By Jason Keidel
It feels like we’ve heard the football cliche ‘Super Bowl hangover’ more than ever this year.
Perhaps it’s because we just had our first overtime Super Bowl. Perhaps it’s because of the way it ended. Perhaps it’s because the Atlanta Falcons blew the biggest lead in Super Bowl history. Perhaps it’s because the game was so winnable and yet they let it slip through Matt Ryan’s fingers. Perhaps it’s because the Falcons have lost games they should have won, and won games they should have lost.
Whatever the reasons, the questioning will reach fever pitch this Sunday night at Foxborough, when the Patriots host the Falcons.
Neither team is that good, really. The Patriots are a story in extremes, scoring at will while yielding yards at historical rates. Considering Bill Belichick is not only considered the greatest coach of his generation, but also made his bones as a defensive coordinator, it’s astonishing to see the Pats ranked dead-last in defense, hemorrhaging 440.7 total yards per game. Worse than the Browns, 49ers… anyone. At least Atlanta is a modest 10th in the NFL, surrendering 312.4 total yards per contest.
In fact, out of all NFL teams that have played six games, the Pats have given up more points (159) than anyone except the Titans and Browns. Their aggregate defensive numbers are more than troubling; they will probably keep them from this year’s Super Bowl, unless big holes are plugged.
Both teams can move the ball, for sure. The Pats (4-2) are first in total yardage (412.0) while the Falcons are fifth (378.4). And Atlanta at least tries to be balanced, averaging 120.6 yards on the ground per game, which is 11th in the league. New England makes no pretense, with 310 of their 412 yards coming through the air.
If there’s an oddity in either offense, it’s the fact that the Falcons haven’t found Julio Jones in the end zone. Arguably the best wideout in the sport — who likely would have won Super Bowl MVP had Atlanta won the game — Jones has not been so silenced to start a season during his dazzling career. Through five games, Jones has just 25 receptions, none longer than 34 yards. Whatever the 3-2 Falcons are now, they need to get the ball to their best player if they want to even sniff the Super Bowl this season.
Both teams have showed craters in their playoff armor. Atlanta is almost schizophrenic, whipping the Packers (with Aaron Rodgers) while losing to the Miami Dolphins, at home, in their last game, an ugly affair in which they blew a 17-0 lead. Likewise the Pats were smoked on opening night, at home, by the Kansas City Chiefs,. They also lost to the Carolina Panthers at Gillette Stadium. Yet they beat the Texans and won games at resurgent New Orleans and Tampa Bay.
But since the Pats won the Super Bowl, it seems they’re not ascribed the hangover handle. And when you have Tom Brady under center, it serves as gridiron makeup, hiding all kinds of defensive acne. Brady also has some big guns on each hip, with Rob Gronkowski, Brandin Cooks, a slew of solid slot receivers, and several skilled running backs. As long as No.12 continues to maintain his surreal stretch of good health, the Pats will likely outscore their opponents most of the season, though they do have some rugged road games against the Broncos, Raiders, Bills, and Steelers.
Atlanta doesn’t have the HC/QB pedigree of the Pats. In fact, some say the Falcons have struggled not because of any Super Bowl malaise but rather because they dearly miss offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who bolted Atlanta to take the head coaching gig with the San Francisco 49ers. Shanahan’s understanding of the team’s talent and his shorthand with Ryan made the Falcons more potent than ever. Doesn’t hurt to have a surplus of talent at all skill positions. Mohamed Sanu, Tyler Gabriel next to Jones, plus two Pro Bowl-caliber running backs in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman make the play-action passing game among the best in football.
So what gives? Why are the Falcons in a funk? And why are the Pats not far behind? The answer is easy. It’s not easy to win in the NFL, no matter your roster, history, or hardihood. Brady and Belichick made it look somewhat simple, but they are outliers, freaks, even by the impossible standards of pro football.
No one had the Falcons winning the Super Bowl before the 2016 season, so it shouldn’t shock anyone that they aren’t favored in 2017. They don’t have a hangover, they just aren’t that good. Indeed, it’s the Patriots’ pillow-soft, Big 12 defense that should have our attention.
So Sunday night may be a Super Bowl rematch, but it doesn’t feel like a Super Bowl preview.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.