When the NFL season started, more people bet on the Cleveland Browns' winning it all than the Atlanta Falcons. Yep, the same Browns that barely avoided going winless. Fast forward to now, and the Falcons are trying to be the new kryptonite of the New England Patriots (sorry New York Giants, but there's a chance you'll lose the title with this Super Bowl).
Earning that moniker, however, will be easier said than done. After looking somewhat shaky on offense against the Houston Texans, Tom Brady and the Patriots steamrolled the Pittsburgh Steelers with a final score of 36-17. Alarmgate aside, there was nothing the Steelers could do to stop New England.
Granted, the Patriots didn't have much competition in the AFC. Top NFC teams like the Falcons, Dallas Cowboys (it hurt to include them in this list), and the Green Bay Packers would've posed bigger threats than the Texans and Steelers. So don't count the Falcons out because their opponents have breezed through the playoffs so far.
Beating the favorites won't be easy, but it is definitely possible. Here are the keys to a Falcons upset.
Matt Ryan must outplay Tom Brady
Matt Ryan won the league MVP on Saturday night. Even as he started the year off as the clear favorite, Ryan fell off later as Brady and Rodgers started improving. However, Ryan got back in the groove just in time and has been an absolute beast in the playoffs.
In the postseason, Ryan has been better than Brady in every single category. Ryan has completed 70.7% of his passes for 730 yards, seven touchdowns, no interceptions and a QBR of 95.2 compared to Brady's 62.5% completion rate, 671 yards, five touchdowns, two interceptions and 77.4 QBR. If Ryan continues on the tear that he has been on, he has a huge chance of outplaying Brady.
The issue with this comes with the different levels of defense. The Falcons have one of the worst defenses in the league, something that Brady will make sure to exploit. On the other hand, the Patriots have an above average defense to say the least and will make it hard on Ryan, especially with defensive genius and "Greatest Beard in Sports" competitor (still second behind James Harden) Matt Patricia.
The Patriots will focus on Julio Jones, possibly the best wide receiver in the league. This is when Ryan must prove himself, by going to other targets like Mohamed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel, Devonta Freeman, and Tevin Coleman. The Patriots' defense will try neutralizing two or even three of Ryan's options, but the Falcons have so many offensive weapons and Ryan is such an adept quarterback that he'll be fine.
Play man defense
The Texans played man defense: Brady threw two picks. The Seattle Seahawks played man defense: they gave Brady his only loss this season. The Steelers played zone defense: they got crushed. The problem here is that the Falcons normally play zone, but if they stick with it against the Patriots, well, this picture describes it perfectly.
The reason why it is such a bad idea is because New England excels at picking apart the zone. Brady is a 17 year veteran and can easily pick apart the spots in the defense. Julian Edelman gets open all the time on short throws, opening up Chris Hogan on deep throws. James White is a great receiving running back that can get the ball if everyone else is covered.
The thing is, not only must the Falcons play man but they must also rush effectively with only minimal pass rushers. If they blitz, not enough people will cover the receivers, and Brady will pick apart the defense. That is why the defensive line will have to bring their A-game, so that they can get to Brady while allowing the linebackers and secondary to focus on covering Brady's targets.
Start fast and never look back
This looks to be one of the most exciting Super Bowls ever, as an explosive offense with virtually no defense is facing off against one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. This should be an offensive shootout, and the Falcons need to make sure that it will be.
The Patriots know they will have the advantage if they slow the game down. The Falcons can't allow them to that at any point of the game, setting the pace early with their offensive firepower. The best way to do that is to score the first points, preferably a touchdown.
If they succeed in doing so, they will force the Patriots to play catchup, which will make them more prone to silly mistakes. New England will also have to rely on the pass instead of letting LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis take some of the load off of Brady's shoulders.
The Texans were able to stop the Patriots' running game, allowing only 72 yards off of 21 carries and a touchdown by their running backs. That is one of the reasons why they were able to force two Brady turnovers when he had only two all season. While the Falcons won't be able to stop the run with their defense, they could take their running backs out of the game by forcing the Patriots to pass.
If you would like to read a preview of the Super Bowl, click here. If you would like to read about key moments in the Falcons' journey, click here. The Super Bowl will be played tomorrow at 6:30 EST on FOX.