History will rank Super Bowl 51 in Houston among the greatest ever, the only one decided in overtime. For the New England Patriots it was the greatest comeback ever, being down 25 points midway through the third quarter, scoring 31 unanswered points and winning 34-28.
If you’re an Atlanta Falcons fan it was the worst collapse ever. And if you’re a San Francisco 49ers fan you’re no longer celebrating your team hiring Kyle Shanahan as your head coach.
If you were hoping for a confrontation between commissioner Roger Goodell and the quarterback he unfairly suspended who went on to win his fifth Super Bowl and his fourth Super Bowl MVP award, you were disappointed.
Goodell avoided meeting Tom Brady on the main stage but sought him out in the postgame melee on the field, shook his hand and said, “That was awesome.” As indeed it was.
While Goodell was presenting the Lombardi Trophy to Patriots owner Bob Kraft, the commissioner was booed savagely by tens of thousands at NRG Stadium. Kraft proceeded to declare, in a veiled reference to Deflategate, “A lot has transpired during the last two years. And I don’t think that needs any explanation. . . . This is unequivocally the sweetest.”
Before the game began, the consensus of expert opinion was that the young Falcons, with five rookie starters and only four players who had ever been in a Super Bowl, would be overcome by jitters. They were supposed to commit an early turnover or two and be fighting uphill the rest of the way.
But in fact the Falcons were steady at the start and it was Brady who threw a pick-6 to Robert Alford with three minutes left in the first half. The regular season Most Valuable Player, Matt Ryan, was in command most of the game.
Until, as Falcons coach Dan Quinn put it, “we ran out of gas.”
In the first three quarters they pressured Brady on 45 percent of his drop-backs. In the fourth quarter and overtime, the number fell to 20 percent, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Atlanta’s final four drives ended with a fumble and three punts. The main culprit was offensive coordinator Shanahan, the Assistant Coach of the Year and an overconfident showoff. He put his flashy aerial circus on display instead of simply running out the clock as boringly as possible.
That said, I’m not too sure Falcon fans will be happier with their new coordinator, the much traveled, little-loved Steve Sarkisian.
The Super Bowl momentum began changing when New England faced 4th and 3 on its 46, with six minutes left in the third quarter. Brady threaded a 17-yarder to Danny Amendola. The Patriots went on to score a touchdown, though Stephen Gostkowski doinked the extra point, leaving Atlanta still comfortably ahead at 28-9 with two minutes left in the quarter.
The Falcons should have iced the game on their next possession. A failed onside kick (Gostkowski again!) put them on the opponents’ 41. A pass from Ryan to Austin Hooper made it 2nd and 1 from the 32. From there a field goal was almost certain, with Matt Bryant 28-for-29 on kicks shorter than 50 yards.
But left tackle Jake Matthews, former first-round draft pick who played Sunday like someone plucked from the practice squad, committed a holding penalty on one of his team’s few running plays. On 2nd-and-11 Hooper dropped a pass that should have been a first down. On third down Ryan was sacked by a blitzing linebacker, Kyle Van Noy.
Shanahan, who on Monday was officially named head coach of the 49ers, said, “To not convert on second-and-1, and then third, it was tough. That’s why we let them get back into the game.”
The fourth quarter began with the Patriots holed up at their 13-yard line. But against a tiring, overworked defense the Pats steadily advanced to the Falcons’ 7, before they were halted. They were limited to a field goal, thanks to two sacks by Grady Jarrett, who tied a Super Bowl record with three for the game.
On Atlanta’s ensuing possession, Ryan lost a fumble at his 25 when running back Devonta Freeman whiffed on blocking the blitzing Don’t’a Hightower.
Seconds later, Amendola caught a 6-yard touchdown, and James White bulled up the middle for the 2-pointer, pulling the Patriots to 28-20.
After an acrobatic catch by Julio Jones for 27 yards, Atlanta had a first down at New England’s 22, ready to put the game away with 4:40 remaining.
But the Birds took to the air instead of setting up a field goal for an 11-point lead that would be insurmountable barring a turnover or successful onside kick, which the Patriots already had shown is not their strength.
On 2nd-and-11, Trey Flowers, matched against the slow-footed Matthews, sacked Ryan, and then came another pass call by Shanahan and another holding penalty by Matthews, which pushed Atlanta out of field goal range.
So the Patriots got the ball with 3:30 left and two timeouts, giving Brady ample time for the game-tying drive. The play of the day was a 23-yard pass that Julian Edelman caught at his toes after it bounced off the leg of Alford after he had two hands on it and might have intercepted.
White caught two consecutive passes out of the backfield to take the ball to the 1. From there White carried into the end zone. Amendola caught the 2-pointer, game tied.
Atlanta’s linebackers may be the fastest in the league, as Troy Aikman said, but Vic Beasley, Deion Jones and DeVondre Campbell were weary and confused. They were beaten like meringue by White, who caught a record 14 passes, for 110 yards. Beasley led the NFL with 15.5 sacks but was all but invisible in his three postseason games: no sacks, 1 QB hit, 2 passes defended, 2 tackles.
The Falcons had nothing left for OT. The outcome was determined when they lost the coin toss. Brady, the greatest field general since Patton, moved the ball methodically en route to a record 466-yard passing day. Interference by the rookie Campbell on Martellus Bennett gave the Pats a first down at the 2, and White banged it in from there for his third TD of the game, to end it.
All glory to the gritty Patriots of course, but the Falcons self-destructed. Shanahan was more interested in being creative than in resting his defense and winning the damn game. And where was Dan Quinn while all this stupidity was going on? Isn’t the head coach allowed to overrule the coordinator? Seems like he too was out of fuel.
The hot rumor is that the 49ers, being $80 million under the salary cap, will trade for Jay Cutler, who once thrived in Denver when coached by Shanahan’s dad, Mike. I say Kyle & Cutler would be a perfect fit. They deserve each other.