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Robert Alford's enormous play summed up Falcons' defensive dominance in first half of Super Bowl LI

HOUSTON – The Atlanta Falcons’ defense played in the shadows all season. That makes sense, considering the Falcons’ offense scored the seventh-most points in a season in NFL history.

But the Falcons’ late surge on defense this season is a big reason the team won an NFC title, and the defense made everyone take notice as it dominated in the first half of Super Bowl LI. The defense was incredible as the Falcons took a 21-0 lead on the Patriots. New England rallied a bit and got a field goal with two seconds left in the half, but were still down 21-3 going into halftime.

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When Falcons cornerback Robert Alford stepped in front of a telegraphed Tom Brady pass, picked it off and returned it 82 yards – strutting in the final 20 yards or so because nobody was around him – the NRG Stadium crowd was half in shock, and half delirious. It was the second-longest interception return in Super Bowl history. James Harrison holds the record with a 100-yard return. Alford’s enormous play gave Atlanta a 21-0 lead. In the first 50 Super Bowls, no team had ever overcome a deficit of more than 10 points to win.

It was the first time Brady had ever thrown a pick-six in the playoffs in his career.

Atlanta held the Patriots in check for most of the first half. Their coverage was spectacular. New England’s run game did almost nothing. Rookie linebacker Deion Jones, who was all over the field, had one of the key plays of the first half when he stripped LeGarrette Blount for a fumble. Atlanta turned that turnover into a touchdown. The only thing the Patriots really did well was draw a few penalties on Atlanta’s defensive backs.

When nose tackle Grady Jarrett picked up and suplexed Patriots running back Dion Lewis at the end of a run play near the end of the second quarter, it was a good example of the way the Falcons physically dominated before halftime. Then Alford picked off Brady, who threw only two interceptions the entire regular season, and took it the other way to give the Falcons a shocking 21-point lead. The Patriots don’t often look confused on offense, but the Falcons outplayed them before halftime.

Atlanta has a young, talented defense that didn’t get a ton of credit but played very well late in the season. The offense got all the attention through the season, but the defense showed up in a big way against Brady and the Patriots in the first half of Super Bowl LI.

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!