Here's a look at Super Bowl LI …
NFC Champion Atlanta Falcons (13-5) vs. AFC Champion New England Patriots (16-2)
Game time: 6:30 p.m., Sunday
Location: NRG Stadium, Houston.
Player to watch: Falcons QB Matt Ryan. One way or another, it's going to come down to this: Can Ryan, untested on this stage, out-play Tom Brady and make the big play in the big spot, probably in the fourth quarter. Yes, there have been exceptions, but it almost always comes down to quarterback play in the Super Bowl, especially in the modern, pass-happy era. It's been that way in just about every Super Bowl the Patriots have played in. Just ask Eli Manning, who twice showed Brady how it was done. Yes, he had help and the Giants' blitzing defense was maybe the biggest factor in both games. But even with that, those games turned on Manning's ability to not make mistakes, to keep the offense moving, and to make huge plays when the game was on the line. We know Brady can do that. But can Ryan? A championship and his legacy are riding on the answer.
The matchup: These are the Nos. 1 and 3 offenses in the NFL and they averaged a combined 61.4 points per game during the regular season. The Falcons obviously have unmatched weapons with the best receiver in football in Julio Jones, capable second options in Mohammad Sanu and Taylor Gabriel, and a dangerous dual-threat duo of running backs in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. The Patriots gave up fewer points per game (15.6) than any team in the NFL during the regular season, but even they might not be equipped to slow the Falcons down.
Meanwhile, the Falcons' 25th-ranked defense goes against a chameleon-like offense. The Patriots have all sorts of unsung, overlooked weapons, such as receivers Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan and running backs Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount. The beauty of the Patriots' scheme - and Brady's abilities - is that any one of them could be big players at any time. It's a guessing game. And it changes. If the Falcons shut down one or two or even three, the production simply shifts elsewhere. It requires a defense to constantly be adjusting and on its collective toes.
How they got here: The Patriots won the AFC East for the eighth-straight season, and for the 13th time in 14 years. They earned the No. 1 seed in the conference and a first-round bye, and then had little trouble with the Houston Texans, beating them 34-16 in the divisional round. Then, in their sixth-consecutive AFC championship game, they pounded the Pittsburgh Steelers, 36-17, to reach the Super Bowl for the second time in three years, the third time in six years and the seventh time in the 16 years of the Brady-Belichick Era. … The Falcons won the NFC South and got a first-round bye after finishing as the No. 2 seed in the NFC. Then they hammered the Seattle Seahawks, 36-20, in the divisional round. And then they shocked everyone by stopping Aaron Rodgers' roll and blowing out the Green Bay Packers, 44-21, in the NFC championship game to reach their first Super Bowl since 1999.
Prediction: The Falcons are on a ridiculous offensive roll during the six-straight wins (and have a 7-1 record since their bye week). They haven't scored fewer than 28 points since mid-November and they've averaged 37.5 points in their last eight games. The Patriots aren't on quite the same roll, but they have won nine straight and averaged 30 points over that span. The big difference? The defense.
The Patriots have held their opponents to 20 points or fewer in eight of their last nine games. The Falcons have done that four times in the last eight games. It's a small but significant difference. The Patriots' defense - which allowed the fewest points against this season - is simply better. And as we all know, Belichick is a master mind, especially given two weeks to prepare. So it's a better bet that he'll find a way to at least slow down the Falcons than Falcons coach Dan Quinn will find a way to slow down the Pats. Chances are that will involve slowing down the game to a point, which means this game likely won't be the shootout many expect. And if it's not? That means that one way or another this game will come down to the fourth quarter and which quarterback makes the big play (or big mistake) in the big spot. Matt Ryan is certainly capable of making a big play in a big moment, but Tom Brady is far more the proven commodity. Add in his motivation from his DeflateGate suspension and the not-insignificant fact that he's not playing the Giants and Eli Manning, and I'll put my faith in Brady and the Patriots to justify my preseason Super Bowl championship pick. … Patriots 27, Falcons 23.