Opposing quarterbacks don’t share the field, but the Feb. 5 Super Bowl matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots will inevitably be defined by the two men under center.
This is an old hat for Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, one of, if not the greatest to ever play the position. This will be his seventh Super Bowl. He already owns four rings and no quarterback has ever won five.
Remarkably, at the age of 39, Brady has shown no signs of slowing down. He returned from his four-game Deflategate suspension to post some of the best numbers of his career, completing 67.4 percent of his passes with an absurd 28-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
On the opposite sideline, in his ninth season, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan made the jump from good to great. The likely league MVP is peaking at the right time. In his past six games, including Sunday’s 44-21 dismantling of the Green Bay Packers in the NFC championship, he’s completed 72.8 percent of his throws for 1,861 yards, 18 touchdowns and zero picks.
It was a nearly perfect performance against the Packers. Ryan fell just short of his own NFC championship record with 392 passing yards, throwing four touchdowns and running in another as the Falcons easily dispatched what had been the NFL’s hottest team.
Brady was equally brilliant in his sixth consecutive AFC championship appearance, going 32-for-42 for 384 yards with three touchdowns and zero picks in a 36-17 rout of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
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Neither quarterback does it alone, obviously. Ryan has the best receiver in the NFL, four-time Pro Bowler Julio Jones. He racked up 180 yards against the Packers, finding the end zone twice. His 73-yard score early in the third quarter, punctuated by the vicious stiff arm that swatted cornerback Damarious Randall to the ground, is a highlight that will be shown for years.
And it’s not just Jones. Ryan has a plethora of weapons. Running back tandem Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are both dual threats, and Jones is complemented on the outside by speedy playmaker Taylor Gabriel and big-bodied Mohamed Sanu.
Brady has had to go at it without All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski, who went on injured reserve with a back injury in early December. Wide receiver Julian Edelman has been the favorite target, with Chris Hogan and tight end Martellus Bennett providing support.
Hogan shined in Sunday’s victory over the Steelers, catching nine passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns in the first half alone. It was the first multi-score game of his career.
In the backfield, LeGarrette Blount gets it done in short-yardage situations, leading the NFL with 18 rushing touchdowns, and Dion Lewis can do a little bit of everything as he demonstrated in the divisional round against Houston when he tallied a rushing, receiving and return touchdown.
What cannot be lost in the hubbub surrounding the quarterbacks is the play of New England’s defense, which held opponents to a league-low 15.6 points in the regular season. This offers a true strength-on-strength matchup with Atlanta’s high-octane offense, which averaged nearly 34 points.
Some of the NFL’s better defenses have made Ryan look human.
There are more than 100 players on these two rosters and at least as many unique storylines.
But this game, as it so often is in the NFL, boils down to quarterbacks. This Super Bowl is a legacy builder for those two men. It can bolster Brady’s case as the greatest ever, and it can legitimize Ryan’s arrival as one of the league’s elite.