ATLANTA — The popular thinking is the Atlanta Falcons’ only path to their first Super Bowl championship is to win a high-scoring game against New England.
After all, big offense is the Falcons’ big weapon.
The best reason to think Atlanta can beat Tom Brady and the Patriots, however, may be the Falcons’ improved defense.
Atlanta’s defense was on an upswing even before holding a shocking 31-0 third-quarter lead over Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in the 44-21 NFC championship game win.
Atlanta started four rookies and four second-year players on defense against the Packers. The unit played with the toughness and speed of the celebrated Seattle defense Dan Quinn coordinated before becoming Atlanta’s coach two years ago.
The greybeard of the Atlanta defense, 36-year-old pass-rush specialist Dwight Freeney , knows many observers thought the defense was too young. The lackluster overall statistics, including a No. 27 ranking in scoring defense, disguise the recent improvement that made Freeney proud.
“We went through issues and problems early in the year,” Freeney said. “It was expected when you have three or four guys that have never played in the NFL before. We had to catch these boys up, and the offense was rolling while these guys were catching up and understanding what they need to do. Now those boys are playing.”
Atlanta allowed fewer than 20 points in four of its last six regular-season games.
The Patriots noticed the turnaround.
New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said the Atlanta defense’s “length at corner, the aggressive strong safety and the speed on defense in general” all remind him of the Seattle defense the Patriots faced in the Super Bowl two years ago.
McDaniels said the Falcons “all run to the ball as well as any team that we’re going to play. It doesn’t matter what happens on the play, you’re going to have 11 guys chasing the guy with the ball. That’s impressive. That’s the sign of a team that is very well coached. There’s no question that they are. They hit and tackle very well.”
And the young guys have taken the lead.
Rookie defensive back Brian Poole led the Falcons with seven tackles and two quarterback hurries in the win over Green Bay. Two more rookies, linebacker Deion Jones and safety Keanu Neal, each had six tackles. Jones and Neal each had more than 100 tackles this season to lead the team.
The fourth rookie starter, linebacker De’Vondre Campbell, could play a key role on Sunday against tight end Martellus Bennett .
Vic Beasley, a second-year linebacker, led the NFL with 15 ½ sacks, production that finally solved the Falcons’ long-term pass-rush woes.
Brady called Beasley’s season “incredible” for a second-year player and said Freeney “is one of the greatest pass rushers I’ve ever played against. He’s one of the best defensive players that I’ve ever played against.”
“I think they cover well,” Brady said. “They’ve got a great scheme. They played a lot of great teams this year. They beat the Packers twice, beat Seattle pretty good in the playoffs, won at Oakland. They beat a lot of good teams.”
Still, the Falcons’ strength is an offense which hasn’t been held under 30 points since a 29-28 loss to Kansas City on Dec. 4.
Atlanta led the NFL in scoring and is the first team to advance to the Super Bowl by scoring at least 30 points in each of its last six games — all wins.
While most of Atlanta’s defensive players are still establishing themselves, the Falcons’ stars are quarterback Matt Ryan, wide receiver Julio Jones and running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
The Atlanta offense is on a roll, but even the high-scoring Falcons may not be able to extend the run of 30-point games against New England’s defense, which allowed the fewest points in the league.
That’s why defense could be the key to a Falcons win.
“I have a lot of respect for them, have a lot of respect for their defense,” Brady said. “They do a lot of things very well, which is why they’re in this game.”