New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) reacts to a fumble by Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and turnover in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium in Houston on February 5, 2017. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo
Just about every historical measure tells us the New England Patriots will beat the Atlanta Falcons and Tom Brady will become the first quarterback to win five Super Bowl championships.
Of course, yes, they still have to play the game. Instinct tells us the team with the better quarterback and better defense almost always wins the Super Bowl, but first consider all the other trends that have developed in the previous half-century of this championship:
--No Super Bowl champion ever allowed more than 400 points in the regular season. The Falcons gave up 406.
--No Super Bowl champion ever ranked worse than 25th in the league on defense, based on points allowed during the season. The Falcons ranked 27th.
--The team allowing the fewest points in the NFL during the regular season has a 13-5 record in the Super Bowl. New England allowed the fewest points in the league this season.
--The team scoring the most points in the NFL during the regular season has a 10-11 record in the Super Bowl. Atlanta scored the most points in the league this season.
Now, about those two major threads: quarterback and defense.
There is no question the Patriots' defense is better than the Falcons' defense. New England allowed the fewest points and the eighth fewest yards. Atlanta was 27th based on points allowed and 25th based on yards allowed.
New England allowed more than 30 points just once and held 11 of 16 opponents under 20. Atlanta gave up more than 30 points six times and held just five of 16 opponents under 20.
Of course, the Patriots have not faced an offense as dynamic as the Falcons. But what happens when the Atlanta offense faces a terrific defense, or when the New England defense faces a terrific offense?
During the season, the Falcons played three games against teams who ranked among the top 10 in fewest points allowed -- Seattle (3rd), Denver (4th) and Minnesota (6th). Atlanta, which averaged 36.1 points in its other 13 games, did not score more than 24 in any of those three.
The Patriots played three games against teams that ranked among the top 10 in most points scored -- Arizona (6th) and Buffalo (two games, tied 10th). New England, which allowed an average of 14.5 points in its other 13 games, allowed an average of 20.7 in those three.
Which brings us to the quarterbacks and the respective offenses.
Atlanta's Matt Ryan is the league's likely MVP and its top-rated passer. But it's not exactly like Brady had a miserable year. He finished second to Ryan in passer rating, threw only two interceptions the entire regular season and was within 13 yards per game of Ryan's passing yardage total.
We know that numbers can be twisted any combination of ways to achieved a desired result -- at least until the game is actually played -- so we must remember the outcome of the Super Bowl is not a foregone conclusion.
Yet, it is hard, very hard, to find a flaw in Brady's big game performance, especially since there is so much evidence in his favor.
Joe Montana always has been considered the gold standard of Super Bowl quarterbacks since he went 4-0 in the game, won three Super Bowl MVP awards, and did not throw a single interception in any of those four. His Super Bowl passer rating, 127.8, also is a record.
Brady also has won three Super Bowl MVP awards, and while he threw four interceptions in his six previous appearances (with a 4-2 record), he has thrown more than twice as many Super Bowl passes than Montana did (247 to 122).
Further, Brady rallied the Patriots from a tie or from behind to win in the fourth quarter in each of his four victories, and in the two Super Bowl games he lost, he had his team ahead with two minutes remaining only to have New England's defense allow the game-deciding touchdown.
The flip side is that Brady's fourth Super Bowl victory occurred in some degree because, two years ago, Seattle elected to have Russell Wilson pass on second down from the 1-yard line in the final half-minute, rather than have Marshawn Lynch run, and Malcolm Butler intercepted the pass to save the game for the Patriots.
Seattle's defensive coordinator in that game was Dan Quinn, who is now the Atlanta coach, which adds a degree of intrigue to this Super Bowl matchup. Then again, maybe the Seattle interception was the makeup for the two Super Bowls Brady thought he had won only to lose at the end.
History is rife with such ironies.
One that many remember involved Bill Parcells, who might not be in the Hall of Fame today if Buffalo's Scott Norwood had not missed a potential game-winning field goal against Parcells' Giants at the end of the Super Bowl following the 1990 season. And Marv Levy, the former Bills coach who is also in the Hall of Fame, would nonetheless be viewed on a higher plane if Norwood had made that kick.
History, however, serves only as a guide, not as a formula. It's simply reasonable to expect the Patriots to win because, well, we always expect the Patriots to win. With Brady, we are seeing a remarkable career play out.
Just think about how hard it really is to even get to a Super Bowl, let alone win one. Dan Fouts never got to one. Dan Marino got to just one, and lost it. Brett Favre got to only two, and won just one. And when Marino and Favre lost the Super Bowl, they lost it to other Hall of Famers, Montana and John Elway.
So bear it in mind. No matter how the game plays out, in the end, the better quarterback and better defense usually prevails.
--Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the National Football League for more than five decades and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He is a national columnist for The Sports Xchange.