Monday 11 December 2017

Believe the Super Bowl hype: This is unmissable

Tom Brady and Matt Ryan shake hands after their teams met last September. Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Tom Brady and Matt Ryan shake hands after their teams met last September. Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Eamonn Sweeney

If there's any sporting event not in need of extra hype, it's the Super Bowl. No other match has quite the same sense of being a big occasion in itself, so much so that, for the neutral at least, the teams and even the result can sometimes seem dwarfed by comparison. Yet there is undoubtedly something out of the ordinary about tonight's match-up between the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons. We are entitled to expect marvellous and magical things.

Rarely have two sides entered the final showdown bearing such an awesome amount of attacking firepower. The 44 points scored by the Falcons against the Green Bay Packers was the second highest score in NFC Championship game history, and they'd pretty much switched off by the fourth quarter. Quarterback Matt Ryan's 392 passing yards was just shy of the all-time record, while Julio Jones' nine receptions for 180 yards and two touchdowns was perhaps the most impressive wide receiver performance in any Championship game ever.

The Patriots followed this up by putting 36 points on the defensively powerful Pittsburgh Steelers, with Tom Brady's 368 passing yards his highest ever total in the play-offs, quite something given that Brady is the greatest play-off quarterback of them all. Their wide receiver Chris Hogan had, wait for it, nine receptions for 180 yards and two touchdowns.

It may be reductive to portray tonight's match as a shootout between two Irish-American quarterbacks, but it's also unavoidable. This should be the most significant Brady-Ryan contest since Fianna Fail's Ger Brady went up against Fine Gael's Richie Ryan in the Rathmines West constituency at the 1977 General Election.

Brady is the ultimate big-time performer. No one has won more games in the play-offs, thrown more touchdown passes in the play-offs, amassed more passing yards or completed more passes in the play-offs. Like Roger Federer or Muhammad Ali, he combines an artist's touch with an astounding competitive hunger. And like them he refuses to cede the spotlight to younger opponents.

Brady is 39 now but this season is his second best ever in terms of quarterback rating. Two years ago it looked as though he was facing his last Super Bowl hurrah against the ferocious Seattle Seahawks defence. People cringed for Brady as they cringed for Ali going up against Foreman. Instead he destroyed the favourites, passing for four touchdowns and producing his finest Super Bowl performance.

Should be prevail again tonight he will become the first ever quarterback, and only the second ever player, to win five Super Bowls. Which will, given the primacy of the quarterback in American football, make him the undisputed greatest of all-time. And this coming at the end of a season which began with Brady suffering a four-match ban for his part in the 'Deflategate' scandal which centred on allegations that the Patriots staff had been illegally deflating balls to make them easier for their main man to throw.

'Deflategate' seems to me to capture something essential about Brady, the Patriots and their manager Bill Belichick, the closest thing America has to an all-conquering Alex Ferguson managerial figure. They are easy to admire but hard to love. Belichick had previously been in trouble for illegally accessing opposition signals during games and perhaps, in terms of his 'any means necessary' attitude, he is more Mourinho than Ferguson. There are plenty of people who admire this as being merely the winning mentality carried to its logical extreme but it may affect how history views both Belichick and Brady.

Yet they are a remarkable duo. Record-breaking receiver Hogan wasn't even drafted by an NFL team out of college, which isn't surprising because he spent his time there playing lacrosse. It's testimony to Belichick's ability to spot a diamond in the rough, as he did when putting his faith in a player who was only the number 199 pick in the 2000 draft, a player named Tom Brady.

Matt Ryan, on the other hand, was a star when he was still in college. So much so that when the kid known as 'Matty Ice' turned pro after leaving Boston College in 2008, he was already on the fourth biggest salary for an NFL quarterback - earning more than Brady, who'd won three Super Bowls.

In his rookie season he brought the Falcons to the play-offs and earned the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. It seemed only a matter of time before he joined Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers in the class of elite quarterbacks. Yet it didn't work out like that. Having got to 'very good', Ryan seemed to balk at 'great'. The big breakthrough seemed at hand in 2012 when the Falcons had the best regular season record in football and were edged out in the NFC Championship game by the San Francisco 49ers. Yet the following year they slumped to a catastrophic 4-12 and Ryan's stats dipped significantly. There seemed to be something fatally flaky about both player and franchise.

So why are they being given every chance tonight? Because this year Ryan has enjoyed one of the great individual seasons in NFL history. Winner of the league's MVP award, Ryan has topped the league with a phenomenal quarterback rating of 117.1 and enjoyed a career-best season in every significant category. Even more impressively he has gone into overdrive in the play-offs, where his rating is a scarcely believable 135.2; his sky-high confidence was graphically displayed in the Championship game when he ran for a touchdown for the first time in seven years. Ryan, like Brady, normally only runs when he absolutely has to and does it in the awkward style of a statue just descended from a plinth.

He has the advantage of throwing to perhaps the best wide receiver in the game, Julio Jones - an athletic marvel who, as a schoolboy in the small town of Foley, Alabama, could long-jump 7.40m, triple-jump 14.52m and high-jump 1.98m while largely concentrating on football.

A catch made by Jones against the Packers, where he soared above two men, twisted in mid air and held on to the ball with one hand while off balance after taking a hit seemed to sum up everything great about the wide receiver's art. He could be a match-winner, yet Belichick's great speciality over the years has been the ruthless nullification of the opposition's strongest points. He no doubt has a plan for Jones.

It may be significant that the Patriots are much better defensively than the Falcons, who are especially weak on passing defence. Julian Edelman, nowhere near as explosive as Jones, but the fourth best receiver in terms of passes caught this season, could make hay. Against that, Atlanta have two very dangerous running backs in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, while the Patriots don't really pose much of a threat in this area.

Brady will have to watch out for explosive linebacker Vic Beasley, only in his second year out of college but league leader in quarterback sacks, while Ryan will be mindful of the predatory instincts of Malcolm Butler, another undrafted Belichick discovery whose last-second interception gave the Patriots victory two years ago.

The most obvious contrast between the teams is in terms of big-game experience. While the Patriots will be playing in a seventh Super Bowl since the turn of the millennium, the Falcons' only previous appearance was when they were well beaten in 1998 by the Denver Broncos. A similar disparity in experience cost the Carolina Panthers dear against the Broncos last year.

There is an interesting subplot too in the presence of Mohamed Sanu, a key Falcons receiver, the son of Sierra Leonean parents and the only Muslim in the game. Sanu has declined to be drawn into comment on current political controversy over the past week, perhaps deciding that the best comment he can make would be a touchdown to sicken Trump fans everywhere.

With Ryan a declared Obama fan and Brady a vocal Trump admirer, the Falcons would seem to be the progressive pick, though this is complicated by the fact that they represent one of America's most reactionary states, while the Patriots come from one of its most liberal. We'll also have to see whether Lady Gaga fights the powers that be by singing something like, "Can't read my, can't read my, no he can't read my burqa face," thus ensuring we get country singers at half-time for the next three Super Bowls.

In the end it will come down to Brady and Ryan. The man who's had the phenomenal career awaits the man who's had the phenomenal season. They've come to knock him off the perch before yet still he stands - impressive, implacable and as immovable as Mount Rushmore. He's probably the calmest man in America right now. Nothing will surprise him.

Tom Brady knows, and everyone else knows, that he is the greatest.

For Matt and Julio and Mohamed and Vic and Devonta, it's different. This is new territory for them. Do they really believe they can overthrow a dynasty like the Patriots? If they do, great things can happen for them, their fans and the neutrals.

It has been one of the most dramatic 12 months in American sporting history, with the World Series and the college basketball and football finals all producing all-time classics with massively exciting games which went down to the last play. Tonight could top them all.

Stay up and stay awake.

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