Tearing Up the Playbook: Super Bowl Recap Edition

by Sam Stockton | 2/13/17 2:10am

There are two obvious narratives when you watch a game with a big comeback: the comeback and the choke. The New England Patriots’ 31 unanswered points to defeat the Atlanta Falcons and win Super Bowl LI without having led the game for a single second certainly plays into both of these narratives. Epic drive after epic drive to tie the game by New England. Chance after futile chance for Atlanta to put the game away.

When looking at Atlanta, it is easy to decry its play calling, particularly its continual refusal to run the ball and bleed the clock late, as outrageous. It’s also worth noting that the reason this strategy is ultimately scrutable is that it simply didn’t work. If Matt Ryan hit a deep pass on third-and-one deep in his own territory instead of getting sacked and fumbling, and if he threw while in field goal range and scored a touchdown rather than getting sacked, leading to an Atlanta penalty that pushed the Falcons out of field goal range, Kyle Shanahan would be lauded for a bold finish to a game in which he called a near perfect first half. These are “what if” scenarios, but they are hypotheticals that easily could have happened.

The tendency in evaluating a coach’s decisions, particularly in the playoffs, is to judge the call’s merit based on whether or not the play actually worked. This is an obvious and, in many ways, fair way to judge a coach’s decisions. We often hear that the National Football League is a “results league,” though I’m not really sure in what professional sports league results don’t matter. That being said, it seems unfair to ignore completely the possibility that a call could have worked even though it didn’t.

On New England’s side, it is impossible to ignore that the Patriots put themselves in a position where they effectively couldn’t make a mistake. And they didn’t. Tom Brady was absolutely magnificent, carving up the Falcons defense with such ease that he never even seemed to be in a rush. Sometimes, it’s easy to slip into thinking of Brady as a guy to dink and dunk his way to victory week after week. After all, he doesn’t make the same highlight reel throws as Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson, but on almost every pass in the second half, Brady put the ball exactly where it needed to go.

I wrote last week about how the Patriots and the Falcons played in a way that exemplifies football in 2017. What the Patriots did to the Falcons represents a new version of wearing down an opponent.

Football has long been a sport that prized winning a war of attrition. For a long time, this meant taking the air out of the ball, playing in a phone booth and gaining three yards and a cloud of dust. The Patriots gave old-school attrition a modern twist. They controlled the clock and ran nearly double the plays that Atlanta did, yet they did it without relying on the run.

New England’s quick receiving corps, led by Julian Edelman and James White, was able to get enough separation for Brady to find them with the ball. Even when Atlanta was winning big, the team owed its success to quick strike drives as well as a pick-six. Eventually, the Falcons just started to wear out; they couldn’t keep fighting back against the Patriots’ aerial onslaught.

By the time the Falcons needed to make stops, they didn’t have anything left in the tank. Meanwhile, New England continued to make plays easy with the exception of Edelman’s ridiculous circus catch. The Patriots gained chunks through the air with ease when it mattered most. Throw in a couple of admittedly questionable Atlanta play calls, an excellent performance by their defense down the stretch and a favorable coin flip, and you’ve got the best comeback in NFL history to yield the best Super Bowl in NFL history.

Musings of the Week:

1. Say what you will about the Brady/Bill Belichick-era Patriots, but when they’re in a Super Bowl, it’s a great game. All seven of Brady and Belichick’s Super Bowls have been can’t misses. For the second time in the last three years, the Patriots won the Super Bowl, and it was the best game played to date. In Super Bowl XLIX, Malcolm Butler’s incredible read and interception stole away the NFL crown from Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks, sealing a dramatic fourth quarter comeback. Flash forward two seasons to Super Bowl LI in Houston, Texas. Brady and the Pats faced a seemingly insurmountable 25-point deficit yet roared back, and once again pull off a miraculous victory.

2. I almost don’t even think it’s necessary to say this, since it’s impossible to have a different opinion at this point, but Brady and Belichick are both clearly the greatest to ever do it. I was of the opinion that both had earned this status prior to this game, no matter what happened. After this game, I also claim that Brady is the clutchest athlete of all time. Brady is so good that in the fourth quarter, when he got the ball down two touchdowns and two two-point conversions, it felt like the game was already over, and that the Pats, trailing by 16, would win. Brady is just that good. With the game on the line, there is absolutely no one better than Brady.