When Lady Gaga took the stage for the halftime show, Super Bowl LI appeared destined to become one of the less memorable ones in history, unless you were a Falcons fan. With a first half completely dominated by one team, we were headed towards an uneventful ending to an uncharacteristically forgettable NFL postseason. By the beginning of the fourth quarter, the game was over, barring the impossible. Well, as it turned out, the seemingly impossible happened.
And that is why there should no longer be any argument over who is the greatest quarterback in NFL history. Last night, Tom Brady led the most improbable of victories. No team had ever overcome a deficit of more than ten points in the previous 50 Super Bowls, but the Patriots went far beyond that, capturing the dramatic victory after being down 28 – 3 at one point.
The Greatest Quarterback of All-Time
Among the many feats Brady accomplished in the game, one of his most impressive barely got a mention. Brady’s first Super Bowl win came during the 2001 season, which means he is the only player in NFL history to win championships fifteen years apart. It’s not totally surprising considering how unpredictable football careers can be. First, think about how tough it is for a player to remain at the top of their game for that long. When you then consider how much roster turnover exists in the NFL, it’s almost impossible for one player to win five championships, four Super Bowl MVPs, and remain among the very best at his position for as long as Brady has. Part of the credit goes to the genius of Bill Belichick, but Brady has been a reliable constant each and every year for the Patriots.
It’s becoming harder and harder to make a reasonable argument for any other quarterback being above Brady. Some of the legends of the past have compiled huge career passing statistics and others have made their name by winning the games that matter most, but Brady is the best of both worlds. He’s within reach of the career records for passing yards, touchdowns, and quarterback rating, and already has most of the passing records for postseason and Super Bowl play. For those who value wins more than personal stats, Brady has won more than anyone. Plus, he’s still producing at the same level he always has at an age when most players have been long since retired. That kind of longevity and consistency has to count for something. Amazingly, Brady has never thrown more than 14 interceptions in a season. Basically, if Brady is your quarterback, you’re not going to lose very often. In the playoffs alone, Brady’s teams are 25-9 when he starts. He’s now won more Super Bowls than any other quarterback and is tied with Hall of Fame linebacker/defensive end Charles Haley among all positions.
How Did That Happen?
That’s the question fans all over the country were asking following the Patriots’ 34-28 victory. Tom Brady’s poise is one reason, but far from the only one. There were dozens of factors that you can look at to explain how the Falcons possibly lost this game. It starts with defense, and to put it simply, New England’s defense stepped up in the second half while Atlanta’s crashed and burned. Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia obviously made some major adjustments at halftime, which you’d expect great coaches to do. And of course, the Falcons need to be held accountable for blowing a 25 point lead. Sometimes, there’s one person or play that can shoulder the blame for something like this, but that’s not the case here. First off, you don’t make it to overtime in the Super Bowl without playing a good game, but there were at least half a dozen mistakes made by Atlanta that, had they not occurred, could have resulted in a very different outcome.
Matt Ryan’s fumble which ignited the spark the Patriots needed was huge, just like the sack he took late in the fourth quarter. That knocked Atlanta out of field goal range, and had they been a little closer, there’s little doubt Matt Bryant would have been able to nail any attempt less than 50 yards in a dome to make it a ten-point game. But I’m not blaming Ryan for the loss. He otherwise played a fantastic game, and both plays were created by bad blocking. Then there’s the pass interference on Martellus Bennett in overtime, the defense allowing two two-point conversions, and the offense failing to shave enough time off of the play clock. The Patriots were also blessed with a combination of amazing hand-eye coordination and a little luck on Julian Edelman’s ridiculous catch, and they continued to keep the Falcons off balance with some innovative play calling. And, there was one guy who served as New England’s secret weapon throughout the entire game…
James White’s Historic Night
Tom Brady said after the game that James White deserved to be the MVP of the game. Brady may have been the one who was ultimately named Super Bowl MVP, but it just as easily could have been White. Brady did set Super Bowl records for passing yards (466) and completions (43), but White set some records of his own as well. The quick receiving back set new Super Bowl highs with his 14 catches and 20 points scored. His lunging, game-winning touchdown run in overtime will become a lasting image in both football and New England sports lore.
Silver Lining for the Falcons
It’s got to be gut-wrenching to be a Falcons fan right now, but this shouldn’t be Atlanta’s last chance at glory. This season, they saw their NFC South rivals, the Carolina Panthers, tumble to 6-10 last place finish following a Super Bowl loss, but it would be a surprise to see the Falcons suffer that same fate. Atlanta’s defense is very young and also very good, and they’re just going to keep getting better. This was only coach Dan Quinn’s second season at the helm, and he should be able to continue to develop his defense. Matt Ryan was just named NFL MVP, and if any number of events had gone slightly different, he could easily have had a Super Bowl MVP to his name as well. It was a breakout year for the veteran quarterback, who had always been very good, but never elite. He’s elite now, and it should stay that way for a while. Ryan has the right weapons around him too, including a solid offensive line, a great running back tandem, and arguably the best wide receiver in football, Julio Jones. The future looks bright for the Falcons, although they will have to compete in a very good division. It should be fun, at least, with the last two NFC champions, a young, up-and-coming Buccaneers team, and the always dangerous Saints offense battling it out.
A Place in History
Super Bowl LI is the first one to go into overtime, which immediately places it in the conversation of greatest Super Bowls of all-time. It may not have been a back-and-forth affair, but there were few dull moments. It had the buildup of a great dynasty, the so-called “evil empire”, facing off against a team seeking their very first title. Even when the Falcons went up big, there was still that thought in the back of most people’s minds that if anyone could come back from 25 points down, it was Tom Brady and the Patriots. Of course, the second half was about as good as it gets in football.
If it’s not the greatest Super Bowl in history, the past year certainly has a claim as the most thrilling in sports history. We’ve seen the Cavaliers overcome a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals and then the Cubs do the same in the World Series, ending their 108-year drought in extra innings of Game 7. Now we have the first Super Bowl overtime. Not bad for one calendar year.
We can’t forget about Lady Gaga either. Most halftime shows are pretty disappointing in my opinion, due to bad audio, not enough singing, or a bunch of other things. But her performance hit the mark so well that she didn’t even need any guest stars or distracting stunts to make it entertaining. One might say the performance was through the roof.
The New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons, who match up very evenly on paper, have had drastically different fortunes throughout history. New England will be playing in their ninth Super Bowl and seventh in the last sixteen years. They’ve been perennial AFC favorites for so long that it’s almost a surprise when they don’t make it to the big game. Atlanta, on the other hand, has only made it to the Super Bowl one other time (they lost to the Broncos in Super Bowl XXXIII). Incredibly, the only time in franchise history the Falcons have even made the playoffs in consecutive seasons was from 2010-2012.
However, this is not the same Falcons team of old. Atlanta was the only team in the NFL to finish in the top five in both passing and rushing yards per game, and finished first in points per game (33.8) by a margin of more than four points over the next best team, the New Orleans Saints. That certainly doesn’t mean anything will come easy, as New England finished third in that category and also possess the top scoring defense in the NFL.
But the while the Falcons don’t have the championship pedigree of the Patriots or even the same national recognition as some of the teams they beat to get here, this is not a team that is built for just one year. Newly minted MVP Matt Ryan had a career year, but maybe it was more of a career breakout. Ryan has always had the talent and this year, everything came together for him in a big way. Julio Jones is still relatively young and is quite possibly the most talented wide receiver in the NFL. And Atlanta’s running back tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman is as formidable as any other duo in the league.
Everyone loves to talk about Atlanta’s high-powered offense, and rightly so, but their defensive turnaround may be their most impressive feat this year. That starts with head coach Dan Quinn, whom the Falcons hired prior to the 2015 season after a pair of lackluster years. Quinn was already well-regarded as a brilliant defensive mind, serving as the defensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks for their two Super Bowl appearances before getting hired by Atlanta. But after a scintillating 5-0 start in his first year, things went south and the team finished the year at .500. In addition to a middle-of-the-pack offense, one of the main problems was the lack of any kind of pass rush. The Falcons finished dead last in the NFL with 19 sacks in 2015. Fast forward to 2016, and Atlanta improved that total to 34 (16th in the NFL), while Vic Beasley had 15.5 sacks all by himself.
Beasley’s rise to stardom is just one of many reasons Falcons’ fans have to be excited for what the future holds, win or lose. Quinn has built this defense from the ground up, and there’s reason to believe it’s going to get a lot better. Along with the second-year pro Beasley, the Falcons have three rookies starting on defense, and two of them (Deion Jones and Keanu Neal) were first and second on the team in tackles.
In fact, the way the Atlanta’s roster is constructed mirrors their Super Rival, the Patriots. While Tom Brady deserves all the credit he gets for his consistency and continued success, Bill Belichick also prides himself on building standout defensive teams. Like Quinn, Belichick has a defensive background and has routinely been able to develop stars on the defensive side of the ball. Plus, Belichick has always maintained a good balance with his offense, just like this year’s Falcons. Despite having one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play, New England almost always has a good rushing attack, even if they tend to use quite a few different running backs every year.
The Falcons and Patriots both have teams that are built for success over the long haul, but it’s fair to say that most of their fans aren’t worried about that today. It’s all about one game in Houston tonight. For the Patriots, another championship would enhance the legacy of their dynasty even further, and for the Falcons, the franchise’s first championship would be a moment to cherish forever.
With any luck, Super Bowl LI will be a much better matchup than we’ve seen throughout this postseason. Aside from the divisional matchup between the Cowboys and Packers, we haven’t really seen any competitive games. A thrilling finish tonight would be great for the sport, and with the offensive talent both of these teams have, it could be a high scoring, back and forth affair.