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Super Bowl scouting report

Who has the edge?

Patriots (16-2) vs. Falcons (13-5)
When: Sunday 6:30 p.m.
Where: NRG Stadium, Houston
TV, radio: FOX, WBZ-FM (98.5), WEEI-FM (93.7)
Line: Patriots by 3
Edge: Patriots
The last two gunslingers standing have much in common. Both have excellent size, smarts, and savvy. Tom Brady and Matt Ryan are passionate about their preparation, poised in the pocket, and play with precision and fire. They command respect in the huddle and from foes, and aren’t afraid to compliment or challenge their teammates. The 6-foot-4-inch, 220-pound Brady always is in complete control of an offense that he has completely mastered. His recognition skills and ability to manipulate defenses and exploit mismatches are unmatched. Brady reads through his progressions in a flash, has zip and touch, and gets everyone involved. Ryan (6-4, 217) also reads defenses in a flash and has one of the quickest releases and strongest arms in the business. He can make every throw and has excellent footwork and underrated mobility. Both of these guys are tough, confident, and cold-blooded.
Edge: Falcons
Running back
Depth is a strength for both clubs in this department. The Patriots have three guys who can carry the load. LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis will get the bulk of the carries. James White is more of a receiving threat. Blount is a beefy behemoth with surprisingly light feet and impressive determination. Patience is key with Blount, as he doesn’t always start strong but almost always finishes that way. Lewis is electrifying. He has superb quickness, moves, and agility. Lewis jump-cuts into the line, runs hard between the tackles (especially for his size — 5 feet 8 inches, 195 pounds), and can switch speeds and directions fluidly. Atlanta’s Devonta Freeman is another undersized guy (5-8, 206) with exceptional strength and great lateral movement. He has good vision and patience and will thread his way through creases and bolt through cutback lanes. Tevin Coleman is more of a downhill, power runner. He will take a lot of punishment because of his upright running style, but he gives plenty, too.
Edge: Falcons
This is another area of strength for both teams. Julio Jones leads an outstanding group of pass-catching Falcons. Jones (6 feet 3 inches, 220 pounds) is fast, physical, and feisty. He shields defenders expertly, snatches the ball, and is a beast after the catch. Mohamed Sanu (6-1, 211) has good size, strength, and versatility, though he does his best work out of the slot. Sanu is adept at finding soft spots. Taylor Gabriel (5-8, 165) is a tiny terror. He has speed to burn and is a fearless and versatile competitor. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are superior receivers out of the Atlanta backfield. Julian Edelman headlines a versatile and reliable Patriots bunch. Edelman has supreme quickness and cutting ability, strong hands, and great toughness. Chris Hogan will line up everywhere and has excellent instincts and acceleration. Danny Amendola (he’s clutch), Malcolm Mitchell (he’s sneaky fast), and Michael Floyd (he’s physical) will make plays. Tight end Martellus Bennett (he’s big and tough) can be a dominant receiver at times.
Edge: Patriots
Offensive line
Center Alex Mack anchors a sturdy pack of Falcons up front. Mack is a smart and powerful tactician with good mobility who finishes strong. Chris Chester (he’s athletic but lacks strength) is at right guard, while Andy Levitre (he’s strong and balanced but not overly athletic) plays left guard. Left tackle Jake Matthews is powerful, athletic, and plays with a mean streak — like everyone else in his football family. He has a quick and effective punch that stuns opponents off the snap in both his run blocking and pass protection. Right tackle Ryan Schraeder is tall (6 feet 7 inches) and quick, but can get knocked around. The Patriots have enjoyed outstanding tackle play from Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon. Solder has a rare blend of size, athleticism, and power. Cannon is thick and wide yet deceptively nimble. Both can engulf edge rushers and overpower defenders in the run game. Center David Andrews has a good motor and fights hard to sustain his blocks. Guards Joe Thuney (he’s stout) and Shaq Mason (he’s strong and athletic) are building blocks.
Edge: Patriots
Defensive line
Alan Branch is a massive menace in the middle for New England. He has excellent size (6 feet 6 inches, 350 pounds), power, and wingspan. Branch is a two-gap defender who can dominate blockers and allow linebackers room to make plays. Malcom Brown (he’s a strong penetrator) and Vincent Valentine (he’s a blue-collar brawler) rotate in on the inside. Trey Flowers is powerful and versatile; he can crash the party off the edge or up the middle. On the ends, Chris Long is smart and relentless, while Jabaal Sheard can loop around defenders or at times overpower them. Atlanta has a pair of beasts in the middle in veteran Jonathan Babineaux and youngster Grady Jarrett. Babineaux (6-2, 300) anchors well and is hard to move. Jarrett is a quick and large penetrator who will make plays in the backfield. Brooks Reed’s engine is always revving off the edge. He lacks prototypical size and strength but he’s instinctive and wily. Tyson Jackson can set the edge against the run but lacks consistency. Dwight Freeney can still get home on occasion, but the 14-year veteran needs to be used sparingly.
Edge: Falcons
The Falcons have a crackling good pair of rookie linebackers in Deion Jones in the middle and De’Vondre Campbell on the weak side. Jones (6 feet 1 inch, 222 pounds) is quick and instinctive. He has the strength to hammer against the run and the coverage skills to hang with tight ends and backs. Campbell (6-4, 232) has outstanding awareness, athleticism, and closing burst. On the strong side, Vic Beasley gets after the quarterback like nobody’s business. He’s ridiculously explosive off the snap and can beat edge blockers with speed and a variety of moves both power and finesse. Smart and instinctive Dont’a Hightower is New England’s top linebacker. He lines up in multiple spots and makes sure everyone else is in theirs. He’s a stout run defender — he can slip through creases and be disruptive — but he will pressure the pocket when matchups dictate. Rob Ninkovich is an instinctive and uncanny playmaker. Shea McClellin excels against the run and Kyle Van Noy has been solid in coverage. Rookie Elandon Roberts is an instinctive run defending thumper.
Edge: Patriots
The New England defensive backfield has been on lockdown mode during this current nine-game run. There are versatile and valuable veterans at every turn. Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung may be the best safety tandem in the league. Throw in Duron Harmon and it’s a terrific triumvirate. McCourty is instinctive, smart, and capable of game-changing hits. Chung has a linebacker’s mentality and a safety’s cover skills. Harmon is rangy and prevents offenses from blowing the top off the defense. At cornerback, Malcolm Butler has quickness and great mirror skills (he’s tough to shake), Logan Ryan is smart and physical (you can’t get away from this guy), and Eric Rowe has good size and speed. Atlanta’s corners are solid. Robert Alford (he’s strong and fluid), Jalen Collins (he’s big and fast), and Brian Poole (he’s an instinctive gambler) will make plays. Strong safety Ricardo Allen makes up for a comparative lack of size (5 feet 9 inches, 186 pounds) with speed and instincts. Free safety Keanu Neal is aggressive and rangy.
Edge: Patriots
Special teams
“Speed thrills” may as well be the motto of New England’s coverage units. Gunners Matthew Slater and Jonathan Jones shed their blocks and get down the field in the blink of an eye. They’re almost always the first to the ball, either making the tackle or redirecting the runner into the clutches of a teammate (more often than not the rough-and-tumble Nate Ebner). Punt returner Julian Edelman is always one juke from 6 points, and kick returner Dion Lewis has elite acceleration. Placekicker Stephen Gostkowski is still one of the best in the business. He’ll be on target whether the roof is open or closed. Ryan Allen’s punting — in both distance and accuracy — has been superb this season. Falcons return man Eric Weems has spectacular open-field speed and moves. As for kickers, they don’t come much more reliable than 15-year veteran Matt Bryant, who has 334 career field goals in 390 attempts (86 percent). Matt Bosher averaged 41.6 net yards on 44 punts this season.
Key matchups
Falcons C Alex Mack vs. Patriots DLs Alan Branch and Trey Flowers
Mack is a field general and sets the tone for the offensive line. He’s well-prepared, knows defenses, and makes consistently correct calls for his running mates. Mack is quick in his backpedal in pass protection, and he will stack and shed and get to the second level in the run game. He doesn’t have to sustain his blocks for long because Matt Ryan has a rapid release and Devonta Freeman explodes to the hole. If his cranky ankle is acting up, he’ll have trouble with these two brutes. He’ll battle the active and powerful Branch on running downs and the quick and jarring Flowers on dropbacks. Both can apply serious pressure on the center and cause serious disruptions in the backfield.
Patriots RBs LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis vs. Falcons LB Deion Jones
Blount has major league size and power, deceptive nimbleness, and sneaky speed. He runs at excellent pad level, breaks a ton of tackles, and will dip his shoulder into defenders and drive them backward as he falls forward. He has just 24 carries the last two weeks, so he’s fresh and due for a big game. Patience is a virtue with this guy. The payoff is worth it. Lewis is more of a jackrabbit. He can stop, start, spin, and slide seamlessly, and his acceleration will leave defenders flat-footed and grasping at air. Jones, nicknamed “Debo” (a hybrid of Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson), is a phenomenal specimen. He has excellent range and will pursue sideline to sideline but can step up and fill lanes with authority, too.
Patriots’ keys to victory
1. Cold as ice
Disguising coverages and mixing things up may be the only way to cool off the red-hot Matt Ryan. He’s smart and well-prepared, but even the best can get baited at times. Time to check his homework.
2. Cold-cocked
Getting physical with these receivers at the snap is sound strategy. Mugging it up will knock them off their routes, throwing off their timing, and that sometimes leads to throwing tantrums instead of TDs.
3. Cold comfort
Tom Brady doesn’t need big chunks of time to carve up a defense, but he needs some. Make sure the big boys give their big guy enough time to find his big playmakers.
Falcons’ keys to victory
1. Atlanta flames
Getting the ball quickly into the hands of the burners is huge. Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, and Taylor Gabriel are exceptional receivers and explosive after the catch.
2. Atlanta thrashers
Outside linebackers Vic Beasley and De’Vondre Campbell (he’s a handful) need to get to Tom Brady either off the edge or through the middle and prevent him from setting his feet.
3. Atlanta rhythm section
The offensive line has to play its best game. Giving Matt Ryan time and giving Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman space will allow this offense to keep pace in an expected shootout.
Patriots 34, Falcons 24