Coming into the new season, the Patriots and Falcons rosters clearly stand above the rest. That does not mean they will be the final two teams standing, as injuries have a large say in who goes to the Super Bowl, but these are two juggernaut rosters that could even take a bump or two along the way and still find their way to the big game.
Pro Football Focus ranked the Falcons as the best roster coming into the 2017 season, with the Patriots following in second. New England got the last laugh last year, but let’s take deeper look at which one of these teams has the best chance at being the last one standing in 2018.
You really could go either way with these two outstanding quarterbacks. Matt Ryan proved last season he is an elite quarterback on the way to his first MVP award and Super Bowl appearance. But there is not a hotter quarterback right now than Tom Brady. Fresh off being immortalized as the greatest quarterback of all time after his Super Bowl comeback over Matt Ryan and the Falcons, it is impossible not to choose Brady here. Though given Brady’s age, there might be time we see a passing of the torch from Brady to Ryan in the Super Bowl.
The Patriots have a lot of talented running backs that not many people know about. They dominated throughout the playoffs, but the Falcons have the most talented running back tandem in all of football. Freeman and Coleman can kill teams on the ground or through the air with their terrific ability to run after the catch. Falcons hold an edge here, although it is much smaller than people may think.
Bleacher Report recently did an article on the NFL’s best receiving corps, and the Patriots wound up number one on that list. But that list included tight ends. Without tight ends, this position is not close. Julio Jones, Muhammed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel and Justin Hardy form not only one of the most talented receiving corps in the NFL but also one of the deepest. Throw tight ends into the equation and this conversation gets much more interesting, but the Falcons clearly have the better wide receivers.
The Patriots dominate this position not just against the Falcons but against the rest of the NFL teams as well. Rob Gronkowski is as versatile of a weapon in the NFL. His only problem is staying healthy. The Patriots also added Dwayne Allen in a deal with the Colts, so they can feature a number of two tight-end sets that we have come accustomed to when watching the Patriots. The Falcons do not have much firepower at the position. Austin Hooper showed some promise in his rookie season, but he cannot compare to anything the Patriots have here.
The Falcons offensive line was the better unit last season, but they will be without starting guard Chris Chester, who retired over the offseason. Chester could prove to be a huge loss, as the Falcons did not go out and sign anyone to replace him and waited until the fourth round to draft an offensive lineman. Atlanta also benefited from having no injuries to the offensive line over the course of the regular season. The Patriots line bounced back tremendously after struggling in 2015. Both of these teams should have high quality offensive lines, but the Falcons line remains on top now, providing they can find a suitable replacement for Chester.
The Falcons clearly had their tired defense, that could not generate any pass rush in the second half of the Super Bowl, in mind when making moves this offseason. Their biggest free agent was Dontari Poe, who should provide a huge boost against the run and increase the pressure from the interior defensive line. And their first-round draft pick was Takkarist McKinley, a pass rushing defensive end out of UCLA. The Patriots have one of the most stout defensive lines in the league against the run. They are a pass rush by committee team, but that worked for the #1 ranked defense in the league last year. Kony Ealy, who the acquired from the Panthers, should only enhance and already terrific unit, but the Falcons have perhaps the scariest starting front four in all of football. They hold the edge here, but it is close.
With the addition of David Harris from the Jets, the Patriots now have three elite caliber linebackers starting for them. The Falcons on the other had, could have three starters that have a combined five years of experience next season. Deion Jones, De’Vondre Campbell and Duke Riley could be the future of the position, but the Patriots hold a huge edge here.
Initial thoughts may have you believe the Patriots have better cornerbacks, as they were able to not only bring in Stephon Gilmore from Buffalo as a free agent but also hold onto pro-bowler Malcolm Butler for at least this season. Those two make quite a start-studded pair, but the Falcons depth at the position gives them the nod at cornerback. Atlanta will have their own pro-bowl cornerback, Desmond Trufant, return from injury. People will quickly be reminded just how good this guy is. Across from Trufant, lines up Robert Alford, who had the pick-six against Tom Brady in the Super Bowl and has really began to come into his own for Atlanta. But it is guys like Jalen Collins, Brian Poole, and the newly acquired Damanote Kazee that make this Falcons cornerback group so impressive. Collins could start in this league next season, Poole was arguably the best undrafted free agent in all of football last year, and Kazee is already being raved about as an incoming rookie.
Dan Quinn is trying to build is own Legion of Boom in Atlanta. Atlanta’s 2016 first-round pick, Keanu Neal, is the perfect enforcer at the back end of the Falcons defense. Do not be surprised to see him in the pro-bowl as early as next season. However, the Patriots have on of the best duos at the back end of their defense. Devin McCourty, a pro-bowler last season, has become one of the best cover safeties around since he transitioned to the position full time in 2014. His partner, Patrick Chung has been a constant face on this defense since 2009. Their seven years of experience with each other counts for something too, and is one of the main reasons this Patriots defense is rarely beat by big plays.
If you were not keeping track, that is five positional groups in favor of the Falcons and four in favor of the Patriots. Many of those are splitting hairs, but I can stand behind Pro Football Focus’s evaluation that these are the two most talented rosters in football. But as we all found out last year, there is a lot more to winning football games than just talent on the field. The Patriots have the best coaching staff in NFL history, and Dan Quinn and company are going to have to be sharper on their end if they want to end up Super Bowl champions down the road.