We can all talk about the narrative of the Atlanta Falcons’ number one scoring offense going up against the New England Patriots’ number one scoring defense, but we all know that this Super Bowl will come down to who can outscore the other. Both offenses use creative means to create openings for their talented playmakers, of which both teams have many. Both are led by quarterbacks, Matt Ryan and Tom Brady, who have been fantastic this season, putting big numbers on high efficiency while making few mistakes. Both are well-rounded, using the run game to set up the pass and vice versa. Atlanta ranked first in scoring offense and New England ranked third, with each team also having the same ranking in total yards per game.
And sure, New England has a solid defense. Any Bill Belichick defense will do its job and not make big mistakes. But there isn’t nearly as much star power on this unit as there normally is on a top-ranked defense. The team’s defensive prowess was almost certainly inflated by a schedule of bad-mediocre quarterbacks who couldn’t take advantage of red zone opportunities. Even last week’s performance against the Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger can be questioned, as running back Le’Veon Bell left the game early on with a groin injury and Roethisberger didn’t play like an elite quarterback. It won’t be the same against Atlanta. They will have their full arsenal of dynamic, athletic weapons (including the incredible Julio Jones) at their disposal, and this version of Matt Ryan isn’t bailing the Patriots out with inaccurate throws like Roethlisberger did.
No problem, though, because the Patriots have an offense just as capable of putting up points as the Falcons’. After dropping 36 on the Steelers last week, why shouldn’t Brady and Company be able to keep up with Matt Ryan and let the superior New England defense make enough plays to decide it?
Unfortunately for Patriots fans, the answer may be unattainable. If the Patriots are to simply outscore the Falcons (who, by the way, had the eighth-highest regular season scoring offense ever), they will need to be at their very best. And New England’s offense has never been able to reach its ceiling without tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Gronkowski, who went out for the season in Week 12 with a back injury, is the league’s best tight end, and the most frightening force the position has ever seen. He’s basically the tight end version of Julio Jones, using his enormous stature and and elite athleticism to physically overwhelm defenders. He may be the league’s most dangerous weapon in the red zone, with 68 receiving touchdowns in 88 career games. He has carried the Patriots’ offense on his back when needed, most notably his heroic performance against the vaunted Denver defense in last season’s AFC Championship game.
That is the guy the Patriots are missing, and you could argue his impact is felt more in his absence than his presence. The following are statistics comparing the Patriots with and without Gronk since he came into the league, accurate through the time of his injury:
- Record with Gronk: 69-17. Record without Gronk: 12-5
- Brady completion percentage with Gronk: 65.5%. Without Gronk: 57.5%
- Brady YPG with Gronk: 290.8. Without: 257.8
- Brady TD/INT with Gronk: 191/39. Without: 30/13
- Brady passer rating with Gronk: 104.5. Without: 84.4
So it seems pretty clear that the monstrous tight end makes a huge difference in New England’s offensive production. He’s a match-up nightmare, too big for defensive backs and way too fast for linebackers. He can catch over anybody in the end zone, destroys defenses when running down the seam, and is always liable to break off one of those huge catch-and-runs where he stiff-arms, throws, and bowls over multiple defenders on his way to the end zone. In short, he’s a game-breaker, one of a few guys in the league who will hurt you no matter how much you prepare for him.
But what he does for the other Patriot skill position players may be just as important as his production. Those Brady numbers with and without Gronk are jarring, and it’s clear that he’s not losing all that production just from not being able to throw to his star tight end. New England has a well-deserved stereotype of utilizing a lot of small receivers who use their quickness to get separation and evade tackles. Brady relies on guys like Edelman, Malcolm Mitchell, and Danny Amendola, as well as his running backs, for most of his completions on short throws and goes to Gronk for big plays downfield.
That works out great when Gronk is healthy, because his gravity takes attention off of those other receivers. But when he’s out, they can key in on them, taking away their separation, and therefore the potential for big yardage. Even Brady can’t march a team down the field with repeated short completions well enough to score at the level of the Falcons. In addition, Gronk is a great blocker, and having him and fellow dual-threat tight end Martellus Bennett in there together gave the Patriots run/pass flexibility unparalleled in the game. Bennett was meant to be a back-up plan so the Patriots could replace some of Gronk’s production if he went out, but he has battled injuries as well and hasn’t performed quite up to the expectations coming into the year.
The Patriots haven’t won a Super Bowl in the Gronk era when he was out, and that’s because it’s hard to make up for losing a player who is the most talented at his position in the league. And since a Gronk injury has derailed previous Patriots seasons, it’s hard to believe that it won’t play out the same way against one of the best offenses ever. Without Gronkowski, the Patriots don’t have the same firepower to keep up with the Falcons.
There are a few counterpoints however, with the best being that Brady has been great since Gronk’s injury this season. Brady in nine games since Gronkowski’s injury: (9-0 record, including 2-0 in postseason): 220-of-346 (63.9 percent), 2,590 passing yards (287.8 per game), 21 touchdowns, three interceptions. The Patriots have overcome this Gronk injury with a more versatile offense, built on the running game, pass-catching backs, Julian Edelman, and perfection in taking advantage of the opposition’s mistakes.
Bennett now has had two weeks to recover from the cracked bone in his ankle that he has been struggling with. If he can get back to close to 100% and give the Patriots 70% of what Gronk gives them, the Patriots will be in a much better position to win this game. It’s been a happy year for Bennett, who has never been on a consistent winning team, so there’s the possibility that he plays loose and has a huge game against a small Falcons defense in his home town of Houston.
To keep up with a team like Atlanta, you need athletic playmakers capable of making the big plays necessary to put up points in a hurry. Up until this point, Gronk has been the only player on New England capable of doing that. But now New England has two big play threats that they haven’t had in previous years: Dion Lewis and Chris Hogan. Lewis is the shifty running back who can hurt a team in every area from running, to receiving, to returning. He’s the only player in NFL history with a rushing, receiving, and return touchdown in the same game (the great playoff performance against Houston in the divisional round). Hogan has been a surprisingly effective downfield threat, taking all the opportune times to hit teams deep. Against the Steelers’ young, mistake-prone secondary, similar to the Falcons, Hogan had the best game of his career, with 180 yards and two touchdowns. If Atlanta’s secondary has any miscommunications in coverage, Hogan and Brady will make them pay.
The Patriots have the best coaching staff in the league. Josh McDaniels could devise a game plan based around Blount pounding the small Falcons defense on the ground, keeping Matt Ryan off the field, and Belichick has a record of stopping explosive offenses, going back to his time as defensive coordinator for the Giants against the Bills in Super Bowl XXV. It would be classic Belichick to create a defensive scheme that screws with Ryan’s head, takes Freeman out of the game, limits Julio Jones, and forces Atlanta’s secondary weapons to beat him, when they may not be up to the task.
However, it’s hard to see the Patriots slowing down this offense, and if that’s the case, a Gronk-less Patriots team probably won’t keep pace, making for a score along the lines of Falcons 35, Patriots 28. Obviously, it’s hard to count out a Tom Brady/Bill Belichick team in a big game, and it will undoubtedly be a competitive contest. But don’t be surprised if Gronk’s absence ends up being the difference on Sunday.