The Dirty Birds have surpassed all before them in the NFC, overcoming the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers in consecutive weeks to head into Super Bowl LI. Without a championship title to their name as a franchise, the overwhelming majority of those who aren’t diehard New England Patriots fans will be cheering on the red and black when they take the field on February 6 AEST.
Established back in 1965, the club has managed just the single Super Bowl appearance, losing out to the Denver Broncos in 1998. On the back of an offensive unit that is the envy of the league and an understated quarterback that deserves far more accolades, the Rise Up faithful are on the verge of breaking their long awaited drought lasting 52 years and counting.
A quick look to the pre-season outlook for the Falcons would indicate what an achievement this has been for Dan Quinn’s roster. According to the odds at Bleacher Report, Atlanta were ranked 18th out of the 32 to fall behind the likes of the Arizona Cardinals, Carolina Panthers, Cincinnati Bengals, Indianapolis Colts, Houston Texans and even the Jacksonville Jaguars for 2016 expectations.
CBS Sport were a touch more generous in October, although the Falcons were sitting on a 4-1 record by the time they calculated the odds. Shortened from 30-1 outsiders, victories over the Oakland Raiders, New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos saw them close in on 20-1 – still a slim chance to progress in the eyes of the “experts.”
What makes the Falcons such an appealing prospect more than their ability to upset the apple cart is their pure attacking flair, throwing and running the ball with abandon as they carve up the opposition at will. Across the regular season, Ryan ranked second in passing yards behind Drew Brees for 4944, Julio Jones was narrowly edged by T.Y. Hilton for receiving yards to hit 1409, while Vic Beasley ended league best for completed sacks on the defensive end at 15.5.
For a franchise that could be thrown into the “January notice” camp where pundits would remain pessimistic about their chances until they see results, Atlanta stepped their football up a notch when it mattered most. In post-season to date, Ryan ranks third in passing yards for 730 to be above his upcoming rival Tom Brady, Devonta Freeman is fifth for rushing yards with 87 and Julio Jones is fifth in receiving yards for 247.
This is a terrific football team on paper, albeit it with some questions marks around their defence that could very well be exploited Monday week by a ruthless New England outfit. While it might be stretch to regard the franchise as a fairytale, falling short of what we have seen via the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Cavaliers, there is clearly an amount of romance about the club that is searching for their illustrious moment of glory.
Bucky Brooks of NFL.com offered his thoughts on a method in which the Falcons can get the better of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady on the night, arguing that the pace and unpredictability that got Atlanta to this point will be their saving grace should they execute in those clutch periods of play. Starting with an MVP performance from Matt Ryan, the Dirty Birds must look to burst out of the blocks with plays that put the Patriots on the back foot and make them second guess at the line of scrimmage.
Super Bowl 50 was a case study in what not to do for the Falcons as Cam Newton took his MVP form into the encounter only to be embarrassed on the biggest of stages. The canny Denver Broncos blitzed and hustled the Panthers out of the contest, seeing Von Miller sack his way to a championship ring.
One ploy Brooks believes can disrupt a packed Patriots line that often forces their opponents to settle for field goals is a strategy known as the scissors concept. This requires the quarterback to have two receivers on the same side of the football to run a deep route and a deep post, seeing the two players end up in the polar opposite positions their starting spot would suggest by running a zig-zag line.
This should not be an issue for offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, a man who is hotly tipped to take over the head coaching role at the San Francisco 49ers after helping the Falcons average over 33 points a contest. Complete with Jones is Mohamed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel, Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman – so the club certainly has the weapons in their possession to have New England backtracking.
The Patriots are the masters at playing the 1% game to their advantage, cashing in on turnovers and special team plays that end up being the difference in close encounters. As the Boston franchise is favoured to take out their fifth championship, those millions watching who back the underdog are well and truly in the Falcons corner.
Whatever the result, it will be a hell of a spectacle!