of other young offensive linemen has allowed Matt Ryan to have time in the pocket and deliver accurate throws without being harassed by opposing defenses.  Another issue Matt Ryan faced was that Julio Jones seemed to be his only target and he would force him the ball in many situations when no one else was open.  The acquisitions of Taylor Gabriel, Mohamed Sanu Sr., and Austin Hooper along with the other receiving weapons that were already on the roster have allowed Matt Ryan to find open receivers with ease play-after-play.

The emergence of Matt Ryan into an MVP-caliber player is likely the primary reason for the Atlanta Falcons emergence into Super Bowl, which is why I have him as the #1 player that must perform at the top of his game if the Atlanta Falcons plan to win Super Bowl LI.

2. Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman, Running backs

Tevin Coleman 2016-2017 Stats: 118 rushes, 520 rush yards, 4.4 YPC, 8 rush TDs, 31 receptions,   421 rec yards, 3 rec TDs

Devonta Freeman 2016-2017 Stats: 227 rushes, 1079 rush yards, 4.8 YPC, 11 rush TDs, 54 receptions, 462 rec yards, 2 rec Tds

The Atlanta Falcons running back duo is arguably the best in the National Football League, and it is often noted as the strength of their team.  Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman both had phenomenal seasons and their success often meant success for the Falcons.  Freeman is the primary rusher, while Coleman comes into the game as the change of pace back.  However, Coleman has just a significant role as Freeman does due to his ability to catch passes out of the backfield.

Greg Bishop of Sports Illustrated wrote in an article, “What’s different about the unit this year, and about Atlanta’s latest playoff push, is the prominence and production of its fifth-ranked backfield, a time share between distinctive, starter-quality backs who combined for 2,482 yards from scrimmage (the most of any RB combo in the league) and 24 touchdowns (ditto).” Freeman and Coleman have been major factors for the Atlanta Falcons offense that scored the 8th most points in a single season in NFL history this season.  Due to the fact that the running game was a success for much of the season for the Falcons, opposing defenses had to focus on the running backs as well as the prolific passing game led by MVP-candidate Matt Ryan.

Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman have drawn attention from opposing defenses, allowing Matt Ryan to find open receivers on a majority of his passing attempts.  Of course, one can’t neglect the attention that Julio Jones draws from opposing defenses as well, but the combination of Jones and the running backs might leave targets such as Mohamed Sanu Sr. or Taylor Gabriel uncovered.  If Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman perform at the high level that they have all season, it will surely be tough for the New England Patriots to defeat the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI.

3. Every Wide Receiver not named Julio Jones

Combined Stats of Justin Hardy, Mohamed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel, and Aldrick Robinson for the 2016-2017 season: 135 receptions, 1758 rec yards, 16 rec TDs

Julio Jones is obviously a major factor for the Atlanta Falcons to succeed, but he does not have to play well in order for them to win games.  In all five Falcons losses, Julio Jones had either 100 receiving yards or a receiving touchdown, which shows how his performances do not dictate the level of success for the team.  However, every game that Julio Jones had 60 or fewer receiving yards and no touchdown(5 games) resulted in a Falcons win.  This does not mean that Julio Jones is not important to the team as the insane amount of attention that he draws from opposing defenses might be what hinders his performances. This attention has allowed the other receiving threats get open and create a balance in the Atlanta Falcons offense.  These other receiving threats must step up if the Falcons plan to bring home the Super Bowl LI trophy.

The emergence of Taylor Gabriel might be as important as any other thing that has propelled the Falcons to Super Bowl LI.  The Falcons started off at 4-3, but in week 8, Taylor Gabriel had 3 receptions for 68 yards and 1 receiving touchdown in an Atlanta win over Green Bay 33-32.  From that point on, Gabriel had game-after-game with big receiving touchdowns and had a phenomenal second half of the season.  The Falcons ended at 11-5 on the season, showing how the emergence of Gabriel as a speedy receiving threat contributed to their victories down the stretch.

The acquisition of Mohamed Sanu was a major move by the from office of the Atlanta Falcons as Sanu can play the Roddy White role on this ball club.  Sanu has been a veteran presence who is the clear #2 receiving option, and he will step up if the offense needs him to as shown in the NFC championship game against the Packers.  Although he did not have  a huge game statistics-wise, Sanu helped the Falcons score to widen the lead by catching a majority on his five passes on one-drive including a receiving touchdown to cap off the drive.

Justin Hardy and Aldrick Robinson are role players on this high-powered Falcons offense, but even their play is important to the success of the team.  Hardy is a rookie whole the Falcons drafted last season and he has improved vastly from last season to this season. Robinson was signed out of the preseason as he played quite well for the squad during that time.  Both receivers have had good seasons being that their opportunities are limited.  However, they have made the most of those limited opportunities and have found ways to get open while the defense focuses on Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman, and Tevin Coleman.

All of these wide receivers must collectively play a good game so that the offense does not have to rely on Julio Jones and the running backs in order to score the football. Gabriel, Sanu, Hardy, and Robinson should be expecting the ball quite a lot during Super Bowl LI as the New England Patriots will surely be focused on limiting Julio Jones, Tevin Coleman, and Devonta Freeman.

4. Jalen Collins, Cornerback 

2016-2017 stats: 31 Tackles, 10 Pass Deflections, 2 Interceptions

The 23 year old Cornerback out of Louisiana State University was drafted in the 2nd round of the 2015 Draft by the Atlanta Falcons.  The Falcons were hoping that he would develop into a player that could compete for the #1 CB position with Desmond Trufant, but that has simply not been the case. Collins was suspended the first four games of the season and was inactive for three of the first four games after he was no longer suspended.  It looked as though Collins was doomed and would not see an opportunity come his way for quite some time.  However, a season-ending injury to Desmond Trufant forced Head Coach Dan Quinn to put Collins into the #1 cornerback position and start him every game.

Collins embraced the opportunity and played the best football of his young career thus far throughout the second half of the season.  Collins guarded the best and most physical wide receivers while Robert Alford stayed in the slot to guard the speedy receivers.  Collins played quite well and began looking like the successful cornerback that the Atlanta Falcons thought  he could become.  When Collins was asked what it was like to step in for Desmond Trufant, he said “It was just like practice out there. I was just trying to communicate with the guys and make sure everybody was on the same page. It wasn’t weird or anything like that. There were no nervous feelings out there for me. It was just ball.”

If Jalen Collins can play like the #1 Cornerback that the Atlanta Falcons hoped he would be in Super Bowl LI, the game will likely go in the Falcons favor and they will earn their first Super Bowl win in franchise history.

5- Vic Beasley Jr., Outside Linebacker

2016-2017 stats: 39 Tackles, 15.5 Sacks, 6 Forced Fumbles, 2 Pass Deflections

The development of Vic Beasley Jr. from last season to this season is simply astounding.  He was drafted 1st Round, Pick 8 by the Atlanta Falcons in the 2015 NFL Draft and he was expected to be an elite defender by Atlanta’s front office.  Although his rookie season was sub-par, his second season shows exactly why the Atlanta Falcons drafted him at the spot that they did.

Vic Beasley Jr. led the league in sacks this season with 15.5, which is evidence of the improved Falcons defense from the atrocious 2015-2016 defense to the 2016-2017 defense.  The 2015-2016 defense could barely ever get pressure on the opposing quarterbacks, which is why opposing offenses shredded their defense with ease.

Although the offense is the strong point of the Atlanta Falcons squad that reached the Super Bowl this season, the defense is much improved and Vic Beasley Jr. is a huge reason for the improvement.  The defense has been under appreciated all season long as they are extremely young and need time to develop. The Falcons start three rookies on defense and they still have found a way to improve from last season to this season.

If Vic Beasley Jr. is able to pressure Tom Brady like he has pressured all other quarterbacks this season, then the rest of the defense will have an easier time covering the wide receivers. When pressure is applied to Tom Brady, he has to get rid of the ball much quicker due to the fact that he is not as mobile as other quarterbacks. Therefore, if the defense is limiting the powerful Patriots offense, the Falcons are in a perfect position to secure their first Super Bowl trophy in franchise history.