All six of the New England Patriots’ Super Bowls of the Tom Brady era had been decided by one score heading into Sunday’s matchup against the Atlanta Falcons. So it stands to reason that Super Bowl LI would be a close game.
It didn’t look like that would be the case throughout the majority of the game. Atlanta opened up a 14-0 lead in the second quarter before pushing it to 28-3 early in the second half. Considering no team in NFL history has ever come back from more than a 10-point deficit in the Super Bowl, this seemed to pretty much be over.
That’s when Tom Brady and Co. pulled off a comeback of historical significance in forcing overtime, ultimately leading to a stunning 34-28 win in overtime.
There’s so many takeaways from this game, but we’re going to have to narrow the list down to 10 in our final takeaways article for the 2016 NFL season.
1. Flustered early, Tom Brady awes late
Early on, it sure looked like Brady was the quarterback making his first career Super Bowl start. We’ll touch on the pressure Atlanta put on the future Hall of Famer throughout the game a bit later, but that unit sure did pressure Brady early and often.
That Brady was flustered was clearly evident with New England driving in an attempt to make it a one-score game late in the second quarter. After the Falcons’ defense had committed holding penalties on three consecutive third-down opportunities, the newly extended Robert Alford stepped in front of a Brady pass that was intended for Danny Amendola.
Alford then turned up field, returning it 82 yards for a touchdown to give the Falcons a shocking 21-0 lead (watch here). For Brady, this represented his first career postseason pick-six in his 34th playoff start.
We can blame New England’s offensive line for failing to step up throughout the game. Atlanta’s pass rush was getting to Brady pretty much on every play. That’s fine and dandy.
But the throw Brady made to result in this pick-six just isn’t acceptable. He can’t throw a slant into double coverage. He most definitely can’t do so late in is read. That was a rookie mistake. And it set the Patriots back by three scores in the first half.
All of this pretty much seems moot right now. Brady would go on to lead an epic 25-point comeback in the second half, ultimately throwing for a Super Bowl record 466 yards in a 34-28 overtime win.
There are really no words to describe what Brady did in leading his team back in this one. It was historical. It’s where legends are made. And in reality, it couldn’t have been more perfect. The end result here being Brady’s fifth Super Bowl title, surpassing both Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw for the most Lombardi trophies for a quarterback in league history.
2. Deion Jones continues play-making ability
The rookie from LSU entered Sunday’s Super Bowl having forced a turnover in each of the Falcons’ first-two postseason games. He opened up the biggest game of his career with two stellar plays on New England’s opening possession, ultimately forcing a punt. It’s Jones sideline-to-sideline ability that made him an absolute steal for the Falcons as a rookie.
Deion Jones first guy to make a play tonight. He's giving up a good 25-30 pounds on Blount. pic.twitter.com/BjbQpTnEGY
— The MMQB (@theMMQB) February 5, 2017
Though, it was his ability to force turnovers that stood out the most. Jones recorded three interceptions, a forced fumble and two touchdowns during the regular season. This didn’t change against New England in the Super Bowl. With the score tied at zero early in the second quarter, Jones forced a LeGarrette Blount fumble at nearly mid-field, setting up the Falcons’ offense in good field position (watch here).
Five plays and 71 yards later, the Falcons would take a 7-0 lead on this five-yard touchdown run from Devonta Freeman (watch here). That’s the type of performance that can definitely make a different in a game as grand as this.
For the Falcons, it was all about Jones’ stellar performance in a game that would eventually see him record nine tackles and that forced fumble.
3. Lady Gaga steals the show at halftime
— NFL (@NFL) February 6, 2017
She didn’t need left shark, right shark. There was no reason for Lady Gaga to bring out other stars to help her dazzle the crowd at NRG Stadium in Houston. She did it all by herself in one of the best halftime performances in recent Super Bowl history.
It started with the pop sensation singing parts of “America the Beautiful” and reading off aspects of the “Pledge of Allegiance” from the roof. It continued with her performing hit song after hit song on the the field. And when it all came to a conclusion, Gaga did what might have been the best mic drop in the history of mic drops.
For what was a highly-anticipated performance, Gaga didn’t disappoint. Hundreds of drones helped with the choreography, she didn’t miss up a single verse and the theme of the performance was definitely inclusion.
— NFL (@NFL) February 6, 2017
It didn’t take a swipe at President Trump or anything of the drama currently unfolding in the United States. It was an upbeat performance at a time when we as a nation needed one. For this, we have to give Gaga props for her tremendous performance.
4. Defense set the tone early
With two of the league’s top-three scoring offenses going up against one another, most figured that Super Bowl LI would be a high-scoring affair. But it was the defenses that set the tone early on.
Sacked just three times in two playoff games heading into Sunday’s action, Ryan found himself brought to the ground by second-year Patriots defensive end Trey Flowers in Atlanta’s first possession. It came on third down and allowed the Pats’ defense to get off the field. Ryan would then go down again after Alan Branch forced a sack on third and short on the very next possession.
Then, on the Pats’ second possession, Brady was sacked twice. This came after he found himself taken to the ground a grand total of 19 times in the first 14 games of the season.
Surely each offense was able to calm down after initial jitters, but it was most definitely each teams’ defense that stepped up early on and set the tone. All said, Brady and Ryan combined to find themselves sacked 10 times while being hit a total of 20 times throughout the game.
5. Questionable play-calling dooms the Falcons
Falcons offensive coordinator had Kyle Shanahan had called a brilliant season. It led to him likely becoming the San Francisco 49ers’ new head coach. It led to the Falcons putting up the most points in the NFL during the regular season. His ability to create mismatches throughout the season was about as amazing as it gets.
But somehow, Shanahan and the Falcons’ offense went conservative with his team up by 25 points against Tom freaking Brady. How in the world this happens. Well, we will never really know. It makes little sense. And in reality, it could have very well cost the Falcons their first Super Bowl championship.
It started after Tevin Coleman punched in Atlanta’s fourth touchdown to take a 28-3 lead in the third quarter. In Atlanta’s final four possessions of the game, it punted three times, lost a fumble and gained a grand total of 44 yards. That’s absolutely inept.
And while we surely will give the Patriots’ defense credit for stepping up when it needed to the most, the Falcons laid a complete egg in every aspect of the game in blowing a record 25-point Super Bowl lead. That’s on the players. That’s on the coaching. And that’s surely on Shanahan.
6. Unheralded heroes of Super Bowl LI
There’s almost too many unheralded players to give credit to here. We’ll start with third-string running back James White of the Patriots, who performed at a higher clip than both LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis in this one. White caught a game-high 14 passes for 110 yards with a touchdown through the air. He also added two rushing touchdowns, including the game-winner in overtime.
IT'S OVER! IT'S OVER!
JAMES WHITE WINS IT FOR THE @PATRIOTS!
— NFL (@NFL) February 6, 2017
Here’s a guy that had a grand total of two rushing touchdowns in three full seasons before Sunday’s epic performance against the Falcons. It just goes to show you that the stars of the game aren’t necessarily the ones that show up on its grandest of stages.
Speaking of showing up, Patriots defensive end Trey Flowers recorded six tackles, 2.5 sacks and a total of five quarterback hits in this game. Sure Flowers led the Pats with seven sacks during the regular year, but this was in no way expected going up against Falcons left tackle Jake Matthews.
On the Falcons’ side, second-year defensive lineman Grady Jarrett played like a man absolutely possessed. He recorded a game-high three sacks and five quarterback hits, putting pressure on Brady throughout the game. Unfortunately, Atlanta’s pass rush was just too dead tired late in the game to put up much of an effort, leaving Brady time in the offensive backfield to pick apart a weak secondary.
These are the three unheralded players that stood out the most in Super Bowl LI. Though, we should definitely give credit to Patriots rookie receiver Malcolm Mitchell who put up six catches for 70 yards, including two huge third-down conversions. The same can be said for Falcons wide receiver Taylor Gabriel who added 76 yards on three receptions for the losing team.
7. Matt Ryan flops
The reigning NFL MVP finished Super Bowl LI having completed 17-of-23 passes for 284 yards with two touchdowns and zero interceptions. Not too shabby, right? Well, that’s surface-based box score scouting at its finest. Ryan came up absolutely small when the game counted the most. It wouldn’t show up on the stat sheet. He didn’t make a huge mistake down the stretch when it came to a turnover. Instead, it was all about Ryan’s inability to understand exactly what was happening in the game.
With Atlanta leading by eight and under four minutes remaining in the game, it was in field goal position. A successful kick from Matt Bryant in that situation would have put the Falcons up by two scores, pretty much making it impossible for New England to complete its comeback.
That’s when Ryan took a horrible sack on a pass rush from the aforementioned Flowers. Instead of having the ball at New England’s 23-yard line with a throw away there, Ryan took a 12-yard loss. This pushed Atlanta all the way back to the 35. Then, on the very next play, Jake Matthews was called for holding. This ultimately led to a Falcons punt and gave New England the ball back with an opportunity to tie the game.
In the lead up to that crucial set of plays, Ryan continued to snap the ball with a live clock at about 20 seconds remaining in the play clock. Again, this gave New England more time than it should have had to complete the greatest comeback in football history.
One really has to wonder what was going through Ryan’s mind here. What was he thinking? These are situations within a specific game that he has dealt with throughout his career. And instead of coming up big in the most-important game of his career, he struggled at a level we’ve rarely seen from a quarterback in Super Bowl history. It’s a sad ending to an otherwise tremendous season.
8. The greatest Super Bowl ever?
There will surely be a ton of debate about this. After all, there have been some tremendous Super Bowls in the 51-year history of the big game. Heck, just two years ago, these very same Patriots defeated the Seattle Seahawks when Malcolm Butler intercepted Russell Wilson in the end zone late in the game.
We can go back to the Baltimore Ravens’ goal-line stand against the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII as another case study here. Heck, historians might point out Jackie Smith’s drop in Super Bowl XIII that eventually led to Pittsburgh taking out Dallas by the score of 35-31. That’s all fine and dandy, but this one is surely up there.
The backdrop leading up to Super Bowl LI was real. Tom Brady, concluding a season that saw him suspended for the first four games due to his alleged role in Deflategate, looking to make history. Bill Belichick attempting to become the coach with the most Super Bowls in NFL history. Meanwhile, the upstart Falcons attempting to knock off Goliath. The drama was certainly there.
But when Atlanta opened up a 28-3 lead in the fourth quarter, this looked like another snooze-fest. New England was about to come up small in the biggest game in franchise history. All the talk about Brady’s greatness was on the verge of being replaced with questions about his regression as a quarterback.
That’s when everything flipped on a dime. Brady absolutely dominated the second half of the game, completing 27-of-36 passes for 282 yards with two touchdowns. That’s in one half of football. In the Super Bowl. Brady now joins Michael Jordan as the only professional athlete to have won four MVP awards in his league’s championship game. That’s how legends are made. That’s the type of performance we will be talking about in our assisted living facilities decades down the road. And for that, this was one of the greatest (if not the greatest) Super Bowls ever.
9. Patriots etch their name in the history books
Five Super Bowl titles in 17 seasons. A head coach that’s now won a total of seven Super Bowls as either the head man or an assistant. A quarterback that just surpassed Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw for the most Super Bowl titles at that position in the history of the NFL. That’s what was on the line for the Patriots Sunday night in Houston. Even more than the Falcons, that’s what this team was battling.
It’s an amazing realization to come to. Not only were the Pats taking on the league’s top-scoring offense and MVP Matt Ryan, they were taking on the ghosts of the game’s past. The dynasties that came to define long gone eras of football greatness. The Steel Curtain. Bill Walsh’s San Francisco 49ers. The Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s. We can go on and on here. But what’s more notable than anything else is exactly how New England did this.
It’s not a secret that most fans were rooting for the upstart Falcons heading into Super Bowl LI. No one outside of Boston really wanted to see another chapter completed in the book of greatness that has represented the Pats during their near two-decade long run. This is what New England was going up against. An otherwise divided nation united in their jealously of their greatness.
In the end, New England overcame the biggest deficit in Super Bowl history. In fact, the biggest comeback in the history of the big game prior to Sunday night was a measly 10 points. Think about that for a second. Also think about the fact that NFL teams were a combined 92-0 when they headed into the fourth quarter 19-plus point lead in the history of the postseason.
See. That’s what this is all about. We can talk about all the Lombardi Trophies Tom Brady and Bill Belichick now possess. We can talk about their long run of success as a tandem. That’s fine. But what this team did on Sunday night will be its crowning achievement. Nothing else will come close to it. And it will be decades before another team even sniffs the type of success we saw from New England in Super Bowl LI.
10. A loss you don’t come back from
As hard as this loss might be for the Falcons, it is how the team responds moving forward that will make the biggest difference here. Can Matt Ryan and Co. overcome what was a disastrous meltdown on the game’s grandest of stages? We’ve seen this story repeated in the past, and it’s usually not good for the team that fails to show up when it counts the most.
Just ask Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers after they lost Super Bowl 50 by the score of 24-10. It takes a whole heck of a lot out of you as a franchise. As players. And as one unit that had to deal with the collective disappointment of practically giving a game away.
Atlanta now turns to a somewhat uncertain future with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan likely heading to San Francisco. How will that turn out in the long run? Who will be tasked with replacing him as the play-caller in Atlanta? This is a management thing. And in reality, it will go a long way in determining just how successful the Falcons are moving forward.
What we do know here is that the Falcons lost in a way that few before them ever have. It’s a horrible feeling. And it will take a lot of character for this team to bounce back when the 2017 season comes calling. That’s the brutal truth here.