Patriots vs. Falcons: Jason Rickett’s Suspicions For Superbowl LI

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Jason Rickett Wow. What an action-packed NFL season, and we have finally arrived at the finish line: Super Bowl LI. With this incredible season coming to a close, now seems as good a time as any to reflect on this season’s most interesting storylines and analyze this Patriots-Falcons showdown. If you just want to see my Super Bowl Pick, scroll to the bottom. Anyway, let’s get into it: here are 5 things we learned this NFL season.

  1. Past performance is not an indication of future success. Football has once again proven to be the most unpredictable professional sport in the world. Both of last year’s Super Bowl participants, the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers, missed the playoffs for the first time since 2002. Cam Newton, last year’s MVP, posted horrendous numbers, leading the Panthers to a 6-10 campaign. It has become apparent that the best of Cam Newton is behind him. Cam finished 21st in Passing Yards, 22nd in Yards per Attempt, and dead last in Completion Percentage among qualified players in the NFL. The more you watch Cam Newton play the more you are convinced that he is merely a mediocre quarterback with a big arm and above average athleticism. The defending champion, the Broncos, rode an all-time great defense to a Super Bowl title one year ago but were unable to replicate that success this year. Their defense was one of the most dominant in the league this season, headlined by Defensive Player of the Year candidate and Super Bowl MVP Von Miller. The Denver secondary, dubbed the “No Fly Zone,” allowed the fewest amount of Passing yards per game and gave up less passing touchdowns than interceptions. However, their offense struggled without future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning, and they were unable to move the ball for much of the year. They finished the year 9-7, with a 2-4 record in the league’s toughest division that likely kept them from a playoff berth. GM and legendary quarterback John Elway has hired a new head coach, Vance Joseph, who he hopes will lead them back to the top.
  2. The future of the Quarterback position is incredibly bright, and if you’re a fan of a team with a great young quarterback get excited— Father Time will catch up to Brady and the rest of the veterans eventually. Many young quarterbacks across the league got a chance to prove themselves this year, but only seven really stood out to me as future stars of the NFL. Russel Wilson, Andrew Luck, Carson Wentz, Dak Prescott, Derek Carr, Marcus Mariota, and Jameis Winston all showed the potential to lead their team to a Super Bowl. Let’s start with the most accomplished of the group: Seahawks QB, Russell Wilson. Some may view Wilson as a veteran given he is already a Super Bowl Champion and a three-time Pro-Bowler, but Wilson is only 28 and has yet to reach his full potential. Wilson has steadily improved his play since coming into the league in 2012. As a rookie, he threw for only 3,118 yards, compared to 4,219 yards this year. He has led the Seahawks to five consecutive Playoff appearances in each of his first five seasons and to two Super Bowl appearances. The same year Wilson came to the NFL, another QB was drafted 74 picks ahead of him as the No. 1 overall pick, Colts signal caller Andrew Luck. Luck has flown under the radar the last few years because he has been on a largely talentless Colts roster. Stuck behind a lackluster offensive line and without the support of a running game, Luck amassed 4,233 yards and 31 touchdowns through the air and led the Colts to an 8-8 record. The sky’s the limit for Luck, especially if he is given more talent to work with. Rookie phenoms Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz took turns setting records at the start of the season. Even though Wentz and the Eagles cooled down at the end of the year, Wentz showed everything you want out of a Franchise Quarterback. He has mobility, arm strength, accuracy, and great decision making and leadership. The future is bright in Philly, but the future is blinding in Dallas. The Cowboys are absolutely drowning in talent and the rookies in the backfield. Dak and running back Ezekiel Elliot led them to a 13-3 record and the No. 1 seed in the NFC. Fourth round pick Dak Prescott perhaps had the greatest rookie season in the history of NFL. Dak finished the season third in the NFL in QBR, Passer Rating, and Yards per Attempt barely behind Tom Brady and Matt Ryan. Dak, Zeke, and wide receiver Dez Bryant are bringing back memories of the Cowboys triplets that won three Super Bowls in the 90s. Winston and Mariota went No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in the 2015 NFL Draft and have both shown tremendous potential. Winston has amazing talent and makes plays that make your jaw drop, but he occasionally makes very stupid and costly decisions. He tied for 7th in the league with 28 passing touchdowns, but he also threw the second highest amount of interceptions in the NFL with 18. Mariota is an amazing dual-threat Quarterback that likely would have led the Titans to a division title had he not broken his leg against the Jaguars in Week 16. He has big play ability and can make any play with his arm or with his legs, but the question for Mariota is whether he can stay on the field. He has suffered a season-ending brutal injury in each of his first two seasons. So long as he avoids injury, he will be very good for years to come. Derek Carr might have the brightest future of them all. The 25-year-old MVP candidate led the Raiders to their first post-season berth in over a decade. Carr threw for 28 touchdowns and only six interceptions. The Raiders went 12-3 with him and only scored 20 points in two brutal losses without him. Derek Carr’s injury was a nightmare ending to a fairy tale season for Raiders fans, but they will be very happy for a very long time as long as No. 4 is under center. These seven quarterbacks will be dominating the NFL for years to come.
  1. Many NFL franchises are looking for new beginnings for the 2017-2018 season. Three teams have relocated in the last 12 months, and seven teams changed either their GM or head coach. Last season the St. Louis Rams relocated to L.A., much to the dismay of St. Louis sports fans, myself included, and brought an NFL team to the entertainment capital of the world for the first time in decades. The Rams struggled in their first year in their new home, winning only four games the whole season. The Rams offense was absolutely atrocious, and they finished in the bottom two in the league in almost every meaningful team statistic. No. 1 overall draft pick Jared Goff struggled mightily in his first stint as a starter, and he finished with a league-worst Total QBR of 22.3. There is still plenty of time for him to turn it around, but in his first season his lack of ability to make quick, smart decisions or to throw the ball downfield has him looking like a big-time draft bust. The Rams did not win a single game with Goff as their starter this season. These failures led to the firing of longtime head coach Jeff Fisher. New Rams head coach Sean McVay will look to turn it around next season. The Chargers are relocating to Los Angeles as well, and they will share a stadium with the Rams in Inglewood. The Chargers, like the Rams, will also have a new head coach next season, former Bills Offensive Coordinator Anthony Lynn. The Chargers have a great chance to have some success in their first year in a new city. Quarterback Phillip Rivers has been among the league’s elite for many years and still has a few good years left in him. If the Chargers can stay healthy, they will have an explosive offense led by second year standout Melvin Gordon and wide receiver Keenan Allen. Combined with an improved defense led by rookie standout Joey Bosa and the league-leader in interceptions, cornerback Casey Heyward. The Chargers have a chance to make the playoffs in their first year in the City of Angels, but they play in the league’s toughest division, the AFC West. The Chargers AFC West rival, the Raiders, just recently filed for a relocation from Oakland to Sin City. Provided a favorable vote from the NFL owners, Las Vegas will have its first major professional sports team. (The NHL expansion team the Vegas Golden Knights does not start play until next season.) The Raiders are coming off of a 12-win season and will likely have great success next season whether it’s in Oakland or Vegas. The Bills and Jaguars cleaned house after disappointing performances by both teams. Polarizing head coach Rex Ryan failed to lead the Bills to the playoffs in his two seasons as the leader of the team. He is a defense-oriented coach, and under his leadership the defense underperformed compared to previous years, leading to his dismissal. The Bills hired former Panthers Defensive Coordinator Sean McDermott to shake things up and try to reach the playoffs for the first time since 1995. The Jaguars were a preseason darling thanks to many consecutive successful drafts and the promising play of quarterback Blake Bortles. However, Bortles regressed and the Jaguars struggled all season long, winning only three games all year despite a soft schedule. They promoted Doug Marrone to head coach and hired former coach Tom Coughlin as executive vice president. The 49ers have yet to hire their new head coach and are also looking for a new GM. However, they are expected to hire Falcons Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan. After a disappointing 2016, these teams are looking forward to a better 2017.
  1. The MVP race is just as crowded as ever. I have heard at least 20 different names thrown around in this conversation, and there are probably 8-10 guys that you could make a legitimate case for. However, in my eyes there are only four real MVP contenders who deserve consideration for the award, starting with the two Quarterbacks in the Super Bowl. Matt Ryan has all the numbers on his side; he is first in the league in Yards per Attempt and Passer Rating and is the captain of the league’s top scoring offense. He has thrown for the second-most yards and the second-most touchdowns and has led the Falcons to a first drive touchdown in eight straight games. The argument against Ryan comes not from statistics, but from team achievement or the meaning of the word “valuable.” The Falcons are loaded with talent, and Ryan has the luxury of throwing to the league’s best wide receiver in Julio Jones. They also have the best 1-2 punch at running back with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Other MVP candidates like Rodgers and Brady have much less talent to work with at the skill positions. Ryan went 11-5 as the starter on the Falcons, which is a very good record, but other candidates like Carr, Prescott, and Brady were better with records of 12-3, 13-2, and 11-1, respectively. The other Quarterback who led his team to the Super Bowl, Tom Brady, is also receiving a lot of support for MVP. Tom Terrific, at the ripe old age of 39, posted the best Touchdown to Interception Ratio in the history of the NFL at 28:2. He also had the best season in the history of the NFL regardless of position, according to Pro Football Focus. Brady also did not fumble all year and, therefore, only had two turnovers in his 12 games as a starter. Brady finished second in Yards per Attempt and QBR despite a weak receiving corps that was missing Rob Gronkowski for most of the year. There is also a pretty strong case against Brady for MVP, chiefly that he missed four games of the season. MVPs in the past have rarely missed one game, let alone four— nevermind that the Patriots went 3-1 and averaged 27 points a game without Brady. This calls into question how valuable he is to the team when they managed to remain successful without him. Dak Prescott, the story of the year in the NFL, is a dark horse for the MVP this season. The strongest argument for Dak is the “value” he brought to the team. Last season, without Tony Romo at Quarterback, the Cowboys went 1-11, and with Prescott, this year they went 13-2. Dak kept pace with the other MVP candidates in metrics like Yards per Attempt and QBR, but he did not have nearly as big raw numbers as far as yards and touchdowns. He threw only four interceptions all season, compared to 29 total touchdowns, and carried the Cowboys offense to a top five ranking in both Yards and Points per Game. Despite a historically great season, the fourth round rookie has only a very small chance of winning the award. Fellow rookie and the league’s leading rusher Ezekiel Elliot is also receiving some support for MVP, and they will likely take votes away from each other. Also, lots of people are chalking up his success to being behind the league’s best offensive line. Worst comes to worst for Dak, he will likely be voted Offensive Rookie of the Year. Finally, my pick for MVP, Oakland Quarterback Derek Carr. Derek Carr was the heart and soul of a Raiders team that, before his injury, was considered the only legitimate threat to the Patriots in the AFC. In the first 15 games of the season the Carr-led Raiders had a top three scoring offense that was able to carry a poor defense (sixth most yards per game) to a 12-3 record. Carr threw 28 touchdowns, threw only six interceptions, had the Raiders at the top of the league’s toughest division, and gave them a chance at the number one seed in the AFC. Then it all fell apart for the Raiders when Carr went down with a broken fibula against the Colts in week 16. The Raiders were dominating the game, and Carr led them to a huge 33-7 lead early in the second half. Then the injury occurred, and the Colts came storming back and almost won the game but fell short at 33-25. After that, teams they had handily beaten with Carr at the helm dominated the Raiders. They lost to the Broncos 24-6 and were barely able to get first downs, let alone score. Then, in the playoffs, they were punished by the Texans 27-14. How the Raiders performed without their star quarterback shows just how much he brought to the team. His leadership and ability to perform in the big moments were irreplaceable, and the team looked like they gave up without him. All four of these guys are very deserving, but to me, Derek Carr stands out ahead of the pack.
  1. The playoffs, though entertaining, were very predictable, and most games weren’t even close. Wild-Card weekend was full of mismatches and blowouts. The home team and the favorite won all four games. The one game that was supposed to be a competitive game, one that could go either way, was the Packers against the Giants. The Packers whooped the Giants 38-13. Odell Beckham Jr. and the rest of the Yacht Club dropped passes and let Eli Manning down all game long. Aaron Rodgers continued his ridiculous hot-streak and completely embarrassed the N.Y.P.D (New York Pass Defense). The other games went exactly as we thought they would: Texans over uninspired Raiders, Seahawks crushing a poor, slumping Lions, and the Steelers thrashing the Dolphins. The divisional round looked much more promising, with three seemingly evenly matched games. The other was Brady-Belichick vs. Osweiler-O’Brien. The Patriots were a 16.5-point favorite and won by 18, and a lot of people still thought the Patriots played poorly. Really, it was that big of a mismatch. The Seahawks-Falcons was an intriguing matchup that the Seahawks barely won in the regular season. However, thanks to some questionable officiating and amazing play from Matt Ryan, it wasn’t ever close in the second half. Falcons cruised 36-20. Chiefs-Steelers was a bloody trench warfare scrap fest. The Steelers did not score a touchdown, but survived on the leg of kicker Chris Boswell, who went a perfect six for six, accounting for all 18 of their points. The Chiefs scored late and only needed two points to tie the game, but because of a hold by tackle Eric Fisher, they were unable to capitalize. The Packers-Cowboys was a classic and probably the most entertaining, tightly-contested game of the season so far. The first seeded Cowboys found themselves in a 21-3 hole early, and the game seemed like a lost cause. Then Dak Prescott and the Cowboys rallied, and he led them all the way back to a 31-31 tie in the fourth quarter. Then red-hot Rodgers made an amazing sideline throw with only 3 seconds left to set up a 51-yard field goal to win the game by Mason Crosby. Unfortunately, the conference championship games were both extremely lopsided games. The Patriots destroyed the Steelers, as they have nearly always done with Brady at the helm. He torched them for 384 yards and three touchdowns, and the Pats advanced to the Super Bowl for the seventh time in the Brady-Belichick era. As good as Brady was, Ryan might have been better. Ryan threw for 392 yards and added five touchdowns (four passing one rushing) in a scoring barrage that pushed the game out of reach before it really even got started. The injury-riddled Packers secondary had no chance against Julio Jones and company and forced Rodgers to perform one more miracle, which he was unable to do. This all led to the Super Bowl matchup that we have now. The two most statistically dominant quarterbacks in the league facing off in Super Bowl LI.
And now, my Super Bowl prediction. Before I give you my pick to win, let’s dive into how each team could win Super Bowl LI. The Falcons will win the Super Bowl if the offense plays at its highest possible level. The Falcons have averaged 39 points per game in their last six games and Matt Ryan is having the season of his life. The Patriots are famous for taking away your best weapon, but the Falcons have so many weapons that you can’t take them all away. They have the best wide receiver in the game in Julio Jones and two other solid receivers in veteran Mohammed Sanu and speedster Taylor Gabriel. They also have the best two running back combo since Double Trouble in Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman. Not only are they efficient runners, they are matchup nightmares for the Pats. If they can get Coleman or Freeman matched up against Kyle Van Noy or Rob Ninkovich, it will be a long day for the Patriots Defense. The Falcons high-powered offense will have to put up at least 30 points to have a good chance to win on Sunday. The Falcons defense has some good young talent, but are not suited to shut down the Patriots offense. The best way to beat Brady is to get a lot of pressure on him, and the Falcons need to hit him and hit him often if they are going to win. NFL’s sack leader Vic Beasley and veteran future Hall of Famer Dwight Freeney have the potential to do just that. The Patriots will win the Super Bowl if Brady continues his excellent play and they win the turnover battle. If you give Brady extra possessions, then he will make you pay almost every single time. This whole season has been a revenge tour after his Deflategate suspension ended, and he will not stop until he makes Goodell hand him the Lombardi Trophy. The Patriots boast the top scoring defense and they will need to slow down the Falcons top ranked scoring offense. It all comes down to questions. Do you believe the Falcons will bring their A+ game? I think that they can, but I do not believe they will. Then it comes down to Brady and Belichick, or Quinn and Ryan? The answer to that question is so obvious it should be rhetorical. Brady gets number five and cements his legacy as the greatest to ever lace ‘em up. Patriots 34 Falcons 31. If you have any comments or questions I would love to hear them! Email me at [email protected] or leave them in the comments section!]]>