Friday, 4 a.m.
This is where Nick Saban sat. Perhaps Bill Belichick should get comfortable.
There Saban was, on the verge on history. His dynasty was about to add another trophy. His defense was the best in the world. Surely, a lot of people agreed, Saban's team would smother his opponent in the championship game, and everyone could get on with all of those Bear Bryant comparisons.
You know what happened. Saban ran into a quarterback – a real quarterback – who ruined it all. If you look at Saban's titles, he has spent a lot of time beating ordinary quarterbacks. But Deshaun Watson almost single-handedly beat the Tide.
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And here Belichick is, on the verge of history. His dynasty, too, seems about to add another trophy. His defense is the best in the world. Surely, a lot of people agree, Belichick's team will smother his opponent in the championship game, and everyone could get on with all of those Bill Walsh-Chuck Noll comparisons.
You wonder. Could Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan be his Watson?
It could happen. Ryan has been marvelous all season. He's had eight 300-yard games. He had one 500-yard game.
And here's the hidden stat of them all this season: As impressive as the New England Patriots have been, they've played against a lot of quarterbacks named Ned. This year, the Patriots played against Ryan Tannehill...and Brock Osweiler. They played against Tyrod Taylor …. and Charlie Whitehurst. They played against Andy Dalton … and Landry Jones. They played Colin Kaepernik and Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jared Goff. Trevor Siemian and Matt Moore. In all, they played Carson Palmer (off-year), Andy Dalton (off-year), Joe Flacco and Russell Wilson … and a bunch of guys who will be selling insurance next year.
Did any defense play against such a motley crew? The Patriots didn't play against a quarterback in the top half-dozen this year. They played against quarterbacks No. 24, 25 (twice), 26, 27, 28 (twice), 29, 35, 40, 41 and 52. Whee.
Playing against those guys doesn't ensure you'll be the league's No. 1 defense. But it doesn't hurt.
Oh, in his time, Bill Belichick has faced decent quarterbacks in the Super Bowl. He beat Kurt Warner. He beat Wilson. But this year, the Patriots sharpened their teeth on Palookas. Those kind of quarterbacks give the pass rushers an extra beat to rush...they mean corners have to cover a little less time.
The thing is, we're left not knowing how good the Patriots are on defense. Ryan – and receiver Julio Jones – present a bigger challenge than the Pats have seen all season.
Of course, the x-factor is Belichick. Even when he was the defensive coordinator of the Giants, he had a gift for taking away the other team's best weapon. In this case, it would be Jones. If the Falcons can't establish him, it'll be tough for them.
But if Ryan has another break-loose game – such as Watson – he could put up some points on the Patriots. Can New England turn him into another Whitehurst or Landry Jones? Or will this be remembered as Ryan's game?
Me? I think Ryan gets his yards. But this time, the dynasty wins. This time, they stop the opposition's last-ditch effort.
This time: New England 31, Atlanta 28.