Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 6, 2017

Record-Setting Rally Produces A Win For The Ages

A NOTE TO READERS: As previously advised this post is one day later than usual due to the late finish of the Super Bowl. The regular schedule resumes on Thursday. Thanks as always for reading.

In the fortnight between the two Conference Championship games and Super Bowl LI, the recurring image in the minds of most fans in New England was of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell presenting the Lombardi Trophy to Patriots owner Robert Kraft, with head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady standing nearby. It was to be the culmination of the Tom Brady revenge tour, the one-time sixth round draft pick turned football superstar getting even in the best possible way for the four game Deflategate suspension imposed by Goodell at the start of the season.

That focus on the ceremony after the game ignored the contest itself, presupposing a win by New England with what fans in the rest of the country and no doubt the Atlanta Falcons saw as arrogance typical of Kraft’s franchise and its fans. It also ignored both the scoring juggernaut that was Atlanta’s offense throughout the season, and the Falcons steadily improving defense.

It was that defense that impressed at the start of Sunday’s game. Atlanta forced New England into a three and out on the Patriots first possession, sacked Brady twice the second time the Pats had the ball, and then forced a fumble by LeGarrette Blount to stop New England’s third drive.

The turnover allowed the Falcons to finally start a drive beyond the shadows of their own goalposts, and Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan quickly went to work, less than twenty-four hours after being named the regular season MVP. With two long passes to Julio Jones and a pair of running plays he took his team to the New England 6-yard line, from where Devonta Freeman ran untouched around left end into the end zone for the first score of the game. To the certain joy of Patriots haters everywhere, for the remainder of the first half and well into the second it appeared that the rout was on.

By the time Lady Gaga began her halftime show the score was 21-3. Ryan had thrown just one incompletion while the third Atlanta score had come on a pick six off of Brady. Atlanta’s defenders were hurrying or hitting the New England signal-caller on almost every pass attempt. Still in most New England households fans were holding out hope for a comeback triggered by halftime adjustments made by their future Hall of Fame head coach. After all, the Patriots had amassed more total yardage than the Falcons and owned a clear lead in time of possession.

Despite those numbers the one critical stat was turnovers, as is so often the case in the NFL. Two by New England, both of which led to Atlanta touchdowns, to none by the Falcons. The Patriots at plus-12 and the Falcons at plus-11 ranked third and fourth in the league in net turnovers during the regular season. New England achieved that number by relinquishing the football just eleven times while scoring twenty-three takeaways. But in the biggest game of the year, the Pats coughed up the ball twice in the first thirty minutes. When the Falcons added another score on a 6-yard toss from Ryan to Tevin Coleman midway through the third period it looked for all the world like the revenge tour would end with an ignoble thud.

It was then, even as fans across the country were reveling in the 28-3 Atlanta lead, that the greatest quarterback in NFL history began to reward the unshaken belief of the Patriots’ faithful. With 8:31 to play in the third, Brady completed five of seven passes in a thirteen-play, 65-yard drive that ended with a scoring toss to James White, one of fourteen receptions for the 25-year old running back. That cut the Falcons lead to nineteen, where it remained into the final period. Atlanta punted to start the fourth quarter, and from their own 13-yard line the Patriots marched down the field to the Falcons 10, before a sack on third down brought on Stephen Gostkowski, who converted a 33-yard field goal. With 9:44 to play New England had pulled to within two scores at 28-12.

For all the fourth quarter magic that Brady has woven over the years and that he would again on this night, Super Bowl LI turned on two plays while he was on the sideline. The first was a turnover created by the Patriots defense, the second a critical self-inflicted wound by the Falcons offense.

On the third play of Atlanta’s next possession Dont’a Hightower strip-sacked Ryan, and Alan Branch recovered the ensuing fumble at the Falcon’s 25-yard line. After being sacked for a five yard loss on first down, Brady completed four short passes in a row, the last to Danny Amendola for a six-yard touchdown. When White took a direct snap into the end zone for a successful two-point conversion, the score was 28-20 with just under six minutes remaining.

Ryan then quickly drove the Falcons down to the Patriots 22-yard line, well within Matt Bryant’s range for a field goal that would virtually ensure an Atlanta victory. A sack moved the Falcons back to the 35, but Ryan appeared to complete a pass to New England’s 26. Appeared that is, until a yellow penalty flag fluttered to the NRG Stadium turf. The offensive holding call on left tackle Jake Matthews wiped out the completion and set the line of scrimmage at the 45, forcing Atlanta to punt.

With 3:30 on the clock Brady and the Patriots had the ball. Although they were 91 yards from the Falcons end zone, what had earlier seemed impossible now took on an air of inevitability. That sense was affirmed on the sixth play of the drive. Brady’s pass to Julian Edelman was deflected by Robert Alford. As he fell to the ground Edelman and two Atlanta defenders dove over him for the ball. Replays show the football bounced off Alford’s leg and into Edelman’s hands. He juggled it but never allowed it to touch the turf.

In their two Super Bowl losses to the Giants, the Patriots were victimized by miracle catches, most notably David Tyree’s helmet catch in Super Bowl XLII. Sunday night it was New England’s turn to work some receiving wizardry. Four plays later White bulled his way up the middle and into the end zone; then Brady hit Amendola for the two-point conversion that tied the score with just under a minute left in regulation.

On the coin flip before overtime the Patriots as always called “heads.” The toss had come up tails at the start of the contest, but this time the commemorative coin landed in New England’s favor. Ryan and the Atlanta offense were thus doomed to watch from the sideline as Brady and New England marched down the field. In the end the Patriots ran twice as many plays as the Falcons, and had nearly as great an edge in time of possession. With a championship on the line, Atlanta’s defense was out of gas. Just under four minutes into overtime White swept around right end and crossed the plane, completing the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.

So the moment came, just as Patriots fans had imagined it would. Goodell’s words could barely be heard over the waves of boos that rolled down from the stands. When at last he handed the trophy to Kraft those boos turned to cheers as the team’s owner said “a lot has transpired during the last two years, and I don’t think that needs any explanation.” Kraft then added “this is unequivocally the sweetest.” On the night his franchise won its fifth title and its quarterback erased any doubts about his place in the ranks of NFL signal-callers with a game that was a testament to heart and will every bit as much as it was to ability, joyous fans throughout New England surely agreed.

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Responses

  1. A very good look back at the game, Mike. I loved the boos at the trophy ceremony and reveled along with the cheers. This has been a remarkable season and redemption for the New England franchise (Brady in particular).
    Ω


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