With that, the 2016-2017 NFL season is in the books. The final game went down in history, breaking or tying a miraculous 31 records. Tom Brady almost certainly cemented his legacy as the greatest player of all time, as he earned his 5th Super Bowl title. Meanwhile, the Falcons come out on the losing end of the greatest comeback in NFL playoff history. I’ll break down how it all happened.
In a game of many surprises, the first quarter showed just how well the teams had prepared. In what was supposed to be a shootout with scoring chances abound, the first 15 minutes ended without a point on the board. The Patriots were able to sustain drives, however, they failed to get into field goal range, or for that matter, hang on to the ball. During a promising drive to start the second quarter, running back Legarrette Blount was stripped by linebacker Deion Jones. Robert Alford scooped up the loose ball and took the wind out of New England’s sails. The Falcons took advantage by going 71 yards for the first touchdown of the game. Then, after the Falcons forced a quick 3-and-out, they scored again. Quarterback and MVP Matt Ryan went 3-3 for 61 yards and a touchdown pass to Austin Hooper on the drive.
It was obvious that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was feeling the pass rush. He was sacked 5 times, tied for the most he’s ever taken since 2001. With no time to scan the field, it was nearly impossible for the Patriots to get in rhythm. Just as I had said, the pass rush and man-to-man defense was working perfectly… maybe too perfectly. When the Patriots got the ball back down 14-0, Brady drove his men inside Falcons territory for the third time in the game. Then, as the pocket collapsed he tried to force a pass to Danny Amendola, and Falcon cornerback Robert Alford jumped on it. He returned the interception 82 yards for the score, evading a diving Brady along the way.
As Brady looked up at the scoreboard in disbelief, he found that New England trailed 21-0 with just a few minutes left in the first half. While the Falcons steamrolled, it seemed as though the Patriots would suffer another crushing Super Bowl defeat. However, they were able to salvage a field goal just before Lady Gaga performed at halftime. It was up to head coach Bill Belichick to rally his boys and adjust the game plan, and it’s fair to say he did.
While the Patriots continued to shut down the Falcons #1 threat Julio Jones by holding him to just 4 receptions, they needed to find answers elsewhere. The scoring began again midway through the 3rd quarter when the Falcons drove 85 yards for another touchdown, this time by Tevin Coleman. A deflated Patriots team had to pick themselves up and try to overcome a 25-point deficient (sorry for the pun). Finally, they did in fact find the end zone, as they put together the longest drive of the game. James White’s 6-yard TD reception gave life to New England despite Stephen Gostkowski missing the extra point.
Still up by 3 possessions, the Falcons played conservatively. Chewing up a little bit of clock and not taking as many risks as they did in the first half. While this makes sense… and hindsight is 20/20… this is the Super Bowl. The Patriots finally got a little momentum and the Falcons were keen on just trying to hang on to their huge lead. Had things not gone as they would, of course, we wouldn’t now be questioning these decisions. But as anyone who has played the Patriots knows, you never want them to believe they can come back.
After a Falcon 3-and-out, Gostkowski was able to redeem himself with a field goal. The ensuing kickoff resulted in a touchback, placing the ball at the 25-yard line, and two plays later Matt Ryan was strip-sacked. The Patriots easily found the end zone again, and James White ran in for a 2-point conversion. Suddenly, with 6 minutes to go, the Patriots were down by just a single possession.
There is no doubt the Falcons could feel the game slipping away from them. On their next drive, they tried to commit to keeping ball control. But after just 6 plays, they were punting again. The Pats got the ball at their own 9-yard line with plenty of time. As for much of the second half, Brady was quick and deliberate with his throws. The Atlanta pressure never had enough time to get to Brady, and he was hitting his marks. He completed one throw after another as they marched down the field.
Then in a twist of irony, he lobbed a pass deep intended for a triple-covered Julian Edelman. In a “David Tyree Redux” Edelman bobbled the ball off a defenders leg and got his hands to stick to it while trapped amongst the converging defensive backs. The irony, of course, is that the Tyree Play is what cost the Patriots their Super Bowl victory against the Giants in 2008. So, as the drive continued, the experienced Brady stayed clutch. Long known for his last-minute game-winning drives, he put New England inside the 5-yard line and allowed James White to rush in for his 14th point of the game. Brady found Amendola at the goal line to score the 2-point conversion, and the comeback was complete.
For the first time in Super Bowl history, more than 60 minutes was needed to crown a champion… overtime. The Patriots won the pivotal coin toss and elected to get the ball first. Wasting no time, the Patriots played fast and mixed up their play calling effectively. The Falcons never got a chance to blitz because Brady was so fast at delivering the ball to his targets or handing it off. He spread the field with screen passes to stretch the defense, and there was no way Atlanta could send the house to stop him. With everyone at Brady’s mercy, he took control.
Seven plays and 73 yards later, it was second and goal at the Falcons’ 2-yard line. Brady took the snap and pitched it to James White. He was hit behind the line of scrimmage, but would not be denied, spinning and fighting his way toward the goal line. With one final stretch, the Patriots were World Champions. Their 34-28 OT victory is their largest margin to win the Super Bowl in franchise history, and they never led for a second of actual game time. That is, the first time they took the lead was the walk-off game-winning touchdown.
There’s a lot to say about all the preparation Atlanta put in to this game, but unfortunately they showed their cards too early. As I had warned, while constantly blitzing every play was effective, it tipped off the New England coaching staff to make adjustments. When Brady started firing darts before the pressure could get to him, Atlanta was forced to drop back in coverage. This gave Brady an even bigger advantage, and the wheels came off.
With New England gaining momentum with every play, the Falcons played conservative. In other words, they played “not to lose.” I don’t know about you, but if you ask me, that is no way to win the biggest game of the year. I understand that they felt comfortable with a 25-point lead, and rightfully so. But the Patriots never quit, and there is no doubt they earned their 5th Lombardi Trophy. After watching this historic comeback, it’s very hard not to call Tom Brady the G.O.A.T. after he led his team from the deepest valley to the highest of mountains.
In a year of sports comebacks (Warriors and Indians blowing 3-1 leads in their respective finals), this blown lead fits perfectly. While you must commend the Patriots for their fortitude and perseverance, you can’t help but feel sorry for the bitter pill the Falcons must swallow this offseason. Luckily, as they open up the doors to a brand new state-of-the-art facility, they’ll have plenty of hunger to make it back to the final game.
Congratulations to the New England Patriots… Super Bowl LI Champions.