HOUSTON — Great Super Bowls tend to be remembered in miniature: A missed kick. A ball pressed to a helmet. An outstretched arm at the goal line. For this Super Bowl, though, the picture will be bigger and two-sided: the New England Patriots’ furious comeback from down by 25 points to take a title they had no business taking, and the Atlanta Falcons’ attendant collapse. This game’s individual moments, memorable as they were, will likely be pale in importance next to the way the reputations of both teams were affirmed in the strongest possible terms, by the thinnest possible margin.
On the Patriots’ side, Belichick and his apostles are up for beatification. Tom Brady led five consecutive scoring drives to stage the largest comeback in Super Bowl history, setting records for pass attempts, completions and yardage in the championship game. Julian Edelman made the cleat catch. And the Patriots defense clamped down to hold the Falcons scoreless in their final four drives. The turnaround was so dramatic that it practically unwound the ESPN win-probability model in real time. These are seemingly acts of a higher power.
Except Brady, of course, hadn’t been perfect all game. Before the Patriots offense clicked into action late in the third, Brady missed Julian Edelman badly on a few throws and was making uncharacteristic errors. Partly this was due to the Falcons pass rush getting to him using just four rushers. In the second half, New England’s massive time-of-possession advantage began to show as the Falcons’ pass rush faded. (“I think for sure we ran out of gas some,” said Falcons coach Dan Quinn. “I don’t know what the time of possession was, I didn’t look at that. But I can tell you how hard these guys battled for it.”) But partly Brady’s poor start to the game was simply some bad throws and costly drops at the worst possible time in the season for either.
But rather than overreact to a few bad plays, New England stayed the course. “You can decide to say that the game is out of reach,” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said after the game, “and start scrambling and going into a two-minute mode earlier than you really want to. At halftime, we definitely weren’t going to do that.”
This is the least shocking thing the Patriots could have done. The comeback was prodigious, of course, but everyone in the stadium was watching something they had seen the Patriots do many times before. Brady wasn’t reeling off dazzling, how’d-he-do-that highlights; he was marching the Falcons to their unavoidable doom. Even the team’s ho-hum reactions to Edelman’s time-and-space-defying catch demonstrate the sense of certainty surrounding the Pats:
Edelman: “It was 3rd-and-5. We made a decent play. Thankfully, we finished. I was just trying to track it. It was a bang-bang play.”
Brady: “Yeah, I couldn’t believe it. It was one of the greatest catches. We’ve been on the other end of a few of those catches and tonight, you know, we came up with it. It was a pretty spectacular catch.”
McDaniels: “It was just great concentration. I think to win a game like this, you’re probably going to need a few plays like that, and that was one of them.”
Running back James White: “I was actually right in front of him when he caught it. I was pretty sure that he caught it. It was a big play in the game.”
Tight end Martellus Bennett: “I was like, ‘OH SHIT HE CAUGHT THAT!’”
OK, so not all of them are replicants. But if Brady didn’t quite come away from Sunday with one defining “Isn’t that John Candy?” moment of cool, he got the one thing that solidifies legacies more than iconic moments: luck. The ball finally bounced (or, in Edelman’s case, didn’t) the Patriots’ way, and the same stroke of the divine that stole away a perfect season in 2008 put New England in position to steal a championship back. For a player and a franchise as accomplished as Brady and the Pats, the inescapable conclusion is that the luck you have is the luck you make.
But for a team and quarterback that don’t have that luxury, one bad half threatens to peel off whatever veneer of credibility they had constructed on top of the city’s old Loserville neuroses this season. And if the team’s only luck is bad luck, Ryan and the Falcons manufactured it themselves.
As you’d probably guess, the biggest postgame scrum for the Falcons coaches wasn’t around Quinn, but around offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. The defense was gassed, sure, but how could the high-powered Falcons offense (No. 2 in Football Outsiders’ offensive ranks) have scored its final points with 8:31 left in the third quarter?
After the game, the thing most everyone wanted to know — and made sure to ask every Falcon in the building — was just what happened after Julio Jones made a ridiculous catch of his own with 4:47 left in the fourth quarter, putting the Falcons on the edge of field-goal range and in position to go up two scores. Were you too aggressive late? Do you wish you had any of those play calls back? They were polite versions of the obvious question: Just what the hell was Shanahan thinking? Score there and the Falcons are up two scores with just about four minutes remaining. In a game that was over several times before it was truly over, that would have buried the Pats a few feet deeper.
“Our goal was to get as many yards as we could,” Shanahan said. “You don’t think, ‘Just run the ball and make your guy kick a 50-yard field goal,’ you try your hardest to give him a great chance to for sure make it, but we ended up getting a sack, and [running the ball isn’t] really an option after that.”
In today’s NFL, a 52-yard field goal is a little under a 70 percent proposition. Scooch up 10 yards, and you’re looking at something closer to 80 percent. Add another five yards onto that and you’re up above 90 percent, turning a not-so-sure thing into one as sure as it’s going to get. The only choice is to try to advance the ball.
On first down, Devonta Freeman lost a yard. The Falcons could have taken two more plays to run into the line and taken their chances on the 50-plus-yarder. But when you have the league MVP under center and are gaining 8.8 net yards per pass attempt on the season, and when those 8.8 yards would represent a material improvement to your odds of winning, you stick to what you know. And so the Falcons did what they did all season — they gave Matt Ryan the ball. And then he got sacked. And then Jake Matthews committed his second costly holding penalty. Suddenly, the Falcons had 3rd-and-33, and as the coaches like to say, there’s no play in the playbook for that.
The difference between the Falcons and the Patriots is the difference between the Patriots and the Falcons. The Falcons’ inexplicable little foibles, like the repeatedly snapping the ball without milking all the time they could off the clock, doomed them. The Pats’ miscues, like the decision to kick a field goal while down 19 in the fourth quarter should have doomed New England, but the Patriots were saved by a series of miraculous events. Edelman caught the ball; Ryan coughed it up. The Patriots stay the Patriots, and the Falcons surely will stay the Falcons.