Thank you, Super Bowl LI. In the midst of one of the least competitive NFL Playoffs in recent history, the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons combined to deliver a historic ending to the 2016-17 football season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Patriots and Falcons set a whopping 24 NFL records in their matchup Sunday night. Twenty-one of these newly minted records belong solely to the New England Patriots.
Whether it was New England’s highly-publicized, record-setting comeback or their more obscure record for the most plays run in a game, the Patriots were able to write their place into the record books all throughout Super Bowl LI.
Up until the Patriots’ first touchdown of the night midway through the 3rd quarter, this game appeared to be heading in an entirely different direction. A Patriots’ blowout loss would have dealt an unprecedented blow to the legacies of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, and an emphatic Falcons’ win would have solidified Matt Ryan and Julio Jones among the game’s elite. As we are all well aware by now, the unquestioned greatest quarterback of all time led by the greatest coach of all time, instead orchestrated one of the most demoralizing dismantling of an opponent in Super Bowl history.
How did the Falcons fall apart so quickly? What changed in the second half to allow the Patriots to make such a gargantuan leap? We may never know exactly what happened to both teams on Sunday that allowed them to dramatically swap roles. Nonetheless, here are a few key reasons why the Falcons were unable to hold on in this historic showdown.
Key #1: The Falcons’ abandonment of the run game
The previous record for the largest deficit overcome in a Super Bowl matchup was a mere 10 points, which only makes the Patriots’ 25 point comeback even more heart-breaking for Atlanta fans. On their way to a 28-3 lead, the Falcons had successfully avoided turnovers, put an extraordinary amount of pressure on Brady in the pocket, and created a balanced offensive gameplan that they were executing to perfection.
Then, the entire gameplan was thrown out the window. According to Peter Schrager of FoxSports.com, the Falcons only ran 5 running plays after securing their 28-3 lead. In fact, after going up by 25 points with 12:45 remaining in the 3rd quarter, the Falcons only possessed the ball for a total of about 7 minutes for the rest of the game. Despite Devonta Freeman averaging nearly 7 YPC, the Falcons completely disregarded the most effective way of closing out a team: running out the clock. The Falcons’ unbalanced second-half approach and horrendous time management should bear much of the blame for this epic collapse.
Key #2: The Falcons’ defense bent… and bent… and finally broke
As most of the general public has become aware, Tom Brady passed for Super Bowl records of 43 completions and 466 yards. While these astronomical numbers have been lauded by the media, it should be noted that the Falcons’ defense was on the field surrendering this yardage as well.
Although the Falcons contained New England’s receiving threats in the first half, their bend-but-don’t-break style was undone by their offense’s incompetence in the second half. Over the entire game, the Patriots’ offense ran more than twice the amount of plays than the Falcons. While this speaks well to Atlanta’s offensive efficiency and ability to quickly score points, this disparity was a deciding factor in the game’s key moments. It was unreasonable to expect Atlanta’s 28th ranked pass defense to hold the Patriots’ 4th ranked pass offense in check all game. The Patriots’ domination of time of possession only made matters worse.
Key #3: Experience… or the lack thereof
At the end of the day, once the game was within a couple scores, there was little doubt that the Patriots would have a chance to win the game. Call it the “Tom Brady Effect” or “Swami Belichick Magic,” but the New England Patriots have proven that they should not be counted out during any scenario in any game. Matt Ryan and the Falcons on the other hand will have to ensure that this gut-punch of a loss turns into a learning experience rather than a defining moment. The Falcons made a legitimate leap this year and were a holding penalty, costly fumble and a coin flip away from being Super Bowl champions.
Looking forward, there is a chance that this game could signify the moment the Falcons became legitimate contenders. Matt Ryan and Julio Jones are in the prime of their careers, and players like Grady Jarrett and Deion Jones showed promise on defense last night. The interesting thing about being an inexperienced team is that time, and games like the one on Sunday, are the only ways to make a transition from a scrappy upstart to a grizzled, veteran franchise. If last night was any indicator, the Patriots are planning on keeping their place on the throne for a few more years. Only time will tell if Matt Ryan and the Falcons are the rightful heirs.
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