IT'S Super Bowl time! Here Louis Ross (@LouisRoss67) focuses on the best Atlanta Falcons bets.
New England Patriots v Atlanta Falcons | BBC One | Sunday 23:30
What a way to say goodbye to the Georgia Dome. Atlanta adores its Falcons despite a history notable for its lack of success and many false dawns. This year has been different. In so many ways.
2016 has turned out in the way that 2015 was supposed to. A red hot 5-0 start to the season was meant to herald a new dawn. Under rookie head coach, Dan Quinn the Falcons seemed to finally have all the pieces of the puzzle and Quinn was meant to be the man to put them together.
It just never happened and 5-0 became 8-8 by seasons end. Cue the start of this season and Atlanta were not on anyone's radar when championships were spoken about.
What a difference a year makes. Led by quarterback Matt Ryan, an opening day defeat at home to Tampa Bay was not the greatest shock but the way Quinn and his team responded took most experts by surprise.
Wins on the road over Oakland and New Orleans were followed by a 48-33 victory over 2015 Super Bowl winners Carolina and then 23-16 in Denver. The top two teams in the NFL had been taken care of in the space of seven days. The nation started s take notice.
Five defeats in sixteen games gave Atlanta an NFC title but it was not until the last couple of weeks of the season that anybody thought this team was had a prayer in the post season. In fact, it was a controversial 26-24 loss in Seattle in week 13, that impressed NFL fans as much as any of the wins up until that point.
33.8 points a game was a league best. In fact this powerful offence carried a stuttering defence to almost all of the teams 11 wins. 415.8 yards of offence per game was 2nd best in the NFL with almost 300 yards passing each week.
The NFL has become a passing league in the last few years as rule changes have made quarterbacks, in particular, a protected species. Atlanta is the best offensive team in the NFL and what characterised their season was the number of options they have in this part of the game.
One of the most difficult things to achieve in football is balance. Ideally teams would like to split passing and running plays 50/50 to keep opposing defences honest. There have been few better balanced offences this century.
All great teams are led by the quarterback, the most important position in football. In Matt Ryan, the Falcons have one of the very best.
Good quarterbacks throw for over 3000 yards a season, really good ones nudge 4000. Matt Ryan has thrown well over 4000 yards for five successive seasons now ending 2016 with an astounding 4944 yards and a career best 38 touchdowns. Turning the ball over just seven times, Number 2 has had a career season.
Having a great quarterback is one thing, having the best wide receiver in the game catching his passes is just plain lucky. Julio Jones may not be as flashy as someone like Odell Beckham but Jones wins games.
83 catches for 1409 yards and six touchdowns is not one of Jones' best seasons numbers wise but what he brings to this team is so much more than what he does when the ball is thrown in his direction.
With apologies to those reading this who know NFL inside out (and a nod to the many casual NFL watchers) it is worth pointing out that players like Jones can have a huge effect on a game without touching the football.
Standard receivers play against zonal defences or more often man on man coverage. Jones is that good, that many opposition coaches use two men to defend him. This opens the field up for a team like Atlanta
When Julio is attracting double coverage, a team like the Falcons has a whole number of ways to hurt you. Men like Mohamed Sanu are very capable 2nd receivers and behind Sanu are the likes of Tyler Gabriel and Austin Hooper. We haven't even got to the running game yet.
Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are not just the best rushing pair in the NFL, they also happen to be two of the best pass catching running backs in the game.
Coleman in particular and Matt Ryan is guaranteed to use them seven or eight times in a game. The pair will look to run the football 25-30 times between them and what this pair do, could in fact hold the key to Super Bowl 51. More of that later.
Having the second best record in the NFC meant that Atlanta had a week extra to prepare for its matchup with Seattle. On January 14th, the Seahawks rolled into town expected to take care of the defensively suspect Falcons.
What would offensive coordinator (and next head coach of San Francisco) Kyle Shanahan have in store for Pete Carroll and Russell Wilson? Pain.
Much like Arsenal on a Saturday morning kick off, Seattle never came out of the blocks and were pretty much beaten by half time. 36-20 makes the game look a lot closer than it actually was. Once the games most vaunted defence, Seattle were taken apart.
Equally as surprising, the Atlanta defence came to join the party. A unit that was poor in every aspect of the game was suddenly smothering a team that was looking for a third Super Bowl in four years.
A week later and Green Bay fresh from knocking out Dallas arrived for what was to be the very last game in the Georgia Dome. Not only were the Packers on a nine game winning streak but in Aaron Rodgers they had a man playing like few if any quarterbacks had ever done before.
This battle for the NFC Championship and a spot in Super Bowl was going to be epic. It was a game that every NFL fan wanted to see. We knew Atlanta would score, after all the Packers defence was even worse than Atlanta's.
What we got was perfection on both sides of the ball from the home team and just a second NFC Championship in the teams less than illustrious history.
Once again 44-21 makes it look an awful lot closer than it was and this one was over long before the interval. Once again, despite the points on the board, it was the Falcons defence that really surprised. Rodgers was bemused and could do nothing to turn the tide.
Finals in any sport, particularly ones like this where most experts are predicting a points laden classic, can be such a huge disappointment. Reality, nerves all kick in and often players just don't perform on the day the way they have for an entire season. Its easy to go against the flow and predict a borefest. Super Bowl 51 will be one of the greats I am sure of it.
Let me say now, that I have followed one rule ever since I can remember and I have written it here many times …… Never. Bet. Against. The. Patriots.
I needed to get that in there to avoid being lynched by a few friends that are Pats fans. There is one in particular that I listen to above anyone else on all things NFL.
It's probably worth following @GazSax just during the game if nothing else. His reactions and comments are priceless. There are few more biased fans out there (Love you Gaz) but he really knows his stuff.
The reason he gets a mention here is something he has pointed out to me more than once, “Ryan loves finding Sanu when they're in the Red Zone”. He is of course bang on and Sanu is a standout anytime touchdown scorer at 2/1
I will call the game in more detail at the end of the Patriots piece but for now I want to recommend a couple of Falcons related bets.
This will be a offensive game and its more than likely that whoever has the ball last will win. If that winner is to be Atlanta, then it will not just be what Ryan and his offence does but perhaps more importantly what the Falcons do on defence.
One stop at the right moment could swing the game in their favour. If Atlanta is to stop New England then it will be by applying pressure to their quarterback.
If anyone is to do that, it could well be Vic Beasley. The second season Linebacker leads the NFL with 15.5 sacks this season and many observers noted how easily the Houston pass rush got through the Patriots protection just three weeks ago.
Applying that pressure meant that it took longer than anticipated to put Houston away. If that were to happen in NRG Stadium, Atlanta could be away and gone.
For that reason and because I love this particular market, I am going to suggest a long odds shot at the MVP. Step forward Vic Beasley, you sack machine. Lets see if you cant be the first ever 66/1 winner for WLB in NFL.
If you believe that Atlanta is going to win the big one for the first time ever and it does so via its shoot from the hip quarterback then you need to be taking the 15/8 from Skybet for Matt Ryan to take the trophy.
Seven of the last ten Super Bowl MVPs have been quarterbacks, although two of the last three have been linebackers, and Ryan is such a dominant part of the Atlanta team that 15/8 starts to look a very decent bet. His opponent is odds on everywhere.
My final Falcons related pick concerns the aforementioned Julio Jones. Not only does Matt Ryan have more options than any quarterback in the league, but New England has had two clear weeks to prepare for him.
He may still have a big say, but I cant see him getting the ball eight times. No way. That's the NAP …………….. for Atlanta anyway.
Atlanta Falcons v New England Patriots – Julio Jones Under 7.5 receptions (10/11 Skybet)
Atlanta Falcons v New England Patriots – Mohamed Sanu Anytime Touchdown Scorer (2/1 Skybet)
Atlanta Falcons v New England Patriots – Vic Beasley MVP (66/1 Bet365)
Atlanta Falcons v New England Patriots – Matt Ryan MVP (15/8 Skybet)