There’s only three letters that can describe Super Bowl LI: Wow.
For patrons and football fans alike, it was an entertaining and improbable game. For the sports history fanatics, it may be one of the most memorable ever. Let’s break it down.
The Atlanta Falcons came riding in as hot as any team could have been, and for two and a half quarters, it looked as though they hadn’t deviated from it. After the first quarter ended scoreless, with both defenses trading blow-for-blow with the offenses, the Falcons opened it up. They made it a 7-0 game. In response, the Patriots Laugarrette Blount fumbled it, setting the Falcons up to score again, 14-0. The Patriots offense bounced back, but as they closed in on the end-zone, Brady threw an ugly pick-six, where Falcons cornerback Robert Alford essentially walked the last 10 yards to the endzone, 21-0.
The Patriots meanwhile, could not seem to get out of their own way. Pressure on Brady all night caused errant throws throughout the game, and drops by receivers didn’t help the cause. All they could muster was a field-goal before halftime. And to make matters worse, the Patriots had to kick off in the second half, already down by 18. To start the half, the Falcons scored, 28-3. Most had the game over. With only a quarter and a half to go, an offense that had yet to be slowed down in eight straight games, an insurmountable comeback of four possessions (the largest Super Bowl comeback ever had only been two possessions after all), the Patriots were sunk, down 25 to a team that proved it was in every sense of the word, on a roll.
What took place for the next 20 minutes may go down in sports history as one of the greatest feats ever. Tom Brady and his Patriots got the ball. An ugly drive nonetheless, but they managed a touchdown. A missed extra point at the time seemed very symptomatic of the Patriots, making it 28-9. A failed onside kick followed, and the Falcons recovered with great field position. The Patriots defense however, clamped down. They stalled the Falcons, forcing the first three and out for the Falcons in 21 possessions. The Patriots managed a field goal their next drive, 28-12 with 10 left to play. Possible, but very unlikely.
The next drive, Falcons Matt Ryan fumbled the ball, giving the Patriots the ball at the 25-yard-line with still 8:24 left to play. They scored, and then pulled off the two-point conversion, 20-28 with about six to play.
The Falcons received the ball, only needing a score to put the game away. Any score would have done, a touchdown, a field goal, anything to make it a two-possession game. They moved quickly into field goal range, but stalled. A holding penalty on third down pushed them to the edge of field goal range. A sack on Matt Ryan took them out of it. They now had to punt it, with just under four minutes to play. The Patriots drove, and scored, and then tied, forcing the first overtime in the history of the Super Bowl.
With all the momentum on their side, and the Falcons with a tired defense, the Patriots opened overtime with a touchdown, ending the game. The Patriots had done it. They scored 31 unanswered points to beat the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI.
Tom Brady and Bill Belichick
With this win, the Patriots join a unique club of teams with five Super Bowl championships. They are one of now four teams (Steelers – 6, Cowboys, 49ers – 5) to hold five championships in the Super Bowl era. While that is an organizational feat all on its own, the story is the coach and the quarterback. It’s been debated for years whether or not Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time. This Monday, it’s very hard to argue against it. Five super bowl championships, seven appearances, his consistency, his stat-line, his playoff success all speaks for itself. To win this game was huge, but to win it in this fashion cements him. It’s time to face it, Tom Brady may be the greatest to ever play the game. And the same goes for Bill Belichick. While his competition is a little more stout (after all, who likes to be compared to Vince Lombardi’s five championships in the 60’s?).
It’s not to say that Belichick is the greatest ever, though a strong case can be made for it. The level of dominance his team has shown in a period we’ve seen free agency and salary cap dictate the game is remarkable. Put it this way, since the Patriots first Super Bowl in 2001, every single team has had at least one losing record, except the Patriots. In fact, the Patriots have only missed the playoffs twice in that span (2002 and 2008). We can talk division, or level of competition, but the fact is it’s getting harder to deny the Patriots greatness.
Regardless of who you are a fan of, or who you dislike, what we saw in Super Bowl LI should be admired, remembered, and celebrated. In 51 years of Super Bowls, the likes of that has never happened. It may be a while before we see something like that again in sports, period.