The Great Comeback: Super Bowl LI Recap and Analysis

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Tom Brady hoists the Lombardi Trophy for the fifth time in his career after defeating the Atlanta Falcons 34-28 in Super Bowl LI [AP/Darron Cummings]

HOUSTON– The impossible. That’s precisely what took place on Sunday February 5th, 2017 when the Patriots and the Falcons squared off in the final battle for the Lombardi Trophy. Absolutely no one could have predicted the narrative which would play out throughout this game. It looked destined to be a great game; the league’s best scoring offense against the best scoring defense, a team looking to win their first championship versus a team that seems to reach the big game every other season. This game looked to have great individual match-ups too: league MVP Matt Ryan and star receiver Julio Jones against the Patriots secondary, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman against Dont’a Hightower, Alan Branch, and the Patriots stout run defense, the legendary Tom Brady against an up-and-coming Atlanta defense, and of course the coaching battles between Bill Belichick-Matt Patricia-Josh McDaniels and Dan Quinn-Kyle Shanahan. Going into this game, everyone either sided with the experience and discipline of New England or the hot hand and amazing play-making ability of Atlanta. For most of the game, Atlanta won that discussion and made all the talk from the two week lead up for naught.

 

The first quarter was a defensive back and forth the Patriots are accustomed to after also failing to score in the first period in any of their previous six visits under Brady-Belichick. However, this was truly uncharacteristic for the high powered Falcons offense. For the first fifteen minutes the game was slow, back-and-forth, and slightly agonizing for members of either fan base. The first team to score would surely have the upper hand. Throughout those first fifteen minutes, however, both teams seemed to move the ball, but neither team was able to punch it in.

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Devonta Freeman (24) dives into the endzone for the first score of the game. [AP/Tony Gutierrez]


The second quarter was absolutely nothing like the first. The scoring finally opening with Atlanta’s star running back, Devonta Freeman bouncing a goal-line carry outside and emphatically leaping into the promised land. Freeman made the score 7-0 at the time, but that was only the beginning. After the Patriots failed to get anything going on their next possession, MVP Matt Ryan was poised to make the Pats pay once again. Ryan systematically drove the Falcons down the field before throwing a strike to rookie tight-end Austin Hooper who outran the coverage of safety Patrick Chung on a seam in the back of the end-zone. 14-0 Atlanta. Already, the Falcons looked poised to run away with it. No team in Super Bowl history had ever come back from even 10 points down to win and the Falcons already had a fourteen point advantage. But 14 isn’t insurmountable for Tom Brady… if it stayed fourteen. On the very next drive, Brady and the Patriots looked ready to respond. This drive looked destined to end in points that would get New England back in the game, or at least that’s what it looked like for most of it. That was until Tom Brady did the most uncharacteristic thing he could do and thew a pick-six. Atlanta corner Robert Alford jumped the route by Danny Amendola, picked the pass and evaded a diving Brady to walk into the endzone after an 82 yard return. Brady’s first post season pick-six came in his 34th postseason game, and it could not have come at a worse time for the Patriots. 21-0 Falcons. All the Patriots could have been thinking at this point was that they needed to put up some sort of points before the half. Either way, this wasn’t just bad, it was getting embarrassing. They would end up putting up three points on a Stephen Gostkowski field goal before halftime, but this was a hole even Tom Brady and Bill Belichick couldn’t have had a lot of optimism about. 21-3 Falcons.

 

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Robert Alford (23) evades a diving Tom Brady on his way to an 82 yard pick-6 [AP/Mark Humphry]

After halftime, it was Lady Gaga and not the game serving as the best part of the night for Patriots fans. Either way, it was go time. Any chance of a Patriots comeback had to start at that point. Atlanta, however, had other plans. After a back-and-forth of unsuccessful drives, Atlanta was the first to capitalize. After reaching the goal-line once again, Matt Ryan threw a swing pass to speed back Tevin Coleman who outran Rob Ninkovich to cross the goal-line. Somehow things got even worse than they already were for New England. 28-3 Falcons. The question remained, was a 25 point lead for Atlanta enough? Many people were willing to call it at that point. Skip Bayless certainly was.

 

 

After all, Atlanta had a 99.6% chance of winning at that point in the game. Only 6 times in NFL history had a team come back from such a large deficit; twice in the playoffs, but never in the Super Bowl. With the odds so stacked against them the Patriots could have folded, they could have given up and just tried to make the most of the rest of the game. This was the ultimate test of heart, drive and character. This was the moment the defines a team because after all, character isn’t who you are when you’re on top, it’s who you are when you are down and need to get back up.

 

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James White would prove key to coming back for the Patriots. He had 3 touchdowns on the game. [AP/Jae C. Hong]


The Patriots were about to show some serious character. Finally, with around two minutes remaining in the 3rd quarter, New England scored their first touchdown of the game. Brady to James White who spun past a defender and dove into the endzone. Gostkowski would shank the PAT, but after all the Patriots had dealt with, one point was the least of their worries. But, it certainly did not help. After a botched onside kick that gave Atlanta great field position, the defense made a stand and got the ball back. Brady and the Patriots then systematically drove down the field once again in a drive that would end in only a field goal, but points nonetheless. 28-12 Falcons. All of a sudden, it was only a two possession game. The Falcons, despite a still sizable lead, hoped to make it three with a successful drive. But Dont’a Hightower and the Patriots defense had other plans. If the Pats had any shot at scoring enough points in regulation to tie or win they needed a turnover. In a well designed play, Hightower was sent on the outside, who ran right past his blocker Devonta Freeman and knocked the ball free out of Ryan’s hand. Nose-tackle Alan Branch then fell on it and all of a sudden the Patriots had possession deep in Atlanta territory. Brady wasted no time punching it in when he found Danny Amendola on an out route for the score shortly thereafter. 28-18 Falcons. The ensuing two-point conversion attempt was huge; one play could make it a one possession lead. Belichick dug deep into his playbook for a play that hasn’t been used on the big stage since a similarly important two-point conversion by Kevin Faulk in the Patriots’ 2004 Super Bowl victory against the Panthers. The play was a direct snap to James White out of the backfield along with an acting job of a high snap by Brady and a punch in across the middle. The play worked to perfection and the lead was cut to just eight. 28-20 Falcons.

 

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Dont’a Hightower made one of the biggest plays of the game when he sacked Matt Ryan (2) and gave the Patriots possession. [AP/Eric Gay]

With plenty of time remaining, Belichick opted to kick off deep in an attempt to pin Atlanta deep in their own territory. After a good special teams play, Atlanta immediately countered with a catch and run to Devonta Freeman that would go for 39 yards, but could have gone for even more if not for an exceptional track down by linebacker Kyle Van Noy. The Falcons then had the ball towards midfield and were knocking on the door of field-goal range. Any type of score would likely put the game away. Then came one of the best catches you will ever see. After escaping the pocket, Ryan threw a dime on the run to the outside post where Julio Jones extended over the defender, dragged his front root and clearly tapped his other foot in bounds. In what was a play perhaps no other receiver could make, Jones made it indisputable with his incredible precision and focus. Nevertheless, that could have been the dagger for the Patriots; it certainly was in the hearts of Patriots fans. First and ten, in field goal range. A couple of plays and a field-goal would have done it. But offensive coordinator and future 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan wanted the touchdown. So after a run play was stuffed for a loss, Ryan dropped back to throw. But in one of the plays of the game, Trey Flowers, Patriots defensive end, came crashing through the middle of the line and somehow sacked Ryan for a 13 yard loss. Then on third down, Ryan completed a pass to Mohamed Sanu that would have put them back in field goal range, but a holding call on his left-tackle set them back to 3rd and 33. After an incomplete pass, they were forced to punt. That defensive stop was absolutely everything for the Patriots.

 

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In a pile of three Atlanta defenders, Julian Edelman (11) somehow dove to catch this ball. [AP/Patrick Semansky]

After receiving the ball deep in their own territory, Brady and the Patriots were locked in and ready to get to work. As the Falcons’ defense began to get tired, they played less man and cover one and more zone. This played right into the Patriots favor as they leaned more on underneath passes and crossing patterns. Brady worked a systematic drive, spreading the ball to just about everyone and working his way down the entire field with a few clutch third down conversions mixed in. The play of the night, however, came on a throw across the middle that could have changed the entire game. Brady threw a bullet across the middle of the field to Edelman but the ball was tipped by the Atlanta defense and knocked up into the air. In an amazing act of focus, determination, athleticism, and luck Edelman dove into a pile of three Falcons and made a catch rivaled in Super Bowl history only by perhaps David Tyree’s 2008 Helmet Catch or Santonio Holmes’ game winner for the Steelers in 2009. Brady followed Edelman’s catch with a dart of Amendola that would put them in the redzone and it was only a few plays later that James White would dive across the goalline for six points. There were 57 seconds remaining in Super Bowl fifty one and after being down by 25 points, the Patriots had a chance to tie the game on a two point conversion. It was the perhaps the biggest play in Patriots history, and it could not have been more perfectly executed. Amendola motioned in from the outside into a trips formation, Brady took the snap and sniped it to Amendola who punched it across thanks to great blocks by fellow receivers Edelman and Chris Hogan. And there it was, a tie game. I’m still in disbelief. 28-28.

 

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James White (28) powers his way across the goal line for a walk-off style game winning score. [AP/Elise Amendola]


After the Falcons couldn’t make anything happen in the final minute, it was time for the first overtime in Super Bowl history. Given the potency of each offense and the nature of overtime in the NFL, the coin flip was huge. With the great offense of the Falcons, they could march down the field and win the game but with the great momentum the Patriots had, receiving the ball might mean Matt Ryan never sees the field. It would be the latter series of events which would play out on the field that night. After receiving the ball, Tom Brady looked methodical as he drove down the field and got to the goal line. It was at that point that James White would turn a historic and heroic game into an all-time great Super Bowl performance. On 2nd and Goal from the two yard line, White received the toss to the right and fought his way past four Falcons defenders to cross the goal line and win the title in walk-off fashion. In a Super Bowl comeback for the ages this was truly a fitting ending.

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