As Super Bowl week rolls on, NFL.com's reporters get you up to speed with the hottest news and notes about the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots as they get set to do battle in Houston, including:
» Why Dan Quinn's players love him.
But first, a veteran defender faces an old foe yet again ...
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HOUSTON -- Dwight Freeney left the AFC, but he can't escape the Patriots. The organization that often stood in his way from reaching the Super Bowl as a member of the Indianapolis Colts now stands in the way of a storybook coda to his career.
"Yeah, it's funny," Freeney said with a laugh about facing yet another Patriots team, this time as a member of the Atlanta Falcons. "It's like I keep seeing you guys and you're not going away. Leave me alone. It's been a great journey to this point. And they have been a thorn in my side for the majority of it."
Super Bowl week often turns into Legacy Week. With the hot takes largely centering around the greatest coach and greatest quarterback of all time, Freeney's incredible journey has been lost in the shuffle. But he's possibly the best pass rusher of his generation, making plays with a rare combination of speed and power since teammates like Julio Jones were just kids.
"That spin move, you can't forget it," Jones said of watching Freeney's early career on television.
At 36 years old, Freeney was the best pass rusher on the field during the NFC Championship Game. It shouldn't be such a surprise, because he was even better late last season with Arizona. But Freeney's impact goes beyond the three QB hits and six QB hurries he's produced in two playoff games. He says he feels a "responsibility" to help younger Falcons like Vic Beasley Jr. follow his career path. Beasley was 9 years old when Freeney was selected in the first round of the 2002 NFL Draft.
"Oh, I remember watching him play and taking out quarterbacks all the time," Beasley said. "He's been in a Super Bowl before. He's won it. ... He always tells us, Enjoy this moment, but don't make it bigger than what it is."
Freeney follows his own advice. He won't entertain the possibility of a Michael Strahan-like ending to his career, cementing a Hall of Fame jacket by retiring with another Super Bowl title. Freeney knows the pain of losing the Super Bowl, too, and he knows better than any Falcons player how difficult it is to take down the Patriots.
"Year 15, and I'm still seeing these guys here," Freeney said. "I still have to worry about Tom Brady. It's kind of like ... haven't we had enough battles over the years?"
And now, the rest of Wednesday's notes from NFL.com's reporters:
"I didn't know where I was going," Jones insisted Wednesday. "I woke that morning. I was like (sigh) 'OK.' I had my five envelopes, just moving them around. I was like, I don't know where I'm going to go. But then I just thought, why not stay in Alabama? People that were supporting me over the years, if I go somewhere too far, they aren't going to be able to see me play. ... I was going to go to Auburn, but I just didn't like Auburn. They left a bad taste in my mouth."
A lot of college football fans couldn't believe Jones' claim, especially because his recruiting was built up with months of anticipation. But perhaps Julio shares with me a lifelong appreciation for procrastination. Some of the very best decisions in life are made at the very last minute.
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A Brady disciple?Jimmy Garoppolo was asked if he's given himself over fully to Tom Brady's anti-lifting routine. The answer? He's getting there.
"Not to bash college strength coaches, but they just want you to lift the heaviest weights you can. I mean, for linemen, that's great," Garoppolo said. "As a quarterback, you have to stay flexible, you have to throw the ball. You're not taking out a 300-pounder, so you just have to adjust your lifting schedule."
Asked if he's ditched the weights for Brady's celebrated resistance-band training, Garoppolo acknowledged: "A little bit. I like to lift weights still."
Brady, though, has served as a tremendous influence in another way:
"A ton of different things. A lot of it's how to recover, stuff like that. Eating right. Sleeping right," Garoppolo said. "In college, you're just a young kid, so you don't even know what the right or wrong thing is. So, to adjust to that in the NFL was a bit of an adjustment, but it really does help."
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What the Falcons learned from NBA teams. One of the biggest points of discussion entering Super Bowl LI has been the Falcons' four rookies on defense: starting safety Keanu Neal, starting linebackers Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell and key rotational corner Brian Poole. Any concerns should be tempered by the fact that Atlanta is in the Super Bowl in large part because of the caliber of play of this quartet.
General manager Thomas Dimitroff shared some insight with me on not only why Neal, Jones, Campbell and Poole are where they are, but how they got there.
First, upon being hired two years ago, Falcons coach Dan Quinn told Dimitroff and staffers that players will earn playing roles, and if they're rookies, so be it. Quinn said Wednesday that these rookies "earned" their jobs.
Dimitroff also said that he, Quinn and other staffers had conversations with San Antonio Spurs GM R.C. Buford and Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr about player development. Those highly successful leaders of NBA champions shared some thoughts, especially how to incorporate young players with veterans and to train them to compete, Dimitroff said.
That carried to the field. From Day 1, the team's younger players stayed at least 15 to 20 minutes after every practice with their position coaches, Dimitroff said. Linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich and secondary coach Marquand Manuel pushed players to be ready.
"It was about understanding technique so we could play faster," Jones said. "It helped us get a better grasp on the defense, to help us understand."
While this was taking place, those assistants and Quinn were also working on the players' confidence. Dimitroff said Quinn got the young defenders believing in themselves to the point where there is no fear with regard to anything they do, which team they are facing or which players they are confronting.
"These guys walk around with so much confidence," Dimitroff said. "You see that shows up on the field."
Think about where Quinn came from, the Seattle Seahawks, and the confidence the players there show on and off the field. While Quinn said the Falcons are developing their identity, the attitude adjusting could be similar.
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My diet chat with Jimmy Garoppolo:
Me: "Do you eat Himalayan sea salt?"
Jimmy G: "No."
Jimmy G: "Really?"
Me: "It's really good."
Jimmy G: "I eat the normal ice cream, too, and everyone's like, 'Oh! You don't eat avocado ice cream?!' You got to enjoy yourself a little bit."
Garoppolo also told me that Brady is readily available to communicate and answer questions (food- and non-food-related) off the clock.
"Tom? Oh, yeah. We're in a group chat, the three of us (including Jacoby Brissett), and we joke around and stuff like that. It's all good."
"What do you guys talk about?" I asked. "Just life? Or, like, 'Check out this crazy TV show'?"
"I can't tell you that, man. Come on."
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Branch on wheels.Patriots defensive lineman Alan Branch came off the team plane on Monday and rode a motorized longboard to the team buses. Branch, who was listed as limited in practice on Wednesday with a toe issue, said the board was for recreational purposes and not a medical device to lighten the load on his foot.
Branch has been an avid skateboarder for years and said he might take the board out on the streets of Houston before the end of the week.
"I'm actually waiting for an early morning where not too many people are out yet so I can just whip it around," he said. "I was going to do it this morning, but I was too tired."
The 350-pound Branch, a New Mexico native, said it's not hard for him to skateboard, despite his massive build. He's been skateboarding since junior high.
"In New Mexico, there's not a bunch of things to do," he said. "So I ended up playing sports, skateboarding and breakdancing."
According to "Breaking Bad," there are some other options in New Mexico.
"Yeah, that's why I did the other things," Branch said. "To keep away from that."
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Quinn's approach draws raves from veterans. Speaking to NFL Network's Tiffany Blackmon after the Falcons' NFC Championship Game victory, veteran pass rusher Dwight Freeney raised a few eyebrows when he labeled Dan Quinn the "most unique coach" he has ever encountered in his 15 NFL seasons.
It's exceptionally high praise, considering Freeney played under venerable Hall of Famer Tony Dungy and the charismatic Bruce Arians.
As it turns out, though, Freeney's sentiment is widespread among Atlanta's most experienced players.
What makes Quinn so different?
The common refrain this week has been Quinn's ability to bring a fresh perspective every day, keeping team meetings fun and entertaining while still getting down and doing "the dirty work" with the players, as 12th-year defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux phrased it.
"He's really all about competing and getting us to compete and make each other better," 11th-year guard Chris Chester explained. "At the same time, there's a sincerity about creating a brotherhood amongst the players."
When I first interviewed Quinn in the lead-up to Super Bowl XLIX, when he was defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks, he came across as extraordinarily genuine. Nothing has changed this time around. His players view him with a healthy mixture of adoration and respect.
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The Patriots Way at wideout. Last year at this time, Chris Hogan was home watching the Super Bowl on his couch.
One year later, New England is at the Super Bowl largely because of Hogan's 180-yard explosion against the Steelers in the AFC title game.
I asked Hogan when he first felt comfortable in a Patriots attack that asks plenty of its receivers, both before and after the snap.
"I think training camp. I mean, I kind of started to have a much better feel for it. I was able to kind of be at all positions, and I felt comfortable at all those positions."
Said Hogan: "There's a lot of detail involved in the offense. You have to be able to pick it up quickly. You have to stay on top of all the little details. Being able to go out there and play fast and especially with a guy like Tom, who's been in the offense. He likes to go out there and likes things to be at a good tempo, so for me it was just coming in here and studying the playbook as much as possible."
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Morris brings defensive perspective to receivers. I spoke with assistant head coach/receivers coach Raheem Morris, who took over tutoring the receivers after Terry Robiskie accepted the offensive coordinator job with the Titans last offseason. Morris -- who worked with the Falcons' secondary last season and has coached defensive backs for much of his career -- made a smooth transition to coaching receivers and brings a ton insight into how defenses will try to play them.
"I just pride myself on being a teacher," Morris said. "Like I said at the beginning of the year, if you can teach English, you can teach math. If you give yourself the right curriculum, you can go in there, learn and do the things you need to do. I got a great group. They've been really receptive. I found my niche pretty early in showing these guys what the defensive guys are trying to do to them. That's what they really like to hear, that's what they like to learn from and that's what we kind of use and we took that and ran with it."
"It's been great -- great personality, a lot of energy. Things he can tell us about defense that we really didn't know, 'cause he's been in it for so long he understands defense, the schemes and what they're trying to do on defense, he brings that to our room, where we can be successful attacking the defense."
Receiver Mohamed Sanu said, "It's the way he works us, gives us [a] huge advantage, gets us ready, because he sees it from a 'D' perspective."
"You know, we always talk about leverage," Morris said. "What kind of leverage a defensive back is playing and why he's playing a type of leverage, when a guy is gonna be really aggressive, when he's not gonna be aggressive. We have all those type of indicators that we have, different from week to week, but the main thing is, delivering the message from [offensive coordinator] Kyle Shanahan, delivering the message from all the coaches."
I asked Jones, who said he is a "student of the game," what his conversations with Morris are like.
Jones said with a smile, "I let him coach first, 'cause I gotta see what he's thinking, you know, want to pick his brain ... if I see something, I give him my two cents about, 'Oh, we need to do it like this or that.' We don't argue about any of that, like, 'OK, let's make it work, let's bring it to life.' At the end of the day, we all want to be successful."
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1) "The food was delicious. They did a great job with the food up there."
2) "It was like my second year of being married, and New York was a great place to be in your second year of marriage."
3) "As far as like getting into art, it was where I created my first animated piece when I did the thing where I caught the fan who fell from the stands that one time. So, it really made me feel like I could be everything and anything I wanted to be. ... If there was some art thing going on in the city, the [Giants] made sure that there was a memo in my locker like, 'Hey, this is going on in the city. I know you love art. Check this out.' "
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Falcons' bet on defensive youth paying off. It's been well-chronicled: The Falcons rely on four rookies and three second-year players defensively. Look no further than the numbers to illustrate their growth. In the team's first four games, they gave up 31, 28, 32 and 33 points. But over Atlanta's six-game winning streak, the young flock has been stingy (opponents are mustering just 19 points per outing) and greedy (the Falcons amassed 13 takeaways in that span).
Head coach Dan Quinn knew there would be growing pains, but he also believed his guys were capable of making the jump -- the reward was greater than the risk. He and his staff didn't want to jam their players with too much mentally. Instead, they wanted to allow them to showcase their speed and energy and, in his words, "rip it."
"When you have this many young guys who are feeling their way and gaining confidence, that's the thing you take the most pride in, because the jumps that they're making to get better are really large ... the goal has been, how fast can the young guys play like old guys in terms of their knowledge, scheme, effort, communication. That part has been on-point."
As far as the risk factor? Simple, said Quinn: "We don't really look at is as the risk side of things, because they wouldn't be in there if they weren't ready ... If our program's gonna be about competition, we certainly weren't gonna put guys in there just because they were drafted, or just because they were signed as a free agent ... they've earned it."
Perhaps the best part for Falcons defensive players with Tom Brady and the Patriots looming? They feel the best is yet to come, with cornerback Jalen Collins telling me this unit has yet to play its best game.
"We all feel that way on the defense. We've gone out and shut out teams in the first half, or second half -- played really well up front, or played well on the back-end -- we don't feel that we've actually put together a complete game as a defense. That's something we're striving for, because we're trying to get better every week."
And what an opportunity, come Sunday.