Freeman, Coleman provide Falcons with dynamic 1-2 punch for Super Bowl


HOUSTON (AP) — Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are so interchangeable in the Atlanta Falcons backfield, Matt Ryan gets a little mixed up at times.

“He doesn’t even know who’s in the game,” Coleman said, breaking into a huge smile.

Quite a 1-2 punch, these two are.

It really doesn’t matter who you put at “1” and who goes at “2.”

Sure, Freeman is the starter, but there’s no drop-off or any reason to change things up when Coleman comes into the game, a back-and-forth arrangement that keeps both backs fresh and gives fits to opposing defenses.

But their relationship runs beyond the field.

Far beyond it.

“That’s my brother,” Freeman said in the lead-up to Sunday’s Super Bowl against the New England Patriots . “When you see someone, you see that they want to be a part of something special, they’re working hard, they’re working their butts off, you have no reason but to love that person and have the utmost respect for that person.”

They’ll savor it while they can, because chances are this won’t be a long-term partnership.

They’ll be friends for life, that’s for sure, but the realities of the NFL — with its salary cap and other devices that make it difficult to keep a team together — will likely lead to a breakup in the not-too-distant future.

Freeman, a fourth-round pick out of Florida State in 2014, already created a bit of a stir early in Super Bowl week by bringing up his desire for a new contract.

He rushed for more than 1,000 yards and has been selected for the Pro Bowl each of the past two seasons. Not surprisingly, he wants to be paid like one of the league’s top backs.

Then there’s Coleman, a third-round pick out of Indiana in 2015. Despite missing three games with an injury this season, he rushed for 520 yards and eight touchdowns. At some point, he’s going to deserve more money and probably a larger role in someone’s offense.

“We’ve thought about this a lot,” Coleman said. “But that’s going to be my brother always, wherever we’re at.”

Ryan, the Falcons’ All-Pro quarterback and one of the leading MVP contenders, knows how fortunate he is to have two backs such as these.

“They complement each other so well,” Ryan said. “The unique thing about us and about them is that they’re both three-down backs.

“They’re guys that can run the ball between the tackles, they catch the ball extremely well out of the backfield, and they’re both excellent in pass protection. It’s rare that you have one guy on your roster like that, and we happen to have two that are really, really talented.”

Indeed, as they rotate back and forth on virtually every offensive series, Freeman and Coleman give the league’s highest-scoring offense two of its most dynamic, versatile weapons.

In addition to combining for just short of 1,600 yards on the ground, they are nearly as dangerous in the passing game.

Freeman had 54 catches for 462 yards and a couple of scores, while Coleman hauled in 31 passes for 421 yards and three TDs.

Now you can understand why Ryan sometimes forgets who’s in the game.

It doesn’t really matter.

“That makes it difficult for a defense to account for those guys, because there’s really no change with what we do with either of those guys in there,” Ryan said. “It doesn’t allow for them to key in on certain things.”

Off the field, there’s no sense of any jealousy.

These guys genuinely seem to like each other.

“It’s just second nature to support him while he’s in the game,” Coleman said. “When he makes a play, he’s like, ‘Go get you one.’”

Freeman was raised in one of Miami’s most notorious housing projects, but he was determined to make a better life for himself. Football was that outlet, and his appreciation for the game is reflected in the way he plays.

This isn’t a job to him.

This is pure joy.

“Growing up, I had to deal with frustration, stress, anxiety,” he said. “Trying to dodge a bullet was stressful. When you’re playing on the football field and a shootout starts, dodging those things, that was stressful. That was frustrating. Things like that.

“Having to walk through the projects sometimes — that stuff was real frustrating and stressful with anxiety and stuff like that. Now it’s just fun. I get to sit back and do what I love to do.”

In Coleman, he sees someone who approaches the game with that same passion.

“I love grinders,” Freeman said. “When you’re a grinder, I love it.”

But these two are more than just grinders.

They’re brothers.

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Health, bonding contributed to Patriots backs’ success

HOUSTON (AP) — When you play for the Patriots, being selfish is not an option.

And no other group may be a greater example of that this season than the trio of running backs that New England will lean on in its Super Bowl matchup with the Atlanta Falcons.

The Patriots struggled to run the ball a year ago after Dion Lewis was lost late in the season to a torn left ACL and LeGarrette Blount to a hip injury.

James White and Brandon Bolden did their best to pick up the slack without them, but New England managed just 44 yards in its AFC championship game loss to Denver.

A year later, those health issues have all but evaporated. And it’s helped produce one of the most dependable groups of running backs the Patriots have had in years.

Blount led the NFL with 18 touchdowns and a career-high 1,161 yards during the regular season. White has been among the Patriots’ most-improved players after he finished with career highs in receptions (60), receiving yards (551) and receiving touchdowns (five).

And after spending the first half of the season on injured reserve rehabbing from knee surgery, Lewis became the first player in NFL postseason history to have a rushing touchdown, receiving touchdown and a kick returned for a touchdown in New England’s divisional-round win over Houston.

“We all bring something different,” Lewis said. “We all have different roles and we all understand our roles and we do it to the best of our abilities. We are really close and we compete and we help each other. There is nothing more you can ask out of a group of guys.”

Of the Patriots’ three primary backs, only Lewis will be playing in his first Super Bowl. Blount and White are in search of their second rings in New England, having won their first in 2015.

Blount rejoined the Patriots in 2014 after an ugly departure from Pittsburgh, and played in the final eight games that season in New England, scoring three times in its AFC championship game win over Indianapolis.

White is looking forward to being on the field for the first time in a Super Bowl after being inactive for the win over the Seahawks two years ago.

He said what has gone into his success this season is simply doing what the coaches ask him to do.

“I just know my role,” White said. “When I step on the football field, I just try to do the right thing to help this team win. Everybody on this team knows their role.”

Blount has dealt with illness at times during this playoff run, and has just one touchdown on 24 carries through the first two games.

Though he has lots of respect for Atlanta running back Devonta Freeman’s ability to be a game-changer in the Falcons’ offense, Blount said he’s confident he’ll be ready to do the same Sunday when he’s called upon.

“I believe (Freeman is) one of the best running backs in the league,” Blount said. “But at the end of the day I’m going to go with myself. I can’t never say nobody’s better than me.”

While Blount has been New England’s most productive back this season, one thing he has also tried to do is build a deeper camaraderie with Lewis and White.

Along with being his teammates’ biggest cheerleaders, Blount has been the ringleader off the field as well; organizing activities outside of the locker room that many times have very little to do with football.

One example was the trio communicating on a running back-only group text while Lewis was still rehabbing from his injury.

Other times they’ve attended concerts together or just shared a meal — any and everything to keep the dialogue between the three going.

It’s also why Lewis said none of them hesitate to use a certain word when describing what has helped them bond this season: Love.

“We are close and we love each other,” he said. “You go to work and you love the people you want to be around and that is definitely the case with us. We are so close.”

Lewis said he believes those experiences will pay off on Sunday — no matter whose number is called.

“Being here on this team is a close team, it is a family. We want to win and we know that whoever gives us the best chance to win is going to be out there. We know that so we just accept our roles and work together and root hard for other guys too.”

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Lady Gaga: halftime show ‘for everyone’

HOUSTON (AP) — Lady Gaga said she hopes her Super Bowl halftime show will celebrate “inclusion” and the “spirit of equality” during a time of national division.

“This performance is for everyone. I want to, more than anything, create a moment that everyone that’s watching will never forget,” she said in a press conference Thursday in Houston.

Gaga wouldn’t reveal what songs she would sing, how many costumes she’ll wear or any staging details, but promised a “tremendously athletic” show and no reappearance of her infamous meat dress.

She also said there wouldn’t be any wardrobe malfunctions — like Janet Jackson’s infamous moment when she performed at the last Super Bowl held in Houston in 2004.

“Everything is going to be nice and tight,” Gaga said. “I wouldn’t worry about that.”

When Gaga debuted in 2008, her sound was a mix of electronic, dance and pop sounds, including the hits “Poker Face” and “Just Dance.” Her latest album though, “Joanne,” delves into country and acoustic rock territory, and she said she plans to perform songs from her entire catalog.

The 30-year-old singer, who sang the national anthem at last year’s Super Bowl, was nominated for the best original song Oscar last year and won a Golden Globe for her role on the FX series “American Horror Story.” Gaga said she considers being asked to be the halftime headliner is due to her fans, affectionately known as “little monsters.”

“Essentially, that kid that couldn’t get a seat at the cool kids table and that kid who was kicked out of the house because his mom and dad didn’t accept him for who he was? That kid is going to have the stage for 13 minutes,” she said. “And I’m excited to give it to them.”

The performance at the NRG Stadium will also feature Tony Bennett, who Gaga called a “tremendously wise man.” Gaga and Bennett, 90, recorded the 2014 album of duets, “Cheek to Cheek,” which won a Grammy — the sixth for Gaga. They also launched a successful tour.

The showdown between the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons airs Sunday on Fox. Gaga, who said many of her relatives are Pittsburgh Steelers fans, wouldn’t reveal whom she’s rooting for. “I’m going to keep that one to myself,” she said.

In addition to Gaga, three original cast members of the Tony Award-winning Broadway hit “Hamilton” will sing “America the Beautiful” during pregame festivities and Luke Bryan will perform the national anthem.

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Atlanta celebrities stand with Falcons

ATLANTA (AP) — The New England Patriots have the Super Bowl history and experience going for them Sunday, but they can’t compete with the Atlanta Falcons when it comes to an entourage of celebrity fans.

The Falcons have been known for having fickle fans who abandon the team when it struggles, but this season, the sidelines have been overflowing with rappers, actors and athletes from other sports .

Rapper T.I. says he’s no bandwagon jumper. The lifelong Falcons fan says he remembers when Deion Sanders high-stepped into end zones, Michael Vick dashed by defenders and the “Dirty Birds” danced to the Super Bowl in 1999.

Those were some of the most memorable moments in Falcons history, but there were many more forgettable years. No matter the outcome, T.I. remained faithful.

“We’re always down for the home team,” T.I. said. “We’ve had our highs and lows. But this team is different. We are rooting for them.”

Usher, Future, Jeezy and Bow Wow have been spotted cheering from the sidelines during Falcons home games this season . Rapper Gucci Mane was shown giving fans high-fives from at a playoff game in the Georgia Dome.

Ludacris performed at halftime in the Falcons’ NFC divisional round win against the Seattle Seahawks then returned the following week to deliver another show in the team’s final home game at the Georgia Dome in a victory against the Green Bay Packers. The rapper recently narrated a short video clipped called “A City Waits” in honor of the Falcons .

Some might think celebrities are jumping on Falcons’ bandwagon. But star receiver Julio Jones says that’s not case.

“The Atlanta celebrities, all the artists in Atlanta, they’ve definitely been behind us throughout the years, even when we weren’t to this point,” Jones said. “I have a relationship with a lot of those guys. They’ve always supported us. It hasn’t changed. But they’re out here now. They’re talking about it in their music, in interviews, everything.”

One of the most notable Falcons supporters is actor Samuel L. Jackson, who created a commercial in 2014 for the team. He recently appeared on ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” about his Super Bowl-bound squad and discussed how he tried to forewarn his team about an Aaron Rodgers trick play in warmups before the NFC Championship game.

“I tweeted it out to make sure, you know, somebody from the Falcons discovered the play,” Jackson said. The actor is originally from Tennessee, but became a Falcons fan years ago. Jackson worked concessions at games when he attended Morehouse College.

“Samuel L is probably my only competition as a Falcons fan,” said The-Dream, a Grammy-winning singer-producer whose basement is filled with Falcons paraphernalia from flags, jerseys and a helmet from Sanders.

“I think all of us compete for who is the biggest Atlanta fan,” he continued. “The most non-celebrated fan of the Falcons would be me. We walk around these streets and across the world telling them about Atlanta. All of us have this sense of pride, because we grew up here.”

The-Dream gave props to quarterback Matt Ryan and Jones for leading the Falcons to the franchise’s second Super Bowl appearance, but credits owner Arthur Blank for changing the Falcons culture when the billionaire purchased the team in 2002. The Falcons lost to the Denver Broncos 34-19 in Super Bowl 33.

“I think our success before was kind of luck,” he said. “There was no plan, a plan for change. But Arthur was that change. He brought a culture of winning. It’s almost like seeing two different franchises, basically.”

T.I. firmly believes the underdog Falcons can claim the Vince Lombardi Trophy with a win over the Patriots.

“We open every season thinking it’s our year,” he said. “Matt Ryan is having an MVP-caliber season, Julio is at the top of his game and the defense has been playing well. We’ve been clicking on all cylinders. This is our year.”

T.I. and several other music artists, from Big Boi, Jeezy and Ludacris, are attending the game in Houston. However, The-Dream said he is purposely watching the game from his Atlanta home for superstitious reasons.

But if the Falcons pull off the upset, The-Dream may celebrate in unique fashion.

“I’m going streaking,” he said with a chuckle. “I’m going straight downtown. I’m going to send a tweet out telling them what we’re about to do. Hopefully, Trump won’t ban partying by the time the Falcons win the Super Bowl.”

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