7:15pm Houston, Texas – Super Bowl LI. Lady Gaga is rattling off hit after hit, with millions around the world wondering whether she is going to make a comment about President Trump. At the same time, deep inside NRG Stadium, two very different team talks are being given to teams who have 30 more minutes to determine their place in history, winners or losers.
The Dan Quinn led Falcons, sit on top of a 21-3 lead (the largest in Super Bowl history) and has virtually shut out the Tom Brady-led New England Patriots for the entire First Half. The Kyle Shanahan/ Matt Ryan Offense is firing on all cylinders. The young Defense looks like a re-incarnation of the hard-hitting, super athletic, Super Bowl-winning Seattle Seahawks of yesteryear. The Falcons Coaches are preaching – ‘we have not won this game yet’, ‘remain aggressive’, ‘be true to the team we have been throughout this whole season’, ‘this is Tom Brady and the Patriots.’
Elsewhere within NRG Stadium, Head Coach Bill Belichick is trying to get his troops going. Belichick suffered through an embarrassing First Half performance that featured a fumble, pick six and the Patriots being unable to sustain drives on Offence. The Pats did, however, do an excellent job defensively of holding the Falcons Offense to only 14 points. He preaches his sound fundamentals, taking care of the football and of players doing their job. Nobody is better at making Half Time adjustments than Bill Belichick, yet the lead appears too large to overturn.
Two Emerging Narratives
What happened next is something that will go down in Super Bowl legend. Some are already calling it the ‘Greatest Super Bowl ever’, however, every Super Bowl is its own individual moment in history. As we begin to think back and attempt to digest exactly what went on inside NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas – two very different narratives begin to emerge. The narrative you saw play out in Super Bowl LI will most likely derive from your footballing preference, i.e. whether you were rooting for New England or Atlanta. Each fan will have their own interpretation of exactly what went down in the Second Half at NRG Stadium. Below are the two narratives that emerged from Super Bowl LI.
The Drive 2.0/ The New Comeback Kid
The New England Patriots put up points on all of their last five drives in Super Bowl LI (excluding the kneel down). After punting on their first possession in the Second Half, Tom Brady then went 26 of 33 (78.8%) for 292 yards, 2 TDs and a 2 Point Conversion. The Patriots Quarterback was clutch as he brought the Patriots back from a 25 point hole with only 23 minutes remaining in the Super Bowl.
This Second Half and Overtime performance by Tom Brady must rank among those great and iconic drives in Super Bowl folklore. Down 28-20 with 3:30 remaining on the clock, Brady drove the Patriots 91 yards over 10 plays in 2 minutes 33 seconds to tie up the Super Bowl and give us our first ever Super Bowl Overtime. Brady then orchestrated an 8 play, 75 yard clinic in just under 4 minutes to win his 5th Super Bowl and cement his place as the Greatest QB in NFL History. The drive was reminiscent of two legendary offensive series.
The Drive was an Offensive Series in the 1986 AFC Championship Game that saw Denver Broncos QB, John Elway, march his team 98 yards down the field to beat the Cleveland Browns and advance to Super Bowl XXI. Joe Montana aka “joe cool” or “the comeback kid” (Tom Brady’s idol), led his San Francisco 49ers team 92 yards over 11 plays, to win Super Bowl XXIII against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Tom Brady, the GOAT led the largest and greatest comeback in NFL and Super Bowl history. Brady was on fire in the second half putting on the performance of a generation as many quickly forgot about his pick six in the second quarter which appeared to bury the Patriots in a hole. The 2000 NFL Draft’s 199th pick, threw his way (and ran for 15 yards) into immortality, becoming the only Quarterback in NFL history to win 5 Super Bowls (surpassing the Great Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana). Brady’s performance just six months before he turns 40 is one that will go down the in record books, as many down the line will point to this game as the culmination of Tom Brady being considered the GOAT. Brady was accurate, clinical and proved that no stage is too big for the new comeback kid as he led the drive 2.0 to send the Super Bowl into its first ever Over Time. Brady kept his composure and systematically moved New England down the field to win a historic 5th Championship, the greatest comeback in NFL history.
The NRG Meltdown
With 23 minutes to go the Atlanta Falcons were behind the steering wheel of the largest meltdown in Super Bowl history. Going 28-3 up in Super Bowl LI, many believed the Falcons had locked up the franchise’s first Super Bowl thanks to a lightning fast and uber-athletic defense; and a lights out, high powered Offense.
The Falcons have prided themselves on playing aggressively on Offense all season. Leading the League in big plays and having a Quarterback who has been sensational in connecting down the field – is not achieved by dinking-and-dunking and playing ‘safe football’. However, the Falcons came out gung-ho in the Second Half and capped their second Offensive Possession with a Touchdown to put them up 28-3.
At this point the Falcons were 25 points clear with just north of 23 minutes remaining. The Falcons had ran the ball 13 times for a total of 99 yards (7.62 average per rush) and a Touchdown up to this point. The Falcons ran 19 plays the remainder of the game, yet astonishingly only 4 of them were runs. I don’t want to label it as naive or reckless but I believe Offensive Co-Ordinator Kyle Shanahan should have played the percentages; and weighed up the potential risk vs. reward of some of his play calling in the Second Half.
3rd & 1 – 8 minutes 31 remaining in the 4th. The Patriots have just scored a TD and FG to bring the score to 28-12 Atlanta. The Falcons are on their own 36 yard line, and have lined up Devonta Freeman in the Shot Gun. Firstly, I believe the Falcons should have ran the ball here as they only needed a yard. Even failing to pick up the first down would have left New England with under 7 minutes to try and drive down the field twice. Freeman misses his blocking assignment and Dont’a Hightower cannons into Matt Ryan forcing a fumble. While Ryan and Freeman are at fault here, Shanahan should not have allowed this to become a potential outcome. A more conservative play call would have eliminated this game changing turnover.
2nd and 11 – 3:56 to go, Atlanta is up 28-20. If the Falcons stick the ball in Freeman’s gut twice, they will potentially drain the clock to 2:40 or force the Patriots to burn two time outs. Kicker Matt Bryant who was 28 of 29 with Field Goals of 49 yards or less this season would have had to kick a 33 yarder. The percentages suggest he makes it, putting the Falcons up by 11. This would therefore become a two possession game.
Instead Matt Ryan is sacked on 2nd & 11, pushing the Falcons back to New England’s 35 yard line. The following play Left Tackle Jake Matthews is flagged for Holding and the Falcons face a daunting 3rd & 33 from New England 45 yard line. I believe the decision to throw the ball on 2nd down is something that will haunt Offensive Co-orindator Kyle Shanahan and the rest of this Atlanta Falcons team for many seasons to come. If Shanahan was more conservative in his play call. after being aggressive earlier on and relying on a ridiculous acrobatic catch by Julio Jones down the sideline to get Atlanta into Field Goal position, this game could have ended very differently.
The Falcons also capitulated on Defense. In the First Half their youth was evident as they played fast and turned up in swarms wherever a Patriot had the football. Aged veteran Dwight Freeney put on a pass rushing clinic as he repeatedly embarrassed LT Nate Solder. The Falcons were also consistently getting pressure through their interior rushers as Grady Jarrett had a break out performance and ended the game with 3.0 sacks, 3.5 TFL and 4 QB hits. Yet when it mattered most, Atlanta was unable to stop the Tom Brady led freight train and the Falcons youthful secondary repeatedly committed back breaking pass interference penalties. The Defense and Offense, capitulated in the greatest collapse in NFL history.
For me, this game will always be remembered as the NRG Meltdown. Yet each person will have their own memories and interpretations of Super Bowl LI. This game was eerily similar to Super Bowl XLIX, not just due to the questionable decision to pass not run on a key play but the Julian Edelman catch which was reminiscent of the Jermaine Kearse late in that game. Yet the same conclusion can be drawn from both Super Bowl’s… run the damn ball! What a season 2016 was!