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HOUSTON – With 8:31 left in the third quarter, the Atlanta Falcons took a 28-3 lead over the New England Patriots. No team in Super Bowl history had overcome more than a 10-point deficit to win, and the Patriots were down 25.
This wasn’t statistically the biggest comeback in NFL history. That’s still the Buffalo Bills’ win over the Houston Oilers in the playoffs at the end of the 1991 season, after they trailed 35-3. But the Patriots’ Super Bowl LI comeback, scoring the final 31 points to win 34-28, is the NFL’s greatest comeback. Or, it was the NFL’s most unbelievable collapse if you’re from Atlanta.
When a team comes back from 28-3 down to win, almost everything has to go right for the victors, and the losers have to make mistake after mistake. That’s exactly what happened.
“You have to make all of those plays right when you fall behind by 25 points,” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “Our guys deserve all the credit because they’re the ones who executed under pressure.”
“I’m kind of numb,” Falcons safety Ricardo Allen said. “Like, I don’t really know what to feel. I’m broken inside because this is not us.”
If you happened to leave your Super Bowl party when the Falcons took a 28-3 lead, it’s worth a look back at exactly how the Patriots pulled off this miracle.
“You never know which play it’s going to be in the Super Bowl and there were probably thirty of them tonight where if any one of those would have been different, the outcome would have been different,” Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said.
Actually, the number was 16. The Patriots needed all 16 of these plays to go right during their comeback:
1. The only fourth-down conversion
It’s amazing the Patriots needed just one fourth-down conversion their entire comeback. It came right away too, trailing 28-3 with 6:04 left in the third quarter. On fourth-and-3, Danny Amendola ran a quick out against cornerback Brian Poole, caught it and ran a bit for a 17-yard gain. It seemed trivial at the time.
2. Tom Brady’s run
On third-and-8, the Falcons ran a stunt to Brady’s right. The entire right side opened up for Brady, and he rushed ahead for 15 yards. That ended up being the Patriots’ longest run of the game. It kept the drive going and Brady hit White for a 5-yard touchdown. Brady’s run and the touchdown also seemed fairly trivial, because after a missed extra point, the Falcons still led 28-9 with 2:06 left in the third quarter. Again, no team had ever come back from more than 10 points down in a Super Bowl to win.
3. The first bad penalty
The one thing that didn’t go the Patriots’ way was an onside kick after that touchdown. Then the Falcons immediately got a 9-yard pass to the New England 32-yard line. But a holding call on Jake Matthews pushed the Falcons back 10 yards, knocking them out of field-goal range
4. The first big sack
On third-and-11 after the holding call, the Falcons were at New England’s 42. Falcons kicker Matt Bryant was 6-of-8 on 50-yard attempts in the regular season with a long of 59. Even a few yards on the third-down play might have given Bryant a chance to push the lead back to 22 points. But Ryan took a 9-yard sack and had to punt. Not getting any points from recovering an onside kick turned out to be enormous.
“I felt we should have come away with points there,” Ryan said.
5. Martellus Bennett comes up big
On third-and-1 Bennett lined up in the slot against safety Keanu Neal, and Brady liked the matchup. He lofted one up to Bennett, who came down with it for 25 yards at the Atlanta 7-yard line. The Patriots don’t generate a ton of long plays – Bennett’s catch was their third-longest play of the game, and the longest was 28 yards – and this one put the Patriots in position to get a field goal. Stephen Gostkowski had a difficult year, and missed an extra point in this game, so kicking a 33-yard field goal instead of a 50-yarder (which it would have been had the pass to Bennett been incomplete) was a big deal.
6. The biggest play of the comeback
Julian Edelman’s catch will go down in history because it was so spectacular. White’s overtime touchdown will live forever too. But without question, the biggest play of the game was Dont’a Hightower’s strip sack. It was a total breakdown from the Falcons, starting with the play call from offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.
The play came on third-and-1 with 8:31 left. Why the Falcons didn’t run there is a mystery. Nobody would place the blame on Shanahan for calling a pass in that situation, up 28-12.
“Too aggressive? No. I think Kyle did a good job,” Ryan said. “We played the way we play.”
Hightower came on what he said was “not a complicated blitz.” Hightower lined up outside and rushed. Somehow running back Devonta Freeman never picked him up, looking inside and barely getting a piece of Hightower as he sped by.
“I guess Freeman didn’t see me from outside, and he went to chip or check release, and lost sight of me,” Hightower said. “I saw Matt Ryan with the ball, and I wanted it.”
Hightower hit Ryan, who fumbled. The Patriots recovered at the 25. If Ryan was sacked and didn’t fumble, or if the Falcons just handed off for no gain, a decent punt puts the Patriots back in their own territory. Time wasn’t on their side either. Instead, New England scored a touchdown in five plays and 2:28.
“The strip sack was huge,” Brady said. “It got us back in it.”
It’s not exactly like the Seattle Seahawks calling a pass play at the goal line in the Super Bowl two seasons ago, but the Falcons will regret that play call forever.
“The Hightower sack was a huge play for us,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “We really needed that.”
7. Malcolm Mitchell comes up big
The Patriots faced a third-and-11 after the Hightower strip-sack. Brady found rookie Malcolm Mitchell for 12 yards. That was the longest third-down conversion of the comeback.
8. Two-point trickery
The Patriots used a direct snap on a two-point conversion, after Amendola scored a touchdown. James White took it and ran it up the middle into the end zone.
“We’ve been working on it for a couple weeks now, me and Dion [Lewis] have been working on it,” White said.
That came with 5:56 left and made the score 28-20. Without that two-point conversion, the Patriots still would have needed two scores. They probably would have had to onside kick again.
“The two-point conversion, the way it timed out, we probably had to have it,” Belichick said.
9. A 1-yard loss that was big
The Falcons responded after that score by driving to New England’s 22-yard line with 4:40 left. All they needed was a field goal to virtually ice the game. But Freeman was stopped for a 1-yard loss on first-and-10. The Falcons could have just kept running, figuring at worst they’d bleed the clock and kick a field goal, but that 1-yard loss changed their mindset. Or, put another way, they panicked.
“A couple things got us off schedule and we weren’t able to recover from it,” Ryan said.
That led to …
10. Another pass call
The Falcons could have taken a knee twice and tried a 40-yard field goal, and that would have been much, much better than what happened. The play after Freeman’s 1-yard loss, Ryan went back to pass. Center Alex Mack – usually a fantastic player, but playing on a fractured leg in this Super Bowl – couldn’t handle Trey Flowers, who came through the line and sacked Ryan for a loss of 12. It’s unfathomable that could happen – or even be allowed to happen with that play call – given the situation.
“That was a tough one,” Ryan said. “I wish I had done a better job getting rid of the ball.”
11. Another holding call
Instead of running three times and trying a field goal, all of a sudden the Falcons were passing again on third-and-23. And Ryan found Mohamed Sanu for 9 yards to the New England 26. That would have been about a 44-yard attempt for Bryant with less than four minutes left. Bryant was 28-of-29 on attempts of less than 50 yards this season.
But Matthews was called for holding. And it was a good call; Matthews had Patriots end Chris Long around the neck. That pushed the Falcons back 10 yards and out of field-goal range. After an incomplete pass, they punted. A drive that brought them to the Patriots’ 22-yard line, with a kicker who had missed one attempt of 50 yards in the regular season, ended in a punt.
“I was betting we’d get some points right there,” Falcons defensive end Vic Beasley said. “We were definitely in field-goal range, unfortunately we were unable to and gave them another chance.”
12. Hogan comes up big
On the second-longest third-down conversion of the comeback, Brady hit Chris Hogan for 16 yards on third-and-10. That also got the Patriots out of a hole; the play started at their own 9-yard line. Had that been incomplete the Patriots, who had two timeouts left, would have had to consider punting with a little more than three minutes left. Or they’d have been going for it on fourth-and-10.
13. The Edelman catch
There will be a million words written about Edelman’s great catch for years to come. It was one of the most spectacular in NFL history. One hidden part of that play came when the Patriots rushed to the line. Falcons coach Dan Quinn had to rush his challenge. It was unsuccessful and cost the Falcons their final timeout. That loomed large with 19 seconds left, when Ryan spiked the ball and wasted a play on second-and-6. The Falcons then had to punt after a third-down incompletion. When you consider the Falcons had an MVP quarterback and the great Julio Jones at receiver, even one lost opportunity to run an offensive play in the final minute was costly.
14. Two-point screen play
The Patriots tied it on a perfectly executed receiver screen to Amendola, who went in motion before the snap. The Patriots were prepared for the situation. Belichick said he figured the Patriots would need more than one two-point conversion in the game, so they worked on a few.
“We worked on those two-point plays all week,” Belichick said. “Josh [McDaniels] and I had the sense we might need them.”
Two-point conversions are a little less than a 50-50 proposition for the offense, and the Falcons went 0-for-2.
“I think that was a real factor,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “Not only did they score but they got the two points as well. So, to me, we thought we had a chance to stop them and we didn’t.”
BONUS: The coin toss
The team getting the coin toss in overtime has an edge, because the game is over if they score a touchdown on their first possession. Patriots special-teams captain Matthew Slater was on the call.
“Heads or tails is up to me,” Slater said. “I have called heads for the last six years.”
It came up heads. If Slater had decided six years ago that tails never fails, the Falcons and their offense that led the NFL in points scored would have had the ball first. When it’s said that everything went right for the Patriots in their comeback, absolutely everything went right.
15. Bennett draws a pass interference
A field goal would have been nice in overtime, but a touchdown was the only way to end the game on the first possession. From the Falcons’ 15, Brady threw one up to Bennett. Bennett was interfered with at the 2-yard line by rookie linebacker De’Vondre Campbell. At that point a touchdown seemed inevitable.
16. White scores the walk-off winner
The Patriots’ first play after the pass interference was an incomplete pass. The second could have put them in a tough spot. The Falcons hit White at about the 3-yard line. Had Ricardo Allen been able to finish that tackle or someone had arrived a second sooner, the Patriots would have had a stressful third-and-goal call. Instead White scored, and the Patriots had somehow pulled off the victory. Both sides will wonder forever exactly how it happened.
Had any one play listed here gone a different way, there might have been a different Super Bowl champion.
“It’s hard to imagine us winning,” Brady said. “It took a lot of great plays.”
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