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Monday, July 16, 2018

5 biggest X-factors for Super Bowl LI

Mohamed Sanu

Super Bowl LI is coming up and the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons will square off to determine the league’s next champion.

The Patriots will be appearing in their ninth Super Bowl and looking for their fifth Lombardi Trophy, while the Falcons will be appearing in only their second Super Bowl and seeking their first ever title.

Early odds have the Patriots as modest favorites in the neutral site game in Houston. But there are some X-factors that could determine who wins and loses the contest.

With that in mind, here’s a look at the five biggest X-factors for the big game.

5. The kickers

In a game that features two prolific offenses led by MVP-caliber quarterbacks, many are expecting a shootout. But as I’ve previously predicted, whether this game is high-scoring or low-scoring, there’s a solid chance it’s decided by only a handful of points. That, of course, would be the M.O. for New England during the Tom Brady era, as all five of their Super Bowls have been decided by four points or fewer.

Because of that, an added emphasis will be placed on the kicking game. And that doesn’t necessarily mean just extra points and field goals, but kickoffs (and even punts) as well. Field position will matter.

Should the game boil down to only a single field goal, the pressure will fall on either Falcons kicker Matt Bryant or Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski.

Of the two, Gostkowski is the only one with Super Bowl experience. Remarkably, despite his long career on several good football teams, the 41-year-old Bryant has never appeared in the Super Bowl. And as insignificant as that may appear to be on the surface, it could be a big factor in the game itself, especially if it comes down to one kick with time expiring.

Either way, Gostkowski and Bryant should anticipate playing a major role in the outcome of this game. There’s a strong chance the leg of one will determine a Super Bowl LI champion.

Gostkowski has only missed one field goal during his postseason career and is as reliable as it gets, though his one missed extra point in this and the last postseason is a concern. Bryant has also only missed one field goal during his playoff career, albeit in much fewer attempts.

4. Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount

How much does LeGarrette Blount mean to the Patriots? So much that Bill Belichick likens him to former New York Giants tight end Mark Bavaro, saying that the running back not only has the skills to change a game, but to completely energize his team.

“He’s a big back. He’s a horse. He can carry some guys with him and make tough yards,” Belichick said after the AFC Championship Game. “He’s got some very impressive running plays that are kind of characteristic of him, and when you see one like that, it puts a lot of energy in the team.”

That sort of ability becomes invaluable in the Super Bowl. If Blount can put together another run where he drags half the defense on his back, it can be demoralizing for an opponent. And given that the Falcons will want to pressure Tom Brady as much as possible — something we’ll get to in a moment — it leaves the door wide open for Blount to have a big day.

That’s not to say the Falcons will ignore him, of course. But in a pick your poison scenario, the opposition will always risk letting Blount run wild over letting Brady spread around the ball.

If Blount can energize his team once again and control the clock for New England, it could go a long way in helping them hoist Lombardi No. 5.

3. Patriots safety Devin McCourty

Someone in the Patriots secondary is going to be responsible for protecting against the big play, and that duty will likely fall to Pro Bowl safety Devin McCourty.

It’s a known Bill Belichick staple that he will put his second best cornerback on the opposing No. 1 receiver and then provide them safety help over the top. This then allows the defense’s premier cornerback to go one-on-one with a lesser receiver, creating an obvious mismatch.

That, of course, only holds true if the safety help doesn’t get caught out of position. And in Super Bowl LI, it’s likely McCourty who will have his Patriots teammates leaning on him as they attempt to shut down Julio Jones, who is arguably the best wide receiver in football.

McCourty is a sound, consistent football player — a Belichick kind of favorite. He can make a play on the deep ball or make a tackle in the open field. And come Super Bowl LI, he’s going to need to put those skills to the ultimate test.

2. Falcons pass rush

Although most X-factors tend to center around a single individual, the bottom line is that Atlanta’s entire defense must step up in terms of pass rush if they wish to bring down Tom Brady and the Patriots.

Little changes from the NFC Championship Game against the Green Bay Packers in that regard. Pressuring Aaron Rodgers was a key for the Falcons going into that game, and their eight quarterback hits (two sacks) paid off in a big way. Now they must ramp it up a bit in the Super Bowl and take a page from the New York Giants.

When all is said and done, Tom Brady will arguably go down as the greatest quarterback in NFL history. However, like every other quarterback to play the game, he’s only as good as the time they have to survey and throw. So if the Falcons, led by linebacker Vic Beasley Jr. and veteran defensive end Dwight Freeney, can keep consistent pressure on Brady, it will make the game more one-dimensional. And unlike Rodgers before him, it’s not as if Brady is going to break off many 15-plus yard runs when he’s flushed from the pocket.

Ultimately, a fierce pass rush has been the only thing able to slow down New England over the last decade. And there’s little reason to believe that will be any different come Super Bowl LI.

1. Falcons receiver Mohamed Sanu

Perhaps more than any other player suiting up in Super Bowl LI, Mohamed Sanu has the ability to make or break the game. He can be a hero for the Falcons and a villain to the Patriots, or he can return home to Atlanta as a goat.

The reasons why Sanu is such a key fixture are plenty. Perhaps above all else, it’s because the Patriots will undoubtedly focus much of their attention on stopping Julio Jones, who himself is a game-breaker. But even beyond his need to take pressure off of Jones, Sanu is a wild card capable of making plays through the air, on the ground and even with his arm.

In addition to his 2,446 career receiving yards, Sanu also averages 5.9 yards per carry and has never thrown an incomplete pass on a trick play. It’s for that reason even a mastermind like Bill Belichick is wary of the unexpected when it comes to Sanu.

“He’s big, he’s tough, he’s got great hands; tremendous hands. He has a great catch radius. He catches everything. He’s a tough blocker. He’s hard to tackle. He’s an explosive player,” Belichick told The Sporting News. “We know he can do it. Look, this is the kind of game where a team could be working on a play like that all year and you’re running out of games. I mean it could be a lot of other plays, too; a reverse, a pass, a double pass, some kind of gadget play.”

It would be a surprise if Sanu weren’t heavily featured in the passing game or didn’t have a trick play or two drawn up for him. It would be even more of a surprise if he didn’t factor into the final score one way or another. The Rutgers product is very realistically that much of an X-factor.

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