We won one and lost one in the conference championship games, correctly predicting the Patriots would cover in beating the Steelers, but failing — and badly — in thinking the Packers would upset the Falcons. It wasn’t so much we underestimated Atlanta; it was that we put too much faith in Aaron Rodgers to overcome his team’s shortcomings. Only one game left. Must nail it and end a strong season strong. Let’s go!
FALCONS (13-5, NFC No. 2 seed) VS. PATRIOTS (16-2, AFC No. 1)
Line: NE by 3.
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Cote’s pick: NE 31-23.
TV: 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Fox.
Sunday’s game in Houston marks only the sixth time in 51 Super Bowls that the matchup has been the team that led the NFL in scoring (Falcons) vs. the team that allowed the fewest points (Patriots). A key difference is, New England is as mighty on offense as it is stingy on D, while Atlanta’s defense, though better than it was, cannot claim to be the equal of what Matt Ryan gets done. As a writer, I think I subconsciously root not for a particular team but for the best story to tell. Here, Super Bowl LI wins no matter the result. Either Atlanta reigns as champion for the first time in its 51-year history. Or we get a trophy presentation that might be even more riveting than the game if NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is handing the Vince Lombardi Trophy to a New England franchise socked so hard by Deflategate — and feeling it was wronged. So “best story” is a tie here. But “best team” is not. As mentioned, Bill Belichick has a complete team that can beat you with or without the ball, while the more lopsided Falcons have a young, somewhat unreliable defense that savvy old Tom Brady will find a way to pick apart. Intangibles also tend to come into play on this biggest stage, and the contrast there greatly favors New England. The been-there/won-that Patriots have built a modern dynasty on this stage, while Atlanta — its only other Super Bowl appearance in 1998 and last in the playoffs in 2012 — cannot know they’ll be ready for this. The game might swing importantly very early. Atlanta has scored a touchdown on its first possession in eight games in a row. Keeping that streak alive will give the Birds instant confidence, but if it ends there could be a fast feeling of “uh oh.” Ryan is used to leading. He isn’t used to trailing. Against Belichick and Brady. In a Super Bowl. I think he’ll have that feeling on Sunday. And I think I’m looking forward to the awkward drama of the postgame trophy presentation a lot more than Roger Goodell is.