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Patriots bracing for Tevin Coleman, Devonta Freeman

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HOUSTON -- The switch flipped in early October.

Atlanta's backfield was already in fine shape with Pro Bowl tailback Devonta Freeman carrying the load. After watching speedy No. 2 back Tevin Coleman gallop through Denver's championship defense for 162 yards in a Week 5 upset, though, the Falcons dared to dream big.

Coleman lined up in the slot for a quick slant route, losing linebackers Brandon Marshall and Todd Davis for a 48-yard catch-and-run to spark an opening-drive touchdown. Atlanta took a commanding 20-3 lead in the third quarter when Coleman did further damage from the slot, streaking past Marshall down the seam for a 31-yard score. The speedy second-year back put an exclamation point on the mismatch when he beat Davis to the outside and hauled in a Matt Ryan bomb for 49 yards down the sideline early in fourth quarter.

"He looked like a wide receiver out there," wide receiver Taylor Gabriel said Tuesday, referencing Coleman's eye-opening performance in Denver.

A dialed-in Kyle Shanahan began deploying his backfield playmakers as gridiron chess pieces while Matt Ryan distributed like an MVP point guard, leaving overwhelmed defenses to pick their poison. After totaling 71 points in back-to-back October games versus each of the Super Bowl 50 participants, the Falcons understood this year's offense would be special, powered by the NFL's most explosive and productive complementary backfield.

While Freeman is the headline act seeking a new contract befitting an "elite" back, Gabriel believes Coleman is just as valuable for his mismatch potential in the passing game.

"When Tevin goes out wide, he's not just running a 5-yard stop route," Gabriel explained. "He might be running a sluggo -- a slant-and-go -- a comeback, or something like that. He can run anything on the route tree, so that's why he's successful."

Combined with Shanahan's multi-dimensional offensive concepts, the versatility of Coleman and Freeman has added an extra layer to the passing game, paving the way for a historically dominant attack.

"It opens up a lot of things just because the safety can't just focus on us anymore," Gabriel continued. "He's got to focus on that linebacking corps and Tevin Coleman running past them down the sideline for a touchdown."

If the Patriots are concerned about Coleman's ability to break a game wide open with his speed, they are just as aware of Freeman's uncanny agility in tight spaces.

"Coleman just flat out runs away from people," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Monday night. "Freeman is hard to tackle."

Freeman is the only NFL player with at least 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground in each of the past two seasons, rushing for more yards (2,222) than any other player over that span.

With sharp cuts and a physicality that belies his 5-foot-8 frame, Freeman is especially effective in the condensed area of the red zone, where real estate is precious.

Impressed with Freeman's 2015 breakout performance, Super Bowl LI opponent Tom Brady convinced his son to draft the Falcons star as the cornerstone of his fantasy team.

"I've always been a fan of his," Brady explained. "I've watched actually a lot of Atlanta's offense over the past few years, just watching different concepts, the way they move the ball. And he's someone who just stands right out.

"What they do with their backs, it's incredible."

How incredible?

Freeman and Coleman have joined Cincinnati's James Brooks and Ickey Woods (1988) and Dallas' Duane Thomas and Calvin Hill (1971) as the only backfield tandems to score double-digit touchdowns apiece in a Super Bowl season, per NFL Research.

"Very explosive," Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich raved. "That's a word I'm going to say over and over again."

Whether or not Freeman and Coleman find themselves in open prairie land with a chance to make New England's linebackers miss will depend heavily on the offensive line winning the battle up front.

Falcons right tackle Ryan Schraeder gave his dynamic duo the highest of compliments, calling them "every lineman's dream" because they can make the front line look good even when the play isn't blocked right.

"It's amazing because when they run their mentality is they're so tough you never see those guys get knocked around," Schraeder added. "As an offensive lineman, that pumps you up because you know that any play they can hit for a touchown."

It's that threat of turning a short pass into a game-altering play that will make defensive coordinator Matt Patricia think twice about devoting unbalanced coverage to NFC Championship Game hero Julio Jones. The Patriots understand they can't short-circuit Ryan's high-octane offense through Belichick's legendary penchant for erasing an opponent's greatest strength.

"They are great running backs," Belichick gushed at Wednesday's news conference. "They can get outside. They can run inside. They do a great job of breaking tackles. They make people miss in space. They run over guys. They run through them. They dodge them. They don't fumble.

"They run with good toughness. They get tough yards around the goal line, short yard situations, digging out that extra yard or two for a first down. These backs are really, really good. Ryan knows how to use them. Coach Shanahan knows how to use them. ... They are very hard to defend."

As Belichick knows all too well, the NFC champion's greatness goes beyond the consensus MVP favorite and football's most dominant talent at wide receiver. The Falcons also bedevil defenses with a pair of top-10 running backs.

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