Super Bowl LI may end up being "like a chess match"
Mike Carlson looks ahead to Sunday's game between Atlanta and New England14:10 Friday 3 February 2017, 14:10 3 Feb 2017
It's the biggest, most over-the-top day in the American calendar; a secular holiday which sees more of the country joining into its national sport - television watching - than at any other point of the year.
The Super Bowl is here, or Super Bowl LI (51 to those who don't get taught Roman numerals, which is most of America) and it is a good one. The New England Patriots, playing in their seventh Super Bowl with head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady, will be going for a record fifth win while the Atlanta Falcons, led by quarterback Matt Ryan, who played at Boston College, in the Patriots' back yard, are in the big game for only the second time. They have never hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
The crowd of some 72,000 gathered at NRG Stadium in Houston will be dwarfed by the TV audience, expected to average over 112 million, and peak around 165 million. The league is worried because ratings were off during the season, for which over-exposure, short attention spans and the prevalence of other media could be major factors, but this is the time when advertisers will pay over $5 million for a 30-second commerical, knowing a captive audience will see it.
The commercials themselves become part of the experience, and there is betting on which will be the most shared on social media. Budweiser has already made a splash with an ad that shows the Anheuser-Busch founder Augustus Busch emigrating to America; the ad has struck such a chord with a nation fraught with immigration argument that is may lack shares on game day because everyone has already seen it.
Houston's NRG Stadium will host the game
The Super Bowl generates other questions. Will Lady Gaga mention Donald Trump during the extended half-time show, which is America's biggest variety programme? Its audience often is greater than the game's average. Will any player take a knee during the National Anthem, following the practice begun by San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick to highlight Black Lives Matter? Will the President actually show up at the match, or will he be content with his pre-taped interview with Fox News which will air in the build-up to the game?
Back on the field, the connections between the teams run run deeper than Matt Ryan's college days, and deeper than Atlanta's reserve defensive lineman Joe Vellano, who played for New England's Super Bowl winners two years ago. The Pats won that game over Seattle Seahawks, with a dramatic goal-line interception of a pass by then-unknown Malcolm Butler. As it happens, Seattle's defensive coordinator in that game was Dan Quinn, who left immediately afterwards to take the head coaching job in Atlanta.
Quinn was hired by an Atlanta front-office that learned their trade under Belichick. General manager Tom Dimitroff, his assistant Scott Pioli, and their personnel director Joel Collier all are ex-Patriots, and their approach to roster-building has mirrored New England's knack for finding spare parts and college draft picks that fit what the coaches want.
The key person off the field, however, may be another coordinator about to move on to new, if not greener, pastures. Atlanta's Kyle Shanahan is the mastermind of the league's best offence, and under his tutelage Ryan has turned in one of the most impressive quarterbacking seasons in league history. He has an acrobatic big-play receiver in Julio Jones, two complementary pass-catchers in Mohammad Sanu and Taylor Gabriel, both added to the team this season, and two runners who are both explosive on the ground and adept at catching the ball.
The Falcons ran up 80 points in playoff wins over Seattle and Green Bay, and while New England's defence allowed the fewest points in the league this year, they also surrender lots of yardage: the test will be keeping the Falcons' flyers grounded close to the end zone. Shanahan has been masterful at scheming his players into the matchups they can win; his father Mike used to be a Belichick nemesis when he coached Denver Broncos and the gene may well run in the family.
Atlanta's head coach Dan Quinn and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan
The Patriots' attack is potent as well, even without their star tight end Rob Gronkowski. The 39-year-old Brady, seeming to benefit from missing the first four games of the season while suspended for his role or non-role in the so-called Deflategate affair, turned in an exceptional season: throwing only two interceptions while leading the Pats to 11 wins in his 12 games (they went 3-1 without him). In the playoffs he's been more mortal, five touchdowns and two picks in two games, but the keen-eyed have noticed that those are the same stats in turned in for the two playoff games before the Patriots beat Carolina Panthers to win Super Bowl 38, Brady's second victory.
The Pats don't have the game-breaking threats the Falcons can boast, even more than Atlanta they depend on scheming their offence to work. But receivers Julian Edleman and Chris Hogan each had over 100 yards in the Conference Championship win over Pittsburgh, running back LaGarrett Blount is a force at the goal line, and the pair of Dion Lewis and James White catch the ball out of the backfield even better than the Falcons.
Atlanta's defence, like Seattle's, is fast and physical, and this may be the other key. Where the Steelers sat in zone defences New England picked apart, the Falcons are expected to play tight man to man coverages, trying to keep New England's receivers from getting open quickly. Putting Brady off his rhythm is usually the way to beat him, especially if you can get to him on the pass rush, where Vic Beasley, perhaps the most athletic defender on either team, could be crucial.
Sometimes American football is like a head on clash of heavy cavalry, sometimes it's like a chess match. The best games tend to be a combination of both, and this one, while tending toward the chess match, may offer the kind of battle which turns one or two failed opportunities, one or two turnovers, one or two mistakes, into the deciders.
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