Running game could be key when handicapping total for Super Bowl LI

Super Bowl LI has been billed as a forthcoming aerial campaign the likes of which we have never seen before on the National Football League’s biggest and brightest of stages.

In one corner stands MVP frontrunner Matt Ryan, nine-year veteran signal-caller and triggerman of the league’s top-ranked scoring offense (33.8 pts/gm). In the other resides the ageless Tom Brady, future first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, four-time Super Bowl Champion, man of countless chic hairstyles.

Is it any wonder that the current total of 58.5 points is scheduled to claim the title of highest closing over/under in Super Bowl history?

With Atlanta currently riding an eight-game tidal wave of point production that has seen the Falcons post a combustible 37.5 points per contest and New England fresh off back-to-back playoff annihilations of the Texans and Steelers in which the Patriots laid waste to the opposition by 18 and 19 points, respectively, the narrative entering the final NFL confrontation of the season has focused primarily on the quarterback battle set to explode at NRG Stadium in Houston on Sunday.

Just one, quick question: Has anybody considered the notion that we may be focusing too much of our attention on the wrong positional group?

This isn’t to suggest that Ryan and Brady don’t deserve their time in the worldwide spotlight. After all, the two quarterbacks are the highest profiled and highest paid members of their respective franchises.

But if you really want to find an edge when it comes to Sunday’s showdown between the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots, I would suggest devoting a healthy portion of your available time to the running back position.

After all, that’s the key to defeating the great Tom Brady.

Let’s begin by taking a look at the opposition’s rushing attempts in New England’s six recent Super Bowl appearances:

In 4 wins: Opponents averaging 21.0 rushing attempts per game
In 2 losses: Opponents averaging 27.0 rushing attempts per game

The common counterpoint set to surface based on the above information is that teams tend to post higher rushing totals in victories because they are attempting to grind out the clock in the second half/fourth quarter. This is a true sentiment.

However, both of New England’s Super Bowl losses to the New York Giants were decided by four or fewer points, with the Patriots holding a lead in each game inside of the final minute of the fourth quarter. So it’s not as if the Giants were attempting to run out the clock on Bill Belichick and company. Instead, Big Blue made a conscious effort in both encounters to establish the ground and pound in an effort to control the clock while simultaneously keeping Brady and the high-flying New England offense off the field.

Hell, the same thing was set to happen two years ago in Arizona against the Seahawks when Seattle rolled up 162 rushing yards on a meaty 29 attempts in Super Bowl XLIX. The problem for the Seahawks, however, was that head coach Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell infamously went away from Marshawn Lynch and the rushing attack late in the fourth quarter, leading to a Russell Wilson game-sealing interception.

Speaking of Seattle, that’s preciously the answer to the question, “Who was the last team to beat Brady and the Patriots during the regular season?” The date was November 13 and the Seahawks, behind a healthy 26 team rushing attempts, went into Foxborough on a Sunday night and upset the Patriots 31-24 despite closing as 7.5-point underdogs.

This is all very good news for the Atlanta Falcons, who finished the 2016 regular season ranked fifth in the NFL in rushing (120.5 yds/gm) behind the two-headed beast of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. If the Falcons are to upend Brady and the Patriots on Super Bowl Sunday, it will have to be the rushing attack that plays a prominent role in Atlanta’s first Super Bowl victory.

Freeman posted a career-high 1,079 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns during the 2016 regular season and is headed for free agency on March 9.

“I’ve got a family to feed and I don’t want to struggle anymore,” Freeman told Michael Silver of NFL.com at Super Bowl Media Night on Monday. “Now, I can see it, feel it, taste it. But I’ve got to finish strong and not think about the money this week – we’ve got too much to play for. After that, well, I feel like I’ve done my part. Now, hopefully, I’ll get rewarded.”

Between the Freeman – Coleman connection in Atlanta and New England’s more-than-likely approach of also featuring a healthy dose of the running game in an effort to exploit the Falcons’ highly questionable defensive line, you may be able to surmise what comes next.

And that, my friends, would be a healthy bet on the under this Super Bowl Sunday.


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