Super Sunday Recap: Pats Pull Off Impossible

Welcome to this season’s  final edition of the Sunday Recap, a weekly column dedicated to thoughts on the

previous day’s NFL action. And with the world still reeling from one of the most unbelievable sporting events of

all-time, let’s get right into my many thoughts on Super Bowl LI.

 

 

I was simply at a loss for words at the end of the first half. It felt like one of those ill-fated Madden games that you desperately wish you could start over as all your friends heckled you for embarrassing yourself. Actually, what am I saying, it felt much worse than that. Super Bowl LI appeared to be beyond the point of no return for my Patriots–even before they fell behind 28-3. And for me, and presumably many others, that meant outright misery. Not even Lady Gaga’s sensational halftime performance could lift my spirits–although she did provide a few minutes of well-needed escapism.

Two words popped into my head, though, as I sat alongside Alby (fellow Check Down writer, for those unaware) and a few other British Pats fans in a South London bar full of obnoxious New Yorkers, prickly smartasses who still find jokes about PSI levels funny, a handful of anti-Trump fanatics, a lone Falcons fan, and many others  all relishing in the glory of the Patriots’ presumed demise.

Never surrender.

My dad would always say these words to my little league teams when we faced a deficit. They became a rallying cry. No matter the challenge. No matter the circumstances. Never surrender.  During the mostly silent halftime interregnum, I eventually relayed these words to my distraught fellow Patriots fans. Fitting that Churchill’s words ultimately rang true on a night in which I watched my Patriots win their fifth Super Bowl on the same soil in which the former British PM gave that famous motivational speech.

I’m still processing how it all went down. I mean, forget about the position the Patriots were in at halftime. A 28-3 second half deficit? Down three scores entering the fourth quarter? Against one of the best offenses in recent memory? ARE YOU KIDDING ME?

Was this the greatest Super Bowl of all-time? Can Atlanta recover from the most monumental collapse in NFL history? And are we even having debates anymore about the greatest coach, QB, and dynasty? Those answers and more in this season’s final edition of The Sunday Recap.

 

 

Where it all went wrong: New England 

I’d like to start, though, by analyzing how the Patriots were even in such a dire position to begin with. I could count on no more than two hands the number of times I remember the Patriots being blown out to that degree in my lifetime. Absolutely no one envisioned the first half playing out the way it did, especially considering the fact that New England hadn’t trailed at any point in a game  since late November. If anything, most people seemed to think that the Falcons would be the ones on the wrong end of a lopsided game.

In an effort to explain how this happened, four key plays stand out from the first half.

 

1) The sack on the Patriots’ second possession kills solid New England drive 

The Patriots’ offense started clicking on their second drive, taking all of six plays to go from their own ten to the Atlanta forty. Seeing as 37 of the previous 50 Super Bowls had been won by teams who have scored first, it would’ve been nice to get at least a field goal to take an early lead, particularly after the Patriots’ defense forced Atlanta to punt on their first possession.

A poorly executed play-action ruined that plan. Brady had little time to find a receiver on one of New England’s more-patented deep shot designs, as guard Shaq Mason got blown into the backfield by Courtney Upshaw. Mason would later be exposed again on a few other key passing plays, but it was this play that was the most consequential. The eight-yard sack effectively killed the promising drive, and it proved to be a sign that more struggles were ahead for the Patriots in Atlanta territory.

 

2) The Blount fumble

After forcing another Falcons punt, the Patriots again  marched quickly into field goal range, needing only four plays to advance forty-nine yards. But Blount’s miscue proved to be an even bigger momentum-killer than the sack on the previous drive. Not only did it end another scoring opportunity, but his fumble provided Atlanta with solid field position to take advantage–which they did. Moreover, Blount’s fumble seemed to negatively effect him moving forward. The Patriots’ leading rusher was never able to get going, perhaps because he was overly wary of making another mistake. This prevented New England from establishing a more balanced attack against one of the NFL’s weaker run defenses. Fortunately the burden on Brady wasn’t too much for him to bear.

 

3) The pick-six 

Obviously, right? This play was almost as shocking as the events that would transpire later in the game. It’s been a while since Brady made a read as poor as that one, and it couldn’t have come at a worse moment. The Patriots’ defense had held firm against Matt Ryan and company on the first two series, but the Falcons offense exploded from there. Devonta Freeman energized Atlanta en route to their first scoring drive, while Ryan and Julio Jones carried the load on their following possession to take a 14-0 lead. With the Patriots unable to capitalize on two earlier opportunities, pressure was definitely starting to mount.

As Brady lunged at Robert Alford’s legs, two terrible thoughts sunk in. First, the Patriots were now -2 in the turnover department. Lose the turnover battle and you likely lose the game. That’s what many people had been saying in the buildup to Super Bowl LI–and I was in complete agreement. More disconcerting, though, was the fact that teams who scored a defensive touchdown in the Super Bowl had never lost.

With Brady and the rest of the Patriots watching hopelessly as no one stood within fifty yards of the euphoric Alford, the “bitter end” that the Boston Globe had already started spreading into circulation certainly appeared to be near.

 

4) Holding penalty on Bennett forces Patriots to settle for three at end of first half 

Tough to follow up that whole paragraph with a note on a relatively inconsequential holding penalty. Yet at the time, I thought that Bennett’s hold that negated a screen pass that would’ve set the Patriots up at the two-yard line was another nail in the coffin. Three previous opportunities within the Atlanta 40-yard line amounted to zero points. At least they can go into the half with a little life, right? Eh…make that four great opportunities that amounted to a mere three points. A fitting end to a frustrating half.

 

 

Where it all went wrong: Atlanta  

In addition to telling the Patriots faithful around me to never surrender, I shared three other thoughts at halftime. First, comebacks are fun. No, that’s not another Churchillism: I’ve trademarked that one myself. I recall saying it in pivotal moments before. My freshman year in high school, our basketball team was faced with a double-digit deficit with roughly five minutes to play. Hey, comebacks are fun. Let’s see what happens.  Damn right it was fun: Down one with ten seconds remaining, I went coast-to-coast, finishing with a layup with less than a second remaining to seal the victory.

Fast forward four years and Skidmore baseball was in an even bigger hole than the Patriots were yesterday, if you can believe it. Down six in the bottom of the ninth, our coach had pulled the starters and inserted all the freshman after all hope of preventing a four-game sweep at the hands of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (better known as RPI) was seemingly lost. Comebacks are fun.  Fuck yeah they’re fun! A few walks here, a double by Check Down’s own Nick Fronte there, an error or two over here, and suddenly I found myself on first base as the tying runner. No pressure or anything. After finding my way over to third, I dashed home after a wild pitch, sliding in safely to tie the score. I channeled my inner-Brady with a good ol’ LETTTT”S GOOOOOOO!  before being mobbed in the dugout.

Observation number two dawned on me as comments from other people at the bar and texts from envious Jets, Cowboys, and Packers friends poured in: We’re still in the Super Bowl. When asked in the aftermath if Denver’s loss to Seattle in Super Bowl XLVIII was embarrassing, Peyton Manning responded, “It’s not embarrassing at all. I would never use that word. The word ’embarrassing’ is an insulting word, to tell you the truth.”

Manning’s statement harkens back to a famous quote from Teddy Roosevelt about “the man in the arena.” Roosevelt said,

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

 

Even if the Patriots had never come back from that 28-3 deficit–say they went on to lose 56-3–I would’ve felt little shame as a fan; for it’s a privilege to watch your team play for a championship, and regardless of the score, I was going to enjoy that privilege because such opportunities don’t come around too often; for the joke, ultimately, is on the fans of the other thirty franchises watching that game, who neither know victory nor defeat.

Amidst this perhaps misguided optimism, as well as the halftime score, I was actually fairly optimistic about our chances in the second half. This isn’t to say I thought we were going to win; but, as mentioned at length earlier, I liked the way we had been moving the ball. There was no indication that Atlanta had an answer for our offense. They had simply come up with enormous, game-altering plays at the most opportune times. Credit to them, but it didn’t mean they were going to hold down the Patriots’ offense for good.

I even thought the defense had been doing an admirable job. They were successfully finding ways to pressure Ryan, particularly on third down. If the Patriots had only capitalized on even two of their first half opportunities, the deficit wouldn’t have been nearly as severe.

Nonetheless, even after a crucial defensive stand on Atlanta’s first drive of the second half, things still looked bleak for most of the third quarter. The Pats seemingly took forever to finally get into the end zone, chewing up over six minutes of precious clock. Of course, then Stephen Gostkowski’s early season extra point horrors reemerged, preventing New England from cracking double-digits as the game entered the fourth quarter.

28-3 with roughly 23 minutes left……Atlanta owning a staggering 99.8% win probability……facing a 28-9 deficit entering the fourth quarter……….how the hell did we actually come back? As ESPN’s Bill Barnwell noted, it came down to a number of moments that all  needed to break the Patriots’ way. I don’t feel there is a need to review them all; however, I’d like to draw your attention to the four most important sequences.

 

1) Hightower’s strip-sack 

Obviously the Patriots needed to stop Atlanta’s offense every time they had the ball. What they really needed, though, was a turnover to flip the field position battle. Doing so not only would provide great field position for the offense, but it would also help enormously in saving minutes off the clock that the Patriots couldn’t afford to waste. Hightower’s strip-sack did just that. I’m not sure if this play was quite as important as his unheralded tackle of Marshawn Lynch that effectively led to the Butler interception in Super Bowl XLIX, but this play will certainly be the one that leads off any of his future highlight reels.

 

2) Set up by Gostkowski kickoff, Flowers’ sack keys crucial stand 

Stephen Gostkowski would’ve been on the hook if the Patriots had failed on one of their two conversion attempts. However, everything ultimately worked out alright, so instead of harping on Gostkowski, I’m going to praise him for the job he did on one of the more underrated aspects of football: Kickoffs. As noted in my prediction article before the game, the Patriots have excelled in this area in 2016. It’s actually one of the reasons why Gostkowski remains one of the more valuable kickers in the league, despite his shaky season. Coupled with terrific special teams, led by ace Matthew Slater, New England’s defense was fortunate enough to start with the most advantageous field position on a per drive basis this season. This skill was never more evident than on Atlanta’s second-to-last possession after the Patriots had narrowed the score to 28-20. Gostkowski intentionally put it short and to the right corner, allowing for New England to cover it beautifully.

If the Falcons hadn’t started at the ten-yard line, Matt Bryant would’ve been in position for a short field goal attempt to take a 31-20 lead that would’ve effectively sealed New England’s fate. That would’ve rendered the other two important plays of that drive–the Trey Flowers sack and the Jake Matthews hold on Chris Long–meaningless. Yet to marginalize the importance of those two plays would be wrong. Flowers’ sack, one of 2.5 he had on the night, pushed Atlanta, who seemed destined to put the exclamation point on an impressive victory after Julio Jones’ sensational sideline catch, into an uncomfortable situation. From there, it was Long, who recently stated that he would’ve played this season even if his salary was $5, who came through with a big play of his own, drawing a hold on Falcons tackle Jake Matthews to officially push Atlanta out of range for a Bryant attempt.

 

3) The final two-point try 

New England’s hold allowed Brady to take over with three and a half minutes remaining and over ninety yards to cover. No problem for the now four-time Super Bowl MVP. To think that of all the legendary drives and fourth-quarter heroics that this guy has engineered have now all been surpassed by what he did in the fourth quarter and overtime of Super Bowl LI–21-27 for 246 yards and three touchdown drives–is incredible.

Amidst Brady’s greatness, I suppose the moment that will stick out in many people’s minds, though, is Julian Edelman’s unbelievable juggling catch on the tying drive. For Falcons fans, I’m sure there will be many connections made between Robert Alford and Asante Samuel in Super Bowl XLII, as each could’ve very easily sealed their respective teams’ victories by hauling in catchable interceptions. Instead, the Patriots were finally the ones to benefit from a lucky play. Yet as vital as Edelman’s catch was, I didn’t view it as the most important play of the drive.

As my crew of Patriots fans jumped for joy after James White’s plunge cut the score to 28-26, I was reserved. A year ago, I remember feeling that same sense of satisfaction after Rob Gronkowski hauled in a potential  tying score to send the AFC Championship to overtime. Moments later, though, I was slouched on the couch despondent as I watched the Broncos celebrate after the failed two-point try.

What parallels between these two situations. After the Patriots’ season had risen and crashed in an instant during the waning seconds of last year’s AFC title game loss, I couldn’t help but think of that pitiful moment as the Patriots lined up in a relatively unusual formation for the trying try. Are we going to cut Gostkowski if we don’t make this?  Is there pride in the fact that we at least came back?  Wait, what the hell is Brady doing under center in a five-wide formation? 

Full disclosure, I didn’t like the call by McDaniels. If you’re going to pass, might as well attempt a pass in the end zone where you only need two things to happen: A good throw and a good catch. The quick-hitch to Amendola, in contrast, required three things: A good throw by Brady, which was mildly difficult given how quickly he needed to get rid of the ball, a good catch by Amendola, which is not easy given how quickly he needs to transition in order to run, and a successful gain after the catch, which didn’t exactly come easy after Atlanta pounced on the play only a moment after Amendola snuck past the goal line.

Nonetheless, it all worked out. And for a team whose coach always preaches concentration on the various aspects of “situational football,” New England’s ability to convert two vital conversion attempts should not be ignored.

 

4) The coin toss

Of course, once we tied the game, we just needed the ball back once more. Fortunately that came thanks to Matthew Slater’s correct call of heads on the overtime flip, which unfortunately provided the death knell for the shell-shocked Falcons.

 

 

Do I need to revise my greatest Super Bowl list?

Sorry, Super Bowl XXIII. You’ve officially been bumped out of Mando’s All-Time Greatest Super Bowl List. I’m hoping not too many people will call me biased, but Super Bowl LI now becomes the fifth Super Bowl of the Brady/Belichick era to enter my top ten. Simply put, it’s impossible to overlook the first Super Bowl to ever have gone to overtime. Of course, it also featured not just the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history, but one of the greatest comebacks in NFL, and maybe even sports, history as well.

Where does it rank, though? I’m confident that it at least finds it’s way into the top-five, moving past the likes of Super Bowl XXXIV (the Mike Jones tackle) and Super Bowl XXV (the Norwood miss) because of how large the comeback was. If anything, this game reminds me the most of Super Bowl XLIII, when the Steelers beat the Cardinals. Both featured memorable pick-sixes, one team pulling away from the other before a sudden fourth quarter comeback, and then, ultimately, heroics in the final minute. What puts Super Bowl LI ahead of XLIII, though, is the fact that it went to overtime.

That leaves LI in a three-way battle between two of the other famed Patriots Super Bowls: XLII and XLIX. I can safely say that this game was more exciting than XLII. Even though the magnitude of the Giants’ upset of the undefeated Patriots will never be questioned, the game itself lacked fireworks until late in the fourth quarter. Coupled with Atlanta’s shocking sprint to a 28-3 lead and the Patriots’ unbelievable comeback in the fourth quarter, LI gets the edge over XLII.

Here is where it gets interesting. Super Bowl XLIX was the greatest sporting event I will likely ever attend. As a Patriots fan, the win felt cathartic after ten years of near-misses and questions regarding New England’s legacy; but even as a fan of the NFL, the madness that ensued during what, at the time, was the largest fourth quarter comeback in Super Bowl history will be remembered for years.

Super Bowl LI equaled XLIX in terms of madness. Each featured sizable comebacks, offensive fireworks, miraculous catches, questionable coaching decisions, and unbelievably high stakes. LI obviously gets credit for having the far more noteworthy comeback, but I’m even giving it the nod for having the more exciting fourth quarter as well. However, there are two objective reasons why I still think XLIX was the slightly  better game. For starters, it had the more dramatic ending. Malcolm Butler’s interception was the most shocking plot-twist of all-time. While the ending to Super Bowl LI was certainly riveting, James White’s final touchdown wasn’t quite as climactic as that.

Plus, and this is more of a personal preference, but I think it’s more exciting when two teams are in a hard-fought battle like the Patriots and Seahawks were in XLIX than when a team like Atlanta jumps to a 28-3 lead. Even though the first three and a half quarters were obviously miserable for me as a Pats fan, I can confidently say that others without a dog in the fight weren’t enthused, either. In fact, at least half of the patrons at the bar I was at left. Can LI really be the greatest Super Bowl of all-time if it couldn’t hold everyone’s attention all the way through?

For those reasons, along with, admittedly, a personal attachment to this particular game, I’m still ranking Super Bowl XLIX slightly higher than the unforgettable Super Bowl that just transpired.

 

 

Can Atlanta recover from heartbreaking loss?

You tend to hear the same thing from players and coaches on the losing side of the Super Bowl. This loss will motivate us moving forward.  We’re going to learn from it.  We’ll come back even hungrier.  Unfortunately these promises don’t amount to much because, historically, teams that lose the Super Bowl are unlikely to return the following year. It’s only happened on six occasions, but even that’s deceptive because the Bills are an outlier who managed to appear in four straight Super Bowls despite losing them all.

In most cases, teams that lose the big game still have success the following year. Recent examples include the 2014 Seahawks and 2013 Broncos, who each made it to the divisional round the following season, as well as the 2012 49ers, who made it back to the NFC Championship game. However, other teams struggle to recover at all. Look at Carolina. After their stunning defeat to Denver in Super Bowl 50, they failed to make the playoffs after a 15-1 season the year prior. Other notable examples include the 2001 Rams, who fell to 7-9 after they finished 14-2 a year earlier, the 2005 Eagles, who fell to last place in the NFC East, and, most notably, the 2007 Patriots, who were the odds-on favorite to return to the Super Bowl after their undefeated regular season.

Of course, the ’08 Patriots didn’t go back mainly because Brady tore his ACL. However, this brings up a larger point: A lot of things need to go right in order to even contend for a Super Bowl–let alone win it. Fortunately the 2016 Falcons were not a fluke. Led by their terrific offense, they ranked as one of the NFL’s very best teams based on their DVOA and net yards per play differential.

Nonetheless, a lot had to go right in order for Atlanta to win the NFC. They had terrific health. For instance, each of their five starting offensive lineman didn’t miss a single game this season. In addition, the NFC South wasn’t as formidable in 2016 after the Panthers slipped dramatically from the NFL’s hierarchy. And in the playoffs, the Falcons benefitted from the Cowboys losing in the Divisional round, affording them an opportunity to host the NFC Championship. They even were able to take advantage of a few uncharacteristic New England mistakes to build a 28-3 lead.

The Falcons are well-equipped to return to the playoffs next year. Their offense should be sensational once again and their defense, which features plenty of young talent with the likes of Deion Jones and Keanu Neal, is on the rise. With that said, they’ll never have another opportunity as golden as the one they had against the Patriots. Based on historical trends, the emotional blow from this loss means the Falcons will be hard pressed to return to the Super Bowl for at least another year or two.

 

And lastly, the greatest coach, QB, and dynasty debates are over

Super Bowl LI’s ultimate legacy, however, will be how it served as a coronation for the New England Patriots to enter into unrivaled territory not simply among other NFL franchises, but in all of the four major North American sports.

As I wrote during the buildup to Super Bowl LI, the Patriots had nothing to prove. Not to the rest of the NFL, not to Roger Goodell, not to the Marshall Faulk’s of the world: No one. But a win would’ve distanced themselves from the only other comparable dynasties over the past fifty years, namely the ’80’s 49ers, the Showtime Lakers, Jordan’s Bulls, the Jeter-era Yankees, and–as an act of remission for shamefully not giving them more justice in my original article–the Duncan/Poppovich-era Spurs.

The case is quite simple. As I said in my article, “New England’s prolonged success during a 32-team salary cap era, replete with four Super Bowl titles, a record-breaking number of conference championships, numerous playoff appearances, and even an undefeated regular season, already gives them a legitimate case to be the greatest modern sports dynasty.” Now that they’ve secured one-for-the-thumb, the Patriots stand alone.

At the forefront of this success has been the greatest coach–Bill Belichick–and the greatest quarterback–Tom Brady–in NFL history. Belichick can now pride himself on being the only head coach to win five Super Bowls. Even more impressive, though, is the fact that Belichick now owns seven  Super Bowl rings if you account for his role as the Giants’ defensive coordinator on the Bill Parcells teams of the ’80’s. He’s also coached in eleven  Super Bowl’s, too. I haven’t fact-checked it, but that has to be a record.

Plus, as if Belichick’s reputation as the game’s greatest game-planner and talent-maximizer needed any more support, he just guided the Patriots to a Super Bowl after a) trading away two of the team’s best defensive players, Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins, from the past few seasons, b) being held without the services of his MVP quarterback for the first four games–and then later his backup, Jimmy Garoppolo, for two, c) losing arguably the most dominant tight end in history to a season-ending injury, and d) trailing 28-3 midway through the third quarter of the Super Bowl thanks in large part to the services of a former college quarterback turned wide receiver (Edelman), a former fourth-round pick at running back (James White), a college lacrosse standout who languished on the practice squad’s for two other AFC East foes (Chris Hogan), and a fourth-round defensive end (Flowers).

And yet, it was Brady who furthered his legacy more after Super Bowl LI. He added an unprecedented fourth Super Bowl MVP award to his collection after shattering multiple Super Bowl records, including single-game marks for passing yards and completions. Most noteworthy of all, he added a fifth game-winning drive on the biggest stage to his resume, confirming what we already knew about the former sixth-round pick: There’s no one you’d rather have leading your team with the game on the line.

But Brady’s legendary performance goes beyond the numbers, because while his stats are tremendous, it’s the intangibles that stand out. Things you can measure and quantify with, say, a stopwatch or a spreadsheet are what made Brady a sixth-round pick in the first place. What everyone couldn’t measure was his resolve. This relentless will to compete is what has helped Brady sustain unprecedented levels of success for nearly two decades; allowing him to overcome terrible interceptions like the one he had during the Patriots’ horrific first half and enabling him to display a level of mastery in the fourth quarter and overtime of Super Bowl LI that has never been seen before.

Assigning a greater share of responsibility to Belichick, Brady, or the scores of other low draft picks and castoffs who have come to define each of the five championship teams during the Robert Kraft era is misguided: Each are equally responsible because, together, they’ve allowed the Patriots to reach a level of success achieved by no other franchise in modern sports history.

Yet, ultimately, the past is the past. And with the greatest dynasty in NFL history showing no signs of slowing down, in the words of Belichick….we’re on to 2017.

 

That’s a wrap for the 2016 editions of The Sunday Recap. Thanks to everyone who followed my predictions and thoughts on the NFL this season. Already can’t wait for the 2017 season!

 

Posted by Mando

Co-Founder of Check Down Sports. Die-hard Boston sports fan: Patriots, Celtics, Bruins- in that order. I haven't been that interested in the Red Sox since they traded Manny. If you're a fan of Leslie Nielson movies and/or think Entourage is overrated, we'll get along.

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