1. Tom Brady
There is no one on the field who is more experienced in big games than the 4-time Super Bowl Champion, Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr. We can’t think of a more fitting end to the season than Brady shaking Roger Goodell’s hand after another Super Bowl MVP performance, but the Falcons will dial up everything they can to stop him. His focus will be on keeping Atlanta’s high-powered offense off the field, which can be done through the short passing game and a lethal rushing attack. Averaging 335.5 yards this postseason with 5 touchdown passes in two games, Brady’s play will be the biggest factor in which team emerges from Super Bowl 51 victorious.
2. Matt Ryan
The frontrunner to secure the regular season MVP trophy, Ryan was unstoppable the first 16 games of the year. The postseason hasn’t been much different – Ryan has accrued an astonishing 53 completions for 730 yards and 7 touchdowns with zero interceptions. He will face the best defense he has seen this season, but if anyone can pick them apart, it’s Matty Ice. He has a plethora of weapons and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan will surely draw up some remarkable plays for his franchise star.
3. Julio Jones
Arguably the league’s best receiver, Jones has been dominant this postseason. He followed up a modest 6-catch, 67-yard performance against the Seahawks with a beastly 9-180-2 TD stat line against the Packers. There is no doubt that the Pats defense will key in on him throughout the game, but defenses have done that all season and he was still able to grab 83 catches for 1,409 yards and 6 touchdowns. Even if he doesn’t have the best game, Jones will be impactful as a decoy to allow the other Falcons’ playmakers to get open all over the field.
4. Malcolm Butler
Butler has one job on Sunday – stop Julio Jones. The Patriots aren’t looking for a heroic moment like in Super Bowl XLIX, they just need the league’s best wide out to be contained. Butler is surely excited to get back to the Super Bowl, especially after a solid season where he posted 63 combined tackles, 4 interceptions, 2 fumble recoveries and 17 pass deflections. With Matt Ryan assuredly looking for his favorite target as often as possible, Butler will be busy throughout the game.
5. Vic Beasley
Beasley had a coming out party in 2016. The second year player out of Clemson had a league-leading 15.5 sacks to go with 6 forced fumbles. He has yet to record a sack this postseason, but that could change on Sunday. Beasley will do his best to get in the face of Tom Brady – if he can force some errant throws or bring down the QB, the Falcons could see plenty of opportunities to take control of the game.
6. Devin McCourty
Safety Devin McCourty had another phenomenal season in 2016, earning his second trip to the Pro Bowl. Over the season, the Patriots safety racked up 83 combined tackles, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and an interception. He’s carried over a strong regular season campaign into New England’s two playoff games, picking off Brock Osweiler in the divisional round while totaling 9 combined tackles. Against the Falcons, alongside Butler, McCourty will spend most of his time focused on Jones. Facing the most dynamic offense in the NFL, McCourty will certainly have his hands full.
7. Julian Edelman
While only 3 touchdown receptions during the regular season might lead some to believe it was a down year for Edelman, that notion couldn’t be further from the truth. The scrappy wide receiver still caught 98 of his whopping 158 targets for 1,106 yards. The postseason has been no different for the former Kent State quarterback — he has tallied 16 catches for 255 yards and a score through two games. Viewed as Tom Brady’s favorite target, Edelman will be targeted frequently in Super Bowl LI. Expect him to get a high volume of targets and draw the defense’s attention, opening up the rest of the Pats’ offense.
8. Alex Mack
The leader of the offensive line, Alex Mack, has been sensational this season for the Atlanta Falcons. Mack’s huge impact on the Falcons’ much-improved offensive line validates the 5-year, $45 million contract he signed in the offseason. The 4-time Pro Bowler excelled this season, helping Atlanta boast one of the most prolific offenses in NFL history. With Belichick certainly planning to dial up pressure on Matt Ryan, Mack will be tasked with protecting his QB and anchoring the offensive line in the biggest game of his career.
9. Devonta Freeman/Tevin Coleman
Both of these running backs have been integral to Kyle Shanahan’s prolific offense this season. Freeman rushed for 1,079 yards and 11 scores while garnering 54 receptions, 462 yards and 2 additional touchdowns. Meanwhile, Coleman rushed for 520 yards, added 421 receiving yards and had 11 total touchdowns. The tandem’s ability to gash defenses on the ground or through the air make them the most explosive duo in the NFL. The one-two punch will be vital in keeping the Falcons’ offense rolling. With New England’s impressive secondary anchoring the defense, expect Freeman and Coleman to exploit the Patriots’ linebackers whenever possible.
10. Dont’a Hightower
When the Patriots shockingly traded away Jamie Collins earlier in the season, Coach Belichick put all of his faith in the 26-year old Hightower. With Hightower making his first Pro Bowl and Second-team All-Pro in 2016, it seems like Bill knew what he was doing. After racking up 65 combined tackles, 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble during the regular season, Hightower has put together 11 combined tackles in the playoffs. As the signal caller on defense, Hightower will have the challenge of patrolling the middle of the field and making sure the Falcons’ offense never gets into a groove.
11. Chris Hogan
No one had a bigger game against the Steelers than wide-out Chris Hogan. After racking up 95 yards against the Texans, Hogan went off against Pittsburgh, hauling in 9 of his 12 targets for 180 yards and two scores. Confidence is at an all-time high for the former lacrosse player, meaning he could be in store for another big game this Sunday.
12. Dion Lewis/James White
No quarterback loves throwing to his backs more than Tom Brady. It doesn’t hurt when he has two of the best pass catching backs in the league. This season, White totaled 50 receptions for 551 yards while Lewis gained an additional 377 yards despite missing most of the season with an injury. Both of these backs have reached the end zone in the playoffs, with Lewis being a dynamite special teams weapon as well. The Pats are undefeated (16-0) when Lewis suits up for a game – a feat they’d certainly like to extend to 17-0.
13. LeGarrette Blount
Aside from a “Beast Mode”-like run in which he took on half of the Steelers’ roster, Blount has been relatively quiet this postseason after leading the league in rushing touchdowns. However, that could change quickly against the Falcons, as New England will try to keep Atlanta’s high-octane offense off the field by running the ball early and often. If the Pats establish an effective ground game with Blount, the Falcons will be in serious trouble.
14. Mohamed Sanu
With Julio Jones drawing a majority of the attention from defenses this season, Sanu capitalized to the tune of 59 catches, 653 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2016. He has also been integral to the Falcons’ success in the postseason, averaging 10.7 yards per catch with 2 touchdowns. While Malcolm Butler lines up against Julio for much of the game, expect Sanu to rise to the challenge and win his one-on-one matchup against Logan Ryan.
15. Martellus Bennett
Losing Rob Gronkowski for a majority of the season is a loss most teams would be unable to overcome. The burden of that loss has been lessened by the emergence of fellow tight end, Martellus Bennett. Bennett was productive throughout the year – finishing the season with 55 catches for 701 yards and 7 touchdowns. He’s been far too quiet in the postseason (6 catches, 36 yards), but that could easily change in the Super Bowl. With Robert Alford and Jalen Collins doing their best to defend the Pats’ receivers, it could set up for a huge game from the self-proclaimed “Black Unicorn.”
Image Sources: Geoff Burke, Dale Zanine, Winslow Townson, Jason Getz/USA TODAY Sports