Tom Brady of the New England Patriots (right) and Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons.
Tom Brady of the New England Patriots (right) and Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons. Kevin C. Cox

Rival quarterbacks admit to mutual admiration

AMERICAN FOOTBALL: For all the fanfare around Super Bowl 51, two men stand alone as holding their respective teams' hopes in their extremely talented hands.

The old bull, legendary quarterback Tom Brady, has been doing it forever for the New England Patriots.

At 39, he is playing some of the best football of his glittering career and is gunning for an incredible fifth Super Bowl title, which would see him surpass the immortal Joe Montana into joint No.1 with former San Francisco 49er Chris Haley.

But his team has to stop Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who has finally made good on the promise that made him the No.3 pick in the 2008 NFL draft.

It's not that Ryan hasn't been a standout, but he has become great, producing an MVP-worthy season thanks to an offence that has been historically good - led by the best receiver in the NFL Julio Jones and brutal running back Devonta Freeman.

And it might just be Ryan's links to Brady that have helped shape him into the player he is today.

Ryan is a Boston College alumni and, playing in the same state as the Patriots, Brady became an admirer.

"We've kind of kept in touch over the years," Brady recently said on US radio.

"I'm always sending him texts over the course of the season and vice versa.

"I have a lot of respect for Matt.

"I like him a lot as a person, as a player, as a leader."

Brady said the two even practised against each other during training camp in 2010, striking up a mutual friendship.

"I got to see him up close and talk to him quite a bit," Brady said.

"Matt is a classy guy and a great quarterback."

Ryan, too, said he could not help but follow Brady's career when he was in college.

"Yeah, for sure. I followed it," Ryan said.

"You couldn't help but follow it while you were in Boston.

"There was so much coverage and so much attention, and they were playing so well and winning championships.

"Certainly I admired him from afar.

"To me, the biggest thing and the thing that's most impressive is his consistency throughout the years.

"He's just played so well for so long.

"He works extremely hard, he's incredibly committed to being great, and those are things that I think I've tried to do as well."

The Falcons' offensive depth is unheard of - Ryan has thrown a touchdown pass to 13 different receivers this season, an NFL record.

They have the No.1-ranked offence in the NFL, while the Pats possess the No.1-ranked defence, allowing just 16 points per game.

That combination has only occurred five times in Super Bowl history and the No.1 defence has won four times.

The Pats might have the best defence in the NFL - led by the likes of Donta Hightower, Rob Ninkovich, Chris Long and Kyle Van No - but this Atlanta offence is the most talented they have ever faced in the Super Bowl.

With the lack of defensive depth in Atlanta - ranked 25th of 32 teams - this one has all the hallmarks of a shootout.

Brady and the Pats will have to win without perhaps the greatest tight end ever to play the game in Rob Gronkowski, but the likes of Julian Edelman and "Mr Always Open" Chris Hogan have stepped up time and time again to fill the void.

Can they do it one more time or will the Falcons win their first ever Super Bowl?

Two men's legacies are at stake.

Patriots v Falcons, today 9.30am (AEST)