Without either of those players, it's likely that neither of these teams would be where they are today. (That's less true for New England than Atlanta, given the presence of Jimmy Garoppolo, but there is no way to know if the level of play he established in his two games filling in for Brady would have held over the 18 additional games the Pats have played since then.) All of which is to say: the two quarterbacks are very obviously the most indispensable players on their respective teams.
The question we're here to ask is, who's the next-most indispensable player on each squad?
New England Patriots: Julian Edelman
Before this season, the answer to this question would clearly have been Rob Gronkowski. It still might be. But Brady's performance in games without Gronkowski this season established some measure of doubt. Where he had previously struggled badly in games where Gronkowski sat out due to injury, this year was different.
Brady's completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdown rate (TD/ATT), interception rate (INT/ATT), and quarterback rating in the games he played without Gronkowski this season almost exactly match the figures he compiled with Gronk on the field from 2010 through 2015. Each of those figures represented a sharp increase from his performance without Gronk in the past.
The driving factor in that improved performance has unquestionably been the play of Julian Edelman, who is averaging about 1.7 more targets per game with Gronk on the bench and has not seen his catch rate dip at all, while his yards per catch average has increased by nearly six yards.
Through the latter part of the regular season, the Patriots limited Edelman's snaps in order to keep him fresh, knowing he was going to get the ball more often than ever before. After playing 79.4 percent of the team's snaps through Week 12, per Pro Football Focus, that share dropped to only 66.2 percent in Weeks 13 through 17.
Edelman was on the field for 290 pass plays from Week 5 (when Brady returned from suspension) through 12, and was targeted on 61 of those plays. That's a rate of 21 percent. Basically, he was thrown the ball one out of every five times he ran a route. Since that point, Edelman has been on the field for 257 pass plays and he's been targeted on 83 of them. That's a monstrous rate of 32.3 percent. In other words, he's now being thrown the ball one out of every three times he runs a route.
He's also been much more efficient. He generated 1.55 yards per route run from Week 5 through 12, the full-season equivalent of finishing 39th among 49 qualifying wide receivers, per PFF. Since Week 13, that figure has shot all the way up to 3.09 yards per route run, which would rank second to only Julio Jones among the same group of players.
In other words: Edelman has become Brady's go-to receiver in all situations, rather than just his short-yardage chain-mover. And that makes him absolutely indispensable.
Atlanta Falcons: Alex Mack
It was much more difficult to narrow down the Falcons' most indispensable player.
Julio Jones is certainly a candidate. Arguably the best receiver in football, Jones led the NFL in receiving yards per game for the second consecutive season. He finished the year with 83 catches for 1,409 yards and six scores. He led the NFL in yards per route run, finished ninth in wide receiver rating (passer rating on throws in his direction) and had the fifth-most catches on throws 20-plus yards down the field. He is a star and every opposing defense treats him as such.
However, crazy as it sounds, Jones at times appeared ancillary to Atlanta's offensive success this season. The Falcons scored 83 points in the two games Jones sat out due to injury. They scored 45 when he had just one catch for 16 yards against the Saints; 33 when he had three catches for 29 yards against the Packers; and 38 when he had four catches for 35 yards against the Cardinals. Meanwhile, he totaled 37 catches for 627 yards in Atlanta's five losses -- an average line of 7 for 125 while the Falcons averaged 24.2 points per game, a nearly two-touchdown drop from the 38.1 points per game they averaged in their 11 wins. So, while Jones is clearly incredible, it feels a bit disingenuous to call him the Falcons' most indispensable non-QB this season.
Vic Beasley is also a candidate. The Falcons did not have the strongest pass rush in the league, and Beasley at times appeared to be single-handedly responsible for any of the team's pressure. He finished the year with a league-high 15.5 sacks, accounting for 46 percent of the team's total all by himself. However, he actually was not the only source of pressure on the team. Beasley finished the regular season with 45 pressures (sacks plus hits plus hurries). Dwight Freeney had 46 and Adrian Clayborn had 40. They each affected the quarterback nearly as much as Beasley did -- his rushes just happened to result in sacks rather than hits or hurries more often. The Falcons also had a better record in games where Beasley did not have a sack (5-2) than those where he did (6-3).
Devonta Freeman is a candidate as well. The Falcons' lead back totaled 1,541 yards on 281 touches this season, and was one of just five players with at least 200 carries and at least 50 catches. He accounted for 13 of Atlanta's touchdowns, most on the team. His best games tended to come in wins where the Falcons scored a ton of points -- and before you say it; it was not a volume thing. Freeman topped 20 carries only twice all year and one of those games was against the Broncos, where Atlanta scored only 23 points. The Falcons' losses also tended to coincide with weak performances from Freeman: he had 15 touches for 40 yards against the Bucs in Week 1; 15 for 50 against the Seahawks in Week 6; and 15 for 81 against the Eagles in 10.
But Atlanta has Tevin Coleman in the backfield as well. Coleman totaled 941 yards on 149 touches this season. That's an average of 6.3 per touch, almost a full yard more than Freeman's 5.5 average. Freeman had seven carries of 20-plus yards on his 227 totes, while Coleman had five on just 118 carries. None of this means Freeman isn't excellent. It just means the Falcons would probably be OK if they had to turn to Coleman full-time.
Atlanta's most indispensable non-Ryan player is center Alex Mack, who was almost definitely the single best free agent signing of the 2016 offseason -- the anti-Brock Osweiler. Atlanta's offensive line was dreadful in 2015 and one of the best in the NFL this season. Inserting Mack into the middle of the unit was the biggest reason why. The upgrade from 2015 center Mike Person to Mack might have been the biggest positional upgrade in the league other than the one the Cowboys got at quarterback.
The Second Team All-Pro center set the pass-blocking assignments along with Matt Ryan and was rarely beat in pass pro himself. He mowed down everyone in his path to clear the way for Freeman and Coleman in the run game, executing double-teams and combo blocks to perfection. It's no coincidence that Ryan had the best year of his career in the same year Mack came to Atlanta. Without him holding down the interior of the line, it's highly likely that nothing that happened in Atlanta this year happens at all.
|Peyton Manning got his hands on the Vince Lombardi trophy at last year's Super Bowl CREDIT: AP|
Where is 2017 Super Bowl: Patriots vs. Falcons location, date, start time
And then there were two.
The Patriots and Falcons are the last two teams standing in this season's battle to become NFL champion. One game remains to decide it: the Super Bowl
Have questions about the details of this year's NFL championship game? You're in luck, because we have answers.
Where is the Super Bowl being played?
Super Bowl LI will be held at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, home of the Texans. Owners voted in May 2013 to hold this year's Super Bowl in Houston, with the nation's fourth-largest city beating out co-finalist South Florida for hosting rights.
It'll be the second Super Bowl held at NRG Stadium, which was named Reliant Stadium when it hosted Super Bowl XXXVIII between the Patriots and Panthers in 2004, a game New England won 32-29. The city of Houston has hosted the championship game on one other occasion, with the Dolphins topping the Vikings 24-7 at Rice Stadium in 1974 in Super Bowl VIII.
What time does the Super Bowl start?
Super Bowl LI is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. ET on Sunday, Feb. 5.
How can I watch the Super Bowl?
FOX and FOX Sports GO will broadcast this year's Super Bowl, with Joe Buck and Troy Aikman on the call and Erin Andrews reporting from the sidelines.
How were the Super Bowl teams determined?
The Falcons became the first entrant into Super Bowl LI by defeating the Packers, 44-21, in the NFC Championship Game. It's the second Super Bowl berth in Falcons history, with the team losing Super Bowl XXXIII to the Broncos, 34-19.
Later on Sunday, the Patriots dispatched the Steelers, 36-17, in the AFC Championship Game to make their record ninth Super Bowl appearance. The Patriots are 4-4 all-time in Super Bowls, with their latest championship coming two years ago in Super Bowl XLIX, when they edged the Seahawks 28-24.
You can check out the full playoff bracket leading up to Super Bowl LI, along with schedule and TV info for each game, at this link.
Who will perform the Super Bowl halftime show?
Lady Gaga is scheduled to play at halftime of the Super Bowl. Houston was the location of arguably the most controversial halftime show of all-time, when a Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction became one of the most unforgettable moments in Super Bowl history. SI.com covered the malfunction and the resulting aftermath last year, and it's well worth a read if you want to dive deep into the controversy.
Super Bowl 2017: When is the date, who is performing in the half-time show and will the New England Patriots or Atlanta Falcons win?
What is it?
It's Super Bowl LI, baby!
The 2017 edition of the NFL game to decide which team is best at American Football, and will get to take home the Vince Lomardi trophy.
When is it?
Sunday 5 February 2017.
What time does it start in the UK?
23:30 GMT. Due to the satisfyingly thorough time-span of your average NFL match, and a far higher amount of bells, whistles and half-time entertainment than normal you can expect it to be wrapped up by about 03:30.
Best book the Monday off work now.
What TV channel is it on?
You've got options. BBC or Sky Sports. Channels and exact timing of coverage is still TBC.
Where is it being held?
Houston's NRG Stadium has the honour. It's a 71,795-capacity stadium and home to the Houston Texans.
The Stadium has hosted the NFL's showpiece once before, Super Bowl XXXVIII in which the Patriots beat the Carolina Panthers 32-29.
This was also the venue for the entirely unintentional wardrobe malfunction which showed the world Janet Jackson's excellent taste in jewellery.
Who will be playing?
The New England Patriots, who will probably be familiar to you if you've watched more than one of these matches in the past 10 years. Far less familiar are the Atlanta Falcons, who have never won the big prize.
The Patriots comfortably beat Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship game on Sunday 22 January, after overcoming the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium the previous Sunday.
The Falcons saw off the Green Bay Packers in astonishing style to clinch the NFC title.