Better late than never.
This is the part where I admit I was wrong about the NFC championship game. Let’s call it “Sean Spicer at a press conference after a 10 minute lecture from Steve Bannon” wrong. Green Bay isn’t who I thought they were, and Atlanta did not let them off the hook. After the better part of two weeks left to ruminate about the shared folly of the NFC in 2016, the picture has become clearer. But I was more or less spot on about the AFC Championship; meaning, I had the storyboards ordered appropriately, but the main characters weren’t properly fleshed out.
I’ve fixed it. And that’s why I can say definitively, the New England Patriots are going to hoist the Lombardi Trophy tomorrow.
The Falcons bring 2016’s highest scoring offense to the table. The Patriots bring 2016’s best defense in terms of points allowed. These teams, additionally, are #1 and #2 in point differential and turnovers. These statistics are certainly the most deterministic in understanding this matchup because of the parallel, yet inverted, stories they tell about how each team is functioning to win games. But, as far as I’m concerned, the REAL proof is in the pudding: how many top 10 scoring defenses did the Falcons shred, versus how many top 10 offenses did the Patriots clamp?
The Atlanta Falcons Offense, really
The Atlanta Falcons played four games against top 10 scoring defenses: Against Seattle (3rd, 18.3 pts allowed/game) in Seattle in the regular season, against Denver (4th, 18.6 pts allowed/game) in Denver in the regular season, home against Kansas City (7th, 19.4 pts allowed/game) in the regular season, and home against the Seahawks again in the divisional round. That’s 3 games against playoff teams, but the Seattle games probably tell the clearest story.
Against Seattle on the road, they scored 24 but lost 24-26. Against Denver they scored 23, and won 23-16. Against KC, they scored 28, but lost 28-29 after one of the clutchest defensive plays in the history of PATs. However, in their home rematch against Seattle, they bundled the Seahawks 36-20 in a game that was much more lopsided than the 16 point scoreboard differential would have you believe. The important takeaway here is that all these opponents, for how good their defenses are, have relatively flawed offenses; none of them would be able to win a shootout. The New England Patriots are the best scoring defense at 15.6 points per game, and gave up less than that number 6 times total in the regular season.
The Atlanta Falcons are capable of scoring more points than a handful of the NFL’s top defenses allow, and so they’re surely going to score more than 16 points. But how many more?
The New England Patriots Defense, honestly
The New England Patriots played 5 games against top 10 scoring offenses: Against Arizona (6th, 26.1) in Arizona in the regular season, against Buffalo (T-10th, 24.9) at home and away, and against Pittsburgh (T-10th, 24.9) at home and away. That’s 2 games against playoff teams.
They gave up 21 to Zona on the road in the first game of the season without Tom Brady. They gave up 16 and 25 to Buffalo, but scored ZERO in the first game (their last game without Tom Brady) and 41 in the latter game (obviously with Tom Brady). They gave up scores of 16 and 17 to Pittsburgh, who never demonstrated an ability to move the ball fluidly in either game. All these opponents share a similar issue: they all have inconsistent defenses. While the Patriots’ defense was playing meaningful, pride-stomping snaps in these games, the opposing defenses (save Buffalo’s 16-0 effort in Foxborough) were struggling against the Patriots’ offense. Meanwhile, the Atlanta Falcons are the best scoring offense at 33.8 points per game, and they scored more than that number 8 times in the regular season (notably, 4 times on the road).
Conclusion: Seahawks mentioned again, SB will come down to tempo + turnovers
The Seahawks are still relevant to this conversation only because both SB teams lost them at points in the regular season.
The Falcons lost to the Seahawks in a game where they did not force a turnover, but gave up two turns themselves. Atlanta only scored 24 points despite having 12 drives. They were on the road, and it was early in the season, and some Falcons fans would say there was egregious refereeing, but that game outlined a similar formula to the one KC used later on: limit turnovers and operate an efficient offense, and the Falcons can be had.
The most points the Patriots have given up all year was 31 to the Seahawks on Sunday night in Foxborough in what was maybe the most emotional game the Seahawks played all year. Incidentally, the Patriots offense itself stalled somewhat as their best offensive weapon, Rob Gronkowski, went down in this game due to injury and hasn’t played a down since. However, what was crucial here too is that the Seahawks did not turn the ball over, and the Patriots gave up 2 turns themselves. It is notable that the Patriots were in position to tie the game on the penultimate drive, but despite 5 plays from within the Seahawks 2 yard line, they could not get the necessary TD.
The Falcons #1 scoring offense is ostensibly more impressive than the Patriots #1 scoring defense, but the other sides of the coins are what give the Pats the edge: the Patriots have the #3 scoring offense at 27.6 while the Falcons have the 6th worst scoring defense at 25.4 points allowed. The Patriots on average give up about two touchdowns less than they score. The Falcons score about 10 more than they give up. Both teams make a living by securing turnovers, but I’d say the Falcons are more reliant on them to boost their own scoring opportunities. Therefore, if the Patriots stay disciplined and win the turnover battle, they should win the game. It isn’t a big if.
The Patriots have coaching, experience, and consistency on their side. The Falcons have energy and a handful of very potent offensive weapons, but it’s an all too familiar script. Tom Brady feasts on young defenses, whether he has Gronk or not. I expect the Patriots to score more than Atlanta gives up on average, while holding Atlanta well below their scoring average. Atlanta will likely score more than the Patriots allow on average, but the Falcons’ defense, like Coach Dan Quinn’s Seattle defense before, won’t get the big stops against Brady when they need them the most.
Final: Patriots, 33-26.