HOUSTON — Strap on your seat belts, folks, this could be a wild one. At least that’s what the oddsmakers in Las Vegas are projecting.

The New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons – ranked first and third in points scored in the regular season – will play in Super Bowl LI at 6:30 p.m. Sunday at NRG Stadium.

The over-under on the game – meaning how many total points oddsmakers think will be scored – is 59. And that’s not surprising given the quick-trigger quarterbacks who direct these teams: Tom Brady of the Patriots and Matt Ryan of the Falcons.

The over-under is the highest ever for a Super Bowl, surpassing the 57 of Super Bowl XLIV between the New Orleans Saints of Drew Brees and Indianapolis Colts of Peyton Manning. Those teams combined for 48 points (Saints 31, Colts 17). The highest total in the history of the game was 75 in Super Bowl XXIX (San Francisco 49, San Diego 26).

Expectations are high for an offensive explosion in this one.

“Oh yeah,” said Neil Smith, the former All-Pro defensive end for the Kansas City Chiefs during a brief chat Friday. “I see can see something like, 37-31.”

That says a lot coming from a man whose job it was to stop the opposing offense.

The reason is simple: Both the Falcons and Patriots have been nearly unstoppable this year.

Atlanta led the NFL with 33.8 points per game – and has improved to 40 points per game in the playoffs. New England was third with 27.6 points per game and has increased its average to 35 points in two playoff games.

The Falcons were second in total yards (415.8 per game), third in passing (295.3) and fifth in rushing (120.5). New England, which played the first four games of the year without a suspended Brady, was fourth in total yards (386.3), fourth in passing (269.2) and seventh in rushing (117.0).

And yes, they’ve both pumped those stats up in the playoffs with Atlanta gaining 457.5 total yards a game and the Patriots 404.

There weren’t many teams better in the red zone this year: The Patriots were ranked eighth (scoring touchdowns 63.3 percent of the time inside the 20), Atlanta ninth (61.9 percent).

“It’s a huge challenge,” said Matt Patricia, the defensive coordinator for the Patriots. “They wouldn’t be in this game if they weren’t the best in the league that we have to face. … We have to understand that this offense is going to move quick and be able to put some plays on us. We have to do the best we can to slow them down.”

High-flying Falcons

The Falcons have perhaps the game’s best wide receiver in Julio Jones, who caught 83 passes for 1,409 yards and six touchdowns in the regular season, and has three touchdown catches in the playoffs.

Ryan threw for 38 touchdown passes in the regular season and has seven more in two playoff games. And running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined for 1,599 rushing yards and 883 passing yards in the regular season. Wide receiver Mohamed Sanu, a free-agent pickup from Cincinnati, caught 59 passes. Wide receiver Taylor Gabriel, cut by Cleveland on Sept. 4, averaged 16.5 yards a catch this year.

Asked how to contain the Falcons, Bill Belichick replied: “Play good team defense. One guy can’t stop them and we can’t just stop one guy. They have too many great players and they are very well coached by Coach (Kyle) Shanahan and his offensive staff. … Obviously the biggest challenge of the year, the best offensive team that we have faced.”

Unpredictable Patriots

Atlanta’s defense faces a similar challenge. The Patriots have one of the most diverse offenses in football, led by Brady, wide receiver Julian Edelman (98 catches, 1,106 yards, three touchdowns), running back LeGarrette Blount (1,161 rushing yards, 18 rushing touchdowns) and tight end Martellus Bennett (55 catches, 701 yards, seven touchdowns). But they’re not alone.

Chris Hogan averaged an NFL-best 17.9 yards a catch this year and set a team single-game postseason record with 180 receiving yards in the AFC championship game while scoring twice. Running backs Dion Lewis and James White are able runners and receivers.

“It makes it kind of tough because you never know what you are going to see going into the game and all you can do is go off of what they have shown before,” said Atlanta cornerback Jalen Collins, a second-year player. “Some stuff may stay the same within their offense, but just trying to get ready for what those looks may be and how to adjust when they come up.”

What’s the game plan?

So how do you slow down these offenses? That’s what everybody wants to know.

“I’m looking forward really, probably most, to seeing what Bill Belichick has in store for that offense,” said Troy Aikman, the Hall of Fame quarterback, now an analyst for FOX. “You know that there’s going to be something.”

Aikman wouldn’t try to predict what Belichick will do but said, “I would think he’s not going to let Julio Jones beat him.”

No, not likely. The Patriots have attacked standout wide receivers in many ways over the years. When they had great cover cornerbacks like Ty Law, Asante Samuel and Darrelle Revis, they allowed man-to-man coverage.

Malcolm Butler, the unlikely last-second interception hero of New England’s Super Bowl win two years ago, is approaching that status, regarded as one of the best in the league. So expect him to cover Jones a lot, with help from a safety over the top.

But Sanu, at 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, is not your usual slot receiver. Logan Ryan has played well lately and could lock down on him, or the Patriots could have Eric Rowe do that.

Tackling, something the Patriots stress, will be important. The Patriots allowed only 4.05 yards after the catch, leading the NFL in that category. Atlanta’s Jones (110) and Freeman (101) were ranked third and fourth in the NFL in yards after the catch.

Still, that leaves the interchangeable Freeman and Coleman at running backs. It’s going to be tough for the Patriots to match up with them in the passing game. So that means they have to get to Matt Ryan before he gets set. That won’t be easy against one of the best offensive lines in the league.

The Patriots have a lot of faith in their secondary, so expect them to try to shut down the run, behind veterans Alan Branch and Dont’a Hightower, and put pressure on Matt Ryan with a variety of blitzes.

And expect the Patriots, who led the league in fewest points allowed per game (15.6, only 16.5 in the playoffs) to play a more physical game than usual. Atlanta has been compared this year to the 2001 St. Louis Rams, known as the Greatest Show on Turf, an offense led by Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk. The Patriots shut down the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, pounding Warner and Faulk every chance they got – sometimes when Faulk didn’t have the ball. That might be illegal now – it was probably illegal then – but the Patriots will go after the Falcons hard.

Atlanta, meanwhile, needs to figure out what the Patriots are going to do. Will New England attack the Falcons with Blount early, trying to wear down the defense?

Or will Brady look to pick apart a speedy defense that starts three rookies and four second-year players, and brings two more rookies into sub-packages?

Atlanta defense on the rise?

Fox studio analyst Howie Long, father of New England defensive end Chris Long, said the Falcons will have to adapt “to what New England is trying to do from personnel grouping standpoint to a tempo standpoint.”

Atlanta may lack experience but the Falcons have improved defensively all season. The stats don’t look great – Atlanta was ranked 27th in points allowed (25.4) – but the Falcons have allowed only 19.3 points a game over their past six, including the playoffs.

Outside linebacker Vic Beasley, a second-year player out of Clemson, led the NFL with 15.5 sacks and will likely be a factor. The Falcons know they can’t allow Brady time to sit in the pocket, so look for them to blitz as well. That will put pressure on their young secondary.

A key area could be the red zone. New England’s defense played much better there, ranked eighth in the NFL. The Falcons were last among the league’s 32 teams, allowing 40 touchdowns on 55 red zone appearances by the opponent. The Patriots gave up 23 touchdowns in 44 chances.

“It should be a remarkable match-up and it should be a possession game,” said Howie Long, who won a Super Bowl title with the Los Angeles Raiders in 1984. “And like all the Patriots’ Super Bowls, I’m sure it will come down to a final drive and maybe a kick.”

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH

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