In perhaps the greatest Super Bowl ever contested, the New England Patriots erased a 25 point deficit and hoisted their fifth Vince Lombardi Trophy in 17 years.
By Evan Kolin (’18)
Super Bowl LI will likely go down as one of the best games in NFL history, with the Patriots scoring 31 unanswered second-half points to come back and defeat the Atlanta Falcons by a score of 34-28.
Entering the matchup, it seemed that New England was the clear favorite simply because of their experience. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, quite possibly the greatest coach-QB duo of all-time, were advancing to their seventh Super Bowl appearance apiece. Meanwhile, the Falcons were conference champs for the first time since 1999, and Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan hadn’t shown any signs of being a truly elite signal-caller prior to his MVP campaign this year.
Despite the negative projections, the Falcons went into the game confident and ready to upset the mighty Patriots. And by the way things looked for the game’s first thirty minutes, that confidence seemed to be translating into Atlanta’s first Super Bowl title in franchise history.
The first quarter ended scoreless, a surprise considering the contest entered with the Super Bowl’s highest over/under ever at 58 total points. But soon enough, the points came rolling in.
The high-scoring expectations launched in quarter two, though only one party was doing their part. Running back Devonta Freeman, along with the rest of Atlanta’s offensive attack, absolutely destroyed the Pats’ top scoring defense, capping off a 71 yard drive with a five yard touchdown run. Four minutes later, the Falcons took a two score lead courtesy of a 19 yard reception by Austin Hooper. However, the best was yet to come.
With just two minutes remaining in the quarter and New England about to cut their deficit in half, the unthinkable occurred. On 3rd down from Atlanta’s 23, Tom Brady tossed the first pick-six of his postseason career. Fourth year cornerback Robert Alford intercepted the two-time MVP and took it 82 yards to the house, gifting his team a 21-0 lead and a near lock at a ring. Almost everyone, from the crowd at NRG Stadium in Houston to the millions watching at home, thought the contest was over. Even Tom Brady lay heartbroken on the field after his dive at Alford ended unsuccessfully. It looked like a sad end to an otherwise fantastic season from New England, and that they would have to wait one more year for another chance at glory.
However, they didn’t end up having to wait those 365 days, because their opportunity for redemption came just a few hours later.
Eventually, the Falcons stretched their advantage to 28-3, with the Patriots reducing it to 28-9 by the conclusion of the third. Following a Stephen Gostkowski field goal, his second on the day, the score was 28-12 with nine minutes to go in the game. Nevertheless, a celebration in Georgia still looked certain. New England needed a miracle if they even wanted to make it close, yet alone come out victorious. Soon, though, that miracle came.
While the mistakes of the Patriots were the storyline of the first-half, the blunders made by Atlanta will go down as the ones we remember the most as well as the gaffes that proved most costly.
The Falcons’ luck began dwindling with eight minutes left in the contest, when a Dont’a Hightower sack resulted in a Matt Ryan fumble at his own 25. New England recovered, and a Danny Amendola TD catch (plus a two-point conversion) made it a one score contest at 28-20.
However, Atlanta subsequently went down the field once again, ready to finally put the game to bed. An insane Julio Jones reception put his unit at the Patriots’ 22, giving them a shot at a field goal that would all but clinch the Super Bowl for the Falcons; all they needed to do was not make any glaring errors. Sadly, the next series of miscues were right around the corner.
First, instead of running the ball, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan called for an unneeded pass. The result was a sack that lost 12 yards, almost putting the team out of field goal position. On the very next play, however, a Jake Matthews holding penalty pushed the team back ten more yards. Atlanta was thus forced to punt the ball away, allowing Tom Brady three minutes to initiate a possible Super Bowl tying drive.
Every great quarterback in football history plays their best when under the greatest amounts of pressure. Joe Montana never put up the most impressive numbers, but he is consistently regarded as one of the top QBs to ever grace the field because of his constant ability to win games with one final drive. Now, Tom Brady had the chance to do the same in the biggest of stages. At that moment, Tom Brady had the opportunity to cement himself as one of the greatest to ever snap the pigskin.
There are so many notable plays within that game-tying Patriots drive that it is hard to keep track of. Perhaps the most memorable was Julian Edelman’s unbelievable 23 yard reception that had fans remembering the David Tyree catch of 2008. The drive later concluded with a James White one yard scramble, followed by yet another two-point conversion that knotted up the score at 28.
Following a fourth quarter for the ages, both the Patriots and the Falcons were now entering untouched waters: the first overtime in Super Bowl history. And when New England won the coin toss, fans could smell more history about to be made. To absolutely nobody’s surprise, Tom Brady led his team right down the field yet again. Except this time, there was no more football to be played after, because as James White’s outstretched arms reached over and into the endzone, the game was over and the confetti began streaming down. The Patriots were Super Bowl Champions.
The records that were broken on February the 5th outnumber any Super Bowl ever before. Tom Brady passed for 466 yards and James White caught 14 of them. New England’s comeback was 25 points, more than doubling the previous Super Bowl high of 10 in the Redskins’ come-from-behind victory in 1988 and the Saints’ improbable triumph in 2010. Tom Brady won his fifth title, the most of any quarterback ever, while Bill Belichick’s own fifth ring surpassed Chuck Noll atop the coaching throne.
But there is more to this past year’s Super Bowl than records. Tom Brady likely sealed his legacy as the greatest to ever play the game of football, an accomplishment that no statistic could ever represent. The Patriots also ended up triumphant in “Deflate-Gate,” culminating in Roger Goodell handing over the Vince Lombardi trophy to long-time nemesis Robert Kraft among a swarm of boos. Additionally, the Super Bowl gave a positive light to an NFL season that was surrounded by the fear of deteriorating interest and declining ratings.
It is hard to place one game above all others. There are a series of factors one must consider if they desire to label one contest as the best in football history, from the significance of the matchup to the true emotion involved. There have been a number of memorable games that have spanned the last half-century, from the Ice Bowl to Super Bowl XLIII. But this one may stand atop them all.
Not only was this contest 60 of the most heart-wrenching minutes of football you’ll ever witness, it also could be the last time anyone sees Tom Brady playing under the brightest of lights. When asked upon the possibility of retirement, the 39-year-old responded to Sirius XM NFL Radio by stating that “if it was up to [his] wife, she would have [him] retire today. She told [him] that last night three times. And [he] said, ‘Too bad, babe, I’m having too much fun right now.’”
However, while the superstar may currently feel as if he can dominate forever, his reign will eventually come to an end. But luckily, even when that does happen, we will still have this game to fall back on. We will always have Super Bowl LI in the back of our minds, and we will always remember the great career of Thomas Edward Patrick Brady.