Super Bowl 51 preview, Colts make moves and quarterbacks galore


The Atlanta Falcons are looking for their first championship in franchise history, while the New England Patriots are aiming for a fifth ring.

New England was expected to be here. Atlanta was anything but. Many picked the Falcons to finish dead last in the NFC South, including yours truly. Sometimes, you have to eat crow. Pass the plate.

While Super Bowl LI wasn’t a predictable matchup for most, the Patriots and Falcons are going to provide both storylines and a memorable offensive showing. New England is building upon a dynasty already cemented in NFL history, with seven trips to the Super Bowl since 2001. Atlanta is on the opposite end of the spectrum, reaching the ultimate game for only the second time in franchise history.

The greater Boston area is used to winning. Along with the four titles authored by the Patriots, the Red Sox have won three World Series since 2004. The Bruins have a Stanley Cup in that time, while the Celtics added another banner in 2008 to their NBA-best 17 championships.

Atlanta has not been nearly as fortunate. The Hawks have been playing in the city since 1968, and the team has only reached the conference finals on once since 1970, and got swept. The NHL vacated Atlanta on two occasions, with the Flames and Thrashers heading for Canada. In their time down south, neither won a single playoff series across 19 combined seasons. The Braves have been the only source of celebration, but even they present a taste of bittersweet. They won the World Series in 1995, but it was their only championship despite 14 consecutive National League East titles.

This game will be billed as David vs. Goliath. The Falcons have to prove they can win on the league’s biggest stage. The Patriots have to prove any team with Eli Manning and Tom Coughlin can beat them on it.

New England is perhaps the greatest team in North American history when all factors are considered. The Patriots have been to 11 AFC Championship Games in the past 16 years, winning seven of them. They  have won 14 AFC East titles in that span, despite a league structure that is designed to pull all teams towards the middle. Nothing has stopped them, and perhaps nothing will except Father Time, whenever he decides to arrive.

Yet nobody should count Atlanta out. Matt Ryan is going to win the Most Valuable Player award and for good reason. The former Boston College star threw for 38 touchdowns and 4,944 yards, both figures good for second-best. However, both are extraordinary when it’s understood that Ryan attempted 534 passes, the 17th-most in the league. His average of 9.26 yards per attempt topped the NFL, with Tom Brady closest to him at 8.23.

If the Falcons are going to slay the proverbial dragon, it must be with a defense that has stepped up in the postseason. Atlanta is missing stars in Adrian Clayborn and Desmond Trufant, but has compensated to an extent with quality play from the front and speed in the secondary.

The one household name is Vic Beasley Jr., who in his second season led the league with 15.5 sacks. He’ll need to be a superstar against New England, or Brady will sling the ball around with relative ease. If there is one fatal flaw for the Falcons, it is their lack of a secondary pass rush.

Over the next two weeks, there will be talk about every angle. We will dissect the offenses, defenses, coaching staffs, owners, fans, and every other possible conversation starter. It’s the nature of the beast.

In the end, Super Bowl LI will be determined by who plays better. Past performance indicates Boston should start planning another parade, but Atlanta has enough talent to potentially halt those plans.

Power rankings

Top 12 conference championship games of all time

1. Dallas Cowboys at Green Bay Packers (1967)
2. Dallas Cowboys at San Francisco 49ers (1981)
3. Denver Broncos at Cleveland Browns (1986)
4. Cleveland Browns at Denver Broncos (1987)
5. New York Giants at San Francisco 49ers (1990)
6. New England Patriots at Indianapolis Colts (2006)
7. New York Giants at Green Bay Packers (2007)
8. Atlanta Falcons at Minnesota Vikings (1998)
9. Oakland Raiders at New York Jets (1968)
10. Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints (2009)
11. Tampa Bay Buccaneers at St. Louis Rams (1999)
12. San Diego Chargers at Pittsburgh Steelers (1994)


"“We ran into a buzz saw. Those guys performed great. We didn’t have enough to keep up with them.”"

Packers head coach Mike McCarthy on his team’s loss to the Falcons

Green Bay was slaughtered in every possible way by Atlanta, which closed out the Georgia Dome in style. The Packers have a huge offseason ahead, with names such as T.J. Lang, Jared Cook, Micah Hyde, Julius Peppers, Eddie Lacy, Nick Perry and Sam Shields in need of new contracts.

Random stat

Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, the biggest margin of victory in a playoff game is 55 points, when the Jaguars beat the Dolphins, 62-7. It was the final game for Dan Marino and Jimmy Johnson.

Info learned this week

1. Colts make changes… finally

Owner Jim Irsay finally made the right decision on Saturday, firing general manager Ryan Grigson. Grigson, who served in Indianapolis for five years, was a collapse mess outside of the obvious selection of Andrew Luck with his first draft choice. A successor has not been named, although Jimmy Raye III has been floated as a potential fit. Raye has worked under Grigson since 2012 as the vice president of football operations.

As for head coach Chuck Pagano, Irsay claims he will remain in his employ. However, CBS Sports reported that Irsay tried to trade for New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton before ultimately failing. There were also strong rumors that Irsay tried to lure Jon Gruden to Indianapolis. It’s a mess in Naptown, and one must wonder how Pagano sleeps at night.

It should be with one eye open.

2. Zach Orr retires at early age

The Baltimore Ravens lost one of the best, young players in football last week. Inside linebacker Zach Orr is hanging up the cleats due to a neck injury after only two years in the NFL. Orr, 24, was a second-team All-Pro and formed a nasty duo on the interior with C.J. Mosley.

For Orr, the hope is he simply lives a healthy life after sustaining such a scary injury. For Baltimore, the departure leaves a gaping hole in the center of the defense. General manager Ozzie Newsome could be looking in the draft for a replacement, likely on the second or third day.

3. Redskins have choice to make on Cousins

The NFL opens up the franchise tag window on Feb. 15, closing it on March 1. No situation will be more closely-monitored than what Washington does with quarterback Kirk Cousins. Short of a long-term deal, Cousins will assuredly be tagged. The manner in which he’s tagged is where the drama lies.

If the Redskins give Cousins the non-exclusive tag, another team could offer a contract. Washington could then match the offer and retain Cousins, or let him leave. If he left, the Redskins would get two first-round picks from the team signing the quarterback.

Odds are, Cousins stays in D.C. Still, it’s intriguing until the option is off the table.

4. Titans team to watch in spring

Tennessee is going to be a major factor this offseason. After going 9-7, the Titans have the ammunition to take the next step. After trading with the Rams last year, Tennessee has both the fifth and 18th-overall picks in the 2017 NFL Draft. The Titans are the only team with two first-round choices.

In free agency, Tennessee has an approximate $67 million in cap space. General manager Jon Robinson can dive head-long into the market, perhaps adding some defensive stars for coordinator Dick LeBeau to work with. Look for the Titans to make a serious move in the standings next season.

5. Seahawks could lose draft pick

After failing to report Richard Sherman’s knee injury throughout the regular season, the Seahawks could face discipline from the NFL. All teams are publicly required to announce injuries on the weekly report. Sherman didn’t make a single appearance for his knee, a major no-no.

As a result, Seattle is reportedly looking at a second round pick being stripped away. It’s a huge penalty for a team that is low on cap space, considering all the large contracts already doled out across the roster.

History lesson

If the Falcons win Super Bowl LI, only the Carolina Panthers will be ringless in the NFC South. Conversely, a loss would put Atlanta alongside the Panthers, Bengals and Eagles are teams that are 0-2 on Super Sunday.

Parting shot

This is going to be the Offseason of the Quarterback. It’s rare when a known, quality commodity comes onto the market, but such is the case with Tony Romo. While he’s been hurt over the past two years, there will be a ton of interest across the league.

The Dallas Cowboys would likely want to trade him outside of the conference. A few suitors will include the Houston Texans, Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos. Houston could be hamstrung by Brock Osweiler, though, since he’s due $19 million in 2017. Romo’s cap hit is $14 million, which both Kansas City or Denver could absorb.

In the draft, the quarterback class is weak but still offers four players with potential that merits a first-round pick. Mitch Trubisky, Deshaun Watson, DeShone Kizer and Patrick Mahomes will all garner serious hype. Look for the Chicago Bears, Cleveland Browns, Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Arizona Cardinals, Texans and Chiefs to be in play for those names.

Of the above teams, Arizona and Kansas City are the most intriguing. Both would offer a redshirt season for an incoming rookie, but then turn over the keys to a very talented team in 2018.