By halftime of the NFC Championship Game -- the Falcons led the Packers 24-0 on their way to a 44-21 victory -- we wondered to a friend what the line for Super Bowl LI would look like should the Patriots be the opponent. Based on the Falcons' playoff dominance, first over the Seahawks and then the Packers, we guessed they would be four-point favorites in Houston.
Our friend, who knows a lot more about gambling than us, laughed. No way -- the Patriots (who stomped the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game) would be favored, probably by three or four points. Turns out, he was right; the line opened at New England -3 and that's where it has remained for 13 straight days.
Part of that is Vegas isn't so much interested in getting the line right in the predictive sense, but in getting the most wagers on both sides. But beyond that, there are reasons to be apprehensive about the Falcons' chances -- it starts with Tom Brady, who remains one of the NFL's best quarterbacks, despite that four-game suspension to start the 2016 season or his advanced age (39). Then there's the truism about giving Bill Belichick an extra week's preparation, which complicates things terribly for every opponent not named the Giants.
Both are legitimate concerns. And perhaps the image of Belichick, clad in a black lab coat (yes, it comes with a hoodie) retiring to an undisclosed location to devise a scheme to stop the NFL's most potent offense should trouble the Falcons.
Of course, Atlanta has the league's most efficient passer by both conventional and advanced metrics, the league's hottest offensive coordinator and a bevy of playmakers who, together, appear capable of overcoming the most masterful of game plans.
The good news: There will be an actual game to decide all this!
For now, however, we're left to speculate about what might happen and why. And while we feel pretty good about the Falcons' chances, we are also well aware of what the Belichick-Brady Patriots can do on the NFL's biggest stage.
With that in mind, here's what New England's defense could try to do to slow Atlanta's offense. Pull it off and the Pats are looking at Lombardi Trophy No. 5. Fail, and the Falcons will have their first title in team history.
First, a history lesson
In 2001, the Patriots were considered upstarts. Brady was in his first season as the starter and Belichick was in his second as New England's coach. So when the 11-5 Pats were facing the 14-2 Rams -- known as "The Greatest Show on Turf" thanks to Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce -- no one gave them a chance. Vegas had the Patriots as 14-point underdogs, and the only question was how bad the beating would be.
But with two weeks to prepare, Belichick and the Patriots were ready, and when the dust settled, they eked out a 20-17 victory. So how did it happen?
"The one thing [Belichick] stressed was to try to keep them guessing," then-Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi told ESPN.com some six months after the upset. "If you get predictable against an offense that's as explosive as that one, they're going to make plays, because they'll pick up on your tendencies as the game goes on. So part of our plan was to have no set tendencies at all. And it worked out pretty well, didn't it?"
The Patriots defense featured at least five defensive backs on 80 percent of the snaps, an absurd number in an age when base defenses were the norm. Blitzing was minimal, but the Rams' receivers were manhandled at the line of scrimmage, which upset the timing and precision of the routes.
Could we see that again Sunday?
"I think [Belichick] will try and have everyone just try and tattoo Julio Jones, because I think he's kind of beat up," NFL Network analyst and former Patriots fullback Heath Evans told the Boston Herald recently.
NBC Sports analyst and former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison had similar notions on how to slow Jones.
"Obviously, Julio's a big guy," Harrison said. "He's been going across the middle the entire year, but there's only been a couple of receivers I've come across, where the more you hit 'em, the tougher they become," Harrison said Thursday. "That was [former Steeler] Hines Ward and [former Panther and Raven] Steve Smith. No matter how hard you hit 'em, those were the only guys you could not truly intimidate. A lot of receivers, the great ones, Marvin Harrison, you could intimidate them, if you hit 'em."
Eleven years before Belichick matched wits with Mike Martz -- and won -- he was the Giants' defensive coordinator, tasked with slowing the Bills' K-Gun offense that featured Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed and James Lofton.
The Giants played a lot of nickel and dime schemes to slow the Bills' passing game, daring Buffalo to give the ball to Thomas, their Hall of Fame running back.
"We're going to let him run for 100 yards," then-Giants linebacker Carl Banks said of Belichick's game plan.
The Giants won 20-19 thanks, in part, to disrupting Buffalo's offense, but also because of some good fortune; this was the "wide right" game -- if Scott Norwood hadn't pushed his 47-yard field goal attempt with seconds left, we're not talking about Belichick's genius plan.
So what does this mean for Sunday?
It's a clichÃ© at this point, but it's also instructive: Expect Belichick to take away the Falcons' two biggest threats. That means scheming to stop Jones and the two-headed backfield monster of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
ESPN analyst and former NFL defensive back Matt Bowen looks to the Steelers-Patriots playoff matchup for some insight into what Belichick might do against Jones.
The Falcons have other pass-catching weapons, too. There's Mohamed Sanu (59 receptions, 653 yards, four touchdowns) and Taylor Gabriel (35 receptions, 579 yards, six touchdowns), not to mention the havoc Freeman and Coleman can wreak in the passing game (85 catches, 883 yards, five touchdowns between them).
Complicating matters for the Patriots: The Falcons' offensive line has been tremendous this season and Ryan has rarely faced pressure. New England ranked near the bottom of the league in pass-rush efficiency and there's no reason to think the Patriots will suddenly morph into an outfit that can get after the quarterback.
But if recent history is any indication, the Patriots will continue to do what they do. Which is to say: They'll get their hands on receivers at the line of scrimmage, make it difficult for them to get into their routes quickly and disrupt the timing of an offense that has displayed otherworldly precision for much of the season.
"If the Patriots aren't flagged four or five times for various illegal uses of hands -- be it holding, illegal contact, hands to the face, maybe even pass interference -- they're playing too soft," TheMMQB.com's Andy Benoit wrote last week.
More from Benoit:
The Falcons are too well-schemed to play zone against. And the Patriots, having just an ordinary, straight four-man rush and limited blitz packages, will struggle to get to Ryan. Unable to disrupt the quarterback's timing, they must disrupt the timing of his receivers. Lay hands on those targets. Put the onus on the officials to throw flags in the most-watched television event of the year. Human nature says they probably won't -- not repeatedly, anyway.
Simply put, this means a lot of man-to-man coverage, which the Patriots are familiar with, and having a hybrid-type player cover the running backs. This is exactly what Belichick did in Super Bowl XXXVI -- outside linebacker Willie McGinest shadowed Faulk, roughing him up even when the ball went elsewhere.
Atlanta is more than just a passing offense
The Falcons ranked seventh in the league in rushing, according to Football Outsiders, and an effective ground attack sets up a deadly play-action passing offense.
Researching an article on Falcons play action passing game. Best in NFL. They force defenses into so many busted coverages pic.twitter.com/C1odYqRoBA— Mike Renner (@PFF_Mike) January 30, 2017
It gets worse if you're tasked with trying to slow this group:
This reality is not lost on the Patriots.
"With this offense, what they've been able to do, with as much attention that goes into the passing game, rightfully so, it's allowed them to run the ball extremely well," Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said recently. "They do a great job up front blocking. [Center] Alex Mack is in the middle there and he kind of controls everything. They do a great job of kind of identifying the fronts and getting the ball run through, I'll call it the space of the defense, and both of these backs have an explosive ability to see the scene, get downhill quickly, get into the defense quickly. It's a one-two punch.
"They practice the particular running style, the stretch game that they run. They do a good job of creating separation of the defense both horizontally and vertically, so as those backs take those angles and really get the defense to run kind of in a sideways manner, they open up those holes where these guys, they stick that foot in the ground and they just come downhill and they hit that thing at 100 miles per hour. That's very difficult to defend, especially if the front may be a little bit light, depending on what you've got to put on the coverage aspect of it to handle the passing game."
Therein lies the problem if you're the Patriots. Against the Rams in the Super Bowl 15 years ago, it was clear that St. Louis' Martz was going to stick with the passing game regardless. But the Falcons are as balanced an offense as you'll see. They ran the ball on 42 percent of their regular-season snaps and averaged 4.2 yards a carry. The number was 43 percent in two postseason games, though the average YPC dropped to 3.4.
In simpler terms: "We can do whatever we want," Freeman told PFT last week. "Pick your poison. ... We've had the game plan. The game plan doesn't change."
And you know what? The Patriots might choose that poison; death by 1,000 4-yard carries sounds eminently more palatable than an evening full of Ryan-to-Jones chunk plays.
About taking away Julio Jones ...
Sometimes, Ryan can fall in love with Jones. This makes perfect sense, and you only need to listen to Patricia to understand why.
"... [Jones] is probably just one of the most dynamic players in the league," he said. "I usually don't wind up comparing him to other people; I wind up comparing other people to him just because of his skill set and his ability. The things that he does for them and what he can do is he does a great job of moving around into different positions."
Which number are you throwing to? pic.twitter.com/o4RpdAVV5A— Mike Renner (@PFF_Mike) February 1, 2017
But trouble arises for opponents when Ryan is on his game and targeting other receivers. And, frankly, Ryan has been on his game for virtually all of the 2016 season. In fact, in the four games in which Jones was held to fewer than 50 yards, the Falcons went -- wait for it -- 4-0.
- In Week 3 against the Saints, Jones had one reception for 16 yards. Freeman led the team in both rushing (152 yards) and receiving (55 yards, one touchdown) and the Falcons won 45-32.
- In Week 5 against the Broncos, Jones had two receptions for 29 yards. Freeman rushed for 88 yards and a score and Coleman led all receivers with 132 yards on four catches, including a touchdown. The Falcons won 23-16.
- In Week 8 against the Packers, Jones had three receptions for 29 yards. Sanu, Gabriel and tight end Austin Hooper combined for 193 yards and two scores. The Falcons won 33-32.
- In Week 12 against the Cardinals, Jones had four catches for 35 yards. Freeman rushed for 60 yards and two touchdowns. Sanu, Gabriel and Justin Hardy combined for 187 yards and two scores. The Falcons won 38-19.
After that Week 8 game, Jones was asked about his role being minimized.
"We need to just keep taking advantage of it," he said at the time. "Defenses are going to try and do that and take me away. The offense is going to be explosive. We just got to find those guys. I don't cry about not getting the ball or are they doubling me. I'm doing my job and taking two guys away."
If nothing else, these numbers reinforce the fact that taking away Jones is only the first step in thwarting this Falcons offense. Still, Belichick has every intention of minimizing Jones' impact. The Patriots used two players to play the role of Jones during practice this week -- Michael Floyd and Matthew Slater.
"That's such a key guy for us, the routes and all that," Belichick told pool reporter Peter King of TheMMQB.com. "We have two guys doing it so we won't wear one guy out. You've got to know where he is on every play."
What do NFL players suggest to stop the Falcons?
NFL.com's Conor Orr asked several Pro Bowl players how they would game plan against Atlanta and the responses were ... interesting.
"You gotta stop the run and make them one-dimensional," said Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who faces the Falcons twice a season. "Matty Ice is Matty Ice, but if you make it to where he's one-dimensional, where Matt Ryan has to beat you by himself, that's your only shot. But if you give them a run-pass option, you're going to have a long day. You can really open up your playbook on defense when all they can do is pass."
"You don't have to double [Jones] on every play but you do have to roll your coverage there some," he said. "I think you have to play some man because their backs are so explosive as receivers, they're good out of the backfield."
Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. added: "When we played Atlanta, we played a lot of man, Cover 1, Cover 2," he said. "Still, you have to lean that safety over to Julio because you never know what he's going to do. But it's not smart to double Sanu at all. No. But a lot of teams don't have the defensive back depth that we do. So it's hard to game plan for Atlanta. But I wouldn't double-team Sanu."
So who ya got?
Pete Prisco on why he thinks the Falcons will take down the Patriots:
"[Taking away Julio Jones] would normally slow an offense, but not this Falcons offense, which is why I think they win this game. They averaged more than 40 points in two games without Jones this year. Matt Ryan also threw touchdown passes to 13 different players, a league record. In a battle of the top-ranked scoring offense and the top-ranked scoring defense, I think the offense will get the best of it here. Ryan has too many weapons."
And five of eight CBSSports.com experts are picking the Falcons to beat the Patriots (we're one of those five) in the Super Bowl.
Ultimately, this game could come down to experience. Not so much with the Patriots' experience facing top-flight quarterbacks in 2016 -- because there is only one example of that, and it was a home loss to Russell Wilson and the Seahawks ...
Fun with perception: Atlanta's offense played the No. 2 hardest schedule of defenses this year. NE's D played the easiest sched of offenses.— Aaron Schatz 🏈📎 (@FO_ASchatz) January 27, 2017
... but the experience that Belichick -- and perhaps more importantly, Brady -- brings to Houston.