There’s no need to rack your brain for a word to describe Super Bowl LI. I already have the one you’re looking for: greatest. And I’m not just talking about the game. Greatest quarterback, greatest coach, greatest comeback—Super Bowl LI had it all.
The Patriots really upped the ante this time. Two years after taking down the Seahawks in a thrilling last-second victory, the Patriots outdid themselves by erasing a 25-point second-half deficit in a breathtaking (heartbreaking might be the better adjective if you live within the 404 area code) win over the Falcons.
After the Falcons pulled ahead 28-3 in the third quarter, ESPN’s win probability model gave Atlanta a 99.7 percent chance of winning. In other words, the Patriots needed a miracle. Well they got one. But before all insanity ensued in the fourth quarter and overtime (the first in Super Bowl history), New England endured a nightmarish first half.
Under Bill Belichick, the Patriots have gained a reputation for being the league’s most prepared team, though that narrative didn’t hold true over the first 30 minutes. New England’s defense predictably struggled against the high-powered Falcons, but it was the Patriots’ offense that really let them down. The Falcons applied consistent pressure on Tom Brady, forcing him into bad throws including an uncharacteristic pick-six to Robert Alford late in the second quarter. Grady Jarrett was also a thorn in Brady’s side. The second-year defensive tackle was responsible for 3.5 of the Falcons’ five sacks, a staggering number considering Jarrett logged just three sacks during the regular season.
Nothing was going right for New England. LeGarrette Blount lost a fumble. Malcolm Butler fell down while defending Taylor Gabriel, allowing him to break free for a 35-yard gain early in the third quarter. When the Patriots finally scored a touchdown, Stephen Gostkowski shanked the extra point. Atlanta easily swallowed up the Patriots’ non-existent running game while ugly drops by Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan led to three-and-outs.
New England made things worse by displaying a baffling lack of urgency. The Patriots consistently let the play-clock run down, wasting precious seconds as the Falcons kept on cruising. Even Josh McDaniels’ play-calling wasn’t as sharp as usual. Aside from a rather desperate passing attempt by Julian Edelman (a retread of a more successful play run against the Ravens two years ago), New England’s paint-by-numbers offense wasn’t fooling anyone.
But Super Bowl LI was a war of attrition. In our Roundtable on Friday, Raymond Summerlin astutely pointed out that the Eagles played keep-away in their win over the Falcons in Week 10. Bolstered by a strong running game, the Eagles dominated the time of possession while limiting the Falcons to a season-low 50 offensive snaps. The Patriots employed a similar technique, sustaining long drives and wearing down the defense while Matt Ryan paced in circles on the sidelines. Soon the floodgates opened as Brady and the passing game kicked it into high gear. Malcolm Mitchell and Danny Amendola found their mojo while Edelman saved the day with one of the greatest catches in Super Bowl history. Brady even chipped in with an unheard of (at least for him) 15-yard scramble on third-and-long to extend a drive. 246 of Brady’s Super Bowl record 466 passing yards came in the fourth quarter including 90 on New England's game-tying drive. The Patriots were so efficient that they only used one of their three second-half timeouts.
As the Patriots mounted their comeback, the Falcons’ vaunted offense began to sputter. Atlanta’s ground game inexplicably disappeared as the Falcons called just five running plays after getting up 28-3. The turning point came in the fourth quarter with Atlanta clinging to a 16-point advantage. The Falcons elected to pass on third-and-one, a questionable but still somewhat defensible play-call with 8:31 left in regulation. Ryan took a five-step drop before getting hammered by Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower. The ball was jarred loose and recovered by Alan Branch, giving New England the ball deep in Falcons’ territory. With time winding down, Ryan’s turnover gave the Patriots the short field they needed for a quick score. Brady made the most of the favorable field position, leading the Patriots to a five-play, 25-yard touchdown drive while trimming Atlanta’s lead to eight with just under six minutes remaining.
Sunday is being touted as a triumph for New England, and rightfully so, but for the Patriots to even have a pulse in this game, they needed an epic collapse by Atlanta. It looked like the Falcons had the game wrapped up after Julio Jones reeled in a miraculous 27-yard catch, setting Atlanta up with a first down at New England’s 22-yard line. From there it would be a 39-yard field goal for Matt Bryant, who missed just one kick from inside of 40 yards this season.
But it never came to that. After Devonta Freeman was dropped for a loss on first down, the Falcons decided to air it out. Ryan was annihilated on the play, losing 12 yards on a sack by Trey Flowers. After a 10-yard holding penalty and an incompletion, the Falcons were forced to punt.
It was an astounding breakdown, the equivalent of a golfer three-putting on the 18th hole at Augusta or a basketball player missing a pair of do-or-die free throws in the closing seconds. Not only did the Falcons fail to score, but by passing instead of using the run game to burn clock, they gave New England ample time to execute a game-tying drive. This was obviously the most scrutinized sequence of the game and a bad look for OC Kyle Shanahan as he heads to his next job as the Niners’ head coach. It’s fair to wonder if Shanahan was distracted by his new job after losing his backpack (which contained the Falcons’ playbook) at media night and taking his foot off the gas when Atlanta had a chance to put the game on ice.
To erase a deficit of this magnitude, so many things needed to break the Pats’ way. New England’s attempt at an onside kick went awry but the Patriots were fortunate to convert both of their two-point conversions. The first was a direct snap to James White, who slithered into the end zone while Brady used some theatrics to sell the fake. After resorting to trickery on their first two-point conversion, the Patriots went to their bread-and-butter on their second two-point try. Brady, perhaps the deadliest short-yardage passer the game has ever seen, zinged a bullet to Amendola as soon as the ball was snapped. He snagged it to tie the score at 28-all with 57 seconds remaining. Comeback complete.
Throughout the Patriots’ dynasty, countless unsung heroes have come to light. Add James White to that list. White quietly finished third among NFL running backs in both catches and receiving yards this season but mostly took a backseat to Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount during New England’s first two playoff games. Sunday he stole the show by hauling in a Super Bowl record 14 catches for 110 yards. He also set a Super Bowl record by accounting for 20 points with three touchdowns and the aforementioned two-point conversion. When the Patriots were drowning, White threw them a life preserver.
White capped New England’s comeback by punching in the game-winning score from a yard out, but not before Brady scared the bejesus out of Patriots fans by nearly throwing an interception on the play before. You’d think that after the Russell Wilson debacle two years ago New England would exercise a little more caution around the goal line, especially with a Super Bowl hanging in the balance. But the crisis was quickly averted as Brady’s ill-advised throw to Martellus Bennett fell harmlessly to the turf. Pats fans let out a sigh of relief. A play later, they leapt for joy as the Patriots captured their fifth Super Bowl.
New England’s victory cemented the legacies of Brady and Belichick while finally bringing an end to the Deflategate saga. Seeing commissioner Roger Goodell sheepishly hand the Vince Lombardi Trophy to owner Robert Kraft had to have been a highlight for Patriots fans after an 18-month witch-hunt that ended with Brady being suspended for four games. Not to mention that New England played more than half of the season without star tight end Rob Gronkowski.
The 2016 Patriots were more than resilient—they were fearless. But don’t expect the celebration to drag on. As Belichick said in his year-end press conference on Monday, the Patriots are five weeks behind the rest of the league in getting ready for next season.
Quick Hits: Now that he’s no longer coaching the Falcons, Kyle Shanahan can focus on putting together his staff in San Francisco. Shanahan is reportedly targeting former Jaguars LBs coach Robert Saleh and Falcons assistant Jerome Henderson for the Niners’ defensive coordinator position. Falcons QBs coach Matt LaFleur could follow Shanahan to San Francisco, though he’s also drawn interest from the Rams and could be in line to replace Shanahan as the Falcons’ offensive coordinator … According to ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett, FS Jairus Byrd will “definitely” have to take a pay cut to stay in New Orleans this offseason. Byrd has been a major disappointment since signing a six-year, $54 million contract with New Orleans in 2014 … The Steelers waived CB Justin Gilbert on Monday. The former first-round pick mostly played on special teams for the Steelers in 2016 … Brandon Pettigrew was arrested on charges of public intoxication and disorderly conduct Sunday morning in Bricktown, Oklahoma. Pettigrew was waived by the Lions two months ago … Veteran kicker Shayne Graham announced his retirement from the NFL on Monday. Graham played for 10 different teams during his 15-year career, last appearing with the Falcons in 2015 … ESPN’s Rich Cimini believes Darrelle Revis will have to accept a significant pay cut if he wants to remain with the Jets next season. The four-time All-Pro selection watched his play deteriorate in 2016 as he finished 64th out of 120 qualifiers in PFF’s yearly cornerback grades … According to Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald, impending free agent Kenny Stills prefers to play on the West Coast but would also welcome a return to Miami. The 25-year-old led the Dolphins with a career-high nine touchdowns in 2016 … The Jaguars have a decision to make on Julius Thomas, who is due $3 million guaranteed on February 10. ESPN Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco suggested last month that the team would part ways with the injury-prone tight end, who managed just 30 catches for 281 yards and four touchdowns this past season … Alex Mack, who miraculously played Super Bowl LI with a fractured left fibula, is expected to undergo offseason surgery. Teammate Ryan Schraeder tore a ligament in his right ankle during Sunday’s loss but it doesn’t look like he’ll need surgery … Dion Lewis injured himself on the final play of regulation in Sunday’s Super Bowl victory, but reportedly escaped with only a hamstring injury. He should be fine in a few weeks. There was concern Lewis, who has undergone multiple knee surgeries, may have suffered another ACL injury … NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported on Sunday that the Patriots expect Tom Brady (who RotoPat recently compared to Beethoven) to play at least 3-5 more seasons. Brady confirmed Monday that he has no plans to retire. The four-time Super Bowl MVP turns 40 in August.