A casual fan's guide to Super Bowl 51

Get ready, America: It's a historic offensive machine vs. a soulless dynasty

Hey, casual sports fans! It's Super Bowl LI (that's 51 for us post-Roman Empire types), and there's no sense in denying yourself nachos, Lady Gaga, and above-average commercials. Obviously, you're going to watch the game, so you might as well have some idea of what's going on.

On one side you've got America's most hated team, the New England Patriots. If you've watched a Super Bowl this century, you've probably seen them — because with seven Super Bowl appearances in 15 seasons, they've been very good for a long time. This success, their fans will tell you, breeds the hatred ("They hate us 'cuz they ain't us"). And while New England fans love their sports heroes and forgive their (ahem) issues with a devotion that would make Chairman Mao blush, there's undoubtedly something to their characterization of the rest of us loozahs.

Indeed, the Patriots' coach and quarterback duo of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady is nothing short of a miracle.

With a supporting cast of mostly no-names who magically overperform (and then are jettisoned almost annually), the supermodel-marrying Brady and the glowering, humorless, sore-losing Belichick — with his famous and somewhat fascistic "Do. Your. Job." mantra — have made mincemeat of their perennially hapless AFC East competition and regularly cruise to bye week-enhanced playoff berths year after year. In a league defined by parity and a salary cap, they really have no peer. Greatest of all time, there you have them.

That said, if you live more than 100 miles from the Mass Pike, there's just no reason to root for the Patriots.

Even among Boston's sportswriting corps — the very scribes who pioneered unbearable homerism — there's a whole "meh" quality to the big game. The Boston Globe's Dan Shaugnessy lamented that the home team's latest Super Bowl appearance is a somehow diminished affair because the Patriots aren't going to face a marquee franchise like the New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys, or Green Bay Packers. The poor Pats fans are going to have to slum it, rooting against a fairly anonymous franchise like the Atlanta Falcons. Shaughnessy — already assuming victory — worried Patriots fans would be left with a sinking, empty feeling — like Boston Red Sox fans were after beating the Colorado Rockies in the 2007 World Series.

With that kind of smug entitlement, how could you not root for the Falcons?

Now, the dirty birds aren't a screechingly loud disaster like the New York Jets or a civic tragedy like the Cleveland Browns or Buffalo Bills. Shaughnessy's got a point: Most seasons, you'd hardly notice the Falcons are even around. The Atlanta football franchise has only 13 playoff appearances in 51 seasons, with just one forgettable Super Bowl appearance — a drubbing by the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXXIII. Its greatest player was Deion Sanders, who only played there for five seasons and went on to win Super Bowls with two different franchises after leaving Atlanta. The Falcons' next greatest hope was Michael Vick, a dynamic, speedy force of nature who challenged perceptions of what an NFL quarterback could be expected to accomplish on the field. However, Vick's off-the-field dog-torturing landed him in prison and the Falcons in limbo.

Then came former Boston College backup quarterback Matt Ryan, who has had flashes of brilliance — including two 13-win seasons — but also some uninspired playoff performances, with just one win in five playoff games going into this postseason. His numbers fading from 2013-2015, there was some legitimate concern that he was regressing — maybe even a has-been.

Ryan's MVP-caliber 2016 campaign has put an end to all that, with 38 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. Short of a complete meltdown in the Super Bowl, the Falcons' playoff smackdowns of both the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers — where Ryan and the Falcons D quieted the seemingly unstoppable Aaron Rodgers — may have finally allowed Ryan to shed his (not entirely fair) reputation as a big-game choker.

Part of the reason the Falcons have a serious shot at being the first non-New York Giants squad to force Bill Belichick to sulk off a Super Bowl sideline is that they are a positively historic offensive machine this season.

Wide receiver Julio Jones is unquestionably Ryan's most valuable weapon, but Ryan has also hit 12 other guys with touchdown passes. Running back Devonta Freeman has played so well, he's using Super Bowl hype week to negotiate for a raise worthy of his "elite" status. The Falcons averaged over 33 points per game (the league average is just 22.7 points per game) earning comparisons to such offensive juggernauts as the 2007 Patriots and the 1999-2001 St. Louis Rams, who were dubbed "the greatest show on turf."

Interestingly, that Kurt Warner-piloted Rams squad won Super Bowl XXXIV, but just two years later had its dynasty hopes squashed in one of the greatest Super Bowl upsets of all time, when they lost 20-17 to the Brady/Belichick Patriots, launching the soulless and ageless dynasty that the rest of us endure to this day.

In short, it looks like a good game. The idea that the Patriots would be pushovers just feels unthinkable (all six of their Brady/Belichick Super Bowl appearances have been decided by four points or less), and "Matty Ice" and the high-flying Falcons have been hanging historic numbers for months.

And even if the Patriots win, at the very least it will spell the decisive end of the two-year (feels like so much longer) war between hapless NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and his league's model franchise over something called Deflategate (look it up, because I just can't anymore).


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