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Super Bowl LI is the New England Patriots' to lose
The Falcons can win, of course, but here’s why they won’t.

Steve O’Rourke reports from Houston

ON 21 APRIL 1836, the Battle of San Jacinto saw General Sam Houston’s Texian (not a typo) Army defeat General Antonio López de Santa Anna’s Mexican army in a contest that was over in just 18 minutes.

The ramifications were much longer lasting.

Santa Anna was held as a prisoner of war and three weeks later signed a peace treaty giving up Mexico’s claim on Texas, paving the way for it to become an independent country.

Houston, in recognition for his role in the battle, had America’s now fourth-most populous city named after him.

Given how one-sided the NFL playoffs have been to date, many fans will be hoping that Super Bowl LI isn’t over in as little as 18 minutes but it’s certainly not out of the question.

If you’ve been following The42‘s coverage this week — and you can read all our detailed breakdowns here — you’ll know that this is a battle between Atlanta’s high-powered, high-octane, high-scoring offence and a New England defence that is the number one scoring outfit in football.

However, something has been bugging me this week.

Over the course of a cumulative 11 hour flight to get to Houston, I read, listened to and watched an unhealthy amount of Super Bowl LI previews and most — nearly all — figure that Atlanta’s defence is going to suddenly morph into the 2016 Denver Broncos and put pressure on Tom Brady.

But why?

As I pointed out earlier this week, Vick Beasley is the best pass rusher they have and his stats only look that good because of his sack numbers.

Moving him towards the centre of the defensive line is their best hope at getting pressure but, even then, we know Tom Brady is a blitz-killer.

That said, there is a weird statistical quirk that could explain why people are expecting the Falcons defence to improve. In his six visits to the Super Bowl, Brady’s offences have amassed -2 total first quarter points (they gave up a safety against the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI when he was flagged for intentional grounding).

We saw in the NFC Championship game what Atlanta’s offence can do when the other team is having scoreboard issues, but the Packers defence was junior B compared to Matt Patricia’s outfit.

By now, you probably know that the Patriots defence is not like many others.

If your number one offensive weapon is a wide receiver — oh hi there, Julio Jones — then, instead of covering him with their best defensive back, Patricia and Bill Belichick assign their number two guy, with coverage help over the top from a safety.

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Or, at least that’s usually the plan.

In the AFC Championship Game — and their match-up earlier this season — Malcolm Butler, the Pats’ best defensive back, stuck pretty close to Antonio Brown and held him to just seven catches for 77 yards two weeks ago.

The last time they schemed for Jones, back in 2013, the receiver came away with six catches for 108 yards on 13 targets, spending most of his afternoon being shadowed by Aqib Talib, then New England’s best back but most of his yards came when he was facing the opposite corner that day, Alfonzo Dennard.

So Belichick and Patrica have a choice to make before kick-off but they also know, whatever decision they take, they have a solid plan B in their back pockets.

Don’t get me wrong, the Falcons can win this game. They are a great team with a historically good offence. Matt Ryan is the season’s MVP. Julio Jones is the best receiver receiver in football. Their backfield is among the most dynamic in the league.

But the things they do well are the things the Patriots defence is very good at taking away. Football is about match-ups, you only have to look at last season and how an average offensive line was completely dominated by a terrific defensive front.

All the Patriots’ Super Bowl games have been close, and I wouldn’t be shocked if this one was the same, but how can you ever bet against Brady and Belichick when they’re not facing Eli Manning?

Verdict: Patriots 32-28 Falcons

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