Super Bowl LI has nothing to do with the air pressure in footballs, and the N.F.L. commissioner, Roger Goodell, will not pull on a chin strap and play defensive end for the Atlanta Falcons.
So Sunday’s championship game won’t be about New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady spiking the Deflategate scandal or staring down Goodell, who suspended him for the first four games of the season.
As the Patriots seek their fifth N.F.L. championship, controlling the explosive Falcons — who are looking for their first title — will be enough of a challenge.
Here is a look at the matchup in Houston and who we think will win:
Patriots (16-2) vs. Falcons (13-5)
6:30 p.m. Eastern Line: Patriots by 3
Patriots Coach Bill Belichick and Brady are in their seventh Super Bowl together, an N.F.L. record for a coaching-quarterback tandem. But they have won only one Super Bowl in the past 11 years, so let’s not overstate the value of vast experience in a one-off such as this.
Brady’s recent performances should be more unnerving for Atlanta fans. The Patriots have scored 30 or more points in nine of his 14 starts this season, including their two playoff wins, and he will face a Falcons defense that was in the bottom four against the pass during the regular season.
The Falcons must find a way to keep Brady from picking them apart one slant pass at a time. Brady can be had by a pass rush, but it cannot come from a blitz package. Against the blitz this season, according to Stats, Brady was 61 of 99 for 838 yards, was sacked twice and connected for 11 touchdowns with no interceptions.
The harassment must come from the big guys at the front, allowing all other hands on deck to drop into coverage. That means the veteran Dwight Freeney making the most of his situational downs, and Vic Beasley, the N.F.L. sacks leader, getting his first takedown of the postseason. If they do not get to Brady, wide receiver Julian Edelman (98 catches for 1,106 yards) will work his way open. He always does.
In an offensive shootout, the Patriots are unproven, if only because just one opponent topped 30 points against them — the Seahawks, who beat them in November, 31-24.
The Patriots allowed fewer points than any other team in the N.F.L. regular season (250). The Falcons scored more points than any other team (540). Only seven teams in N.F.L. history have scored more than Atlanta did this season. None of them won the Super Bowl.
Belichick is famed for taking away a team’s best offensive weapon and forcing an opponent to beat him with Plan B. The problem comes when there are too many high-quality Plan Bs to stop.
Double-team Falcons receiver Julio Jones (1,409 receiving yards in the regular season)? Quarterback Matt Ryan’s only challenge will be deciding which single-covered receiver to throw to instead. Maybe it’s the dynamic Taylor Gabriel, a yards-after-the-catch artist. Perhaps it’s Mohamed Sanu, the possession receiver with the strength to get separation.
This is how Atlanta became the first team to reach the Super Bowl by scoring at least 30 points in six consecutive games. Ryan bludgeons defenses with a cast of all-comers.
Running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman offered 1,599 yards of ground support in the regular season, giving Atlanta the fifth-ranked rushing offense in the league. The Falcons won’t get far against an interior-heavy Patriots defense that has not allowed a 100-yard rusher this season.
But then the Falcons have blasted their way to consecutive playoff victories without so much as a 60-yard rusher. This is Ryan’s show. And the Patriots don’t have enough cornerbacks like Malcolm Butler to drop the curtain on him. Pick: Falcons