Falcons' first or Brady's fifth? Patriots favored in Super Bowl LI

Falcons' first or Brady's fifth? Patriots favored in Super Bowl LI

HOUSTON -- Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots are at home in Houston, where they won Super Bowl XXXVIII, and accustomed to the NFL's biggest stage.

The Atlanta Falcons are in their second Super Bowl and strive to secure the Lombardi Trophy for the first time in franchise history on Sunday in Super Bowl LI.

"It is a great privilege to be here and represent the AFC in this game," Belichick said of preparing for his 10th Super Bowl, including three as an assistant coach. "It is where you want to be at the end of the year. We are here this year. We are proud to be here."

The Falcons, in head coach Dan Quinn's second year, rode the NFL's highest-scoring offense (33.8 points per game) to the top of the NFC. The trophy on the line Sunday is the hardware that matters, but Atlanta's achievements already include offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan being named assistant coach of the year and Matt Ryan as offensive player of the year. The MVP award was handed out Saturday night, and Ryan won as expected.

Belichick and the Patriots are hailed for finding ways to eliminate the top playmakers of the opposition, but choosing where to start with Atlanta is no easy decision.

Wide receiver Julio Jones averaged 17 yards per reception and will command extra attention, Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan said, but the Falcons also thrived in the running game. As the only team to start all five offensive linemen in every game this season, there's cohesion around big-ticket free agent addition Alex Mack. Mack was the top-rated run blocker in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus, and Atlanta's running back tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman averaged more than 170 yards from scrimmage in 2016.

Jones said he will likely play "everywhere" in the formation to dictate matchups, but the Patriots just shut down Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown in the AFC title game despite the Pittsburgh Steelers establishing that hide-and-seek approach to formation changes.

"I don't think there's much Bill and his staff hasn't seen before," Shanahan said. "They've seen a lot of football and they do it as good as anyone. The main thing is giving your players confidence going into the game knowing that when we do see what they're doing, you give our players the ability to adjust for us to go in a number of difference directions. They're as good as it gets, so we know it'll be a huge challenge, something that we're working at just like they are. When the game starts, it's going to come down to trying to put our guys in good position and enjoy watching them go."

The Patriots are plotting how to handle Ryan, which starts with making him uncomfortable in the pocket. Quinn said turnovers -- a major issue in the Falcons' nosedive from a 5-0 start in 2015 -- might decide the game. But he also believes the defense that grabs the advantage early will also have a big edge.

Atlanta's front five isn't bulletproof. Ryan, a pocket passer, was heavily pressured in losses to the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles in the regular season -- film the Patriots have no doubt reviewed in their two weeks of preparation. New England defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said the risk in sending an extra body to make Ryan move from his launch point is that approach leaves Coleman and Freeman open in space, where they've been destructive.

"They do an unbelievable job of making guys either miss in open space, whether it's tackling or in your approach angles," Patricia said. "Their vision that they run with is phenomenal. What's great is when they get them out of the backfield, the passing game -- great for them, not for me -- is trying to defend them. They run receiver routes, the quarterback trusts them to get the ball to them very quickly."

Quinn was defensive coordinator of the Seahawks two years ago in Glendale, Ariz., when the Patriots beat Seattle with a dramatic interception at the goal line from cornerback Malcolm Butler. But the memorable plays from that game to Quinn were Brady piling up completions with ease in the second half, including what proved to be the game-winning score to wide receiver Julian Edelman in the final minute.

Quinn's defense was 27th in the NFL in points allowed and starts four rookies, which could be viewed as blood in the water for Brady, who is one win from setting the modern-day record with five Super Bowl wins.

"When you have this many young guys feeling their way and making strides quickly -- that's the most important thing -- we don't really look at the risk side of things," Quinn said. "They wouldn't be in there if they weren't ready. They've earned it."

Brady said he will not be motivated by any grudge against commissioner Roger Goodell, who suspended Brady for the first four games of the 2016 season for his role in Deflategate. In 12 games this season, Brady was sacked just 15 times and had a TD-to-INT ratio of 28-12. Against Atlanta, a defense built on speed, the Patriots could install an extra offensive lineman or tight end and play power football to force the Falcons to adjust.

Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount averaged 3.9 yards per carry and had 18 touchdowns on 299 carries.

"Tom Brady is a future Hall of Fame quarterback. It's hard to stop a guy like that that knows defenses," Falcons defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux said. "He's seen it all. The thing that we have to do is rattle him and make sure he's not comfortable in the pocket.

"We know in this league that the ball comes out 2.4, 2.5 (seconds) 90 percent of the time, so any way we can affect him by getting our hands up, or getting a hit and getting him rattled, anything we can do to disrupt him is going to be great for us."

Oakland, Lott Group pen letter to NFL in last-ditch effort to keep Raiders

Oakland, Lott Group pen letter to NFL in last-ditch effort to keep Raiders

Through the office of mayor Libby Schaaf, the City of Oakland issued the following statement on Friday, revealing a letter they sent to the NFL a day earlier highlighting the viability and appeal of keeping the Raiders in Oakland.

***

OAKLAND, CA — Today, the City of Oakland, Alameda County, the Lott Group and Fortress, who have been working in concert to develop a fully-financed local stadium proposal for the Oakland Raiders, shared publicly documents detailing the strength of the Oakland plan.

Specifically, they made public for the first time, their most recent correspondence to the NFL. The letters and accompanying documents were sent in follow-up to a March 6, 2017 presentation Mayor Libby Schaaf and former NFL player and real estate investor Ronnie Lott made to the NFL’s Joint Stadium and Finance Committee that outlined the economic advantages to the league and the team of staying in Oakland.

[RELATED: Letter to NFL from Libby Schaaf, Lott Group]

“We’re not giving up in the fourth quarter,” said Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf. “Since I took office two years ago, I have been focused on taking a team-centered approach that is responsible to the Raiders, the NFL, the fans and the taxpayers of Oakland. We’ve been successful in doing the environmental clearance, aligning the City and the County which jointly own the land, engaging the league and bringing partners to the table in the Lott Group and Fortress who have the financial backing, compassion for this community and intimate knowledge of the game -- on and off the field -- to get a deal done. All that’s missing is the Raiders.”

“I know how passionate the Bay Area is about the Raiders,” said NFL Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott. “To rip this team away from Oakland for a second time would be heartbreaking and entirely unnecessary given that we have a viable option on the table that keeps them here and helps this community and the team grow. We have a sophisticated financial partner in Fortress. We have done the due diligence, and it is clear that the only fully-financed, ready-to-roll option for the Raiders is in Oakland.”

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, City Council President Larry Reid, whose district is home to the existing Coliseum and the proposed new stadium site, Lott Group partner and former NFL quarterback Rodney Peete and Fortress Managing Director Drew McKnight plan to gather with fans, local business leaders, nearby residents and other community members to demonstrate support for the Oakland stadium plan at events planned for Saturday, March 25. This is the day before NFL owners begin a series of meetings during which they are expected to discuss, and possibly vote on Raiders’ owner Mark Davis’ request to move the team to Las Vegas.

City of Oakland media services

Why the Raiders 2013 draft class was disbanded

Why the Raiders 2013 draft class was disbanded

Reggie McKenzie has owned three top 5 picks since becoming Raiders general manager. He used one on Khalil Mack in 2014, another on Amari Cooper a year later. McKenzie got a defensive player of the year and a two-time Pro Bowl receiver.

Pretty nice haul.

His first big draft pick came in 2013, when a 4-12 record the previous year earned the No. 3 overall selection. He turned that into the No. 12 and No. 42 overall selections – the Raiders didn’t have a second-round pick, and also gave up a fifth-rounder in the deal – that garnered cornerback DJ Hayden and Menelik Watson.

Both guys were beset by injury early on, setbacks that kept them from realizing potential identified during the pre-draft process. The Raiders got some quality players from the 2013 draft class – Latavius Murray was a two-year starter and Pro Bowl rusher -- but none of them remain Raiders after their rookie contracts.

Sixth-round tight end Mychal Rivera was the last leave, signing with Jacksonville on Wednesday. The Raiders wanted a few back – Watson and Stacy McGee, in particular – but all of them ended up elsewhere.

That’s not ideal. McKenzie prefers to draft, develop and reward. That didn’t happen for his 2013 draft class. While he didn’t have a first or second round pick, the 2012 draft class has been gone some time now.

He compensated well for that veteran talent void in free agency, bringing in Bruce Irvin, Kelechi Osemele and others of that age.

McKenzie’s draft record after 2013 has improved dramatically. A 2014 group that includes Mack, Derek Carr and Gabe Jackson was franchise altering. The 2015 bunch stands strong, and 2016 has talent but can’t be evaluated quite yet.

Let’s take a look at the 2013 draft class and why it didn’t work out:

CB DJ Hayden (No. 12 overall)
Current team:
Detroit (1 year deal, $3.75 million; $2.25 million guaranteed)
Comment: The Raiders didn’t pick up Hayden’s fifth-year option, proof their first-round pick didn’t work out as planned. Hayden was drafted despite a heart condition stemming from a practice injury in college, but a series of soft-tissue injuries slowed him down. He was ineffective at times, though he played better in his final season as a nickel back.

OL Menelik Watson (No. 42 overall)
Current team:
Denver (3 year deal, $18.3 million, $5.5 guaranteed)
Comment: Watson was an athletic, nasty offensive lineman the Raiders hoped to keep, someone who showed real potential when healthy. Those moments didn’t come often for a player who lost 2015 to injury and never made it through a full season.

LB Sio Moore (No. 66 overall)
Current team:
Free agent
Comment: Moore made an instant impact as a rookie working off the edge. He started on the weakside in 2014, but never seemed to recover from a late-season hip injury. He didn’t fit in well with new head coach Jack Del Rio, and he was traded to Indianapolis before the 2015 season began, he has bounced around ever since, playing as a reserve and special teams player. He remains on the open market.

QB Tyler Wilson (No. 112 overall)
Current team:
Out of football
Comment: Tyler Wilson never fit in at the NFL level and didn’t give the Raiders anything for a mid-round selection. Wilson lost his No. 3 job to undrafted rookie Matt McGloin, spent most of 2013 on the practice squad, and was signed by Tennessee late in the year. Wilson was the highest 2013 draft pick to not make the opening day roster.

TE Nick Kasa (No. 172 overall)
Current team:
Out of football
Comment: The converted defensive end struggled with injury, and suffered a season-ending knee injury during the 2014 preseason. He spent the year on injured reserve and didn’t return to the active roster.

RB Latavius Murray (No. 181 overall)
Current team:
Minnesota Vikings (Three year deal, $15 million, $3.4 million fully guaranteed)
Comment: Murray was the most productive player in the draft class. He missed his rookie year with an ankle injury, but assumed the starting spot by the end of his second season. Murray exceeded 1,000 yards and made the Pro Bowl in 2015, and had nearly 800 yards and 12 touchdowns the following year. He wasn’t a perfect scheme fit for the Raiders, who didn’t pursue him once he hit the open market. Murray signed with the Vikings, and should be a major contributor in that offense.

TE Mychal Rivera (No. 184 overall)
Current team:
Jacksonville Jaguars (Two year deal, worth up to $6.75 million)
Comment: Rivera was a vital receiving option on bad Raiders teams, but fell out of favor under Jack Del Rio. That cut his opportunities way down, giving way to 2015 third-round pick Clive Walford. Rivera has receiving skill but isn’t much of a blocker, and his exit was no a surprise after he was a healthy scratch several times in 2016.

DT Stacy McGee (No. 205 overall)
Current team:
Washington (Five year deal, $25 million, $9 million guaranteed
Comment: McGee flashed interior talent when healthy in 2016, and cashed in with Washington on the first day of unrestricted free agency. The Raiders hoped to bring him back, but he got far more than they were willing to pay. McGee developed well during his time in Oakland, which ultimately priced him out of town.

WR Brice Butler (No. 209 overall)
Current team:
Dallas Cowboys (One year deal, $1.1 million, $300,000 guaranteed)
Comment: Butler was an occasional contributor during two seasons with the Raiders, though the athletic pass catcher was a bit too inconsistent. He finished the 2015 as the fifth receiver, and McKenzie got something for him via trade. Butler remains a Cowboy, and signed a new contract with them this offseason.

DE David Bass No. 233 overall)
Current team:
Free agent
Comment: Bass was cut after the 2013 preseason, but he hung on during the next four seasons with Chicago and Tennessee as a reserve and special teams player.