Thursday, February 22, 2018

Required reading for Super Bowl Sunday

If you're among those who watch precisely one NFL game each year, yet want to sound like a real fan at Sunday's party, we've got you covered with Super Bowl facts, talking points and some nerd statistics:

The TV team

Joe Buck and Troy Aikman are in the booth for Fox TV while Tampa's Erin Andrews and Chris Myers are on the sidelines.

The site

It's NRG Stadium in Houston, home of the Texans. The Super Bowl was also held there in 2004, and the Patriots won, beating the Panthers 32-29 on Adam Vinatieri's late field goal. The game is also remembered for the Janet Jackson-Justin Timberlake "wardrobe malfunction" at halftime. The Super Bowl was also played at Rice Stadium in Houston in 1974.

The teams

It's, of course, the New England Patriots (14-2 regular season) versus the Atlanta Falcons (11-5). The Patriots are 4-4 in the big game, including a win two seasons ago. The Falcons are playing in the Super Bowl for only the second time in their history, having lost to the Denver Broncos 34-19 in 1999.

The line

Patriots by 3. The over/under is 581/2, the highest ever for a Super Bowl and a big jump from last year's 431/2.

The offenses

Both teams have high-powered attacks, led by the Falcons, who ranked first in points, yards per play and yards per pass. The Patriots were third, fifth and third in those categories.

Tom Brady

He is New England's quarterback, their 39-year-old superstar with the cover-boy looks and the Brazilian supermodel wife (Gisele Bündchen). Brady is certain to be the most talked-about player in the game — and not merely because he's trying to become the first starting QB to win a fifth Super Bowl ring and first player at any position to win a fourth Super Bowl MVP. You'll hear plenty about Brady's four-game suspension to start of this season ...


The NFL determined the Patriots intentionally underinflated footballs used during their AFC Championship Game win two years ago and said Brady had a role. Eventually, after a federal court sided with the league, Brady served his punishment; the NFL fined the Patriots $1 million and took away two draft picks — all of which is why if the Pats win, all eyes will be on ...

Roger Goodell

The commissioner of the NFL could be put in the awkward position of sharing a postgame stage for the trophy ceremony with Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Brady. Goodell avoided going to Foxborough, Mass., for either of New England's home playoff games last month (he attended two games in Atlanta) and was mocked by Patriots fans' chants of "Where is Roger?" This wasn't the first time Goodell punished the Patriots for running afoul of league rules while they've been coached by ...

Bill Belichick

Considered by some the greatest coach in NFL history, branded as a cheater by others, Belichick can break the record for most Super Bowl championships for a coach by collecting his fifth. Belichick, a flop with the Cleveland Browns in the early 1990s, is a defensive mastermind, which comes in handy against ...

Matt Ryan

Known as "Matty Ice" for his cool demeanor, Atlanta's quarterback is coming off one of the best seasons in NFL history, including 38 touchdown passes and seven interceptions, making him a favorite to win the league's MVP award Saturday night. Ryan, 31, threw TDs to a record 13 receivers as part of a season in which he ranked first in adjusted yards per pass (Brady was second) and touchdown percentage.

The QB weapons

Ryan's favorite target is Julio Jones, the NFL's most dangerous big-play receiver. His 31 catches this season of at least 20 yards lead the NFL. But he hasn't been able to match the far less-heralded Patriot Chris Hogan in the postseason. Hogan has eight catches of at least 20 yards in New England's two playoff wins and needs just one more in the Super Bowl to tie Larry Fitzgerald (2008) and Greg Jennings (2010) for the most in a single postseason since 2000. Still, Brady's favorite target is his No. 1 receiver Julian Edelman. On the ground, the Falcons top rusher is former FSU star Devonta Freeman, and the Pats rely on former Buc LeGarrette Blount, who led the league in rushing touchdowns.

Third downs

Forcing an offense into third down is usually a good step for a defense. Doing it against Brady or Ryan isn't much help. Including the playoffs, Brady leads the NFL with a 132.8 rating on third down, with Ryan next among starters at 120.6. Brady has converted on 51.8 percent of his third-down passes and Ryan is at 49.7 percent. Ryan has been even better of late, with a 141 rating and first downs on 59.3 percent of his throws the past six games.

HASH marks

Ryan has been nearly unstoppable when targeting the middle of the field in the regular season and playoffs, according to Sportradar. He has completed 86 of 117 passes between the hashes for 1,230 yards, nine TDs and no interceptions and a 132.8 passer rating. Ryan is 13 for 14 for 138 yards throwing down the middle in the playoffs.

Beat the heat

Teams blitzing the Patriots and Falcons have had little success this season, with Brady leading the NFL with a 124.3 rating against the blitz, according to Sportradar, and Ryan ranking second at 122.0. The Steelers tried to combat that by rushing three on 19 of Brady's pass attempts last week, but he completed 13 of those for 137 yards.

Watch the fake

No team ran play-action as much as Atlanta this season, doing it on 26 percent of offensive plays in the regular season, according to game-charting data from Football Outsiders. The Falcons averaged 10.4 yards per play on play-action, compared to 7.8 on other plays. New England faced the second-lowest percentage of play-action plays at 13 percent, allowing 8 yards per play, compared to 6.1 yards on other plays.


The Patriots ranked first in points surrendered, but the Falcons' defense was not nearly as good, ranking 27th.

The deep threat

Ryan was the most efficient deep thrower in the NFL in the regular season and playoffs, according to Sportradar, going 30 for 63 for 1,122 yards, 10 TDs, no interceptions and a league-best 133.4 rating on throws at least 21 yards downfield. The Patriots were the second-best defense against the deep pass, allowing just 28.2 percent to be completed with only three TDs, five interceptions and a 47.5 rating that was the second lowest.

Other stars

The linebacker Dont'a Hightower, the safety Devin McCourty and the special teamer Matthew Slater were all selected to the Pro Bowl for the Patriots. The center Alex Mack, the linebacker Vic Beasley and the kicker Matt Bryant made the team for the Falcons. Beasley led the league in sacks with 151/2.

Key injuries

After playing eight games, Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots' superstar tight end, was knocked out for the season with a herniated disc. Another Pats tight end, Martellus Bennett, has ankle problems but is expected to play. For the Falcons, Jones has a sprained toe and Mack a sprained ankle, but both are likely to play.

The other coach

After stints at William & Mary, VMI and Hofstra, the Falcons' Dan Quinn, 46, landed on the staff of the San Francisco 49ers in 2001 and made it to the top job last season with the Falcons. He was the defensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks in their Super Bowl years of 2013 and 2014, making this his third Super Bowl in four years.

The owners

Kraft, the 75-year-old Patriots owner and FOT (Friend of Trump), got his start in sports ownership in the 1970s with the Boston Lobsters of World Team Tennis. The team folded a few years later. The Falcons owner, Arthur Blank, was one of the founders of Home Depot. At 74, he has been seen busting out dance moves after Falcons victories this year.

The officials

Carl Cheffers will referee his first Super Bowl. According to Pro-Football-Reference, he called more penalties than average for six consecutive seasons before falling to average this last season.

Coin toss

George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush will participate. The Patriots will get to make the call. They always call heads.

The entertainment

At halftime, Lady Gaga follows in the footsteps of Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, Prince and U2. (Also the New Kids on the Block, Up With People and an impersonator-magician named Elvis Presto!) No guest performers have been announced yet, though based on previous years there could be surprises. Before the game, Phillipa Soo, Renée Elise Goldsberry and Jasmine Cephas Jones, from the original cast of Hamilton will perform America the Beautiful. Luke Bryan will sing the national anthem.

Roman numerals

Last season, the league dropped a long tradition and made the game Super Bowl 50 rather than Super Bowl L. This year, Roman numerals are back. Enjoy Super Bowl LI!

Trivia time

Atlanta kicker Matt Bryant, at 41, is the oldest player in the Super Bowl, which is his first. He also is a former Buccaneer. ... It's been more than 25 years since a Super Bowl extra point was missed. ... This marks the sixth Super Bowl matching the NFL's highest-scoring team — Atlanta — against the team that allowed the fewest points — New England — during the regular season. The top defense won four of those previous five matchups. ... Brady has led the Patriots on a game-winning, fourth-quarter drive in all four of his Super Bowl wins. ...

Sources: AP, New York Times, tbt*

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