Players to watch
Chris Hogan #15
WR, New England
After spending his first three seasons in Buffalo and departing for New England this offseason as a free agent, Hogan has had the most productive season of his career. Hogan accumulated a career-high 680 receiving yards with Tom Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett throwing him the football in 2016. In the AFC Championship game on Jan. 22, the former Bill had his finest day as a Patriot, hauling in nine passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns en route to New England’s 36-17 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers at Gillette Stadium.
Taylor Gabriel #16
After being released by the Cleveland Browns this offseason, wide receiver Taylor Gabriel found a home in the slot-receiver role of the high-powered Atlanta offense. Gabriel was able to find the endzone six times in 13 games this season while also racking up 579 receiving yards. With New England being well-known for taking away a team’s number one receiving threat, there could be an opening for Gabriel to do some serious damage out of the slot. If New England can slow down Julio Jones like they did Antonio Brown, then Gabriel could be very busy come Sunday.
Malcolm Butler #21
CB, New England
The hero of Super Bowl XLIX has continually expressed that he doesn’t want his career to be defined by his game-winning interception in the endzone two years ago against the Seattle Seahawks. On Sunday, he has another chance to add to his legacy on the game’s biggest stage. Butler has now become the Patriots’ top cornerback and arguably a top-five player at his position in the entire NFL. Butler had four interceptions this regular season as well as 17 passes defended and two fumble recoveries. Unlike two years ago in Seattle, Belichick will count on Butler from the start.
Vic Beasley Jr. #44
The eighth overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft had a rocky rookie campaign in Atlanta as he recorded 26 total tackles and four sacks. Beasley Jr., a highly-touted pass rushing prospect out of Clemson University, bounced back strong in 2016 while leading the Falcons with 15.5 sacks and six forced fumbles. Atlanta’s defense ranked 27th in the league while allowing 25.4 points per game. Beasley has been a constant bright spot and the Falcons’ pass rush as a whole has ramped up during the playoffs, compiling five sacks and 15 hits in their two previous games.