How the New England Patriots Won Super Bowl LI

Here's how Tom Brady and company can defeat the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI.
February 1, 2017, 6:36pm
Photo by Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Many publications will preview the Super Bowl. Some will look at stats, some will look at play diagrams, and some will look at more obscure factors. VICE Sports goes to the future and looks at how this year's Super Bowl winners got it done. So here's why the New England Patriots won. (You can read about the alternate future timeline in which the Atlanta Falcons win here.)

The Patriots were able to bully Falcons receivers not named Julio Jones

Atlanta's passing game is successful and efficient, not so much because of widespread individual talent but because of its system: the Falcons use play-action passes to boost their overall numbers, and they rely on the excellence of Matt Ryan and Julio Jones to make everything work. New England has a history of taking out No. 1 receivers by giving safety help over the top to one of the Patriots' weaker corners, and it worked again in the Super Bowl on Sunday. The Patriots didn't take Jones out of the game completely, but they made the rest of Atlanta's receiving corps have to win one-on-one battles, which they struggled with.

Read More: How the Atlanta Falcons Won Super Bowl LI

Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel are good bit players, but they were exposed when asked to win one-on-one with Logan Ryan in the slot and Malcolm Butler outside. The Falcons don't really have a true broken-tackle threat in their proper receiving corps, so short slants remained short and easy yardage was hard to come by.

While the Falcons were able to generate some yardage throwing to running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, New England had answers. The speedy Elandon Roberts and Dont'a Hightower were able to corral both players into short gains, forcing Ryan to go deeper into his reads. That ultimately led to the costly turnover that changed the shape of this game. Once New England was able to force Ryan to make plays on his own, rather than within the scope of the Falcons' offense, they had the game well in hand.

Atlanta had no answer for LeGarrette Blount or Dion Lewis

The Falcons have a speedy, swarming defense. They made a point over their last few drafts to find athletes like Deion Jones, a 222-pounder who ran a 4.59 40-yard dash at the combine, putting him in the 88th percentile of all linebackers. Keanu Neal, Atlanta's first-round pick in last year's draft, is a safety with tremendous explosion and leaping ability; both his broad jump (132 inches) and vertical jump (38 inches) were in at least the 80th percentile for his position.

But that speedy defense was ill-equipped to stop LeGarrette Blount, New England's battering ram of a running back. Per Sports Info Solutions charting, Blount broke a team-high 48 tackles in 2016. Secondary back Dion Lewis, who had the primary job most of last year and only lost it to injury, has an even higher broken-tackle rate than Blount. Both backs caused havoc for Atlanta's speedy defense not by running around them but by running past them.


Tom Brady is great, and he's going to get his no matter what happens, but the Patriots made his game really easy on Sunday by simply rolling Blount and Lewis into the line against a bad tackling defense and coming up with second- and third-and-short. Not only did they shorten the amount of possessions available to Atlanta by doing this; New England also found red zone success. The Patriots finished ninth in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Line Yards statistic, which separates yards gained by the offensive line from those gained by the running back. Atlanta's defend was 25th in Adjusted Line Yards allowed, and even teams with iffy running games like Seattle had a little success on them in the playoffs.

Both teams came into this game with a good running attack, but it was New England that was able to exploit a poor run defense and establish a possession-time deficit.

Dion Lewis and Tom Brady had plenty to celebrate. Photo by Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Special teams were a factor

New England's special teams are always a factor. In their two playoff games before the Super Bowl, they returned one touchdown via Dion Lewis. In 21 seasons, the Patriots have never fallen out of the top ten in special teams DVOA, and after a rare Stephen Gostkowski slump to begin the year, they again managed to take huge leads in field position value on every kick or punt. Lewis continued his breakout postseason, having already returned one kickoff for a touchdown on the Patriots' playoff road to the Super Bowl.

The Falcons came into this game with good special teams of their own—they finished eighth in special teams DVOA this season—but outside of kicker Matt Bryant's huge season on field goals and extra points, they were middling-to-average in most other categories.

In a game that was destined to be high-scoring and close, the Falcons simply couldn't make a major mistake on special teams. And yet, here they were, letting the Patriots have a long return. The Falcons did just fine trading long field goals when they had to, but the Patriots were able to create a field-position edge any time either side had to kick off, and that made their lives much easier.

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