There is no question that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is the MVP of both Super Bowl XLIX and LI. However, even the best quarterbacks can’t win championships by themselves. They need a supporting cast full of playmakers on offense, defense and special teams.
Brady had a spectacular supporting cast that helped him capture his fourth and fifth championship led by linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who singlehandedly changed the outcome of Super Bowl 49 and 51.
Hightower, from the University of Alabama, was selected no. 25 overall in the 2012 NFL draft by New England. Flying under the radar, Hightower quietly had a solid rookie season playing as a strong outside linebacker.
For the next two seasons, the Tennesse native developed into a versatile linebacker that could make a positive impact at both strongside and weakside linebacker.
Despite his solid play, Hightower was overshadowed by fellow rising stars LB Jamie Collins and LB Chandler Jones. These three players, along with LB Rob Ninkovich and LB Akeem Ayers, gave New England one of the best linebacker corps in the NFL.
Super Bowl XLIX
Fast forward to Super Bowl XLIX.
The Patriots were down ten points in the fourth quarter and head coach Bill Belichick was giving a pep talk to his linebackers to simply “do their job”.
Hightower must have taken this to heart because he did his job and a whole lot more.
After WR Jermaine Kearse’s miracle catch to set up the Seahawks on the 5-yard line, Hightower did the impossible and saved the Patriots from losing Super Bowl 49.
On the next play, the Seahawks ran a simple stretch play to the outside. At this point, the Patriots defense seemed to be in trouble. Outside linebacker Ayers, the only player doing his job correctly, held the edge and forced Lynch to run inside.
Unfortunately, New England had a cornerback in the B-gap where Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch was running and the corner got steamrolled by a Seattle guard. The play was busted wide open.
It was an open box between the line of scrimmage and the goal line. Lynch could have and should have easily run into the end-zone for a touchdown. Yet, this is where Hightower shined.
Hightower originally manning the A-gap, somehow managed to find his way to the B-gap where he was met by offensive tackle Russel Okung. At this point, Okung was setup for a textbook block on Hightower. However, Hightower showed superhuman strength and bench pressed Okung off of him. Hightower then found the ball carrier, Lynch, and managed to bring him down at the one-yard line despite a simultaneous chip block.
For the entire game, the Patriots defense struggled to ever tackle Lynch. Yet, on the second to last play, when the defense was worn down, Hightower somehow brought Lynch down with his shoulder.
This one play sums up, in my opinion, why Hightower should be credited as the unsung hero of Super Bowl 49. He illustrated insane football IQ and athleticism to take on a responsibility that wasn’t his.
His incredible accomplishment gave his teammate, CB Malcolm Butler, the chance to intercept Seattle QB Russell Wilson on the ensuing play.
Super Bowl LI
At the start of the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LI, New England faced a 19-point deficit.
Everyone knew that time was running out for the Patriots. They needed a huge defensive play to give Brady a chance.
Luckily, Brady didn’t have to wait too long for an opportunity thanks to LB Dont’a Hightower.
After a Gostkowski field goal, the Falcons faced a third and short and were poised to continue their drive to cement their victory.
On this play, QB Matt Ryan was solely focused on passing the ball to the left. By chance, this killed the Falcons play. Falcons RB Devonta Freeman, who was supposed to pass block, ran into the flat.
Freeman must have forgotten his blocking assignment because he was expecting nothing but a short toss from Ryan. If Matt Ryan even glanced to the right side of the field, he would have dumped the ball off to Freeman for a first down and a whole lot more.
This was possible because Hightower, who initially seemed to be in man coverage with Freeman, completely abandoned Freeman and went in an all out pursuit for Ryan.
This was an unbelievable play because it was hard to believe that defensive coordinator Matt Patricia would call an all-out blitz that would leave Freeman alone.
Hightower, disregarding the call, made his own split decision. Perhaps he recognized that Freeman was in there just to pass block or, maybe, Hightower is a mad man that took a gamble. Either way, Hightower showed elite athleticism and football IQ to get to Ryan and strip the ball away.
If Hightower was slowed even by a few milliseconds, Ryan could have at least got the ball out of his hands to put the Patriots in a very tough situation. Instead, the Patriots are set up inside Atlanta’s 25-yard line with the chance to make it a one-possession game.
Dont’a Hightower is easily the unsung hero for New England because of these two plays.
Both of the aforementioned plays were set up perfectly by the opposing team. Yet, Hightower showed incredible football acumen and athleticism to completely flip the outcome of those two plays.
Players such as WR Julian Edelman and CB Butler played some of their best football in those two games, but they simply just did their job.
Hightower, on the other hand, did more than just his job on the biggest play in each game and should be considered an MVP of the defense and the unsung hero in both Super Bowls.
New England seems to know how important Hightower is by rewarding him with a new four-year contract worth $43.5 million. It shows how good Hightower is if Belichick wants to pay him over $10 million per year.
The NFL offseason is underway and there are some important events lined up. The NFL Scouting Combine is underway, NFL Free Agency begins on March 9th and the NFL Draft is in late April. This is the most important part of the NFL off-season for every front office. The NBA also just passed one of the busiest times of the year, the trade deadline.
The countless decisions that are going to be made over the next few months in the NFL and the decisions made in the past few days around the NBA will affect both leagues during the 2017 season for many years to come. Therefore, how should teams decide whether they have the opportunity to “win now”, or whether to build for the future?
There’s no easy answer.
In the NBA, the biggest proponent of long-term planning are the Philadelphia 76ers, who are in a league that provides the biggest discrepancy in terms of being able to plan. Typically, in the NBA, a road to relevance takes much longer than in the NFL. The Sixers, among other teams, have been ‘tanking’ for years, but are yet to realize their potential.
“The Process” AKA Joel Embid (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Although, if you are a premier destination in the NBA, it’s easier to become good quickly by acquiring veteran stars via free agency or trade. For example, once Cleveland signed Lebron, it became easy for them to attract other players. In the past, Miami and Boston’s ‘big threes’ were a symbol of all stars attracting each other.
In the NFL, it’s difficult to build a contender through free agency. A team needs an elite coach or quarterback to contend, and those pieces aren’t readily available on the free agent market or in trades.
Back to the NBA.
Top free agents will only go to a team who already have a young core or an established star. Therefore, it is imperative to acquire that star player (most likely through the draft). In the NBA, many teams don’t find themselves with the opportunity to ‘go for it’ in the short term. Realistically, three teams have a shot to win the NBA title this year: the Warriors, Spurs, and Cavs. Outside of those three, every other team should be building for the future because they just don’t have the talent to compete.
For the other teams, it would be impossible to play for the near future. There are a few teams, like Boston, Washington, New Orleans, Toronto, Los Angeles (Clippers), etc. Teams who are playoff teams, but aren’t legit title contenders. They are all one-star or big time draft pick away from being real title contenders. A move like that would make these teams title contenders now and for, most likely, the next five or so years.
We only see the Cavs and Warriors making moves for the short term. Just recently, we’ve seen Andrew Bogut and Deron Williams head to the Cavaliers. Both of these players will not come cheap and are well past their prime. They are not going to make the team better two or three years from now, but they might give the Cavs a slight leg up on the Warriors. The Warriors are about to make a similar move with Matt Barnes. He is a veteran player that will add useful depth once Durant is back and since he is a veteran he will be more expensive. However, he is not going to be on this team two or three years from now but might help them against the Cavs in this year’s NBA finals.
When it comes to the NFL, it is more advantageous to plan for the long term. Think about the dominant teams in the NFL. The Steelers, Packers, and Patriots have sustained the most success in the past decade.
Tom Brady winning his 5th Lombardi Trophy (Getty Images)
Now, which of those teams have brought in big name free agents for a ton of money? None of them. New England never looks to overpay players and replaces them through the draft (drafting players is long term). Green Bay always has more players they drafted on their roster than any other team. Most of those players are not immediate impact players, but down the road, they become starters (Ex: Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan and Dont’a Hightower in New England).
Furthermore, the Jimmy Garoppolo pick could not illustrate building for the future better. They used a 2nd round pick on him knowing he wouldn’t play in at least the next five years because he’s behind Tom Brady. Now, three years later, they are going to be able to trade him for a king’s ransom. If they do decide to trade him, this pick will probably materialize further down the road, with the Patriots receiving future draft picks. If they don’t trade him, then they will probably expect him to play after Brady retires (farther in the future). They are the best organization in all of football, and they are the masters at building for the future.
Look at the teams who try to ‘win now’ through free agency. Just a few years ago, the ‘Dream Team’ in Philadelphia had a disastrous season. Jacksonville spent a lot of money this past off season and went on to win three football games. Most teams that try to win now by spending in free agency usually don’t accomplish much.
There is no proven path to winning by playing for the short term. Unless a team was built through long-term planning, the future probably doesn’t bode well for them. There are a few examples of short-term contracts benefiting teams. For example, New England signed Revis to a one-year deal and won that year. Denver signed Talib and he quickly became an anchor for them on defense.
Andre Iguodala’s last game before he joined Golden State (USA Today Sports)
In the NBA, somewhat recently, we saw the Warriors trade (sign and trade with Denver) for Andre Iguodala to help put them over the top. There is no doubt that the moved work, but it is only because they had the main pieces in place, Draymond, Curry, and Thompson.
Playing for the short term is rarely successful, and only truly works if the main talent is already in place. True success in franchises can be found through soundly planning for the future and sticking to the discipline of not overpaying for old talent, but looking for cheaper and younger players that will help the team win two, three, or four years from now.
New England’s defense, the top-ranked defense during the regular season, will be the deciding factor in this game. During the regular season, opposing teams only managed 15.6 points per game against them. Their defense has been formidable for the entire season, but I don’t believe it’s as strong as their points against suggests. They rank 9th in the NFL in yards against, which is still good, but it shows that teams can move the ball against their defense.
According to Pro Football Focus’ Player Grades, New England’s right side of their defense is quite weak, which opposing offenses could take advantage of. For example, Ninkovich (DL), Chung (S), Valentine (DT), Rowe (CB), and Robert (LB) all have either poor or average grades for this season. In addition, there are no players considered “elite” on the Patriots defense. McCourty and Butler are close to being elite, but still aren’t there. In comparison to Atlanta’s offense, who the Patriots defense has to face, Atlanta has one player who is considered poor, while New England has three.
The player grades point to one thing. New England’s talent doesn’t represent how their defense has played this season. Just think about it, the defense has no elite players and other major holes. How did they only surrender 15 points per game? I think a lot of it has to do with Bill Belichick’s game plans, which are more innovative than any other coach in NFL history. Players win games, though, and Bill Belichick gives his players the best opportunity to succeed. On Sunday, the Patriots defense will face an elite offense, so a lack of talent may be exposed, unless Bill Belichick’s magic touch is legit.
Belichick and the Patriots need to stop Julio Jones. According to FiveThirtyEight and Pro Football Focus’ player ratings, Julio Jones is the best WR in the league – by far. Jones had a grade this season of 95.4, which is more than six points better than Antonio Brown, who many consider to be the best in the league. It makes sense, as he is a physical specimen. At 6-3 220 LB, Jones is massive, but also extremely fast, running a 4.3 at the NFL scouting combine in 2011. He’s also agile, performing near the top of all athletes at the combine in the 60 yard shuttle. He is one of the rarest forms of size, strength, and speed. To go with that physical package, his skills are also elite. According to the same FiveThirtyEight article, Jones is the only player to rank in the top 40 of each of the following statistics: targets per route, air yards per target, catch rate, yards after catch, and run-blocking grade. His combination of size and athleticism makes him one of the most talented receivers of all-time.
Belichick is going to look to shut down Jones. Belichick seems to always find a way, through the game plan, to take out the opposing team’s best player. Jones has the talent to take over the game and there’s no one even close to the talent of Jones on their defense. Therefore, a big key for New England will be finding a way to stop Julio Jones. If they can, then they’ll go on to win the game. If they can’t, advantage Atlanta.
In regards to New England’s offense, they’ll be fine. This is Tom Brady’s 7th Super Bowl appearance. He has had one of the best seasons ever by an NFL quarterback and they face an average defense in Atlanta. The Patriot’s offense is going to play great no matter what.
Highlights from Julio Jones Massive Day in the NFC Championship Against Green Bay
Atlanta’s offense should have no issues. However, they’ll need an all-time great performance to beat New England. Luckily, they’ve been playing at an all-time great level (on offense) for most of the season and throughout the playoffs.
New England is going to look to stop Julio Jones, so no matter how well Jones is playing, his game will be limited by Belichick. Atlanta needs Jones to win the Super Bowl. He’s going to have to beat double coverage consistently, and when he does, he needs to make big plays while he has the ball (yards after catch). An early emergence of Jones should open up the game for his teammates. It will be necessary for Ryan to spread the ball around, and he should be able to if Belichick has double coverage on Jones. If Ryan can do that, it’ll force the Patriots to make a decision. Let everyone else dominate, while containing Jones, or take the help off Jones to play a more traditional defense, which Jones will likely take advantage of.
Mohamed Sanu should be a big beneficiary of the Patriots presumed game plan. Look for him to have a big day with many targets early to try and force the Patriots to take the double coverage off Julio Jones.
Defensively, there are not high expectations. They are an improving defense that was horrible at the beginning of the year. The defense just can’t fall apart and can’t give up big plays. They need to make sure that players like Hogan and Edelman don’t get behind them for long gains and touchdowns. In addition, the Patriots are 16-0 with Dion Lewis. I don’t believe that Lewis is the only reason behind those wins, but there’s definitely some correlation. Therefore, Atlanta must contain Lewis.
Atlanta needs to contain New England’s offense. As long as that happens, the game will be close and in the hands of Atlanta’s offense.
Look out for Vic Beasley Jr. and Atlanta’s pass rush. They are going to need constant pressure to help the average Atlanta defense. I don’t see them being able to disrupt Brady, so that’s why stopping him isn’t a major key, but maybe they can get lucky by forcing a fumble or two on Brady. I don’t expect New England to turn the football over, but as always, every turnover will go a long way to Atlanta winning.
Somehow, some way, the New England Patriots find a way to be playing deep into January. At the beginning of the year people thought: There is no way Brady can have a good season at the age of 39, the 4 game suspension is going to catch up with New England, and there isn’t enough talent around Brady to win. Yet, what did do New England do? Tom Brady had a historic season throwing 28 TD to just 2 INT (an all-time NFL record). The Patriots went 3-1 without Brady and finished the season 14-2 with the best record in the NFL. Their defense full of no names finished 1st in the NFL in scoring by only giving up 15.6 points per game, and their offense finished 3rd in the NFL scoring 27.6 points per game.
“[Tom Brady] and Belichick have molded one of the most successful dynasties in professional sports history.”
The New England Patriots are now headed to their 6th straight conference title game, an NFL record. They have the best coach in the NFL, maybe even NFL history (click on the link to read: Is Bill Belichick the Greatest Coach of All Time?), and the best quarterback in the NFL. Yes, people want to point to Aaron Rodgers. He is having an incredible stretch, but don’t forget how everyone felt when he was 4-6. Brady is the model of consistency and him and Belichick have molded one of the most successful dynasties in professional sports history.
On to Sunday’s football game. The Steelers come in boasting one of the best offensives in the entire NFL. The offense is extremely difficult to stop because of the multitude of weapons from the dangerous trio of Big Ben, Le’veon Bell, and Antonio Brown. Not to mention, Bell is also very diverse himself. Despite missing 4 games due to suspension, he has ran for 1,268 yards (105.7 yards per game) and caught 616 yards out of the backfield (51.3 yards per game).
The Steelers have the firepower and the experience to go toe to toe with the top rated Patriots offense. Watch Antonio Brown look to have a monster day, despite his recent negligence on Facebook live. I expect him to handle the situation differently than Odell Beckham and actually play better because of the incident rather than play worse.
Tom Brady against Mike Tomlin’s defense has thrown 19 TD to just 0 INT, completed 71.2 % of his passes, and has thrown for 314.6 yards per game in just the 6 games. He has had a good history against Tomlin and that bodes well against the Steelers who do not have a vaunted defense like they have had in past seasons.
Obviously, both offenses are elite, but the game will be won on the defensive side of the football. The Steelers defense is not as good as past years, but is still a pretty good defense. Tomlin and James Harrison will have them inspired to play good and mean football. Their front 7 is good enough to beat up on New England, but the defense is suspect in the back end and can be exploited for big passing plays.
For New England, their talent doesn’t resemble the number 1 defense that they are. It is amazing every week how well they come to play because Belichick gets rid of what seems to be one of their best defenders every season, yet their defense is elite. No matter what, Bill Belichick will have his defense stout and ready to play.
#21 Malcolm Butler, Now a Leader of this Top Ranked Patriots Defense, Makes the Game Winning Interception in the 2015 Super Bowl (The Associated Press)
There is not much to separate these two teams. However, it is never smart betting against Brady and Belichick at home. Furthermore, I like New England’s defense more than Pittsburgh’s. New England’s defense has allowed just 11.5 points and 273 yards per game in their last 6 games. New England has been consistently elite for the entire year and I expect them to do the same on Sunday, which gives them the slight edge over Pittsburgh.
In the end, I think New England is going to win a very tight game. However, if Big Ben has a chance late to win the game, I would expect him to drive his team down the field and score a game winning TD, but in all likelihood, the New England defense will never give an opportunity for Big Ben to even have that shot.
#4 Houston Texans (9-7) at #1 New England Patriots (14-2)
Foxborough, Massachusetts (Gillette Stadium)
January 14th, 5:15 PM (PST)
New England is going to win this game. The only question is, by how much? The Patriots opened up the week as 16 point favorites, which is the 4th largest spread in NFL playoff history according to Pro Football Reference. Like I mentioned in my Raiders-Texans Preview, the winner of that game would definitely lose the following week (Vegas agrees with me).
New England ranks 3rd in the NFL in points per game (27.6) and boasts the top-ranked defense in the NFL (15.6 ppg).
The Texans rank 11th in points against (20.5) and have the 28th ranked offense, managing only 17.4 points per game. Their defense, however, is much better than their 11th ranking suggests. The Texans points against are inflated by Brock Osweiler’s many turnovers. A statistic that’s more representative of their defensive prowess is yards against, in which they rank 1st, allowing 301.3 yards per game. They’re a top defense, and in my opinion, they’re slightly better than New England in this facet of the game.
Houston’s offense deserves their 28th ranking. Brock Osweiler’s regular season (16 INT, 15 TD) showed that he doesn’t move the ball well and is likely to have a multiple turnover game, especially because he’ll be facing a strong Patriots defense on the road.
New England beat Houston 27-0 in week three without Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo when they had to start 3rd string QB Jacoby Brissett. Just imagine what New England will do to Houston with Brady.
Here are some things New England does better than Houston that will make this game a blowout:
New England has the better quarterback
Home field advantage
14 regular season wins vs. Nine
3rd ranked offense vs. 28th
Better Head Coach
Better coaching staff
Bye week before game
Better skill players
New England +12 turnover ratio vs Houston’s -7
New England beat them 27-0 in Week 3 with their 3rd string QB
The list goes on, but I’ll stop there.
As mentioned above, nothing is in Houston’s favor and I don’t expect the final score line to be close. I think Houston will play inspired football on defense and keep the game close initially, but New England will ultimately dominate and win in a blowout.