HOUSTON — On the surface, New England vs. Atlanta may not sound like the sexiest Super Bowl matchup.
But Sunday’s game has the potential to be explosive. With two high-octane offenses, Super Bowl LI has the makings of a shootout, and the final game of this NFL season could be its best.
It also will be the sixth time in Super Bowl history that the league’s highest-scoring offense (Atlanta’s) will face the defense that allowed the least amount of points (New England’s). The defense has won five of those games.
“I don’t see any more burden than any other week,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. “I think as an offense, we prepare to go out there and score however many points we need to. If it’s a bunch of them, we can do that, and if it’s just a few of them, we can do that as well.”
New England returns to the Super Bowl stage for the ninth time, an NFL record. Head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady have led seven of those appearances. They’ve won four together, and there’s a lot of history at stake as they go for a fifth.
Once Brady takes the field Sunday in Houston, he will surpass defensive lineman Mike Lodish for the most Super Bowl appearances by a player. Lodish played in four with the Buffalo Bills and two with the Denver Broncos.
If Brady wins, he will match Charles Haley for the most Super Bowl titles by a player with five. A win would also give him the most Super Bowl titles by a quarterback.
“It’s hard to do,” Brady said. “The fact that I’ve been able to do it before, it just means I’ve been a part of some really great teams, and this team is trying to be one of those really great teams that finishes a job, not one of those teams that comes up short. That’s what we have to finish.”
Belichick could pass Chuck Noll for the most Super Bowl wins by a head coach in NFL history. He already has the most postseason wins of all time by a head coach and now will have the most Super Bowl appearances.
“They are all special,” Belichick said of his Super Bowls berths. “They are kind of like your children. You love them all, but they are different. They are all special. It is a great privilege to be here and represent the AFC in this game. It is where you want to be at the end of the year.”
But the Patriots have been shaky the last few times they have been on this stage. They escaped with a 28-24 win against the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX two years ago, with Malcolm Butler picking off Russell Wilson at the goal line with 20 seconds left.
Before then, they lost to the New York Giants in Super Bowls XLII in 2008 and XLVI in 2012 — each time coughing up the lead in the final minute.
In this year’s playoffs, the Patriots are third in the NFL in total offense and averaged 35 points per game, trailing only Atlanta. New England’s defense, meanwhile, has allowed the fewest points (16.5) in the league.
The Falcons haven’t had that kind of success since they started playing in 1966. It’s their second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history, losing Super Bowl XXXIII 34-19 to Denver.
But with the No. 1 offense in the league, this team is scary good. In the playoffs, Atlanta is tops in points per game (40), total offense (457.5 yards), net passing yards (357.5), time of possession (33:29) and turnover differential (+4).
And while it’s only Dan Quinn’s second year as an NFL head coach, he’s coached in three of the last four Super Bowls. Two of those were with the Seahawks, where Quinn was defensive coordinator as Seattle pummeled the Broncos 43-8 to win Super Bowl XLVIII and then narrowly lost to New England a year later.
“I never set out a one-year plan, or a two-year plan, or a three-year plan or any of that,” Quinn said. “I don’t think that far ahead. I way more enjoy in the moment and seeing how good we can get week to week. Our team got a lot better as this season went, and that’s the goal you want to have.”