The New England Patriots beat the Atlanta Falcons 34-28 on Sunday in the first overtime game in Super Bowl history.
Despite being three-point favorites going into the game, the Patriots’ victory was anything but assured when they were down 25 points midway through the third quarter. The previous record for the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history was a measly 10 points, but the Patriots lapped that and then some by ripping off 31 unanswered points. In about 25 minutes of play, the score moved from a gloomy 28-3 Falcons to a victorious 34-28 Pats. New England’s strong finish was powered by 3 keys.
Key # 1: James White and the quick passing game
Before the game, many looked at the battle in the trenches between NFL sack leader Vic Beasley and Patriots’ right tackle Marcus Cannon as a deciding factor in the game. While Cannon was the clear winner, his teammates along the offensive line could contain neither ageless wonder Dwight Freeney, nor the young Grady Jarrett who tied a Super Bowl record with 3 sacks. Tom Brady was hit over a dozen times by a frequently stunting Falcons team which, along with turnovers, was the reason the Pats went to half with just three points.
After halftime, the offense adapted. Brady started passing exclusively out of the shotgun and throwing shorter passes. The pressure on the QB dwindled and allowed Brady to get in a rhythm. Receivers Malcolm Mitchell, Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan, and especially Julian Edelman got open consistently and caught passes they were dropping earlier.
On top of that, James White had a breakout game on the biggest stage. White hauled in a Super Bowl record 14 receptions (as a running back!) and scored three combined rushing and receiving touchdowns — including the game winner in OT — also tying a Super Bowl record. White’s ability to get yards after the catch in the screen game was crucial in slowing the rush and punishing Atlanta’s man coverage.
Key # 2: Defense comes up big down the stretch
Playing backs against the wall, Matt Patricia’s unit fought for their lives. After allowing the Atlanta offense to score 21 points with relative ease, they did not allow another score. The transformation was remarkable. One drive, Matt Ryan was hitting Taylor Gabriel on a deep route where he juked Malcolm Butler to the ground and finished with an easy touchdown to Tevin Coleman.
Next, the Falcons were gifted the ball on the Patriot’s 41 but Ryan took a sack, and Atlanta punted. On the next drive, Coleman was injured and on the next play, the Patriots’ linebacker Dont’a Hightower came off the edge for a game changing strip sack.
With Brady and White doing their job on offense, the D needed only to execute their gameplan. It was clear this was to stop Atlanta’s Julio Jones. Jones made a few highlight plays, but in hindsight this has to be considered a success. For him to be targeted only four times is a win, and though he caught all those balls, two or three of them were solely because of his freakish athleticism and footwork — as in, he was well covered and still managed to make the plays. With Jones’ impact minimized (as much as possible), Coleman hurt and a questionable lack of Devonta Freeman running despite earlier success, the Falcons’ attack lacked many of its dimensions. Combine the relentless pressure of the Patriots’ Chris Long and Trey Flowers, and the Falcons’ high flying attack came to a screeching halt.
Key # 3: The greatest head coach and QB of the generation
In the third quarter, Dan Quinn’s team had a 99.6 percent chance of winning. That 0.4 percent represents a miracle, so it’s no surprise the post-game narrative was all about the intangibles. It’d be difficult to say New England had prepared better with the brutal start they had, but the preparation for a comeback like this did not happen during the last two weeks. It started 16 years ago when Brady and Belichick won their first ring and half of Atlanta’s defense was still on the playground.
The Patriots’ unwavering confidence was impossible to miss. It was the type of confidence that could only be had in men starting and coaching their seventh Super Bowl together. The type that comes with winning the Super Bowl only two years ago. Everything a young Falcons team lacked, the Patriots had in droves. The special stuff. It was the Tom Brady revenge tour and Atlanta played a supporting role. They never trailed in regulation, but by the end of the game you could never tell. The result felt inevitable. That’s the power of Brady and Belichick — the greatest duo I’ve seen.