In the weeks that have passed since Tom Brady and the New England Patriots pulled off the comeback of the century, people have been perplexed. The game was over. There’s no doubt about it, the Atlanta Falcons were up 28-3 with eight minutes left in the third quarter. Before Super Bowl LI, the largest Super Bowl comeback in NFL history was 10 points. How did the Patriots pull it off?
The Secret of Super Bowl LI
As you’ve probably heard by now, Mohamed Sanu insinuated that Lady Gaga’s halftime show running long hurt the team. She was on the field 15 minutes longer than she was supposed to be, and Sanu insinuated that remaining off the field made it difficult for the team to get back into the game. He compared it to working out before taking an hour break and attempting to work out again.
This is, without a doubt, the dumbest excuse ever made. If Sanu had said that his dog ate the gameplan, it would be more believable and make more sense. The reality is that Gaga’s halftime show had absolutely nothing to do with their collapse.
If they were so exhausted from the break, how come they scored with their second possession in the second half while the Patriots stalled? The Falcons moved 85 yards in roughly four minutes to give them the 28-3 lead. If anything, the long half-time helped Atlanta out, and here’s why.
Time of Possession
The New England Patriots had the ball for over 40 minutes. That means that for more than half of the game, Atlanta’s defense was on the field against Tom Brady. While the unit played well for the first 43 minutes of the game, they came unglued at the end of the third quarter.
Putting your defense on the field for 40 minutes against a mediocre quarterback is a bad idea. Doing it against a man starting in his seventh Super Bowl appearance? That’s asinine. Most teams try to beat the Patriots by keeping Tom Brady off the field. It seems like head coach Dan Quinn and Matt Ryan simply tried to outscore him. What a foolish idea.
The average Falcons drive was only seven plays long. New England? Their drives were about eight plays long. That doesn’t seem like a big deal until you realize that the Patriots had two more drives in this game than Atlanta did thanks to a pick-six and time.
The longest Falcons drive was the eight play, four minute drive at the beginning of the second half. The Patriots had five drives with at least ten plays, and the only one that didn’t end in points was the pick-six by Atlanta. In two of the three drives that saw Atlanta score touchdowns, they had the ball for less than two minutes.
The Atlanta Falcons simply attempted to outscore the New England Patriots, and in the process, they exhausted their defense. Ironically, it was New England’s defense that was well-rested late in the game when it mattered most.
When It Mattered Most
Hindsight is 20/20. It’s easy to sit back and say that Atlanta Falcons should’ve been running the ball when they were in field goal range. With less than five minutes to go, with an eight point lead and the ball near field goal range, it seems so obvious that they should’ve just handed the ball off.
But they didn’t. They decided to pass the ball instead, and as everyone knows now, that was the final error. For on that pass, Matt Ryan was sacked, knocking Atlanta back ten yards. On the next play, they passed again, and this time there was a holding call. On third and 33, Matt Ryan threw for a third time, and it was incomplete.
In hindsight, it’s easy to say what Atlanta should have done. With less than four minutes left in the game, with an eight point lead, at New England’s 22 yard line? They should’ve handed the ball off. Quinn and company should’ve ran the ball on second, and even third down. They would’ve kicked the field goal, giving them a 11 point lead with a little more than three minutes left. New England would’ve been out of timeouts, and they would’ve had to score twice, with help from an onside kick.
Bill Belichick is mostly known for being the [second] biggest cheater in NFL history. But students of the game are also familiar with his love for situational football. Going as far back as 2001, the Patriots have always practiced bizarre situations, just in case they came up in a game.
When it comes down to it, that was the secret of Super Bowl LI. The Patriots were prepared and the Atlanta Falcons weren’t. Matt Ryan and Julio Jones weren’t necessarily outplayed by Tom Brady and company, but they certainly were outcoached.
The Last Word
Ultimately, it was time of possession that deflated Atlanta’s Super Bowl dreams. They exhausted their defense by throwing them against arguably the greatest quarterback of all-time, and then they just called the wrong plays when it mattered most. Throw in a lengthy half-time show, a remarkable catch by Julian Edelman, and some bad luck, and it’s actually no secret why they gave up the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history.