New England vs. Atlanta (+3), 59 o/u – Sunday, 6:30 p.m. EST
Comments: From the moment Tom Brady's four-game Deflategate suspension got re-applied, it seemed almost inevitable that he would go on a rampage when he returned and take the Patriots to the promised land. Surprisingly, though, the New England defense should get just as much credit as Brady for the team's success in 2016. It finished the regular season tops in the league at 15.6 points per game allowed and eighth in both passing yards per attempt allowed and rushing yards per carry allowed. Of course, the offense is third in both points per game (27.6) and passing yards per attempt (8.1), so it's not like Brady was just along for the ride. They're also on an impressive roll, as you'd expect from a team in the Super Bowl, winning each of their last five games by at least 13 points including postseason dismantlings of the Texans and Steelers by nearly identical scores. This may not be the most talented roster Bill Belichick has ever brought to the top of the AFC, but on paper, it might be the most balanced.
While the Pats' 70-33 cumulative score through the first two rounds of the playoffs is impressive, it pales in comparison to the Falcons' 80-41 score against tougher competition. Matt Ryan and company has no problems dispatching Russell Wilson and the Seahawks, and then red-hot Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, to get to the Super Bowl, and their offense essentially lapped the field in points per game (33.8) and yards per attempt (9.2) during the regular season. Belichick has a well-deserved reputation for game-planning to take the other team's biggest weapon out of the picture, but it's hard to say who that even is for Atlanta. Julio Jones, coming off his third straight campaign with 1,400-plus receiving yards? Devonta Freeman, who posted his second straight season with double-digit TDs and 1,500-plus yards from scrimmage in 2016? Tevin Coleman, who scored 11 times on his own and topped 900 combined yards despite missing three games and mostly taking a back seat to Freeman when was healthy? That doesn't even consider secondary options for Ryan such as Taylor Gabriel or Mohamed Sanu. The Genius will have his work cut out for him devising a way to slow this offensive juggernaut.
Random bit of info that's probably meaningless: the Patriots and Falcons had five common opponents during the regular season (Broncos, Seahawks, Cardinals, Rams and 49ers). They each went 4-1 against that group, both losing to Seattle, but while New England was a combined 119-82 in those games, Atlanta was 168-88. The Pats did play the Cards while Brady was out, but the difference between him and Jimmy Garoppolo isn't worth 49 points over four quarters.
The biggest story for the Patriots in the postseason has been the emergence of Chris Hogan as a big-play threat. While he had a couple big games during the regular season, he finished the campaign battling a thigh injury and caught just six passes for 67 yards over his final three games. It's safe to say he's healthy now. After hauling in all four of his targets for 95 yards against Houston, he almost single-handedly destroyed Pittsburgh with nine catches on 12 targets for 180 yards and two scores. Much like Atlanta, the New England passing game mostly relies on short passes that put the receiver in position to gain yards after the catch, but Hogan gives Brady a downfield option he'd been missing since Rob Gronkowski was lost for the year.
Hogan (thigh), Malcolm Mitchell (knee) and Martellus Bennett (knee) are listed as questionable for the Pats, but all three should play. The only major name on the Falcons' injury report is Jones (toe), but there's no chance of Julio missing this one.
Predictions: Dion Lewis leads the Patriots' backfield with 80 combined yards and two touchdowns, one rushing and one receiving. Brady throws for 340 yards and additional TDs to Hogan and James White, while Julian Edelman tops 100 yards for the third straight postseason game. Freeman piles up 100 combined yards and a score, while Coleman adds 70 yards and a receiving TD. Ryan matches Brady toss for toss, throwing for 320 yards and three more touchdowns, two to Jones (who pulls down 120 yards) and one to Sanu. Stephen Gostkowski proves to be the hero with a 47-yarder in the dying seconds. Patriots, 37-35
Last week's record: 1-1, 1-1 ATS, 1-1 o/u
2016 regular season record: 155-99-2, 110-136-10 ATS, 139-112-5 o/u
2016 postseason record: 6-4, 5-5 ATS, 6-4 o/u