2017 Super Bowl: Lady Gaga Takes the Stage from Falcons and Patriots…

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She ended the show with a mic drop and a dive into an unseen abyss.

First Half Is All Atlanta Falcons

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Falcons cornerback Robert Alford ran past Patriots quarterback Tom Brady after intercepting a pass in the second quarter.

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Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

There were plenty of pundits predicting a Falcons victory, but few could have seen a blowout in Atlanta’s favor on the horizon. That is just what happened in the first half, as the Falcons raced to a 21-3 lead in a game that seemed even more lopsided than that.

That the Patriots even scored was somewhat surprising after some tremendous work by the upstart Atlanta defense that produced a pair of turnovers, both by Robert Alford who has to be the early favorite to be named the game’s Most Valuable Player should the score hold up.

On New England’s final drive of the half, Tom Brady salvaged some respect by hitting James White with a 12-yard completion. No further room could be found, but the team was close enough that Stephen Gostkowski was able to put the Patriots on the board with a 41-yard field goal.

Brady did not seem like himself for much of the half, missing badly on several passing attempts, likely as a result of constant pressure from Atlanta’s defensive line. In one sequence late in the half, he found Martellus Bennett for a 15-yard completion but paid for it with the type of truly jarring hit that New England’s offensive line is nearly always able to protect him from.

With Atlanta set to receive the ball to start the second half, New England needs to find answers on both sides of the ball. The Falcons are winning the turnover battle, moving the ball easily on offense following a sluggish start, and seem to have no problem penetrating the Patriots’ offensive line.

Pick-Six Gives Falcons 21-0 Lead

Repeatedly given extra chances to succeed on a drive that seemed doomed, the Patriots looked like they would at least get a field goal prior to halftime, but Robert Alford had other ideas, stepping in front of Tom Brady’s pass for an interception and running it back 82 yards for a touchdown. Along with the extra point, Atlanta now has a commanding 21-0 lead with less than three minutes left in the first half.

It was the first postseason pick-six of Brady’s career, and was Alford’s second turnover of the game.

That the defense came through for Atlanta once again was fairly surprising as the unit’s youthful exuberance had reared its head earlier in the drive. Three times they appeared to have ended the drive by not allowing Brady to convert on third down only to have the drive extended each time thanks to defensive holding penalties.

But thanks to Alford, none of those mistakes matter.

Falcons’ Defense Has Patriots Reeling

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Falcons cornerback Robert Alford recovered a fumble ahead of Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman in the second quarter.

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Robert Deutsch/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

With the Patriots clearly reeling, the Falcons are continuing to push hard on both sides of the ball, and Matt Ryan found Austin Hooper in the left side of the end zone for a diving 19-yard touchdown catch. After a botched attempt at an extra point was brought back thanks to a penalty, the Falcons made the second attempt and now lead 14-0.

Atlanta’s defense delivered the ball back to its offense with yet another three-and-out and the offense wasted no time, going 62 yards on 5 plays with less than two minutes running off the clock.

Matt Ryan started the drive with a 24-yard completion to Taylor Gabriel and then an 18-yard completion to Julio Jones. A 1-yard run by Tevin Coleman got the ball back into the red zone, and after Ryan’s first attempt to Hooper fell incomplete thanks to great coverage by Patrick Chung, Ryan threw to his tight end on the other side of the field for the score.

The Falcons now have a 189 to 111 advantage in total yards.

Fumble Leads to Falcons’ Lead

The Atlanta defense continues to prove that its strong play in the playoffs was no fluke, and the team’s sensational offense finally showed up. That combination added up to a 7-0 lead for the underdogs.

The second quarter opened with Tom Brady finding Julian Edelman for a 27-yard gain and New England looked to keep the Falcons on their heels by running right at them with LeGarrette Blount. But the big running back managed four yards before Deion Jones punched the ball out for a fumble and Robert Alford was able to recover it, handing the ball back to Atlanta’s offense.

Not content to go out meekly on a third consecutive drive, Matt Ryan steadily moved his team down the field with two consecutive completions to Julio Jones that covered 42 yards, followed by a 15-yard run by Devonta Freeman. Inside the red zone for the first time, Atlanta again ran with Freeman, and then from the 5-yard line Ryan handed the ball to Freeman who faked right, cut left and easily ran into the end zone for the first score of the game.

The scoring drive covered 71 yards on 5 plays.

A Scoreless First Quarter

Beyond a thrilling 37-yard run by Devonta Freeman of the Falcons, and some excellent work by the defensive lines for both teams, the first quarter was fairly uneventful, with both teams resorting to punts on each possession.

The Patriots had one promising drive, that included Tom Brady finding Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell and James White for completions in a steady march down the field. But a play-action fake did not fool Courtney Upshaw, a mammoth defensive tackle, at all as he ran right through the fake and sacked Brady for an 8-yard loss.

Brady’s next pass was an attempt to White which fell incomplete thanks to tight coverage and then another defensive tackle, Grady Jarrett, chased Brady down from behind for Atlanta’s second sack of the game, short-circuiting what had looked like a promising drive as New England once again was forced to punt.

Pressure has been cited as one of the keys to the game for Atlanta, and thus far their defensive line is definitely making its presence known. But their defense is not typically the team’s strength, so the Falcons’ offense will need to wake up to keep the team in this game.

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Falcons running back Devonta Freeman broke out for a 37-yard run in the first quarter.

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Doug Mills/The New York Times

Falcons Win Toss, Kick Off to Patriots

After a coin flip by President George H.W. Bush (tails), Super Bowl LI between the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons kicked off at 6:37 p.m. Eastern at NRG Stadium in Houston. After winning the toss, the Falcons deferred, giving the Patriots the ball to start the game.

After a week dominated by political discussions, Tom Brady’s chances of winning a fifth Super Bowl, and curiosity of what Lady Gaga’s halftime performance could entail, the talk on Sunday turned decidedly to football. President Trump predicted an 8-point victory for his good friend Tom Brady, but the biggest issue seemed to be the uncertain status of Alex Mack, the Falcons’ star center, who will reportedly be playing with a fractured fibula.

Overcoming a significant injury to play in the Super Bowl is hardly a new phenomenon, with Terrell Owens having played a starring role for the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX despite having fractured the same bone as Mack. But no one knows how effective Mack can be, or how long he will be able to stay on the field. Any disruption in line play could dramatically alter Atlanta’s high-flying offense, as Mack is not only great at managing handoffs but was rated as the top run-blocking center in the game by Pro Football Focus.

Despite a wide gap of experience between the two teams, both sides remained calm and composed all week. Atlanta Coach Dan Quinn emphasized a team-first business-like approach to the Falcons that was honed in his time in Seattle, and Patriots Coach Bill Belichick continued to run the league’s tightest ship.

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The Falcons need Vic Beasley Jr. to put pressure on Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.

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Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

What the Patriots and Falcons Need to Do to Win

A look at some of the key matchups between the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI reveals a game that should be competitive no matter how much the Patriots’ experience appears to give them an advantage. Keep an eye on these story lines:

Offense vs. Defense: The game is a matchup of the highest-scoring team in the N.F.L. (Atlanta) and the team that allowed the fewest points (New England). But there is more to it than that. The Patriots have plenty of offensive firepower, and the Falcons have steadily improved on the defensive end throughout the season, thanks to the heavy emphasis on teamwork from Coach Dan Quinn, who helped build the great Seattle Seahawks defensive units.

Pressure on Brady: The closest thing that exists to a successful game plan against Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is to collapse the pocket and put a solid amount of pressure on him. But for that to work, the opposing team has to apply the pressure without blitzing, because Brady is an expert at exploiting short-handed coverage. That means Vic Beasley, the Falcons’ second-year star at defensive end, could be the key player of the game in either direction. If he continues his recent run of success, the Patriots are in trouble.

Stopping Julio: On defense, the Patriots have frequently tried to eliminate the top receiving option on the other team, forcing opponents to beat them with their secondary weapons. That is a problem against the Falcons, because Julio Jones requires so much attention to slow him down that the field will be wide open for Atlanta’s dynamic running backs, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, as well as their other receiving options like Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel.

Wrecking Ball: Much has been written about New England’s wide receivers, and how they have done a tremendous job in the absence of Rob Gronkowski. But if the Patriots want to exploit a well-coached defense that is lacking top-shelf talent, a better bet might be to run at them repeatedly with the bone-crunching LeGarrette Blount, and look for spots to let Martellus Bennett exploit his tremendous physical advantages over anyone the Falcons put against him in coverage. Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola rely on making fewer mistakes than their opponents, while Blount and Bennett can create their own opportunities.

Experience vs. Hunger: The Patriots are playing in the team’s record-breaking ninth Super Bowl and will be in search of the team’s fifth win (the four previous wins all came with Tom Brady at quarterback, and he will be looking to join Charles Haley as the only players with five Super Bowl rings). The Falcons, who joined the N.F.L. in 1966, are appearing in the game for just the second time. They lost Super Bowl XXXIII to the Denver Broncos following the 1998 season.

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