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The Pats’ Comeback Was Incredible — Even If You Think The Falcons Blew It

As you may have heard by now — perhaps from the eardrum-shattering sound of New England Patriots fans booing Roger Goodell — the Patriots are Super Bowl champs, having rallied back from a 28-3 deficit to beat the Atlanta Falcons 34-28 on Sunday. The comeback alone was historic, ranking as the most improbable in Super Bowl history, but there’s also a whole layer of history attached to the accomplishments of New England quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick, plus the revenge narrative of Deflategate. It’s a lot to keep track of.

Amidst all the postgame analysis, however, there’s always a place for second-guessing the Super Bowl loser’s coach. And on Sunday night, New Yorker staff writer James Surowiecki provided an instant classic in the genre:

The play he’s talking about came as the Falcons clung to a 28-20 lead with about four minutes left in regulation time. The Patriots had just finished scoring 17 unanswered points to pull to within a single score of Atlanta, and the Falcons had run a grand total of six offensive plays over that span before QB Matt Ryan started the drive at his own 10. Atlanta still had about a 92 percent chance of winning the game according to ESPN’s win probability model, but a window had been opened for the Pats.

At first, the Falcons appeared to close it again. Ryan hit Devonta Freeman for a 39-yard gain to reach midfield, and a few plays later, Julio Jones made an amazing catch that seemed destined to join the pantheon of great Patriot-killing Super Bowl grabs. But on second and 11 from the New England 23, the Falcons decided to pass instead of running the ball and setting up an insurance field goal, and Ryan was sacked for a loss of 12. Between that and a 10-yard holding penalty on the subsequent play, the Falcons were pushed out of accurate kicker Matt Bryant’s field-goal range and had to punt the ball back to Brady.

The rest, as they say, was history.

If the Falcons had run the ball on those second and third downs instead, then kicked the field goal, they’d have forced the Patriots to mount an 11-point comeback with something like 2:30 to play — not an 8-point comeback with 3:30 to go. The odds of a team doing the former are about 3 percent; for the latter, 8 percent.

The counter-argument, of course, is that 8 percent is still improbable. Even after the sack and the punt, the Falcons were still overwhelmingly likely to win the game. Only one Super Bowl in history had ever seen a team overcome longer second-half odds. (Granted, it was the Patriots’ victory two years ago.) In order to tie the game, Brady and the Pats still needed to:

  • Convert a third-and-10 from their own 9;
  • Complete a 23-yard pass to Julian Edelman, whose catch rivaled the greatest in Super Bowl history;
  • Complete a 20-yard pass to Danny Amendola;
  • Have James White scamper 20 more yards on two catches;
  • Score a touchdown from the Falcons’ 1;
  • Successfully pull off the 2-point conversion.

If just one of those plays goes differently, we might be talking about Atlanta’s first Super Bowl title. And even after all that, the Pats still needed to stop Ryan and the Falcons from quickly driving for the game-winning score with under a minute left (which has happened before), and they needed luck on the opening coin toss of overtime and they needed a handful of big plays in OT in order to win.

It’s true that the decision to pass instead of run and kick was the proverbial turning point, from which most subsequent plays saw the Pats increase their chances of winning until they hit 100 percent on White’s game-winning TD run. It’s also true that running the ball and going up 11 would have made the Pats’ comeback more difficult — and when you’re going up against the best coach/QB tandem ever, it’s generally not a good idea to gift them free win probability.

But in the end, the Falcons still had plenty more chances to snuff out the Pats’ comeback from that point onward. Whether because of poor defense or Brady’s clutch-ness (or both), they didn’t — and it’s the totality of many plays that has us talking about Brady and Belichick’s legacies on Monday, and not crowning a new champion in Atlanta.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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