HOUSTON — To slay the veteran two-headed NFL championship beast that is mastermind Bill Belichick and cool Tom Brady, the coaching staff supervising the young, high-soaring and high-scoring Atlanta Falcons is under no illusion what it will take – supreme effort, near-perfect execution and staying power.
In the end, it might have less to do with the classic “Does a great defense stop a great offense?’’ theme than whether the Falcons can retain their composure under the most-blinding prime-time lights in sports. The battle-tested Patriots are proven in that intangible category. The Falcons? We just don’t know.
Put it this way: Brady has more previous Super Bowl experience (six games) than the entire Falcons’ roster (five). Additionally, and importantly, 22 Patriots have played in the Super Bowl. So while New England (14-2) boasts the league’s top-scoring defense and the Falcons (11-5) possess the highest-scoring offense, intangibles often determine the outcomes of big games.
Experience is one of them.
Falcons coach Dan Quinn already knows about the Patriots’ resolve on the most important Sunday of the season. Quinn served as Pete Carroll’s defensive coordinator for Seattle in 2013 and 2014. Two years ago in Super Bowl XLIX, the Seahawks’ offense collapsed near the New England goal line, preserving the fourth NFL title for the Patriots’ redoubtable coaching-quarterback duo.
“They’ve got a big playbook, that I can tell you,’’ Quinn said in the days leading to Sunday’s Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium. “So we’ve got our work cut out for us. Defensively, we’re at our best when we can really play fast. Too much overthinking and too much game plan can sometimes jam you up. You have to find that right balance as a coach to make sure that the team is playing at max speed where we can have the aggressiveness and hitting we’d like to.’’
Coaches realize that and certainly so does Quinn — coaching his third Super Bowl in the past four years, his first as a head coach. But do utterly confident, ridiculously strong, fast and talented young athletes get it? That is the major challenge confronting the NFC champion Falcons. They are a scoring machine on offense, leading the NFL, and they have played no less impressively in the postseason.
But the Super Bowl, particularly for young players with limited postseason experience, is different. Collars tighten, mouths become bone-dry, taking a breath troublesome. And that is before kickoff. Yes, the bright lights on one of the biggest stages in the world can make even the best of pro football players blink.
The Falcons have 33 players who have four years or less of NFL experience. The secondary, nicknamed “The Misfits,’’ is even more of a tenderfoot group. Three of the Falcons’ four starters at cornerback or safety are 25 or younger. Safety Keanu Neal, 21, is a rookie.
That alone could spell trouble for Atlanta. Big trouble, particularly if the Patriots bust loose from the gate quickly and light up the scoreboard early and often in the first half.
“Every game has ebbs and flows and momentum swings. That, to me, is where experience can play a big part,’’ said NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner, a two-time league MVP and Super Bowl-winning quarterback. “When things start to go against you (in the Super Bowl), it’s very easy to go, ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s the last game, we’ve got to get this thing turned around right now or this game is over!’ Usually when you do that, you make all kinds of mistakes and the game is over.’’
Quinn saw that up close and personal with the Seahawks, who led the Patriots by 10 points midway through the third quarter two years ago. Brady and his teammates refused to panic, and they won. (For what it’s worth, Brady is 4-0 in his career versus Atlanta with a 115.7 quarterback rating, including nine touchdowns and one interception. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is 0-2 against New England with two touchdowns, one interception and an 88.5 rating.)
As NFL Network analyst Michael Irvin, owner of three Super Bowl championship rings, said Saturday during the network’s pregame show, “If you allow big mistakes early on, and then the cascading of the situation from a young team — ‘Oh, my God, what is happening?’ — that can be a problem. That is what Atlanta has to watch out for.’’
Experience, of course, is only one major factor. So are turnovers.
The reason is fundamental: Violent collisions and impactful plays often can create a coach’s best friend — turnovers. In any game, turnovers are crucial, of course, but in the Super Bowl, they can create an avalanche of momentum because of the game’s enormity and pressure confronting both teams.
Ryan has been remarkable in protecting the football in the postseason. His quarterback rating is 132.6, including seven touchdown passes and no interceptions. Good news for Atlanta: Six quarterbacks have thrown at least that many touchdowns without a pick in the playoffs and their teams won the Super Bowl.
But Belichick, a defensive genius, has had two weeks to prepare. Gulp.
Super Bowl LI has several elements of intrigue. Not all of them are on the field.
If 3-point underdog Atlanta surprises New England — and most folks would not consider that a Clay-knocks-out-Liston-shock-the-world upset — look no further than the offices at the team’s headquarters in Flowery Branch, Georgia, for a few possible clues.
Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff worked under Belichick from 2003 to 2007 as the Patriots’ director of college scouting. In 2008, Falcons owner Arthur Blank ripped a page from Patriots owner Robert Kraft’s organizational playbook and hired away Dimitroff.
Two years ago, Dimitroff hired Scott Pioli, who had been mentored by Belichick beginning more than 30 years ago. Belichick met Pioli when he was in college and Belichick was a New York Giants’ assistant coach under Bill Parcells. Later, Belichick hired Pioli in Cleveland and then in New England, where they drafted Brady in 2000. Pioli is the Falcons’ assistant GM in charge of college and pro scouting.
Think Pioli might have some advice for Quinn regarding how best to deal with Belichick and Brady?
Question: Will it matter?
Jon Mark Saraceno can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @jonnysaraceno on Twitter.