It seems like it was just yesterday that American football aficionados were waiting for what felt like an eternity for the 2016 NFL season to begin.
Yet, here we are, heading into the Super Bowl 51 bye week already.
Conference Championship weekend wasn’t incredibly exciting. The Atlanta Falcons bludgeoned the Green Bay Packers in their NFC Championship matchup, and the New England Patriots made mincemeat of the Pittsburgh Steelers in front of a nation in the AFC Championship game.
Both head coaches, Bill Belichick and Dan Quinn, are former defensive coordinators with daunting tasks ahead of them. I mean, figuring out how to stop quarterbacks Matt Ryan and Tom Brady respectively could prove to be next to impossible.
All eyes with be on the aforementioned Brady and Ryan in Super Bowl 51, but it’s the lesser known names and faces that will ultimately decide this game of somewhat evenly matched gunslingers.
With that in mind, here’s a look at five players you must keep an eye on when the New England Patriots take on the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl 51.
Mohamed Sanu, WR – Atlanta Falcons
If you know anything about New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, you know he likes to shut down his opponent’s most explosive weapon and is going to be burning the midnight oil every night in efforts to devise a plan to stop Atlanta Falcons No. 1 WR Julio Jones in Super Bowl 51.
Whether Belichick likes it or not, he’s going to have no choice but to allocate multiple defensive backs to Jones, which means No. 2 WR Mohamed Sanu will likely be in single coverage throughout the game.
Matt Ryan just channeled his inner Brett Farve and the Atlanta Falcons have taken the lead! https://t.co/SQLyvU7u4o— Falcons247 (@NFL_Falcons247) January 22, 2017
Falcons take a 7-0 lead on packers with Matt Ryan's 2-yard shovel pass to Mohamed Sanu.— USA TODAY Sports NFL (@usatoday_nfl) January 22, 2017
Box score: https://t.co/LZo5ic7aho
Keep an eye on Sanu, as he could easily explode for a monster performance if Jones is rendered ineffective.
Chris Hogan, WR – New England Patriots
No matter how many players the Patriots lose to injury, someone always seems to step up and fill their void in New England.
Playing without TE Ron Gronkowski isn’t ideal for the Patriots, but WR Chris Hogan has emerged as a dynamic weapon in the pass attack.
Hogan shocked the masses and torched the Pittsburgh Steelers for nine receptions, 180 yards, and two TDs in the AFC Championship game on Sunday.
Expect Tom Brady to look for Hogan early and often in Super Bowl 51.
LeGarrette Blount, RB – New England Patriots
If New England can establish the run early on Atlanta, it will put Brady and the Patriots pass attack in position to strike as the Falcons won’t be able to take defenders out of the box to help in coverage.
Thus, Patriots RB LeGarrette Blount projects to get a heavy workload in the first quarter of Super Bowl 51.
Keep an eye out for Blount, as the bruising back could easily score a quick touchdown no matter how many defenders Atlanta sends his way.
LeGarrette Blount kept trucking along pic.twitter.com/yexh0eVE33— The Cauldron (ICYMI) (@CauldronICYMI) January 23, 2017
Malcolm Butler, CB – New England Patriots
As mentioned above, Bill Belichick projects to focus heavily on shutting down Falcons WR Julio Jones in Super Bowl 51.
This is obviously something that’s easier said than done. To have a chance, he’s going to have to get a huge performance out of No. 1 cornerback Malcolm Butler.
NFL‘s Dan Hanzus unearthed an old tweet of Butler’s from 2012 in which he proclaimed.
I wanna check julio jones...lol......real talk doe..— Malcolm CB Butler (@Mac_BZ) December 23, 2012
Well, Malcolm’s gonna get his chance. Whether or not he should have been careful with what he wished for remains to be seen in Super Bowl 51.
Vic Beasley, OLB – Atlanta Falcons
According to Gil Brandt of NFL, the Atlanta Falcons threatened to cut second-year OLB Vic Beasley during training camp last summer.
Was told in ATL training camp that Vic Beasley was in jeopardy of being traded or outright cut. Fire lit. Big reason Falcons still playing.— Gil Brandt (@Gil_Brandt) January 22, 2017
It’s a good thing they didn’t, as all Beasley did was go on to lead the NFL with 15.5 sacks, giving the Falcons the pass rushing piece they have so direly been without in recent years.
If you know anything about Tom Brady, you know he absolutely despises overwhelming pocket pressure and is at his worst without time to throw. At 38-years-old, Brady simply isn’t capable of scrambling to extend plays on a regular basis.
Expect Dan Quinn to cook up some exotic packages with Beasley to frustrate Brady consistently in Super Bowl 51.
[Featured Image by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images]