Super Bowl LI: Patriots-Falcons predictions by our (cough) experts

Super Bowl LI: Patriots-Falcons predictions by our (cough) experts

The big day is here.

After two weeks of media coverage, hype and dodging Donald Trump questions, the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons will finally square off tonight in Super Bowl LI. With that said, here are our (cough) expert predictions for Super Bowl LI.

Reuben Frank (9-7)
Every time I look at the matchups, I like the Falcons. They have a better running game. They have more dangerous wide receivers. They have Julio Jones. They have a defense that's played really well the last month and a half. They have Matt Ryan putting up ridiculous numbers.

The Patriots? They have the usual collection of journeymen, castoffs, free agents, late-round draft picks and street pickups. They also have Tom Brady, and I just can't pick against Tom Brady in a Super Bowl. On paper, the Falcons win. But I'm going with the Patriots, just because it's Tom Brady, it's the Super Bowl and I can't pick him to lose.

Patriots 31, Falcons 28

Dave Zangaro (8-8)
I think we're in for a good Super Bowl. At least I hope so. 

On its face, it doesn't make much sense to pick against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. I mean, they know what they're doing. 

But this season, they're about to run into an absolute buzzsaw. I know the Patriots are known for taking away their opponent's best weapon, so they'll try to stop Julio Jones on Sunday. The problem with that is there have been eight games this season where Jones either didn't play or had four or fewer catches. The Falcons are 7-1 in those games, so taking away Jones doesn't mean stopping the Falcons. 

I just think the Falcons' offense is performing at too high a level and their defense has been steadily underrated all season. 

(Also, a friendly reminder: the Eagles have beaten both these teams within the last two years.) 

Falcons 38, Patriots 36

Derrick Gunn (8-8)
Super Bowl LI has the makings of a real shootout. Atlanta's offense appears unstoppable right now. Not only did the Falcons lead the league in scoring during the regular season with 33.8 points per game, they're on a six-game win streak that inclues two playoff blowouts. HotLanta has averaged 39 points per game during the streak.

As for New England, ever since Tom Brady returned from his suspension in Week 5, the Patriots have averaged 30.7 points. So much attention has been given to the offense, but both defenses should be given props.

New England's No. 1-rated scoring defense has been consistent, while the young Falcons' defense, which has four rookies starting, has generated 13 turnovers and 14 sacks in its last six games.

Matt Ryan richly deserves the MVP award he won on Saturday night, but Bill Belichick is the best in the business at neutralizing an opponent's strength and exploiting weaknesses. The one big question for me is which team's defense can rattle the quarterback?

Because Belichick and Brady have been down this Super Bowl road so many times before, I give the Pats the edge on Sunday.

Patriots 31, Falcons 27

Ray Didinger (8-8)
The Falcons are red hot, winning their last six games and scoring more than 40 points in half of them, including a 44-21 beat down of Green Bay in the NFC title game. But history is not on their side this week. They had the top scoring offense in the NFL this season, but the New England defense allowed the fewest points. This will be the seventh time the Super Bowl will feature a No. 1 vs. No. 1 matchup, and in five of the previous six games, the team with the No. 1 defense won. That's a pretty strong trend.
 
Also, I can't shake the memory of the Falcons' 24-15 loss to the Eagles. The Eagles ran the ball down the Falcons' throats (38 rushing attempts for a season-high 207 yards) and Ryan Mathews ran for 108 yards, most of them between the tackles. The Eagles controlled the ball for more than 38 minutes and limited the explosive Atlanta offense to 11 first downs. I could see the Patriots doing much the same thing with LeGarrette Blount hammering away at the swift but smallish Atlanta defensive front.
 
So while the pregame conversion focused on Tom Brady going for his fifth Super Bowl ring — and, of course, getting his jollies at the expense of Commissioner Roger Goodell — the Patriots' quarterback may not be the key to winning this game, after all. I think it will be New England's running game and its underrated defense (which will limit the big plays by Julio Jones) that will make the difference in the end.
 
Patriots 27, Falcons 23

Andrew Kulp (9-7)
Five times before, the No. 1 scoring offense in the NFL has met the No. 1 scoring defense in the Super Bowl. On four of those occasions, defense won.

That said, the Patriots don't feel like your typical No. 1 defense. Just look at some of the teams they played this year: the Browns, the 49ers, the Rams, the Bengals, the Broncos, the Jets (twice), the Texans (twice), the Dolphins without Ryan Tannehill and the Steelers without Le'Veon Bell for three quarters of the game. I have seen some dominant, all-time great defenses flat out carry teams to championships in my lifetime — the 2000 Ravens, the '02 Bucs, the '13 Seahawks and the '15 Broncos — and I'm just not sure I view this group in that light.

It's also tough to bet against Bill Belichick — if anybody can scheme a way to stop Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman, Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel, it's that guy — nor can you count out Tom Brady. For that reason, I'm genuinely torn on which way to go, but my gut is telling me it's the Falcons' time.

Falcons 28, Patriots 27

Corey Seidman (9-7)
Part of me wants the Patriots to win just so we can all definitively state Tom Brady is the greatest QB of all time and Bill Belichick is the best coach. It would pretty much end any debate there, and I'm all for ending hot-air debates.

But Brady has been super unlikeable the last couple weeks. His political affiliation is his business, but it's pretty lame to call attention to who you support with a "Make America Great Again" hat in your locker, only to subsequently refuse to answer questions about it. Either keep it to yourself or answer questions, you don't get it both ways.

So, perhaps my judgment is clouded now because I'm actively rooting against Brady, but the Falcons have so much offensively and are playing so fast on defense that I think they pull this one out. If the game was being played outdoors, I'd go Pats all the way. But it's in the dome in Houston and we all know how fast the Falcons move indoors.

Falcons 31, Patriots 27

Andy Schwartz (9-7)
To beat the Patriots, as the Giants and others have proven, pressuring Tom Brady is a must.

Bill Barnwell elaborates on that — in exhaustive detail — here

The Falcons, who boast NFL sack leader Victor Beasley, beat Green Bay two weeks ago by rattling Aaron Rodgers. But Rodgers, as Eagles fans saw in November, excelled by adeptly navigating the pocket and extending plays. He wasn't able to do that against Atlanta.

Will the Falcons get to Tom Brady? I'm not betting on it. Brady is mobile — but not as mobile as Rodgers — and will get rid of the ball quickly. This Falcons' D is hardly a juggernaut, especially not in its home dome and especially against a Patriots team given two weeks to prepare. 

The only way the Falcons win is in a shootout. Could happen, but I'm not going with any team the Eagles beat this season to win the Super Bowl.

Patriots 31, Falcons 20

NFL Notes: Patriots reach deal with former Jets LB David Harris

NFL Notes: Patriots reach deal with former Jets LB David Harris

BOSTON -- A person familiar with the situation says the New England Patriots have agreed to terms on a deal with former New York Jets linebacker David Harris.

The new two-year pact could be worth as much as $6.75 million, the person told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity Wednesday because the deal has not yet been announced.

Harris, a 2007 second-round pick from Michigan who has spent all 10 of his NFL seasons in New York, was released earlier this month by the Jets in a series of offseason moves to cut high-priced veterans. He was the franchise's second-leading tackler.

He now moves within the division to play for Bill Belichick, who has lauded Harris' play in the past. It also gives the Patriots some veteran depth to pair with Dont'a Hightower.

Jaguars: Rhaney claimed off waivers
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Jacksonville Jaguars have claimed offensive lineman Demetrius Rhaney off waivers from the Los Angeles Rams.

The Jaguars announced the move Wednesday and said they released rookie offensive lineman Parker Collins to make room on the roster for Rhaney.

The 6-foot-2, 301-pound Rhaney was a seventh-round draft pick out of Tennessee State by the Rams in 2014. He spent his first season on injured reserve but played in every regular-season game the past two seasons, starting once at left guard in 2015.

Packers: Guion arrested on suspicion of DUI
HONOLULU -- Green Bay Packers defensive lineman Letroy Guion has been arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of an intoxicant in Hawaii.

Honolulu police booking records show Guion was arrested early Wednesday in Waikiki. He was released after posting $500 bail.

Packers spokesman Aaron Popkey says in a statement that the team is aware and will refrain from making further comment because it's a legal matter. He says he doesn't know what Guion was doing in Waikiki.

Guion was suspended without pay by the NFL for the first four games of the 2017 season for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs.

He started 15 games last season, making 30 tackles. The nine-year veteran agreed to a three-year deal worth $11.25 million in February 2016.

NFL: Former player Ryan Jones shot dead
RENO, Nev. -- Nevada authorities say former NFL linebacker Ryan Jones was shot dead over the weekend in a Reno apartment and two other people suffered non-life threatening gunshot wounds.

Reno Police Department spokesman Officer Tim Broadway declined comment Tuesday on the circumstances that led to Sunday's shooting because detectives were still interviewing people for their investigation.

Jones, 26, signed a free-agent deal with the Baltimore Ravens in 2014 and had a stint with the New York Giants before becoming a mixed martial arts fighter.

He was the first Montana Tech football player in the college's history to sign an NFL contract.

Jones graduated from Hug High School in Nevada before attending Sierra College and then Montana Tech in 2011.

Eagles LBs coach thinks there's more ceiling for Jordan Hicks

Eagles LBs coach thinks there's more ceiling for Jordan Hicks

Jordan Hicks is a good middle linebacker. 

After his first two seasons in the NFL, the former third-round pick has piled up some eye-popping numbers. 

In his first 24 games in the league (his rookie season was cut short with a pec injury), he has seven interceptions, 14 passes defensed, four fumble recoveries, a forced fumble and two sacks. 

He's just the fifth player in NFL history — and only linebacker — to have that many INTs, fumble recoveries and forced fumbles in the first two years of his career. 

Hicks, who turns 25 later this month, is already really good. The next step is to become great. 

Is there room for more growth? 

"I would hope so," Eagles linebackers coach Ken Flajole said last week. "We're all emotionally tied in with our guys. I think he's done a great job for us. Is there room for improvement? No question. But he works at it. It's important to him. I know it's important for him that he puts the team success above himself. 

"I would suspect that there's more ceiling for him at linebacker. And I expect him to work at those things." 

Hicks actually had a chance to work on some of those things this offseason. As he exited last year, it was clear Hicks possessed ball-hawk traits, but admittedly needed to get better against the run. 

After his first NFL season, Hicks was stuck recovering from his torn pectoral and subsequent surgery. The rehab didn't allow him to strength train as much as he would have liked. 

This year, it's been a different story. He's hit the weight room hard, put on some extra weight, and hasn't been hamstrung by a tedious rehab process. 

"It's been great, man," Hicks said. "Having a full offseason to get in rhythm, having a full offseason to lift and get stronger and not have to take a step back to rehab and do everything over again, it's huge. Huge. To just build and stack and stack on top of each other."

Flajole agrees with Hicks, that the extra time in the weight room will help him against the run, specifically at the point of attack.  

Flajole isn't the only person in the NovaCare Complex who thinks big things are still ahead for Hicks. After the season finale against the Cowboys last season, Malcolm Jenkins said he thought Hicks is "trending to be one of the better linebackers in this league."

While Hicks wants to improve his run defense, it's undeniable that the strength of his game — to this point — is his knack for being around the ball. He always seems to be making a big play, whether it's an interception or a fumble recovery. 

It might seem like chance, but Flajole doesn't discount it as such. 

"He's a very instinctual guy and I think he understands the game," Flajole said. "The thing that can't be discounted for Jordan is that he works at it. He watches a lot of tape and because of those things, he feeds off of tendencies that the offense would give him, either by down and distance or formation. And he uses those to his advantage." 

For the second straight year, Hicks will be in the same defense under Jim Schwartz and will have the same battery mate in Nigel Bradham, who enters the second year of his two-year deal. 

At some point before the 2017 season starts, Hicks will set some personal goals for himself, like he does every year. While he hasn't set them yet, Hicks said they are normally leadership-based or stat-based. 

"It definitely gives you something to reach for and keep you on track," Hicks said. "Just like you set team goals. If you're not setting goals, you're just working towards nothing, just shooting in the air at nothing." 

One thing the goals won't be is accolade-based. Sure, Hicks would like to be named to his first Pro Bowl, but that won't be on the checklist. 

If he gets better than he's been in Year 1 and 2, it'll only be a matter of time before the recognition catches up with his stats. 

"I'm not really worried about the accolades at this point," he said. "It's not really what I'm focused on. I believe that if you're doing what you need to do, day in and day out, you're giving it everything you got, the rest will come. I'm focused on what I can do for this team, what I can do to make this team the best it can be. And let the rest fall in place."