Greetings from NRG Stadium, the site of Super Bowl LI.
The showdown between Atlanta and New England is set to take place at 6:30 p.m., and one team will be crowned the league’s best team and travel back home hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.
As kickoff is nearing, here are five things to watch on the gridiron.
How impactful is Alex Mack?
Against Green Bay, Atlanta center Alex Mack found himself lying on the ground momentarily before walking off on his own power. The injury — which was ruled to be an ankle tweak — seemed to be minor at first glance as Mack only sat out one play.
Then during the first week of preparation at Flowery Branch, he was held out of practices for precautionary reasons and was expected to be a full-go once Atlanta arrived in Houston.
But that wasn’t the case, as Mack only got as far as being a limited participant, then it was revealed Sunday that the Falcons received some unwanted news. According to an ESPN report, Mack’s fibula injury has been deemed a fracture. But the 31-year-old Atlanta stalwart will play through the pain in his first Super Bowl appearance after receiving a number of injections.
The expectation is for Mack to have no playing time limitations, but it’s currently unseen as to how he can perform with a significant injury.
Mack has been one of the Falcons’ most impactful offensive players, and has potentially led his team to this stage. Although overshadowed by Atlanta’s explosive playmakers, Mack is vital to the team’s success and a top-notch performance may be needed against New England.
If the injury is re-aggravated, Mack will be replaced by backup center Ben Garland.
The experience factor
The game features two teams with contrast in terms of experience. Atlanta waltzes into its first Super Bowl appearance since 1999 after winning the two previous playoff games in convincing fashion.
For New England, the path was similar as both Houston and Pittsburgh proved to be not much of a test. But the Patriots have been on the big stage before. Quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick enter their fifth Super Bowl together. Falcons signal-caller Matt Ryan and head coach Dan Quinn enter their first as a tandem.
That raises the question as to whether nerves will be a factor in the early stages as a majority of Atlanta’s players have yet to play a game with more than 100 million sets of eyes on them and such a prestigious honor at stake.
Throughout the two weeks of preparation, the Falcons insist that they’ve undergone the same type of routine, but a different type of nervousness could take place once the ball flies in the air. So it will be seen in a few hours if the Patriots can capitalize if Atlanta seems rattled and ride the experience to another Super Bowl victory.
Can New England limit Julio Jones?
He has potential to be a difference maker on any Sunday, and Julio Jones will look to do so again on the biggest platform. In the NFC championship game, Jones collected 180 yards while playing through a re-aggravated toe injury.
Even when not 100 percent, Jones proves to be a daunting challenge to opposing backfields, and New England will look to eliminate him from Atlanta’s offensive production. The question is whether it will be effective. Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler tweeted in 2012 that he had a desire to cover Jones, now he will get the chance to face-off against Atlanta’s primary playmaker.
The Patriots could potentially double cover Jones, as Green Bay’s man-to-man coverage on him proved costly two weeks ago.
The numerous challenges that come with trying to stop Atlanta’s potent offense becomes evident yet again as the run dimension with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman could be troublesome, or role players such as slot receiver Taylor Gabriel could get into the action.
Look for New England to play some defensive coverages that Atlanta hasn’t seen early on, and try to force three-and-outs to gain extra possessions.
Atlanta’s pass rush
Atlanta was masterful with its pass rush in the NFC championship game as Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers was hit eight times and hurried on many more occasions in the victory.
Rodgers was unable to keep up his astounding production due to the numerous disruptions, and the Falcons will look to replicate that once more with Brady. But Brady has proved to be more effective against the blitz, so the Falcons will need to be innovative in ways to put pressure on the veteran without vastly altering coverages.
If the Patriots’ offense is to be disrupted, it can play to Atlanta’s advantage. On the other hand, the test for Atlanta’s backfield could become much more difficult if Brady is given significant time to throw.
Who will be crowned world champions?
It’s time to make a prediction as to which team will add a Lombardi Trophy to its legacy.
The Patriots carry the background to lead many to believe that league commissioner Roger Goodell will give the award to Brady and it’s the same story in Foxboro, Massachusetts.
Atlanta however, carries more talent on its roster by a fair margin, despite starting three rookies on the defensive end. Ryan, just crowned the MVP, and his abundance of playmakers will prove to be too much.
The culmination of talent and the change in culture will give the Falcons their first Super Bowl victory, and send Atlanta its first world championship since the Braves beat the Cleveland Indians in 1996.
Falcons 34, Patriots 23