NFL Hash Marks: Super Bowl kerfuffle - - The News for South Mississippi

NFL Hash Marks: Super Bowl kerfuffle

The New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons will play to decide the NFL's champion in Super Bowl LI on Sunday in Houston. (Source: AP/Matt Slocum/John Bazemore) The New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons will play to decide the NFL's champion in Super Bowl LI on Sunday in Houston. (Source: AP/Matt Slocum/John Bazemore)

(RNN) - The commissioner better hope the Falcons win Super Bowl LI. Otherwise, the trophy ceremony could turn into "The Roast of Roger Goodell."

#Awkward - The commish's two-year quest to punish the Patriots for "Deflategate" had, at best, zero effect on their season. At worst, it gave them more motivation and gave Tom Brady four extra weeks of rest to start the year.

Now, New England could stand on the same stage as the man who's been keeping them down. 

Goodell: Congratulations, Tom. (hands Lombardi Trophy).

Brady: (Grabs mic instead) Thanks, Rog, it's been a while! This guy's been dodging us like I dodge questions on Trump. But seriously, folks, here's coach Bill Belichick to say a few words.

Belichick: (Inaudible mumbles and sighs).

Everybody: WHAT??

Belichick: (Inaudible mumbles and sighs) ... take your gauge and check my tire pressure, you ... (inaudible mumbles and sighs).

Goodell: OK, thanks everyone for a great …

Brady: And here's linebacker Don’t'a Hightower!

Hightower: Hey, Rog. Let's play "Police Academy." I'll be "Hightower," you'll be "Tackleberry."

Goodell: Why would I be …

Hightower: (Tackles Goodell).

#BackpackBackpack - Atlanta offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan lost his backpack Monday during a Super Bowl media gaggle. That was a big deal, since his Super Bowl game plan was in the bag.

He eventually got it back, but here's something to help him out if he loses it again.

Super Bowl LI: New England Patriots vs. Atlanta Falcons, 6:30 p.m. ET Sunday

The history of the two franchises involved couldn't be more different. The New England Patriots are in their ninth Super Bowl (4-4 record), the most appearances for any team.

It will be the seventh championship game (4-2) for Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, which breaks the record for appearances by a coach and a quarterback. With a fifth victory, they'd both own the records for most Lombardi Trophy-hoisting at their respective positions.

The Falcons have been to one Super Bowl (XXXIII) in their 51-year history and have never won the championship. QB and MVP favorite Matt Ryan had a 1-4 record in the playoffs until this year.

However, coach Dan Quinn has now been to three of the last four Super Bowls. He won one (XLVIII, Broncos) and lost one (XLIX, Patriots) as defensive coordinator for the Seahawks.

Young, improving defense for Falcons

Quinn is one of the best coaching hires in recent history. The man behind the dominant Seattle D built with low-round draft picks has taken a consistently bad Falcons squad over the years and injected it with youth, leadership and energy.

Several making major contributions, including Vic Beasley Jr., Jalen Collins, Deion Jones, Keanu Neal and Brian Poole, are in their first or second NFL season. Veteran pass rusher Dwight Freeney has shown he still had something left on the field and has offered tutelage to the young recruits, helping guide Beasley to the sack crown.

Atlanta has gotten more aggressive in the postseason, keeping opposing QBs under pressure. Collins, Robert Alford and the rest of the secondary kept the Packers receivers in check early on, allowing their offense to build a 24-0 first half lead.

The Patriots offensive line has kept Brady off the turf most of the season, but the Falcons may want to emulate what the Texans did to New England in the divisional round - blitz the middle of the line to take advantage of the guards, particularly rookie Joe Thuney.   

The old man

Brady, at 39, had 28 TDs and only two interceptions in a 12-game season shortened by the Deflategate suspension. The oldest non-kicker in the league had arguably his best statistical season on a per-game basis, completing 67 percent of his passes (a career best), averaging 8.2 yards per attempt and setting an NFL record for TD-to-INT ratio.

His secret? A maybe-not-so-crazy diet that cuts out tomatoes and peppers. Really.

Julian Edelman was the top receiving target, with 98 catches for more than 1,100 yards, and Chris Hogan led the league among eligible receivers with 17.9 yards per catch. The duo has combined for 520 yards in two playoff games.

Rob Gronkowski's season-ending injury took away one of the team's biggest gamechangers and Brady's top red zone target. Martellus Bennett who saw his fair share of the field in two-TE sets before Gronk went down, has excelled in his first year in New England and creates a mismatch no matter who is defending him.

Some previous Patriots teams have leaned heavily on Brady's passing, but this year's group provides more balance. LeGarrette Blount is the battering ram, and he had nearly 1,200 yards rushing and led the league with 18 TDs. Smaller, shiftier backs Dion Lewis and James White also see time, and they make plays catching the ball as well as they do running with it.

The weak spot for the Pats offense may be getting from the kickoff to Brady. They have used multiple options to return kicks and punts, and Lewis was the most recent who had trouble holding on to the ball.

No. 1 offense

The Falcons had the No. 1 scoring offense, averaging 33.8 points per game, the ninth most prolific of all time. They averaged 416 yards per game. Ryan threw for nearly 5,000 yards, averaged a league-best 9.3 yards per attempt and completed TD passes to 13 different receivers this season - an NFL-first.

Julio Jones finished second in the league with 1,409 receiving yards, and running back Devonta Freeman was the only player to have 1,500 scrimmage yards and 10 TDs in each of the last two seasons. Freeman was spelled by Tevin Coleman, who added 942 scrimmage yards and 11 TDs. As a team, they averaged 4.6 yards per carry.

TL; DR: they're good. Somehow, they've been even better in the playoffs.

They bullied Quinn's old Seahawks defense for 36 points then encored by taking advantage of the Packers D for 44 points. Ryan, 31, had short stretches in his career of elite-level play, but an improved O-line, improved weapons and improved decision-making in 2016 have pushed him to a new level of consistency.

Atlanta enjoyed being the only team to have the same starting five on the offensive line all season. That run may be in jeopardy, as All-Pro center Alex Mack remains questionable for Sunday. His coach said Thursday he was "concerned" about the fibula injury.

… vs. No. 1 defense

While much of the Atlanta defense relies on its speed, the Pats are built to be big and physical. Their D kept opponents to 15.6 points per game in the regular season, best among all teams. Its strength has been a defensive front, led by Alan Branch and Trey Flowers, that fills gaps to prevent opposing runners from busting through. Teams averaged only 88 rushing yards per game against New England and scored six TDs on the ground, the fewest allowed in the league.

Those numbers are bolstered by a weak regular season schedule, with the Pats only playing four games against a top-16 offense, and that's if a game against the Steelers without Ben Roethlisberger is counted.

One of the playmakers in the secondary is cornerback Malcolm Butler, who already has a spot in the all-time Super Bowl highlights with a game-saving interception in XLIX. Since rising suddenly from obscurity, he has become a Pro Bowler and the most reliable cover man on the team.

New England lined Butler against Steelers' star receiver Antonio Brown in the AFC Championship, with a safety helping out over-the-top. A similar double team could be used against Atlanta's Jones, but the Falcons have better secondary receivers than Pittsburgh and could exploit the defense elsewhere.

A lot of the talk has centered on the history of No. 1 against No. 1, with the defense coming out on top all but one time (49ers, SB XXIV) in the seven previous Super Bowl matchups, including five since the 1970 NFL merger.

One caveat to that: only one of those offenses averaged more points than the Falcons (Broncos, SB XLVIII) and none of the defenses gave up as many points as the Pats.

Hash Marks, formerly NFL of the Week, is a preview/analysis of games and a satirical look at the entire NFL Universe - the players, coaches, owners, fans and media. For more sports and other news, follow @MattQuillenRNN on Twitter.

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