Patriots, Falcons set for Super Bowl spectacle
A season that began with Tom Brady serving a four-game suspension will end with him in the Super Bowl, where his New England Patriots will take on Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons.
While much of the attention has been focused on Brady vs. Ryan, the truly key matchup could be Atlanta's score-at-will offence, which produced the most points during the regular season, against the unheralded defence of New England, which allowed the fewest.
And these two teams are playing their best football at the most important time.
AFC champions New England (16-2) have won nine consecutive games - and haven't even trailed since Nov. 27. NFC champions Atlanta (13-5) have won their past six in a row, scoring at least 33 points in each.
"We'll enjoy this," Ryan said. "But we've got some work to do."
Brady and coach Bill Belichick will be seeking their - and the Patriots' - fifth Lombardi Trophy, and second in three years. This will be the franchise's league-record ninth appearance in the Super Bowl, including titles in the 2002, 2004, 2005 and 2015 editions.
"This team showed a lot of mental toughness over the course of the year," Brady said.
The Falcons have never won the Super Bowl. This will be Atlanta's second trip to the big game; they lost to Denver in 1999.
The club's never had a quarterback quite as good as Ryan, though.
The guy nicknamed "Matty Ice" went 27 for 38 for 392 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions, while adding a rushing TD, to boot, leading Atlanta past Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers 44-21 in the NFC championship game.
Brady tied Hall of Famer Joe Montana's record with a ninth three-TD postseason game, helping the Patriots beat Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers 36-17 for the AFC championship.
New England opened the season with a 3-1 record despite using two backup quarterbacks while playing those games without Brady after he went through a lengthy court battle in an unsuccessful bid to have his ban overturned for what became known as "Deflategate." NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Brady because the league said it determined the Patriots intentionally underinflated footballs used in an AFC championship game victory two years ago.