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.
The NFL postseason kicks off this Saturday with an action packed four-game weekend, beginning with the Texans hosting the Raiders at 4:30 p.m. ET. There’s plenty to talk about with the four Wild Card games, so let’s get right to it.
WILD CARD ROUND
Oakland Raiders at Houston Texans (Sat. 1/7, 4:30 ET, ESPN/ABC)
Both of these teams enter the postseason with very questionable quarterback situations. Oakland plans to start rookie Connor Cook, who has thrown just 21 NFL passes, all last week in Denver. In fact, he would become the first quarterback ever to make his first NFL start in a playoff game. Houston, on the other hand, will likely turn back to Brock Osweiler, who had previously been replaced by Tom Savage until Savage suffered a concussion last week. For lack of better words, Osweiler has been atrocious this year after being handed a lucrative $72 million contract. During the regular season, the Raiders were a far better team than the Texans. While Oakland finished sixth in the NFL in points scored, Houston scored the second fewest touchdowns in the league (24). That is historically inept for a playoff team; no playoff team since the merger has ever scored fewer touchdowns in the regular season. However, the Texans do have one point in their favor. Oakland’s success this season has been largely tied to MVP candidate Derek Carr’s performance, whereas Houston has won with terrible quarterback play all year. Without Carr, it’s anyone’s guess how the team will respond. Both teams can be expected to run the ball heavily. In addition, both teams possess an elite pass rusher, Khalil Mack for the Raiders and Jadeveon Clowney for the Texans. This game could very well come down to which team runs the ball more effectively and how often Mack and Clowney can pressure the opposing quarterback. Despite all the uncertainly surrounding the Raiders, I’m picking them to win this game in a tight, low-scoring affair. With Houston’s unsightly (-49) point differential for the season, they don’t belong in the postseason at all, and I just can’t trust them to even beat a team who is missing their most important player.
Detroit Lions at Seattle Seahawks (Sat. 1/7, 8:15 ET, NBC)
This is another matchup that looks slightly less appealing than it would have earlier in the year. Detroit began the season 9-4, with Matthew Stafford playing some of the best football of his career. However, they stumbled into the playoffs by losing their last three games, albeit all against playoff teams. Meanwhile, the Seahawks have problems of their own. They still finished third in the NFL in fewest points allowed, but the defense has regressed since Earl Thomas’ season-ending injury in Week 13. In addition, the rushing attack which has been such an integral part of Seattle’s success for the last half-decade has taken a big step back this year. While Thomas Rawls did an outstanding job filling in for the injured Marshawn Lynch last year, a fractured fibula earlier in the year limited him to just nine games and he has averaged a pedestrian 3.2 yards per carry, down nearly 2.5 yards from last year. With that being said, the Lions don’t have the greatest running game either, and their offense has scuffled of late. Like the Raiders-Texans game, I expect this one to be close, but I think Seattle pulls it out. CenturyLink Field is possibly the toughest place for visiting teams to win, and despite the issues they’re facing, Seattle was still 7-1 at home. One more caveat to this matchup – the Lions have not beaten a playoff team all year.
Miami Dolphins at Pittsburgh Steelers (Sun. 1/8, 1:05 ET, CBS)
The Dolphins are yet another playoff team who will in all likelihood be playing without their starting quarterback, Ryan Tannehill. With veteran backup Matt Moore slated to play in his stead, Miami will rely heavily on breakout star running back Jay Ajayi, who became the fourth player to rush for 200 yards three times in one season. Pittsburgh has plenty of weapons to match up with Ajayi, led by the outstanding offensive trio of Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, and Ben Roethlisberger. Although the Dolphins enter the postseason as one of the league’s hottest teams, winning nine of their last eleven contests, they were a decidedly middle-of-the-pack team in terms of points for and against and had a negative point differential for the season. This is the only Wild Card Round game that I don’t think will be very close. As good as Miami has played in the latter half of the season, Pittsburgh has been even better, currently riding a ten-game winning streak following a rocky start. Their defense has been much better in the second half and the Dolphins’ offense is no match for the firepower provided by Brown, Bell, and Roethlisberger. If there’s a silver lining for the Dolphins, it’s that they did beat Pittsburgh in Week 6 by a score of 30-15. But for that to happen, it will probably take another 200-yard outing from Ajayi, and the Steelers will be sure to make stopping him their main focus.
New York Giants at Green Bay Packers (Sun. 1/8, 4:40 ET, FOX)
The Packers have won their last six games, and Aaron Rodgers is playing as well as any quarterback in the league. Green Bay is always tough to beat at home, but the Giants have a recent history of winning at Lambeau Field in the playoffs. New York has a legitimate championship defense that really turned it on in the second half of the season. But while their defense has been incredible, their offense has disappeared. The Giants have gone five games without scoring 20 points, which is not an encouraging way to enter the postseason. While the Packers’ defense has been wildly inconsistent throughout the year, they’ve been much better at home. The Giants have a terrible running game and Eli Manning is a turnover-prone quarterback, so unless Odell Beckham Jr. can break off a couple of big plays, the burden once again falls on the defense. Pro Bowlers Landon Collins and Janoris Jenkins will be especially counted upon in the secondary, as well as New York’s excellent pass rush. The success of Green Bay’s offense is tied completely to Rodgers, since they too have one of the league’s least intimidating rushing attacks. Because the Giants defense is so stellar, they have a chance to win any game against any team, but I like the Packers’ chances here, because Rodgers has been too good lately and I don’t think New York’s offense will be able to keep up. The Giants have only won three games this year by more than one score and only one by more than 11 points, which came against the woeful Cleveland Browns.
TBD at Atlanta Falcons (Sat. 1/14, 4:35 ET, FOX)
The Falcons finished the regular season with the NFL’s best offense by a wide margin (33.8 points per game) and they sure are fun to watch. Matt Ryan may win the MVP award, averaging a league-best 9.3 yards per pass attempt, a number only a handful of players have reached in the last 40 years. Atlanta also possesses one of the game’s best wide receivers in Julio Jones and a two-headed monster backfield of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Although they often win or lose on the heels of their offense, Atlanta’s defense and pass rush in particular have improved throughout the season. The Falcons will be a tough opponent for anyone in the NFC to beat, since they have far fewer flaws than any of their potential Divisional Round opponents.
TBD at New England Patriots (Sat. 1/14. 8:15 ET, CBS)
Since New England will face off against the lowest remaining AFC seed, they won’t play the Steelers in the Divisional Round, and that means they will almost definitely play a team led by a backup quarterback. It’s hard to believe any of those passers will match up well against Tom Brady, who was nearly perfect in twelve games this year, throwing 28 touchdown passes versus just two interceptions and compiling a 112.2 quarterback rating. But the Pats aren’t just a one-dimensional team. LeGarrette Blount rushed for a league leading 18 touchdowns and is one of the game’s best short yardage and goal line backs. In addition to having the NFL’s third best offense in terms of points per game, New England’s defense gave up the fewest total points for the season. Whoever they face, the Patriots could very well cruise to the AFC Championship Game with a victory of at least three touchdowns.
TBD at Kansas City Chiefs (Sun. 1/15. 1:05, NBC)
The Chiefs are an old school type of a team, built around a strong defense, an explosive running game, and a conservative but effective passing attack. Kansas City’s defense generated the most takeaways for the season and tied with Oakland for the best turnover ratio. If their opponent makes any mistakes and gives the Chiefs an opening, it will spell disaster. Even more daunting is that when opposing teams have been able to score against them, Kansas City has shown an ability to open up their offense more and keep up. The Steelers would likely give the Chiefs the toughest matchup, but I envision K.C. to be one of the few teams that could limit Pittsburgh’s high-powered offense, even though they fell to the Steelers 43-14 in embarrassing fashion in Week 4.
TBD at Dallas Cowboys (Sun. 1/15, 4:40 ET, FOX)
The NFC’s top seed is among the most complete teams in the NFL, but a number of close games in past couple of months have shown that Dallas is not invincible. If my Wild Card predictions turn out correct, the Cowboys would be matched up against the Packers, who lost to Dallas earlier in the year, but have a good enough passing game to compete. Otherwise, it’s possible that Dallas hosts the Giants, whom they have already lost to twice. A lot will depend on whether their opponent can contain Ezekiel Elliott and how well Dak Prescott will handle the pressure of his first playoff start for a franchise that is starved for a deep playoff run. If he struggles in the first half and the Cowboys fall behind by multiple scores, it wouldn’t surprise me if they turned to Tony Romo to change things up. However, I like Dallas’ chances of advancing past their first playoff game.
This year’s postseason should be intriguing because there is no team that stands out as the clear-cut favorite. With that being said, we could very well see all four teams who have a first-round bye advance to their respective conference championship games. Most of the other teams in the field are flawed in some way, while the top seeds are much more complete in all aspects of the game.
Should that happen, my early prediction is a Falcons/Chiefs Super Bowl. I think Atlanta would beat Dallas, or any other NFC team for that matter, since their offense has been so superior to the rest of the league. Going with the Chiefs is a tough call, but I do think they could come up with the right formula to upset New England should those two meet. Teams that have beaten the Patriots in the past have done so with good ball control and by pressuring Tom Brady, two of the hallmarks of Kansas City’s success. Between Atlanta and Kansas City, it’s the Falcons who I see coming out on top of that matchup, which makes them my early pick for Super Bowl champions.
In any event, expect the majority of the matchups, including those this upcoming weekend, to be thrilling, tightly-contested games. Many of the NFL’s top teams this year have not been to a Super Bowl in a long time, so it should be an exciting road to Super Bowl LI on February 5th.