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Doug Orth | Archive | Email |
Staff Writer

Playoff Fantasy Football: Super Bowl LI
Road to the Super Bowl

As I have for the past seven-plus years, I will share my thoughts on my Playoff Challenge entry and playoff money leagues with Fuzzy's Fantasy Football as we head into the final week of our postseason odyssey:

For a complete rundown of how players will score fantasy points for your team, click on the “Rules & Prizing” link on the entry page. Much of the content immediately below is included on the “How to Play” page, although the information I provide below should be more than enough to follow along easily. Playoff Challenge scoring system

At this point, you either have a lineup full of 4x players or, at worst, a mix of 4x and 3x players with perhaps one substitution. Otherwise, your entry is probably not in the running anymore and that's OK. Trying to predict the Super Bowl entrants is tough enough, but getting the right players on those teams can be every bit as difficult.

As it turns out, I nailed the teams making the Super Bowl. My only regret? Somehow I failed to foresee the Packers' wide receiver corps get destroyed by injuries to the point where Jared Cook could emerge as the right play at tight end. Nevertheless, there is no question I should score over 800 points in this competition and finish among the top 1,000 or so entrants when all is said and done. Both will be easily the best marks I have achieved in this challenge.

Because I'm obviously not going to change any player in my all-4x lineup, I will simply list my choices below and break down the individual matchups in the next section.

Quarterback: Matt Ryan
Running backs: LeGarrette Blount and Devonta Freeman
Wide Receivers: Julian Edelman and Julio Jones
Tight Ends: Martellus Bennett
Kicker: Matt Bryant
Defense/Special Teams: Patriots

Weekly totals
Wildcard Weekend: 0 points
Divisional Round: 206 points
Conference Championships: 393 points


With DraftKings bowing out for the Super Bowl, we are left with only the traditional playoff pick-your-studs leagues that are wrapping up this weekend.

Because there is only one game this week and I have no reason to change any of my picks, I decided this time around to provide you with some of the most detailed analysis you are likely to find on the web in regard to this game. Enjoy.

Key for quarterbacks, running backs, receivers and tight ends:
P Yds - Passing Yards
P TD - Passing Touchdowns
INT - Interceptions
Ru Yds - Rushing Yards
Ru TD - Rushing Touchdowns
Rec Yds - Receiving Yards
Rec TD - Receiving Touchdowns
Rec - Receptions

Player Fuzzy’s Pt Total P Yds P TD INT Ru Yds Ru TD
Tom Brady 28.5 320 3 0 5 0
Matt Ryan 24.3 315 2 1 15 0

Matt Ryan - Ryan completed passes to 15 different receivers this year and set a NFL record by throwing a touchdown pass to 13 of them. This is exactly the kind of distribution an offense needs if it going to defeat a defensive game plan put together by DC Matt Patricia and HC Bill Belichick. One of the few coaches Belichick has struggled to beat over the course of his career was OC Kyle Shanahan's dad in large part because the elder Shanahan's teams always seemed to be able to run the ball against Belichick's defenses and get what they needed in the passing game off play-action. Mike is credited with popularizing the zone-stretch play, so while Kyle doesn't seem to rely on it as much as his dad used to, it is still very much an important part of the running game. Atlanta boasts the NFL's fifth-best ground game this year, while New England finished the regular season with the league's fourth-best rush defense. Even if we call that "matchup" a draw, the bigger point to be made here is the Patriots will not have the luxury of taking many chances giving the Falcons a light box because Atlanta's running game is good enough to take advantage of it - unlike many of the Patriots' recent opponents. Patricia and Belichick will be able to dictate matchups in the passing game on obvious passing downs given the versatility of their defensive backs, but Kyle Shanahan and Ryan have the weapons to keep New England honest on defense - again, unlike many of the Patriots' recent opponents. Getting the Patriots to bite on play-action will be pivotal.

Tom Brady - Over the last few years, the only team that has enjoyed consistent success against Brady is Denver. Simplistically speaking, the Broncos were able to achieve this because they have the two characteristics a defense needs in order to slow down any elite quarterback: cornerbacks who can cover for at least three seconds and the ability to get pressure with four rushers. Brady has usually picked apart teams who couldn't do either one and still performed at an elite level against defenses that could achieve only one of the two. While Vic Beasley led the league in sacks this season, I'm not sure anyone is ready to put him in the same class as Von Miller. Additionally, while the Falcons' secondary has held up nicely over the second half of the season, no one will mistake Robert Alford, Jalen Collins and Brian Poole for Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr. and Bradley Roby. Even if we say Beasley gives Atlanta a fighting chance to move Brady off his spot in the pocket, the Patriots arguably have the advantage in each of the most likely receiver vs. cornerback matchups.

 Running Backs
Player Fuzzy’s Pt Total Ru Yds Ru TD Re Yds Re TD Rec
Devonta Freeman 24.5 40 0 75 1 7
Tevin Coleman 18.0 55 1 35 0 3
LeGarrette Blount 11.5 55 1 0 0 0
Dion Lewis 9.0 30 0 30 0 3
James White 4.5 10 0 15 0 2

Falcons running backs - If there is one area in which Atlanta holds a decent to sizable advantage in this position-by-position analysis, it is the speed and elusiveness RBs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman bring to the table over Patriots ILBs Elandon Roberts and, specifically, Kyle Van Noy. Some may remember the emergence of Roberts was one of the primary reasons New England felt comfortable trading Jamie Collins, so it is not his athleticism that is in question here. However, neither Roberts nor Van Noy ranked inside the top 50 in overall grade among linebackers per Pro Football Focus. Again, per PFF, Van Noy allowed the second-most yards per coverage snap (1.85) among his position group, while Roberts surrendered catches on 13-of-15 targets for receptions for 174 yards and a touchdown in coverage. In part because the Patriots have stopped the run so well this season, they have surrendered 102 receptions to the running back position - second only to the Falcons (108). While that may seem like a stat that makes the preceding paragraph irrelevant, it should be noted Atlanta yielded only 17 catches to running backs over the final five weeks of the regular season whereas New England gave up 31 - and no one would argue the Rams, Ravens, Broncos, Jets or Dolphins (New England's final five opponents) have backs on par with the tandem of Freeman and Coleman. It should come as no surprise if the Falcons attempt to play both backs at the same time and try to spread the field in order to get one or both isolated on Roberts or Van Noy. This should not be a game in which Atlanta needs to run a lot of screens either; if the Falcons are going to throw to their backs, look for them to be on downfield shots such as wheel routes.

Patriots running backs - The one (and only) back Atlanta faced this season who most resembles Blount in terms of style of play is Jonathan Stewart, who finished with 50 yards on 11 carries in Week 16. While that stat line doesn't really tell us all that much, there is no question in my mind Blount will need to be the primary option in the backfield if the Patriots are interested in maintaining any kind of offensive balance and keeping the game from becoming a complete shootout. While Dion Lewis and James White typically offer OC Josh McDaniels two options out of the backfield who are mismatches for most linebackers, they don't pose the same kind of threat to WLB De'Vondre Campbell (6-3. 234) or MLB Deion Jones (6-1, 222), both of whom were drafted last year specifically for their speed. Furthermore, DT Grady Jarrett and RDE Tyson Jackson are the only players on Atlanta's front four who possess what most consider prototypical weight for players in their positions. Blount, as most of us well know, checks in at 6-0, 250, so it would make a ton of sense for the Patriots to use his size as a way to counteract the speed the Falcons' defense is built on. Does that mean he'll see the 20 carries he became accustomed to prior to Lewis' return? Probably not, if only because he hasn't topped four yards per carry in five straight outings, while Lewis is shifty enough to make players like Campbell and Jones miss in space just as much as he could players like Garrett or Jackson. With that said, the best way to beat speed is to run straight at it and preferably with as much bulk as possible. It should come as no surprise if the Patriots choose to regularly employ a sixth offensive lineman (perhaps on 20 percent of the plays?) and see if Blount can't just wear out Atlanta's front seven, especially since New England probably isn't going to try to milk the clock.

 Wide Receivers
Player Fuzzy’s Pt Total Ru Yds Ru TD Re Yds Re TD Rec
Julian Edelman 25.0 110 1 8
Malcolm Mitchell 15.0 50 1 4
Danny Amendola 12.5 35 1 3
Mohamed Sanu 10.5 5 0 50 0 5
Julio Jones 9.5 55 0 4
Chris Hogan 9.0 60 0 3
Taylor Gabriel 6.5 10 0 35 0 2
Aldrick Robinson 2.5 15 0 1
Justin Hardy 2.0 10 0 1

Julio Jones vs. Logan Ryan/Eric Rowe - Perhaps the biggest mystery entering this Sunday is exactly how Patricia and Belichick plan on bottling up Jones. But will that be their focus? Before you decide to start laughing and quit reading, consider this: In games in which Julio Jones was limited to 60 yards or fewer, Atlanta went 5-0, averaged 34.4 points and sported an 11.4-point margin of victory. In other words, taking away the Falcons' best offensive player didn't exactly slow down the offensive machine. While many tend to believe Jones will receive shadow coverage from Malcolm Butler, that approach is not New England's style. Patricia and Belichick have long favored putting their second-best corner on another team's star receiver and giving him safety help over the top. Making it even more likely the Patriots won't ask Butler to travel with Jones is the size difference between the two: Butler is 5-11, 190, while Jones is 6-3, 220. Rowe is 6-1 and 205, making it much more likely he will see the most snaps opposite Jones. It's hard to imagine New England trusting Rowe to handle Jones by himself on more than a handful of snaps, however, so expect safety help on his side about 90 percent of the time.

Mohamed Sanu vs. Logan Ryan - Per PFF, Sanu ran 59.1 percent of his routes from the slot this season, and this should be a game in which Atlanta relies heavily on three-wide personnel. After taking a beating on the outside early in 2016, Ryan began to emerge as a quality slot corner. So, given the aforementioned defensive attention on Jones, Sanu vs. Ryan should be one of the pivotal matchups of this game from the Falcons' perspective. Sanu has been extremely efficient of late, catching 13-of-16 targets over his last three games, making it seem as if he's caught fire with three touchdowns over that span. In reality, he's really the same receiver he was in Cincinnati with a better quarterback - a possession wideout with the capability to run a trick play or two to keep the defense on its heels. All in all, this is a matchup Ryan should be able to manage. If he can't for one reason or another, it could very well be the reason Atlanta pulls the upset.

Taylor Gabriel vs. Malcolm Butler - Let's be clear: I believe Butler will line up against Sanu in two-wide sets and Rowe will start over Ryan and see primary coverage on Jones. Even if Ryan starts, I suspect he'll be the one to start out on Jones over Butler. I'm choosing to make this Butler's primary matchup because I believe the Falcons will use at least three receivers more than 50 percent of the time. If I am correct about this pairing, Shanahan will need to consider making Gabriel his primary slot receiver if he has any hope of creating big plays in the passing game with his non-Jones receivers. Also working against Gabriel is the Patriots' ability to limit big passing plays. New England gave up one pass play of 20-plus yards to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship and tied for 10th this season in 25-yard pass plays allowed (27). While Gabriel is more than just a big-play artist, he's probably not at the point in his career yet where he can take his already limited opportunities (roughly six targets per game) and produce much against one of the highest-rated corners in the league (Butler). He'll have a much better chance to do so against Ryan.

Julian Edelman vs. Brian Poole - Poole has done more this season than most could expect from a rookie free agent and is ranked 37th among all cornerbacks per PFF in overall grade. He mostly held his own against Doug Baldwin and did a fair job against Randall Cobb, but Edelman is a different animal in the sense that so much of the Patriots' passing game revolves around him. But make no mistake: this is a matchup that favors New England in a big way. Per PFF, Poole gave up the fifth-most yards after the catch among slot cornerbacks, while Edelman produced the fourth-most yards after the catch among his position group. Given how often Edelman gets open within two seconds of the snap, Poole will be fortunate to keep him around six or seven scoreless catches.

Chris Hogan vs. Robert Alford - Sometimes I feel as if the Patriots try to mock the rest of the league. Prior to arriving in Foxboro, Hogan was primarily known for being a big slot receiver with little speed. Try telling that to Pittsburgh. While I want to take nothing away from a player coming off a career game and acknowledge New England did a fine job in creating opportunities for him in the AFC Championship, Hogan might as well have been the invisible man in the Steelers' secondary, as he routinely had at least three yards of separation on nearly every catch. On a number of his receptions, he was flat left uncovered. Atlanta plays more man coverage than a team with a Pete Carroll protégé as its head coach (Dan Quinn), so the likelihood is that Hogan probably isn't going to make the same kind of noise in the Super Bowl as he did two weeks ago. With that said, Alford allowed a 105.0 QB rating in his coverage per PFF, so Hogan is a good bet as any non-Edelman wideout to be worth a fantasy start.

Malcolm Mitchell vs. Jalen Collins - Collins graded out as the 16th-best corner per PFF and should be considered the top corner in Atlanta. The question is whether or not the Falcons' coaching staff is willing to consider tape and production over experience in the biggest game of the year. However, Atlanta doesn't move its outside corners around, so whichever receiver New England decides to line up on the left side of its formation (to face RCB Alford as opposed to LCB Collins) should be the Patriots' receiver that enjoys the most success after Edelman. I've had a sneaky suspicion since before the AFC Championship that Mitchell will have a big game this postseason, so it would not surprise me if he steps up big in this game. However, this matchup is easily the most difficult of the top three Patriots' receivers.

 Tight Ends
Player Fuzzy’s Pt Total Re Yds Re TD Rec
Austin Hooper 12.5 35 1 3
Martellus Bennett 4.0 20 0 2
Levine Toilolo 1.5 5 0 1

Austin Hooper - If there is one player in this game who probably won't receive more than five minutes of attention from the media and talking heads but could have a substantial impact, it is Hooper. As noted earlier, the projected receiver/cornerback matchups don't work out particularly well for the Falcons as I have them lined up, which means Atlanta's willingness to spread it around will be a key factor in its offensive success. Running backs and tight ends will need to come up big in order for the Falcons to win, and 6-3, 254-pound Hooper should have the advantage over 5-11, 215-pound Pat Chung. Of course, there's more to it than just size: Chung graded out as the 86th safety out of 90 qualifying players per PFF. Hooper hasn't exactly torn it up this postseason (three catches on three targets for 33 yards), but Atlanta really hasn't needed him to either. With New England likely able to slow down the running game and Julio Jones somewhat, the rookie will probably need to be a more significant part this weekend.

Martellus Bennett - There really is no telling just how injured Bennett is (I'm willing to bet he's going to need most of the offseason to recover), so it makes little sense for me to spend much time dissecting his potential impact on this game. The Patriots' receivers should be able to carry the day anyway, so expect minimal production here, outside of potential a short touchdown catch.

Key for kickers and defense/special teams units:
XP - Extra point
FG - Field goal
PA - Points allowed
TO - Total turnovers
TD - Defensive/return touchdowns

Player Fuzzy's Pt Total XP FG
Matt Bryant 12.0  3 3
Stephen Gostkowski 10.0  4 2

 Defense / Special Teams
Player Fuzzy’s Pt Total PA Sacks TO TD
Patriots 3.0 30 2 1 0
Falcons 1.0 34 2 0 0

Coaching - Belichick's resume speaks for itself and his ability to take away the opponent's strength has been well-chronicled throughout the years, so let's focus primarily on Atlanta here. Make no mistake about it: this Falcons' offense is perhaps the biggest challenge the Patriots have faced in the Super Bowl during the Belichick era, even more so than "The Greatest Show on Turf" 16 years ago. How do I figure that? While the Rams' individual talent was greater, HC Mike Martz relied more heavily on his players' skill and their ability to run his offensive precision than out-scheming opponents. The same cannot be said for Kyle Shanahan, who is as good as any play-caller in the league at complementing successful run plays with play-action passes built off the same formations and motions. Although he often has the edge in talent in passing game matchups, Shanahan can and will scheme with the best of them in order to create coverage busts. That makes Atlanta the rare team with enough talent - both from a player and coaching perspective - to test a Patricia/Belichick defense.


Vegas has the over/under on this game in the 58-59 range, which I believe is the highest number in Super Bowl history. It's unlikely that number will be high enough, but I do believe it will be close. The No. 1 scoring defense (the Patriots) has won four out of five Super Bowl matchups against the top scoring offense (the Falcons). In fact, the only time the top-ranked scoring offense beat the top-ranked scoring defense in Super Bowl history was after the 1989 season (Super Bowl XXIV), when San Francisco had the league's third-best scoring defense in addition to its No. 1 offense. Small sample size like that alone isn't a good enough reason to predict a win for the Patriots, but it is a start, especially when you consider like they also scored the third-most points this season.

New England should conceivably be able to reduce the effectiveness of the Atlanta's ground game - certainly more so than any other recent opponent - and will have a plan for Julio Jones, which I laid out in some detail earlier. The key in my mind will be how quickly and how often Shanahan can get Jones and Gabriel isolated on Logan Ryan, because Matt Ryan probably isn't going to throw to Jones in bracket coverage all that often or throw to Gabriel if Butler is on him. Freeman, Coleman and Hooper need to dominate in the short passing game and be able to help to win their individual matchups downfield when they get those opportunities. In short, Atlanta needs to live up to its reputation as a big-play offense and lift the lid off of a Patriots' defense that doesn't usually give up those kind of plays or make assignment errors. The more the Falcons can turn this game into a track meet, the better.

On the flip side, New England probably needs to exercise a bit of caution offensively. For the first time perhaps all season long (at least with Brady under center), the Patriots will not have the best offense on the field. Some tempo will be fine but establishing the running game has to be a priority. I also have my doubts as to whether or not New England's bend-but-don't-break defense can consistently hold such an explosive and multi-faceted offense orchestrated by a superior play-caller to field goals in the red zone. As much as I would like to see Atlanta get its first ring, it says here New England will get just enough stops to send the Patriots to their fifth Super Bowl title under Belichick.

Super Bowl Prediction: Patriots 34, Falcons 30

Doug Orth has written for FF Today since 2006 and been featured in USA Today’s Fantasy Football Preview magazine since 2010. He hosted USA Today’s hour-long, pre-kickoff fantasy football internet chat every Sunday in 2012-13 and appears as a guest analyst on a number of national sports radio shows, including Sirius XM’s “Fantasy Drive”. Doug is also a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.