WASHINGTON — Since there’s no game to recap this week (and no, the Pro Bowl doesn’t count), I decided to “precap” Super Bowl LI. As usual, there are a great many story lines to parse through but only three have grabbed my attention with both hands.
Pleeeeease let this be a good game!
Football fans everywhere deserve it after suffering through a postseason that featured eight blowouts in 10 games and a 15.7 point average margin of victory. Don’t fail me now, football gods.
Falcons “Rise Up”
Ten years after the Atlanta Falcons were at their lowest point as a franchise, they’re now in position to win their first-ever championship.
Before this season, nobody considered the Falcons a Super Bowl contender. Hell, few gave them the benefit of the doubt in the postseason against the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers, two fairly recent Super Bowl winners. The lifelong perception of the Falcons is they’re a punchless franchise that basically lucked their way into their only other Super Bowl appearance.
Don’t make the mistake of judging the 2016 Falcons this way.
The present day Falcons averaged a franchise record 33.8 points per game in the regular season — a season-long average only six other NFL teams have matched — and have kicked it up to 40 points per game in the playoffs. Matt Ryan seems to have shrugged off his playoff demons (and seems likely to continue his MVP-level play), Julio Jones is playing historically well, and the Falcons’ run game boasts a two-headed monster of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, a duo that thrives running between the tackles. If Atlanta finds another gear in the Super Bowl against the league’s top scoring defense, it’ll go down as one of the greatest offensive performances in NFL history.
However, it’s rare that a one-dimensional team wins a championship. Fortunately for Atlanta, the Falcons are more balanced than you’d expect. The defense started the season poorly, but over the course of their six-game win streak has been among the league’s best. Vic Beasley has taken huge strides in his second year, racking up 15.5 sacks and six forced fumbles in the regular season to lead a young, hungry unit in Year 2 of coach Dan Quinn’s defense.
Speaking of Quinn — a Salisbury State grad whose coaching career began locally — he’s no newcomer to the Super Bowl (even though his roster is hilariously outmatched in the experience department). Including his run as defensive coordinator in Seattle, this is Quinn’s third Super Bowl appearance in four years. Had it not been for the mind-numbing decision to have Russell Wilson throw at the goal line, Quinn’s defense would have been just enough to beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX two years ago.
While everyone seems focused on the Patriots inching closer to making a boatload of history with a win, I’m looking at these Falcons making other plans (that, hopefully, remain in the right hands) and perhaps stun the world the same way the Giants did nine years ago.
Political and scrimmage lines are blurred
It’s the topic nobody seems to want to talk about: Patriots-Falcons is dripping with present day politics.
New England happens to be owned by Robert Kraft, coached by Bill Belichick, and quarterbacked by Tom Brady — all of whom profess some level of friendship with President Donald Trump. It’s been a polarizing topic among Patriots fans, a region that predominantly voted for Hillary Clinton in the presidential election. Apparently, this also extends to the Pats locker room; while a Patriots win Sunday would make Brady likely to come hang with his pal in the Oval Office, his teammate Martellus Bennett is already on record as saying he’ll likely pass on the invite, and has made his feelings on current events pretty clear.
I doubt Bennett would be the only championship athlete to decline the ritual White House trip while Trump is in office. As is generally the case in an NFL locker room — where there’s a healthy mix of minorities and/or very rich people — the feelings on the president or the present state of the country can vary greatly. The fact of the matter is, what’s currently going on in the United States is a social matter that transcends politics. Thus, players who are socially conscious are generally going to avoid the man they deem responsible for the giant divide in this country.
The most interesting scenario would involve the Falcons winning the Super Bowl. Considering Atlanta falls within John Lewis’ district that was so grossly mischaracterized by Trump just a couple weeks ago, would anybody from the organization show up? Falcons owner Arthur Blank has publicly voiced displeasure with the current president and is widely known to have been a large donor to the Obama campaign, so I have a hard time seeing him make nice with Trump — even if it is to celebrate Atlanta’s first-ever championship.
The Falcons’ own team-issued hashtag is even synonymous with the protest of Trump’s most controversial executive order.
People are using a "Rise Up" hashtag to talk about refugee policy, and getting an Atlanta Falcons emoji pic.twitter.com/odoLQ1EuvV
— Dan Steinberg (@dcsportsbog) January 29, 2017
Basically, the Falcons aren’t just representing Atlanta and the state of Georgia Sunday. They’re playing for the 73.5 million people who voted against Trump. No pressure.