The United States will come to a standstill, and perhaps even unite for the first time in 2017, as the New England Patriots take on the Atlanta Falcons at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas tonight at 11.30pm (Irish time, live BBC/Sky Sports) in the biggest US sporting event on the calendar, Super Bowl LI.
The political events of the last few weeks in America have naturally overshadowed a lot of the build-up to this year’s Super Bowl, but there’ll be no getting away from the pageantry once Super Bowl Sunday arrives.
An estimated worldwide audience of 200 million will tune in for the game and consume over one billion chicken wings along the way.
The good news for NFL fans is that the feast also extends to the actual football on the field, where a pair of truly elite quarterbacks, Tom Brady of the Patriots and Matt Ryan of the Falcons, will dominate the talk before, during and, most likely, after the game.
They say history remembers the winners and it will certainly never forget Tom Brady, irrespective of the outcome on Sunday.
The 51st Super Bowl will be Tom Brady’s seventh, setting a new NFL record for appearances. He already holds the Super Bowl records for passing yards and touchdowns thrown and, with a win on Sunday, would even surpass the achievements of NFL legends Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana.
If Brady claims the MVP, he’ll also pass Montana out as he picks up his fourth MVP and with it, arguably the title of the greatest quarterback to ever play the game. But Atlanta might have something to say about that.
The Falcons will write history of their own if they win the Super Bowl in Houston.
They have never won the Vince Lombardi trophy and have only been to the 'Big Show' once.
That was back in 1999 when the Falcons fell to John Elway and the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXXIII.
Atlanta are moving to the brand new Mercedes-Benz Stadium next season and the iconic NFL trophy made by Tiffany & Co in New York would be the perfect addition to the new digs.
The case for the defence
There are a few old sayings in the NFL that get rolled out each season. “Any given Sunday” is one of the more famous ones and it spawned a movie of the same title with that famous “inch by inch” monologue from Al Pacino.
The next man up in terms of popular sayings is probably “Defence wins championships”. And while statistically it’s pretty even in terms of whether the best offence or defence actually wins the Super Bowl, there’s no doubting that to win the Lombardi, you need your defence to play well on the night.
With that in mind, getting in Tom Brady’s face will be imperative for the Atlanta defence. If 'Tom Terrific' is given time and space in the pocket, particularly on the big stage, Brady tends to destroy all before him.
No team however, put more pressure on elite quarterbacks in the playoffs this year than the Atlanta Falcons did, and they did it to Russell Wilson of the Seahawks and Aaron Rodgers of the Packers.
Outside linebacker Vic Beasley has stepped up for the Falcons this season and he is their most effective pass rusher. He’ll be hoping to emulate last year’s Super Bowl MVP Von Miller, of the Denver Broncos, who got to Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers in key moments of the game to tip the outcome in Denver’s favour.
— NFL (@NFL) 2 February 2017
New England’s defence, on the other hand, will be trying to get that same pass rush pressure on Atlanta’s quarterback Matt Ryan, who is also likely to be named League MVP on Saturday night.
'Matty Ice' has been in explosive form this season leading the NFL’s number one offence but he isn’t as productive with effective pass rush oncoming as the Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs proved in their most recent regular season losses.
Ryan will play in his first ever Super Bowl on Sunday. Much has already been made of Ryan’s lack of experience in the big game versus that of his counterpart Brady, however history would seem to suggest that’s not as much of a big deal as people make out. We’ve already seen the likes of a young Russell Wilson win out against Peyton Manning in a Super Bowl, as well as Aaron Rodgers over Ben Roethlisberger in 2011 and lest we forget, a baby-faced Tom Brady over Kurt Warner back in 2002.
Both Brady and Ryan have their go-to guys on offense, with both Julian Edelman of the Patriots and Julio Jones of the Falcons potential game-winners and MVP candidates in their own rights. It’s likely though that both will be guarded tightly and it will be as much about what Ryan and Brady do with their other offensive weapons that will open up the scoring opportunities in the game.
Brady, for example, threw to wide receiver Chris Hogan nine times in the AFC Championship game for 180 yards and two touchdowns. Hogan didn’t have more than five catches in a game all season long, yet that didn’t seem to bother Brady much as he guided the team to victory over the Steelers. Likewise, Ryan was happy to spread his passes around in the NFC Championship game against the Packers with two of his four passing TD’s going to running back Devonta Freeman and wide receiver Mohamed Sanu.
The running game will also be important for both teams at Super Bowl LI. The Falcons boast the most effective duo in the NFL with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman used frequently in both the rushing and passing game for Atlanta.
— NFL (@NFL) January 23, 2017
The Patriots, on the other hand, not only have the league leading rushing touchdown scorer in LeGarrette Blount, but also racked up some serious points in the Divisional Round with Dion Lewis.
Don’t be surprised however, to see Belichick change it up again by giving running-back James White more targets than he’s been getting recently. White caught 60 balls during the regular season and, just two years back, Brady and then running back, Shane Vereen set a Super Bowl record for the number of catches by a running back.
The Patriots love to mix it up on the big stage and just about anything you can imagine is possible in the Belichick playbook.
There is no doubt that Brady is missing his big Red Zone target in tight-end Rob Gronkowski, but Martellus Bennett has filled in admirably for Gronk and is playing in his first Super Bowl in his home town. Could it be a fairytale in the making for this Texan?
Kickers win championships, sometimes
They don’t always get a mention, but I’ve lost count of how many times a kicker has won or lost a Super Bowl in the dying moments. Atlanta’s Matt Byrant and New England’s Stephen Gostkowski are dependable veteran kickers who you would be comfortable with kicking game winning field goals.
Bryant’s longest kick this season was from 59 yards and tied a Falcons franchise record with legendary kicker Morten Andersen. Gostkowski's longest hit in 2016 was 53 yards. Anywhere inside 50 and these guys will be tough to bet against, particularly if the roof is closed on the stadium in Houston.
Calling regular NFL games is often a mugs’ game. Calling Super Bowls is an even bigger one. The “any given Sunday” mantra really does ring true on the biggest stage of them all.
The superstitious will point to the fact that the Patriots will be wearing white on Sunday. The team wearing white has won 11 of the last 12 Super Bowls and it’s as good an omen as you could hope for.
In reality though, it’s the experience that Belichick and Brady have of these games that might tip the game slightly in the Patriots favour pre-game for me. However, if the Falcons can handle the unusual pressure a Super Bowl brings, then I believe they’ll have more than enough offensively to win the game.
It really is a no-lose situation for the neutral NFL fan though. If New England wins, we’ll see arguably the greatest quarterback of all-time crowned. We’ll also get the added bonus of observing the tumultuous relationship following “Deflategate” between NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Tom Brady up close and personal as the trophy is presented.
And, if Atlanta wins, we’ll surely see unbridled joy from a city that’s waited 51 years for this moment. It would be a fitting end to the Falcons time at the Georgia Dome and a historic bookmark for the franchise.
— NFL UK (@NFLUK) 1 February 2017
Going Gaga for Super Bowl?
Most experts are predicting that this game will be a high-scoring affair, which will be good news for the “once-a-year” fan tuning in on Sunday, considering last year’s somewhat drab affair.
If defence somehow prevails in the early quarters of this one at least there is Lady Gaga’s spectacular halftime show to look forward to. She’s due to take the stage at around 1am (Irish Time) depending on the quickness of the action on the field in the first half.
The last time a Super Bowl was held in Houston was back in 2004 when Tom Brady led the Patriots to a 32-29 win over the Panthers and Janet Jackson caused a storm with a now infamous “wardrobe malfunction” during the half-time show.
When the dust finally settles on Gaga’s fireworks, will it be Bill Belichick’s poker face guiding the Pats to yet another title or will Dan Quinn lead the Falcons beyond the edge of glory to their first-ever Super Bowl victory?
Whatever happens on Sunday, both on and off the field, the Super Bowl will bring millions of Americans and fans of the game worldwide together for one spectacular occasion filled with drama and unrivalled pageantry.
There are few events in the world that trump Super Bowl Sunday.
Super Bowl LI
New England at Atlanta Falcons, 11.30pm (BBC/SKY SPORTS)