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

Eagles should stay away from running backs in first round

Eagles should stay away from running backs in first round

Ezekiel Elliott was the fourth overall pick by the Cowboys in the 2016 NFL draft.

He went on to have a historic rookie season, leading the NFL in rushing behind the best offensive line in football.

But do you know who finished second in the league in rushing? That would be the Bears' Jordan Howard, another rookie, drafted in the fifth round. 

If you keep going down the list of the league's top rushers last season, nine out of the top 10 on the list were drafted after the first round. Only three backs in the top 10 were drafted in the first two rounds (Elliott, LeSean McCoy, Le'Veon Bell). 

Whether it's LSU's Leonard Fournette, Florida State's Dalvin Cook or Stanford's Christian McCaffrey, the Eagles should stay away from running backs in the first round.

We'll start with Fournette, considered by most to be the best running back in the class. He was also mocked to the Eagles in a trade-up scenario by Sports Illustrated's Chris Burke with the No. 5 overall pick. Burke is an excellent evaluator, but in this case, he's off the mark. Fournette's talent is real. His combination of size and speed is unmatched by any running back in the class and perhaps any running back in the NFL. He'll correctly be the first back off the board and go in the top 10. 

But would the Eagles give up a second-round pick to obtain Fournette? It's just hard to see as realistic. This team has too many holes and not enough draft picks to make a move like Burke suggests. Fournette looks like he'll be a special player, just not for the Eagles.

Then there's Cook, who seems to be the belle of the ball with Eagles fans. Watching the tape, it's undeniable: Cook is an extremely talented player. But evaluations aren't black and white. Cook has issues with injuries (multiple shoulder surgeries) and has had a couple issues off the field. 

He also tested poorly at the combine. In the biggest audition of his life, Cook's numbers didn't match what you saw on tape. That has to make you wonder if he was fully prepared for the combine. If the Eagles take Cook, there's no doubt he'll make their offense better. The biggest concern has to be his long-term success and the value you get taking him at 14 over another player at a more valuable position.

Lastly, there's McCaffrey. It's easy to see the fit here. McCaffrey is an explosive back who runs routes and has the ball skills of a receiver. He's also incredibly dangerous in the return game. Unlike Cook, McCaffrey tested off the charts in Indy. His strength (10 reps at 225) is the only real concern.

From a scheme perspective, McCaffrey is perfectly suited for Doug Pederson's offense. Pederson can use McCaffrey much like Andy Reid used Brian Westbrook over a decade ago. McCaffrey's struggles running between the tackles are a little overblown, but it still has to be a concern for a team that doesn't have a proven, primary back. 

This is also a strong running back class. Toledo's Kareem Hunt would fit nicely in this offense and should be available in the third round. Clemson's Wayne Gallman is a tough, versatile back that could be available in the third or fourth. There's also BYU's Jamaal Williams, Pitt's James Conner and Wyoming's Brian Hill, all of whom should be there in the middle rounds.

When you look at who else could be there at 14, it just doesn't make sense to draft a running back. If you're looking to give Carson Wentz more weapons, either Clemson's Mike Williams, Western Michigan's Corey Davis or Washington's John Ross should be there. Any of them could give Wentz a long-term receiving threat. 

If you're looking to improve the defense, there are plenty of options. In case you've been living under a rock this offseason, this cornerback draft class is crazy deep. Ohio State's Marshon Lattimore is the best of the bunch and will likely be gone by 14. His teammate, Gareon Conley, should still be around at 14. So should LSU's TreDavious White, Alabama's Marlon Humphrey, Clemson's Cordrea Tankersely and Florida's Quincy Wilson. 

Don't count out Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett as an option if he's on the board. With Vinny Curry's struggles and the Eagles' lack of depth, a pass rusher is a definite need. If Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster slips for a spat he had with a hospital worker during the combine, he's worth a long look. He's a game-changing 'backer.

Elliott was as close to a sure thing as you can get. There's a reason he was taken at No. 4 overall. If Cook and McCaffrey are there at 14, there's a reason for that, too. 

Eagles owner Jeff Lurie rails against political polarization in Washington

Eagles owner Jeff Lurie rails against political polarization in Washington

Eagles owner Jeff Lurie isn't often very outspoken on football or political matters. 

He has apparently made an exception. 

Just a few days before Lurie is tentatively scheduled to speak to Philadelphia reporters while in Phoenix for the league's annual meetings, the Eagles owner authored a story for Time Magazine railing against political polarization in Washington.

Lurie has not spoken to reporters publicly since last March in Boca Raton, Florida, at the 2016 owners meetings. 

The owner's essay was published just hours after House Republican leaders pulled legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act on Friday afternoon. Lurie, for the record, donated money to Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign last year.

Lurie, the Eagles' 65-year-old billionaire owner, in the story, uses football as an example for which Washington should strive. 

Here's how Lurie begins the piece:

"What do football, political polarization and autism have in common? They all illuminate aspects of the human condition, explaining who we are, where we are headed and the hurdles along the way. As a sports team owner I rarely publicly discuss politics, but as a member of a family touched by autism, I often think about the unspoken millions of people who live with the daily challenges of this disorder."

Lurie then goes on to explain why football can act as a guide for Washington when it comes to united for the common good:

"What I have learned from football can be applied to society at large. Just as we intensely game-plan against an opponent in sports, we need to game plan for the reality and consequences of polarization. Extreme polarization is the opponent -- not each other. A football team is made up of players from a wide variety of backgrounds, experiences and political viewpoints. What unites them is grit, determination, and the desire to win. They join in a common goal and do what is necessary to transcend their differences for the greater good of their team.

"What unites Americans is far more negative. We are now in an age where communicating verifiable information becomes secondary to the goal of creating a common enemy that unifies people in fear, negativity and opposition. This masks our inability to solve serious domestic problems (poverty, violence and institutional racism to name three current examples) and diverts our attention from obvious suffering."

Lurie then writes that we, as Americans, have the "necessary resources" to tackle serious problems, like autism, but lack the leadership to put aside differences. 

The whole piece isn't very long and is worth reading in full to gain a better understanding of its context. 

Next week while in Phoenix, Lurie will surely be asked about what motivated him to write the piece.