The National Football League — it's a quarterback's league, so they say. Certainly, the last four teams left standing in last week's AFC and NFC title games would seem to be Exhibit A if you were arguing that cliché in a court of football law. Rodgers, Roethlisberger, Brady, Ryan...those were the names, and those were the men behind arguably the four best individual seasons by quarterbacks in 2016.
After last Sunday, perhaps appropriately, the only two left standing were the two frontrunners for the league's Most Valuable Player award, Brady and Ryan. It's expected, in part because Brady missed the first four games because of his Deflate-Gate suspension, that Ryan is going to take home that piece of hardware on Saturday night at the league's awards function.
However, when the two face off this Sunday at NRG Stadium for the football championship of the world, it is Brady who is the far more decorated, and likely the far more comfortable (at least early on in the game) with the enormity of the moment. Coming into this postseason, Ryan had one career playoff win since coming into the league in 2008. Brady has four times as many Super Bowl wins as Ryan had playoff wins.
Ryan's name will never be in the same conversations as Brady's when it comes to discussing all-time greats (GOAT's, as they say). He is still trying to break into the one-timer's club alongside names like Rodgers, Brees and even 2008 draft classmate Joe Flacco. But make no mistake, Ryan's best game can beat Brady's best game on Sunday. The Falcons supporting cast, at least offensively, is that good.
So I posed this question to America on my Sunday night national radio show (CBS Sports Radio, if you want to tune in) — you have to cross Tom Brady, Matt Ryan and Julio Jones off the list — who will be the x-factor in Super Bowl LI? I got a ton of good answers ranging from skill position players to interior offensive linemen (snicker if you'd like, but Atlanta center Alex Mack is vitally important in recognizing the schemes Bill Belichick and Pats DC Matt Patricia will throw at the Falcons).
Here were five answers that I really liked...
5. Scott Pioli, Falcons executive
Pioli was alongside Belichick for the head coach's first nine years in New England in various personnel roles, procuring the exact types of players Belichick sought to fit into his system. It is generally believed that if anyone understands how Belichick ticks, it's Pioli, who is now the assistant general manager in Atlanta. It's to the point that this little chunk of information, when analyzed, makes it sound like Belichick is some sort of terrorist mastermind and Pioli is some sort of reformed informant working on behalf of the federal government. THE WORLD IS RUNNING OUT OF TIME....AND ONLY SCOTT PIOLI CAN SAVE US! (It actually feels quite accurate, if you're not a Pats fan!) The one thing we know about masterminds, though, is that they won't just "do what they do”; they will "do what you don't expect them to do." In short, I'm guessing Belichick is probably a step ahead of whatever Pioli is thinking.
4. Logan Ryan, Patriots cornerback
There are several one-on-one matchups in this game that are intriguing, and honestly, categorizing the coverage on Jones as "one-on-one" may not be accurate. It's going to take a village to shut down the Falcons wide receiver, who has evolved into the best in the game today. We know what Belichick will probably do — man to man on the line and a safety over the top. It will be interesting to see which cornerback Belichick uses, Ryan or Malcolm Butler. Against the Texans and the more physical DeAndre Hopkins, Belichick used the more stout Ryan, and it worked very well. Now, Hopkins ain't Jones, and I don't know getting physical with Jones on the line of scrimmage is a real recipe for success, but I don't know a recipe for success exists against Jones. Belichick's gimmick is that he likes to take away "the one thing you do well." For Atlanta, that's "get the ball to Jones." Get your popcorn ready.
3. DevonTevin FreeColeman, Falcons two-headed running back
The good news for the Falcons is that they do a bunch of things well offensively, and the next best weapon after Jones is the two-headed backfield threat of Devonta Freeman (1,079 yards rushing, 462 yards receiving) and Tevin Coleman (520 yards rushing, 421 yards receiving). In my mind, the Falcons blueprint on building a backfield is the standard — a third round pick (Coleman) and a fourth round pick (Freeman) with versatile skill sets and the ability to shoulder a burden if a game is in need of a clock grinding in the second half, which this one could very well be.
2. Vic Beasley, Falcons outside linebacker
On the other side of the ball, the key for the Falcons (as it is for any team playing the Patriots) is to get to Tom Brady, knock him around when you have the chance, and bring pressure without having to blitz. (Brady's passer rating in the postseason when blitzed is roughly eight billion.) The Falcons would be wise to look at film of what the Texans have done the past couple of seasons with Whitney Mercilus (and, to a lesser extent, Jadeveon Clowney) when they line him up over the nose on passing downs, giving him a decided athletic edge over the Patriots’ interior linemen. Beasley, the leading sacker in the NFL this season, could do a fine Mercilus impression in those spots. I don't think this will be a game with an MVP from the defensive side of the ball, but if you want to take a flyer on one, Beasley is +5000.
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1. Julian Edelman, Patriots wide receiver/punt returner/jack-of-all-trades
However, the best sleeper pick (and value play) for MVP might be Edelman, who will not only likely get about nine or ten catches, but has a chance to affect the return game, and might get used on a trick play or two, dusting off some of those old QB skills from his collegiate days. Edelman is +2500 to win MVP, and I've already put a couple of sawbucks down on him.
BEST BET: Falcons/Patriots UNDER 59 (For what it's worth, my final score is ATL 28, NE 23)
Last Week: 0-2
Season Record: 66-52-2
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.