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Sunday Playbook: Are Falcons ready to take the final step?

 Before  2000, you could write the history of the National Football League without mentioning the New England Patriots or the Atlanta Falcons. They were insignificant if not irrelevant. It was the league of the Bears, Steelers, Packers, Giants, Redskins, Browns, Dolphins, Colts  and even the Jets and, yes, the four Super Bowl Bills. Those teams were involved in milestone games or eras in the NFL's existence.

Then along game Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in 2000. The Patriots have dominated the league's history since then, even when they lost, such as Super Bowl XLII, when the Giants spoiled New England's perfect season. This is a record ninth Super Bowl for New England, seven since the turn of the century.

Now Belichick stands on the threshhold of winning a fifth Super Bowl, breaking his tie with Chuck Noll. He has won more postseason games (25) than any coach in league history, with all but one win coming since 2000. And Brady will be trying to record a fifth Super Bowl championship as a starting quarterback and a fourth Super Bowl MVP trophy. Insignificance and irrelevant no more.

Since their founding in 1966, the Atlanta Falcons have been  largely invisible when it came to championship play. They did win the NFC and get to the Super Bowl in 1998 and became the first team to win a playoff game in Green Bay when they upset the Packers in the 2002 playoffs, but their history as been largely disappointing. The Falcons won just one NFC West Division championships (1980) before NFL realignment in 2002. Most of the time they were second or third banana in a division dominated by the 49ers and Rams. Now with Matt Ryan, a quarterback who seems to have arrived at the prime of his career, strong ownership and management and a new stadium about to open, the Falcons may be ready to establishment some dominance in the NFC.

Another ride to the top for the Patriots or the dawning of the Age of the Falcons? Super Bowl LI may determine which to look for.

Patriots (16-2) vs. Falcons (13-5)
TV: Fox, 6:30 p.m.
The line: Patriots (-3)

The scoop on the Patriots: New England led the NFL in scoring defense, allowing 230 points in the regular season. Some have minimized that by pointing out that the Patriots did not face enough of the league's elite quarterbacks. New England did give up 326.4 yards per game, but posted some noteworthy achievements. The Patriots did not allow a rushing touchdown in 12 of their 16 games, none in the last eight. Last team to run the ball across the New England goalline was the Bills, who had three TDs on Oct. 30. That was half of the six rushing touchdowns allowed by the Patriots all season. Brady's 112.2 passer rating was second in the league to Ryan's 117.17. RB LeGarrette Blount led the league with 18 rushing touchdowns. Even after TE Rob Gronkowski was lost to injury, the passing game thrived. Julian Edelman led the team with 96 receptions, but for only 11.3 yards per catch and just three touchdowns. Brady, though, makes use of other receivers such as ex-Bill Chris Hogan, ex-Cardinal Michael Floyd, Danny Amendola and rookie Malcolm Mitchell. Tight end Martellus Bennett isn't as explosive as Gronkowski, but provides an experienced receiving threat. It's worth noting that New England did not allow a return touchdown (interception, fumble or kicking) all season.

The scoop on the Falcons: No doubt how explosive the Atlanta offense is. Ryan passed for nearly 5,000 yards and 38 touchdowns. Julio Jones was second in the league with 96 receptions for 17.0 yards and six touchdowns. Mohamed Sanu has a touchdown catch in the last four games including the postseason. Sanu had five receptions for 52 yards in the NFC Championship Game. Late in the season, Taylor Gabriel emerged as a breakaway receiving threats. RB Devonta Freeman ran for 1,079 yards in the regular season while splitting time when Tevin Coleman. Both are excellent receivers, and Ryan makes good use of them. They are punishing runners after the catch, and it could be a long day for New England corners, Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan. ... Defensively, the Falcons may not match up with the Patriots. Atlanta gave up 28 points or more nine times in the regular season.

Matchup to watch: Atlanta's passing game is not a one-trip pony, but the expectation will be that Belichick and his defensive staff will try to take away Julio Jones from the Falcons' attack, either frustrating him or at least minimizing his effect on the game. Butler, the hero of New England's Super Bowl win two years ago, most likely will get that coverage assignment with over-the-top help from free safety Devin McCourty. Freeing up Jones will be a test for defensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.

Outlook: An Atlanta upset would not be earth-shaking, but overcoming a Belichick defense and keeping Brady from dominating the game when New England has the ball looks like too much to ask. An entertaining offensive show is expected with the Patriots winning, 30-26.

Results from Jan. 22: 2-0 outright; 2-0 versus spread.
Season's record: 158-84-3 outright; 125-110-10 versus spread.

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