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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."

Role reversal? Alex Smith currently more of a gunslinger than Derek Carr

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AP

Role reversal? Alex Smith currently more of a gunslinger than Derek Carr

OAKLAND -- Derek Carr is going through a rough patch. The beloved Raiders quarterback is being criticized for his part in this prolonged losing skid, a rarity since his rookie year.

Carr is supposedly playing it safe, getting rid of the ball quick, throwing short and avoiding potentially risky deep shots downfield.

That doesn’t sound like someone who wears No. 4 as homage to Brett Favre. Alex Smith comes to mind instead.

The Kansas City signal caller is notoriously known as a game manager, a cautious leader who rarely lets it rip.

Not this year. The former 49ers No. 1 overall pick is killing it in K.C., with career highs in completion percentage, yards per attempt and passer rating. The early MVP candidate has 12 touchdowns and no picks despite the fact he’s throwing deep more than ever.

Now that sounds like the Derek Carr we knew last year.

These quarterbacks seem to have reversed roles heading into Thursday’s clash between AFC West rivals. The Raiders are 2-4 and in desperate need of win against the AFC West-leading Chiefs.

Smith and Carr can be truly dynamic downfield. Only one guy’s found that rhythm lately.

That’s crystal clear when examining their deep throws.

Nobody’s better going yard this year than Smith, per analytics site Pro Football Focus – wrap your head around that – who is 13-of-23 for 526 yards, 4 touchdowns and no interceptions on throws beyond 20 yards in the air. Carr is 17th, completing 3-of-10 deep shots – no starter has fewer attempts -- for 109 yards, three touchdowns and a pick.

Last year, Carr ranked fifth in passes over 20 yards in the air, again, using PFF stats, with a 46-percent completion rate, 858 yards and a 117.6 passer rating. Smith was 20th in that category, completing less than a third of his attempt with a 72.8 passer rating.

The Raiders certainly want to push the ball downfield more. Carr has but four explosive plays in nearly three games of the Raiders’ four game losing streak – he missed the Baltimore loss with a fractured in his back – and hasn’t worked short passes consistently enough to score often.

“We definitely want to be able to (create explosive plays),” Carr said. “Now does that mean we’re going to do anything differently or trying to force things? Absolutely not. That’s where you get in trouble. That’s something that I’ve learned in my career. You can’t force it. You just have to work hard and let it happen.”

Some think Smith is letting it fly with a stoked competitive fire because the Chiefs traded up to draft Patrick Mahomes. Kansas City head coach Andy Reid believes a strong supporting cast led by Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and rookie running back Kareem Hunt allows him to do big things Carr typically does.

There is, however, one constant heading into Thursday’s matchup. Smith has owned the Raiders. The Chiefs have had Carr’s number.

Smith is 9-1 against Oakland. Carr’s 1-5 against K.C.

Smith has 8.3 yards per attempt, 19 touchdowns and just four picks against the Raiders. Carr averages 4.92 yards per attempt, six touchdowns and five interceptions versus the Chiefs.

“These are big games in the division,” Smith said. “You know they’re going to be four quarters. You know they’re going to come down to the end. You just try to go out there every single play and execute. They’re all hard fought and have been close.”

Carr knows Kansas City stands in the way of his ultimate goals. This year, he has to get past them to get the Raiders back on track. That won’t be easy.

“They do a good job of rushing the passer. They do a good job of stopping the run. They do a good job on the coverage end,” Carr said. “They’re sound. They’re really well-coached. (Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton) is a great coach. All the respect for him. So much respect that he even texted me when I got hurt last year. He’s just a good dude. But this week I don’t like him too much. He does a really good job of making sure everyone is locked in. They’re really smart. They’re really smart players. They don’t do a lot so they can see route concepts. They can visualize things and get used to seeing those kind of things.”

Days after signing with Raiders, NaVorro Bowman expected to play vs Chiefs

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USATSI

Days after signing with Raiders, NaVorro Bowman expected to play vs Chiefs

ALAMEDA – NaVorro Bowman was a sponge this week, absorbing the Raiders defense as quickly as possible.

The veteran inside linebacker signed with the Raiders Monday afternoon and did enough to play Thursday night’s pivotal home game against Kansas City.

That’s a huge plus for a Raiders team looking to snap a four-game losing streak. Bowman should be able to help right away despite being new to the scheme.

“He’s a veteran. He understands ball,” Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio said Wednesday. “We haven’t tried to install the entire playbook, but specific game plans and things. He’s had a good week. Even though it’s a short week, we feel good and he’ll play.”

He’ll probably start at inside linebacker and play the base defense as least. While many have criticized his speed and coverage skills diminished from major injuries, Bowman remains a sure tackler who can provide solid on-field leadership.

Veteran savvy and natural ability should carry Bowman while he masters a new scheme, allowing him to make the immediate impact required with the Raiders reeling at 2-4.

“He is very instinctive,” Del Rio said. "He’s a veteran guy that’s been there before. He understands what it looks like to lineup against a good football team and help us win.”

Bowman’s fresh and healthy, a step above his others at his position. Inside linebackers Cory James (knee), Marquel Lee (ankle) and Nicholas Morrow (ankle) are all questionable heading into Thursday’s game.

He has also been a willing teacher to a group of inside linebackers featuring a second-year pro and three rookies.

“They’re just soaking it up,” Del Rio said. “They’ll ask, ‘When do you lift? How often do you lift? When do you meet? When do you cover this?’ It’s good stuff to have for a really young group.”

In other injury news, right tackle Marshall Newhouse is out, leaving Vadal Alexander to start in his spot. David Sharpe should be the swing tackle in reserve.