The big day is here.
After two weeks of media coverage, hype and dodging Donald Trump questions, the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons will finally square off tonight in Super Bowl LI. With that said, here are our (cough) expert predictions for Super Bowl LI.
Reuben Frank (9-7)
Every time I look at the matchups, I like the Falcons. They have a better running game. They have more dangerous wide receivers. They have Julio Jones. They have a defense that's played really well the last month and a half. They have Matt Ryan putting up ridiculous numbers.
The Patriots? They have the usual collection of journeymen, castoffs, free agents, late-round draft picks and street pickups. They also have Tom Brady, and I just can't pick against Tom Brady in a Super Bowl. On paper, the Falcons win. But I'm going with the Patriots, just because it's Tom Brady, it's the Super Bowl and I can't pick him to lose.
Patriots 31, Falcons 28
Dave Zangaro (8-8)
I think we're in for a good Super Bowl. At least I hope so.
On its face, it doesn't make much sense to pick against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. I mean, they know what they're doing.
But this season, they're about to run into an absolute buzzsaw. I know the Patriots are known for taking away their opponent's best weapon, so they'll try to stop Julio Jones on Sunday. The problem with that is there have been eight games this season where Jones either didn't play or had four or fewer catches. The Falcons are 7-1 in those games, so taking away Jones doesn't mean stopping the Falcons.
I just think the Falcons' offense is performing at too high a level and their defense has been steadily underrated all season.
(Also, a friendly reminder: the Eagles have beaten both these teams within the last two years.)
Falcons 38, Patriots 36
Derrick Gunn (8-8)
Super Bowl LI has the makings of a real shootout. Atlanta's offense appears unstoppable right now. Not only did the Falcons lead the league in scoring during the regular season with 33.8 points per game, they're on a six-game win streak that inclues two playoff blowouts. HotLanta has averaged 39 points per game during the streak.
As for New England, ever since Tom Brady returned from his suspension in Week 5, the Patriots have averaged 30.7 points. So much attention has been given to the offense, but both defenses should be given props.
New England's No. 1-rated scoring defense has been consistent, while the young Falcons' defense, which has four rookies starting, has generated 13 turnovers and 14 sacks in its last six games.
Matt Ryan richly deserves the MVP award he won on Saturday night, but Bill Belichick is the best in the business at neutralizing an opponent's strength and exploiting weaknesses. The one big question for me is which team's defense can rattle the quarterback?
Because Belichick and Brady have been down this Super Bowl road so many times before, I give the Pats the edge on Sunday.
Patriots 31, Falcons 27
Ray Didinger (8-8)
The Falcons are red hot, winning their last six games and scoring more than 40 points in half of them, including a 44-21 beat down of Green Bay in the NFC title game. But history is not on their side this week. They had the top scoring offense in the NFL this season, but the New England defense allowed the fewest points. This will be the seventh time the Super Bowl will feature a No. 1 vs. No. 1 matchup, and in five of the previous six games, the team with the No. 1 defense won. That's a pretty strong trend.
Also, I can't shake the memory of the Falcons' 24-15 loss to the Eagles. The Eagles ran the ball down the Falcons' throats (38 rushing attempts for a season-high 207 yards) and Ryan Mathews ran for 108 yards, most of them between the tackles. The Eagles controlled the ball for more than 38 minutes and limited the explosive Atlanta offense to 11 first downs. I could see the Patriots doing much the same thing with LeGarrette Blount hammering away at the swift but smallish Atlanta defensive front.
So while the pregame conversion focused on Tom Brady going for his fifth Super Bowl ring - and, of course, getting his jollies at the expense of Commissioner Roger Goodell - the Patriots' quarterback may not be the key to winning this game, after all. I think it will be New England's running game and its underrated defense (which will limit the big plays by Julio Jones) that will make the difference in the end.
Patriots 27, Falcons 23
Andrew Kulp (9-7)
Five times before, the No. 1 scoring offense in the NFL has met the No. 1 scoring defense in the Super Bowl. On four of those occasions, defense won.
That said, the Patriots don't feel like your typical No. 1 defense. Just look at some of the teams they played this year: the Browns, the 49ers, the Rams, the Bengals, the Broncos, the Jets (twice), the Texans (twice), the Dolphins without Ryan Tannehill and the Steelers without Le'Veon Bell for three quarters of the game. I have seen some dominant, all-time great defenses flat out carry teams to championships in my lifetime - the 2000 Ravens, the '02 Bucs, the '13 Seahawks and the '15 Broncos - and I'm just not sure I view this group in that light.
It's also tough to bet against Bill Belichick - if anybody can scheme a way to stop Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman, Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel, it's that guy - nor can you count out Tom Brady. For that reason, I'm genuinely torn on which way to go, but my gut is telling me it's the Falcons' time.
Falcons 28, Patriots 27
Corey Seidman (9-7)
Part of me wants the Patriots to win just so we can all definitively state Tom Brady is the greatest QB of all time and Bill Belichick is the best coach. It would pretty much end any debate there, and I'm all for ending hot-air debates.
But Brady has been super unlikeable the last couple weeks. His political affiliation is his business, but it's pretty lame to call attention to who you support with a "Make America Great Again" hat in your locker, only to subsequently refuse to answer questions about it. Either keep it to yourself or answer questions, you don't get it both ways.
So, perhaps my judgment is clouded now because I'm actively rooting against Brady, but the Falcons have so much offensively and are playing so fast on defense that I think they pull this one out. If the game was being played outdoors, I'd go Pats all the way. But it's in the dome in Houston and we all know how fast the Falcons move indoors.
Falcons 31, Patriots 27
Andy Schwartz (9-7)
To beat the Patriots, as the Giants and others have proven, pressuring Tom Brady is a must.
Bill Barnwell elaborates on that - in exhaustive detail - here.
The Falcons, who boast NFL sack leader Victor Beasley, beat Green Bay two weeks ago by rattling Aaron Rodgers. But Rodgers, as Eagles fans saw in November, excelled by adeptly navigating the pocket and extending plays. He wasn't able to do that against Atlanta.
Will the Falcons get to Tom Brady? I'm not betting on it. Brady is mobile - but not as mobile as Rodgers - and will get rid of the ball quickly. This Falcons' D is hardly a juggernaut, especially not in its home dome and especially against a Patriots team given two weeks to prepare.
The only way the Falcons win is in a shootout. Could happen, but I'm not going with any team the Eagles beat this season to win the Super Bowl.
Patriots 31, Falcons 20