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A Viewer’s Guide to Super Bowl LI

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If you’re someone who needs rich, intriguing storylines to get emotionally invested, then this year’s Super Bowl was tailor-made for you.

On one side, you’ve got the upstart, underdog Atlanta Falcons, a team that entered this season with 100-1 odds of reaching the Super Bowl as anticipated by Vegas oddsmakers. In fact, even the Cleveland Browns, perennially considered the laughing stock of the NFL, garnered more bets than the Falcons did nationwide. Projected to finish with a subpar regular-season record of 5-11, Atlanta reversed fate by finishing with a record of 11-5.

They continued their campaign against their detractors by producing the seventh-most prolific offense in NFL history and leading the conference in Pro Bowl selections with six player nominations. And how did they respond under the bright lights of the playoffs? They made annual Super Bowl contenders in the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers look like Pee Wee teams.

Of course, for every Rebel Alliance, there’s an evil Galactic Empire looking to rule with an iron fist. On the other side of the field, you’ve got the most dominant football team of this era in the New England Patriots. Their head coach, Bill Belichick, is cold, insufferable, and arrogant. Their quarterback, Tom Brady, is deadly, precise, and surgical. Together, they have appeared in a total of seven Super Bowls, more appearances than twenty-eight NFL franchises have in their histories. Brady and Belichick have won four of those seven Super Bowls.

Of course, their dominance does not come without controversy. The Brady-Belichick era has been also rife with scandals. It started in 2007 with the infamous incident known as “Spygate”, in which the Patriots were found guilty of illegally videotaping an opposing team’s signals during a game.

Then, most recently, in the 2015 NFL playoffs, the Patriots’ Tom Brady was accused of intentionally deflating the game footballs below the legalized pressure limit prior to the game in an effort to gain a competitive advantage. The scandal, termed Deflategate, cost Brady the first four games of this season as a result of the ensuing suspension.

Now that we’ve familiarized ourselves with the two opposing factions, let’s take a look at the key players to keep an eye on for both sides. For the underdog Atlanta Falcons, all eyes will be on quarterback Matt Ryan, this season’s presumptive MVP. The Falcons made a big commitment to Ryan as their franchise quarterback when they selected him with the third overall pick in the NFL Draft back in 2008. Since then, the player affectionately nicknamed “Matty Ice”, due to his knack for coolly executing clutch, late-game drives over the years, has rewarded Atlanta with solid returns. The only thing holding him back from joining the ranks of the truly elite quarterbacks of our era has been playoff success. Delivering a Super Bowl ring to the city of Atlanta would go a long way in changing that narrative.

Ryan has, of course, benefitted from having a number of versatile and explosive playmakers in the orchestration of this historically great offense. Wide receiver Julio Jones is widely thought of as being the best receiver in the league. Regardless of the situation, his devastating size-speed-technique combination make him a threat to score on any given play from anywhere on the field. Running behind a sound offensive line, the two-headed running back monster of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined to give the Falcons the fourth best rushing total in the league.

Matt Ryan and Co. will have their hands full with a Patriots defense that led the league in scoring defense, allowing only 15.6 points per game. For all the publicity the Patriots’ offense has received during their run of dominance, Belichick’s defensive genius has produced a product greater than the sum of its parts over the years. This year’s rendition has seen the defense anchored by a stout front seven, led by Pro Bowl linebacker Donta Hightower and complemented by a disciplined secondary, highlighted by 2015 Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler, that doesn’t make very many mistakes.

On the offensive side of the ball for the Patriots, Tom Brady has a cast of wide receivers best characterized by their speed and savvy. The group is headed by the unheralded and underrated trio of Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, and Danny Amendola. To complement his speedy receivers, Brady also utilizes his big tight end, Martellus Bennett (6’6”, 275 lbs) as a pass catcher.

New England’s offensive X-factor lies in their second-string running back, Dion Lewis. Injured for most of the season, Lewis made a late-season return and provides a spark both in the running game and on special teams. He became the first player ever to record a rushing, receiving, and return touchdown in the same playoff game when he did it in the Divisional Round.

The Falcons’ defense will be put to test again the highly adaptable Brady. The unit’s strength lies in their pass rushing ability, as they possess the NFL’s regular season sack leader in Vic Beasley (15.5 sacks). Brady and the Patriots feast on opposing defenses that fail to apply pressure, so the onus will fall on Beasley and the rest of Atlanta’s front to ease the burden off their young secondary.

So there you have it. Will Luke Skywalker and the Rebellion pull off the upset? Or will the Empire’s evil reign continue? Tune in next Sunday at 6:30 PM to find out!

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A Viewer’s Guide to Super Bowl LI