Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017 | 2 a.m.
It’s a time-honored tradition to spend the few days before the Super Bowl revisiting the NFL’s past championship games.
Ahead of this year’s game between the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons Sunday at NRG Stadium, one Super Bowl has risen to the top of the retrospection — Super Bowl 36. The recollections make sense considering yesterday marked the 15-year anniversary of the Patriots’ 20-17 win over the St. Louis Rams as 14-point underdogs — the second-biggest Super Bowl upset of all-time — that gave the tandem of coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady their first Lombardi Trophy.
Now they'll both go for a record fifth against a team in the Falcons that’s joined the 2002 Rams with one of the best offenses in NFL history.
There are more subtle reasons for the look back to 2002. For one, former Rams’ stars Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk are even more readily available than Brady and Belichick during Super Bowl week to add perspective, or controversy, to the start of the Patriots’ dynasty.
Everyone is swept up in the nostalgia, even the Patriots, as much as they’d like to deny it. Brady even gave a glimpse the size of a collapsing pocket into some emotion when he reflected on his college roommate sending him a picture from Super Bowl 36 earlier this week.
“He looked young in that picture,” Brady said. “It was a great game, and I’m glad we won. It was tough, and it kind of came down to the end like it always seems to with our team.”
Brady hasn’t forgotten the razor-tight nature of every Super Bowl he’s ever played in. Just as amazing as reaching the final game six previous times is the fact that all of those contests are cemented in lore as some of the best Super Bowls ever.
The Patriots have outscored their Super Bowl opponents by a total of six points under Belichick and Brady. Despite going 4-2 in those games, they're 2-4 against the spread.
Maybe that tendency is part of the reason why more bettors are backing the Falcons as 3-point underdogs against the Patriots than they would have at any other point of the season.
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The most popular question at the Super Bowl’s downtown hub here is unsurprisingly the same one as inside Las Vegas sports books.
Conversations frequently begin with, “who are you picking?” I’ve used the same four words every time the query has come my way.
“I’m leaning the Patriots,” I’ve said.
More often than not, I’ve been impugned by the pick. Some argument that centers on Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and receiver Julio Jones follows.
Now, it would be foolish to automatically equate a random selection of people and a minuscule sample size to the overall perception of the game. But there are also signs in Las Vegas that opinion isn’t as sharply situated on the Patriots as expected.
As of the latest report at William Hill US, the operator with the most sports books in the state, 55 percent of the tickets are on New England. That’s a majority, so it sounds like a lot but it would be among the least supported the Patriots have been throughout a 15-3 against the spread season.
After the conference championship games, MGM Resorts International sports book director Jay Rood guessed the Super Bowl line would settle at New England minus-3.5. That never happened, as this has been the rare Super Bowl spread that stayed as stoic as Belichick on the sideline.
Any shop that added the half-point hook had bettors pursuing the number like Falcons coach Dan Quinn going after the officials for a missed pass interference call. The 3.5-point lines haven’t lasted long.
The pull of Ryan and Jones has reached its way to Las Vegas.
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The matchup: Falcons offense vs. Patriots defense
Ryan, poised to win the NFL MVP award tonight after sitting at 100-to-1 before the season, will go into the Super Bowl fully healthy.
That’s more than can be said for Atlanta’s next two most valuable offensive players. Jones is dealing with a re-aggravated turf toe injury that kept him out of two games late in the season, and has been limited in practice all week.
Metrics indicate centers are one of the most important positions on the field, and the Falcons might have the best one in the league in Alex Mack. But Mack is hobbled by a fibula injury that even Quinn has characterized as concerning.
Both Jones and Mack will play Sunday, but every small injury could add up against the Patriots. New England has a defense that’s been both significantly stingy and immaculately healthy.
After a few injury-marred years, the Patriots placed an emphasis on prevention this season and it’s paid off with the sixth fewest games lost to injury in the league. Neither their two starting defensive tackles — Malcolm Brown and Alan Branch — nor their starting cornerbacks — Maclolm Butler and Logan Ryan — have missed a game all season.
It’s no surprise their defense overcame a mediocre start to reach the top 10 in the league, giving up only 5.2 yards per play, when linebackers and leaders Dont’a Hightower and Rob Ninkovich returned to the lineup in October. They haven’t been out since.
New England tries to take away teams’ top option, and Atlanta has accepted that will mean Jones on Sunday.
“We trust other guys, whether it’s our running backs out of the backfield to make plays, whether its’ our tight ends, who have made a lot of explosive plays for us, or whether it’s the other four receivers out there,” Ryan said.
New England hasn’t been great against No. 1 receivers this year, ranking 20th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA in the category. And Jones, whose over/unders are 6.5 receptions for 95.5 yards, had nine catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns despite the bad toe in the NFC Championship two weeks ago.
Some argue the Patriots’ defensive efficiency numbers are inflated because of a weak schedule. Others say they’re deflated for not emphasizing recent performance enough.
Either way, there are two great offenses in the Super Bowl. The Patriots have the only solid defense.
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The matchup: Patriots offense vs. Falcons defense
The NFL reserves risers for the 10 players on each team expected to get the most media attention at its Super Bowl Opening Night press conference while everyone else on the team mills around the floor.
Perhaps the biggest oversight as far as a player not getting his own podium this year was Patriots’ leading rusher LeGarrette Blount. The seven-year veteran created a human traffic jam on the infield of Minute Maid Park Monday night with the horde of reporters he commanded.
“I’m never going to say anyone is better than me,” Blount said when asked about another running back.
He has a golden chance to prove it, and perhaps even book a seat at the post-game press conference as the Super Bowl MVP. Blount is a 12-to-1 shot to win the award — his over/unders are 14 carries for 56.5 yards — but the matchup with Atlanta sets up better for him than anyone.
Just like the Patriots are known for gameplans to slow teams’ first options on defense, they’re equally associated with relentlessly attacking weaknesses on offense. The Falcons’ weakness is stopping the run, where they ranked 29th in the NFL in giving up 4.6 yards per carry.
To their credit, they’re much better against the pass at 11th in league in surrendering 6.5 yards per attempt. Top cornerback Desmond Trufant was lost for the season in November, but Robert Alford has emerged as a capable No. 1 in his stead.
Quinn also isn’t shy about blitzing, allowing second-year edge rusher Vic Beasley to lead the NFL with 15.5 sacks. Beasley is a minus-160 favorite (risking $1.60 to win $1) in proposition wagering to record a sack against the Patriots.
To do it, Beasley will have to get past Patriots left tackle Marcus Cannon, who’s been one of the best linemen in the league this season. The whole Patriots’ offensive line has enjoyed a resurgent season after legendary position coach Dante Scarnecchia returned to the staff after a two-year retirement.
They rank in the top 10 in both run blocking and pass protection, according to Football Outsiders. They’ll make it more difficult to wreak the havoc Quinn has repeatedly praised after the Falcons had two takeaways in each of their first two playoff games.
New England tied Atlanta with a league-low 11 giveaways during the regular season. Brady’s interception rate of 0.5 percent was the best of his career.
Relying on turnovers hardly ever wins games against New England. Atlanta is going to need to take another step in the defensive improvements it’s shown late in the season to slow Brady, Blount and the Patriots.
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The Falcons aren’t the best team the Patriots have faced in the Super Bowl during their run of seven appearances in the last 15 years. That’s probably still reserved for the Rams, despite the Patriots’ victory.
The Falcons aren’t the worst team they’ve met, either. That’s probably still the 2007 New York Giants, which stunned the Patriots 17-14 as 12-point underdogs.
The disparity of those results shows the age-old truth that anything can happen in a single game. As a bettor, all you can do is determine the most likely outcome and line up on the side that’s a better percentage play.
If it weren’t for Atlanta’s offensive explosion in the last two weeks, the action would skew further towards New England. The Patriots would probably lay 4 points, which is a truer line when analyzing the teams.
It’s a slim value, but with the Patriots in the Super Bowl, everything comes slim.
Pick: Patriots minus-3
2016-2017 record on every game: 124-138-4