Clutch Encounters: Super Bowl LI
by Scott Kacsmar
Exhilarating. Inconceivable. Triumphant. The New England Patriots completed the comeback of all Super Bowl comebacks, erasing a 25-point second-half deficit to win 34-28 in overtime. Three teams had previously won Super Bowls after trailing by 10 points, but this was unlike anything we have ever seen with the championship directly on the line. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady moved past Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw with their fifth Super Bowl win together, and Brady won his fourth Super Bowl MVP, setting Super Bowl records for attempts (62), completions (43), and passing yards (466). This was the 50th fourth-quarter comeback win for a Belichick-coached team, and Brady's 10th game-winning drive in postseason play.
Deflating. Inexcusable. Tragic. The Atlanta Falcons seemingly could do no wrong early, but then failed to do anything right after taking a 28-3 lead with 8:31 left in the third quarter. Even if we forget the peak of the lead and the fact that this was the Super Bowl, the 19-point blown lead in the fourth quarter is now the largest blown fourth-quarter lead in NFL postseason history. Head coach Dan Quinn was Seattle's defensive coordinator in Super Bowl XLIX, so he has watched the Patriots pull off the two largest fourth-quarter comebacks in Super Bowl history against his defenses. Matt Ryan had the highest passer rating ever in a Super Bowl loss (144.1). Ryan and Brady have now been on the losing end of the three biggest blown leads in NFL championship game history.
|Biggest Comeback Wins in NFL Championship Game History|
|1||Patriots||Falcons||2016||SB||25 (28-3)||W 34-28 OT|
|2||Colts||Patriots||2006||AFC-CG||18 (21-3)||W 38-34|
|3||49ers||Falcons||2012||NFC-CG||17 (17-0)||W 28-24|
|4||Seahawks||Packers||2014||NFC-CG||16 (16-0)||W 28-22 OT|
|5||Falcons||Vikings||1998||NFC-CG||13 (20-7)||W 30-27 OT|
|6||Colts||Jets||2009||AFC-CG||11 (17-6)||W 30-17|
Just when I thought I would have Sunday night off due to another one-sided rout this postseason, that happened. Depending on your stance as a fan, you can choose which story fits the outcome better. Given that leads of that size so late in the game almost always stand up, especially with the trophy in the building, I cannot help but feel that the Falcons gave this one away more than anything.
That said, New England also did its share to take the game back. After the 28-3 start, the Patriots gained 24 first downs to three for Atlanta the rest of the way. New England's 37 first downs are a new playoff record. We have seen some great rally attempts from huge deficits in recent Super Bowls, including the 2010 Steelers (trailed Green Bay 21-3; got as close as 28-25; ultimately lost 31-25) and 2012 49ers (trailed Baltimore 28-6; got as close as 31-29; ultimately lost 34-31). Usually, the team with the big lead still finds a way to close things out, whether it's a goal-line stop or a takeaway. The Falcons produced none of those things, and even lost the overtime coin toss to boot, never to see the ball again.
Overall, the 2016 NFL season was a bit of a disappointment in terms of the quality of play, with some bad injuries that weakened the playoff field. However, an unforgettable Super Bowl will sure help its legacy. Our final recap of the year looks at one of the more perplexing collapses in NFL history.
Game of the Week
New England Patriots 34 vs. Atlanta Falcons 28
The Path to 28-3
Incredibly, the Patriots are now 13-0 in the playoffs since 2001 when facing a team for the first time that season, but 12-9 in rematches. Almost as incredible is the fact that the Patriots have gone scoreless in the first quarter of all seven Super Bowls in that time. This was no exception, with Brady getting sacked twice in a scoreless first quarter that featured more defensive pressure than expected on both sides. Atlanta jumped out to a 14-0 lead, the first time the Patriots had trailed since Week 12, which ended the longest such streak the league has seen since the 2005 Colts.
[ad placeholder 3]
It looked like the Patriots would get back into it with the help of three third-down conversions via defensive holding penalties on one possession. However, on the drive's fourth third-down play, Brady was picked off by Robert Alford for an 82-yard touchdown to give Atlanta a stunning 21-0 lead. That lead was trimmed to 21-3 at halftime, but still, if there was any concern for the Falcons at that point, it was that the offense had only run 19 plays to 42 for New England. The Patriots held the ball for 19:35, but at least the long halftime show gave Atlanta's young defense some rest.
After getting the best of cornerback Malcolm Butler a few times, Atlanta's passing game was back in the end zone, with Ryan tossing a 6-yard score to Tevin Coleman to go up 28-3 nearly halfway through the third quarter.
From there, New England scored the game's final 31 points.
The Slow Comeback
Every big comeback has to have an inciting incident to get things started. Down 28-3, the Patriots looked awfully desperate when Julian Edelman threw an incomplete pass to Dion Lewis after some trickery on third-and-3. Some coaches probably would have punted from their own 46, but Belichick absolutely made the right call by going for it here. Brady found Danny Amendola for a 17-yard gain and that was the inciting incident. Brady also scrambled for a 15-yard gain on third-and-8 after the Red Sea parted in the middle of the field, another unexpected play the Falcons failed to stop during this collapse. Still, even after a touchdown pass to James White, Stephen Gostkowski missed an extra point, and then illegally touched his onside kick attempt before it had traveled 10 yards on the ensuing play.
The Patriots now trailed 28-9 with just over 17 minutes left, and the Falcons were in great field position at the New England 41. A low-key big play was a holding penalty on left tackle Jake Matthews that knocked the Falcons out of field goal range and set up a second-and-11. Ryan ended up taking a sack on third down and the Falcons punted. That was a missed opportunity, but Atlanta still took a 19-point lead into the final quarter. When Grady Jarrett sacked Brady twice to force a field goal, it felt like the Patriots were stuck way behind the eight ball with a 28-12 deficit and 9:44 left.
Where the Falcons Blew It
Let's get to the meat of the loss. At this point of the game, any additional score would have likely sealed the deal for Atlanta. Even a drive that consumed four or five minutes of clock before flipping field position likely would have done the trick. Coming into this game, some compared Belichick's potential strategy to the one that he infamously used against the 1990 Bills when he was the Giants' defensive coordinator in Super Bowl XXV. In some ways, the statistics look very similar, right down to the number of drives, points (especially if Scott Norwood had made the game-winning field goal), yards, the miserable 1-for-8 on third-down conversions, and the fact that Belichick's team held the ball for over 40 minutes in both games.
|Bill Belichick: Super Bowl Defense Déjà Vu?|
|Game||DEF||OFF||Drives||Points||Yards||1st Downs||3rd Down||Rush YPC||Sacks||Takeaways||TOP|
However, there is a huge difference when it comes to the sacks produced, including one massive turnover that changed this game entirely. After Coleman left with an injury, Atlanta faced a third-and-1 from its own 36 with 8:31 left. The first problem was flexing Devonta Freeman into the backfield and showing a pass look, because that took away from the play's unpredictability. I personally would have just run the ball with Freeman, and would have considered doing it again on fourth down if he had been stopped short, but offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan had other ideas. The second problem was that the snap came with 15 seconds left on the play clock. This thing needed to be milked as much as possible given the situation.
Then there was the play itself. Freeman barely even chipped Dont'a Hightower, who had a clear path to Ryan for a strip-sack that the Patriots recovered at the Atlanta 25. Sure, had Ryan been looking for Freeman as a quick outlet pass, the play would have been great, but that was not the result. Ryan was looking to his left and had no idea Hightower was coming so cleanly. Given that the dink-and-dunk Patriots had moved at an Andy Reid pace down the field on the previous two drives, this was a huge turning point to cough up the ball at the 25 instead of forcing the Patriots to drive 75 yards or more. The play call was nonsensical in a power-running situation with Atlanta's best power runner still available and having a good night.
Naturally, the Patriots turned the short field into a touchdown, and pulled out the old direct-snap play to James White for a key two-point conversion. Suddenly, we had a one-score game at 28-20 with 5:56 left, and the comeback started to feel inevitable at this point.
When protecting a 16-point lead in the fourth quarter, you expect to get that last defensive stop, or to prevent one of those two-point conversions, or to add a field goal that ices the game. The Falcons did none of these things, despite putting themselves in a great position to do get more points. An uncovered Freeman immediately gained 39 yards on a pass. Julio Jones made a fantastic 27-yard grab near the sideline with 4:40 left. Jones had a season-low four targets, but caught them all in impressive fashion for 87 yards. The fact that Ryan only threw 22 non-spiked passes had a lot to do with Jones' low output, but it was still puzzling to see Jones with four targets while rookie tight end Austin Hooper led the team with six.
Still, the Jones catch put the ball at the New England 22, which should have all but iced this one. Using the Game Play Finder at Pro Football Reference, I looked at offenses with a 6- to 8-point lead in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter and a first down inside the opponent 30. That is the margin and field position where a team should be expected to make it a two-score game with at least a field goal. Any game where the first-down play was a kneeldown was excluded. Since 2000, these teams were 221-3 (.987), so Atlanta is in the rarest company with this loss. I did not have time to check 224 games to see how often the team extended to a two-score lead versus how often the defense just held up, but the previous three losses show Atlanta's offensive failure to be the worst of them all.
- 2000 Eagles at Steelers: Up 20-13 with 4:07 left, Pittsburgh ran Jerome Bettis three times, which led to a 40-yard field goal and 23-13 lead. Fair enough. The Eagles got a quick touchdown and recovered an onside kick to get the game-tying field goal with no time left before winning 26-23 in overtime.
- 2005 Texans at Rams: Up 24-17 with 3:19 left, the Texans failed to get another first down, but Kris Brown kicked a 35-yard field goal for a 27-17 lead with 2:49 left. (Oddly enough, Brown had been Pittsburgh's kicker in the 2000 Eagles game.) This was Ryan Fitzpatrick's NFL debut for the Rams, and he led one of the craziest comebacks ever. After a touchdown with 26 seconds left, the Rams recovered an onside kick, kicked a 47-yard field goal, and then won in overtime. Again, an onside kick was needed to keep hope alive.
- 2009 Saints at Redskins: Here is a very memorable game for Saints fans in their Super Bowl season. The Redskins actually had three first downs inside the 30 in the final five minutes, and a 23-yard field goal by Shaun Suisham should have put Drew Brees and the Saints away in a 30-23 game. Shockingly, Suisham was wide right on the kick with 1:52 left, keeping hope alive. Brees led the game-tying touchdown drive and the Saints eventually won 33-30 in overtime.
The fact that Atlanta did not even get off a field goal attempt is just mind-numbing. This was easy field goal range for Matt Bryant, one of the game's best kickers. When a field goal is almost as good as a touchdown in this situation, why wouldn't Atlanta simply run the ball three times and kick a field goal? Hey, Atlanta might have even earned a first down via the run with the way things were going on the night. With New England having four clock stoppages left, completely running out the clock was very unlikely. The Patriots were going to get the ball back, but if they only had a little over three minutes left in a 31-20 game, then who cares? That makes it very hard for them to win without an onside kick recovery to extend the game like those other teams did in 2000 and 2005.
You would think with the way that Super Bowl XLIX ended at the 1-yard line that Quinn would understand the importance of running the ball. You would like to think that a defensive-minded coach would make sure his offensive coordinator understood the situation here, but this is where Shanahan really botched things. After Freeman lost a yard on a first-down carry, Shanahan took a risk by calling a pass play on second-and-11. Trey Flowers destroyed center Alex Mack, who was playing on a fractured fibula, and Ryan lost 12 yards on a sack. The Falcons then completed a short pass that would have given Bryant a shot at a field goal, but it was wiped out by another holding penalty on Matthews, forcing a third-and-33 situation. Shanahan should have called something simple like a screen to try getting 10 yards or so, but Ryan's intermediate pass to the sideline missed Taylor Gabriel, stopping the clock in the process. The Falcons ended up punting the ball back after completely botching the situation.
Quinn and Shanahan failed Game Management 101 in the fourth quarter. Maybe Ryan can take some blame for this too, but all three should have known that the clock was an ally. Yet on this drive, the Falcons snapped the ball with 19 seconds left on the play clock after the Freeman catch, and with 13 seconds left before and after the Jones catch. That's roughly 45 seconds saved for the Patriots by Atlanta. Add the 15 seconds from the third-and-1 fumble disaster, and that is a full minute of game time. Even though Brady had to drive 91 yards, 3:30 with two timeouts was an eternity of time.
In our look at sneaky Super Bowl stats, one of the topics was generating pressure. Ryan's pressure rate this season was the highest of his career at over 30 percent. He is usually hard to sack, but went down five times on just 27 actual dropbacks in this game. That is a terrible sack rate of 18.5 percent. The sacks were not always blitzes, but Ryan took four of his sacks on third down.
The sacks in situations where the Falcons should have just been running the ball cost Atlanta the Super Bowl.
The Tying Drive
No player in NFL history has had more doors left open for him than Brady, and he usually makes teams pay for that. One big third-and-10 conversion to Chris Hogan got the drive moving, and then once again we saw a crazy late catch in a Super Bowl involving the Patriots. This time the catch went for New England, and that was only after Alford dropped an interception that could have been the dagger. Instead, the tipped ball bounced off an Atlanta's player leg, then Edelman was just able to grip the ball before it hit the ground. Incredible, and a 23-yard gain.
If you didn't watch the game, you might think this was a game saving fumble recovery or something pic.twitter.com/Utf49L8BiT
— $ingle Entry $wami (@LBoogieOnSports) February 6, 2017
Brady was not as sharp to Edelman as usual (5-for-13), but that unexpected catch was a good boost. It was also instrumental in leading to a piss-poor challenge by Quinn, who did not get the clock to stop until 2:03 remained. Had he let things go to the two-minute warning, he would have seen that the catch was good and that there was no need to blow his final timeout. Instead, the Falcons were out of timeouts and the Patriots had time to get another 20-yard gain to Amendola with 1:57 left.
White took two short passes down to the 1-yard line. I singled out the receiving backs in this game for Film Room, because I thought Dion Lewis could challenge the Super Bowl record for catches. Well, that record was broken, but it was by White, who caught 14 of his 16 targets for 110 yards while also scoring 20 points in the game. When the Patriots had the ball at the 1-yard line in the final minute of the Super Bowl, they did the smart thing and ran the ball. White scored, setting up what FOX's Joe Buck really missed out on calling the biggest two-point conversion in NFL history. This was basically the game, and the Patriots went with a screen to Amendola, who muscled his way past the plane with the ball for the conversion. Dwight Freeney was offsides, so it would have been a do-over even if Amendola had been stopped short.
The Game-Winning Drive Attempts
So after an epic collapse by Atlanta, the game was tied at 28. We were finally going to get overtime in a Super Bowl, unless Ryan could extend his NFL record with a sixth one-minute drill to win a game. However, Eric Weems made a terrible decision to take the kickoff out of the end zone, eventually getting tackled at the 11-yard line. With no timeouts remaining, this made things very difficult for Atlanta to do something here. Ryan had to be a bit aggressive for fear of never seeing the ball again, but he also couldn't throw a pick to lose the game.
The drive had little rhyme or reason, with a short gain to Hooper followed by a spike. Ryan's deep shot for Hooper was nearly intercepted, leading to an Atlanta punt. The offense never touched the ball again. The Patriots tried a little razzle-dazzle from their own 35, but that just led to a hamstring injury for Lewis.
[ad placeholder 4]
In overtime, the Patriots won the coin toss, and you better believe this was a game to take the ball first. The ending almost felt inevitable from that point. Brady threw some of his best passes of the night in overtime, and the Falcons showed very little resistance. The pressure that had been so evident early was nonexistent down the stretch after the Patriots finished up with 93 snaps, the second most in playoff history. Martellus Bennett almost had a game-winning touchdown catch, but he was interfered with by De'Vondre Campbell on a good call. With the ball at the 2-yard line, only some silly pass really could have saved Atlanta, and Brady almost obliged on first down. Vic Beasley got one hand on the ball, but never had any real shot for a pick. The Patriots wised up on second down, and White took a toss and cracked the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.
Comeback completed. Collapse completed. The No. 1 offense never had a chance to answer, because that is the overtime system the league has always stuck with. I was always hoping that a competitive, back-and-forth Super Bowl would go to overtime where this happens to promote changing the system so that both offenses touch the ball, but I think the overall comeback/collapse theme here was too strong to get people fired up enough about that. If the Falcons got the ball back, did anyone expect them to score after such a gut punch? Still, it sure would have been nice to see, and maybe that is something that can be brought up in the rule changes this offseason. The object of this game has never been about who can score first, but who can score the most. Only letting one side of the ball dictate that after a coin flip is not fair. If they want to impose rules that only apply to the postseason, then so be it. After all, that's how modified overtime started before it was applied to the regular season.
Gassed and Gasps: Atlanta's Dream Season Ends
How can a franchise and its fans ever get over a loss this bad? The Falcons were trying to become a very unique Super Bowl winner. They would have scored more points (540) and allowed more points (406) than any Super Bowl winner ever has. They would have had the lowest DVOA on one side of the ball (No. 27 defense) for any Super Bowl winner since 1988. Ryan would have been the first MVP winner since Kurt Warner in 1999 to win a Super Bowl in the same season, and yet it was almost predictable that this would not work out. These highly imbalanced teams tend to lose in the playoffs, and in the end, New England's defense made the big sacks and the offense dominated the second half.
Still, how do you lose a game when a quarterback averages 12.35 yards per pass attempt? Well, the Patriots also beat Russell Wilson when he averaged 11.76 yards per attempt in Super Bowl XLIX. In fact, those are the two highest YPA averages in playoff history in a loss (minimum 15 attempts).
|Highest Passing Yards per Attempt in Playoff Loss (Min. 15 Attempts)|
|1||Matt Ryan||2016||ATL||NE||SB||L 34-28 OT||23||17||73.9||284||2||0||144.1||12.35|
|2||Russell Wilson||2014||SEA||NE||SB||L 28-24||21||12||57.1||247||2||1||110.6||11.76|
|3||Jeff Hostetler||1993||LARD||at BUF||AFC-DIV||L 29-23||20||14||70.0||230||1||0||125.0||11.50|
|4||Harry Newman||1933||NYG||at CHI||NFL-CG||L 23-21||19||13||68.4||209||2||1||118.1||11.00|
|5||Colin Kaepernick||2012||SF||BAL||SB||L 34-31||28||16||57.1||302||1||1||91.7||10.79|
Moral of the story: maybe run the ball next time instead of looking for a big pass play? Of course, the misleading part here for Ryan are those five brutal sacks for 44 yards and a lost fumble that will haunt him forever should he never make it back to a Super Bowl. As this game has proven many times, you never know when this is going to be your only chance, so you have to make the most of it. Atlanta made the most of this one for about 37 minutes, but failed to get the job done.
It is a good thing that Dan Quinn is bald, because he should be pulling out his hair wondering why his offensive coordinators just won't run the ball in situations that scream for it. He had a chance to speak up this time though.
Never Count Out the Patriots
Do you know how many times in NFL history before Super Bowl LI that a team was down by 16 points in the fourth quarter, scored two touchdowns and two two-point conversions to tie, and won the game in overtime? The answer is one, back when Tim Rattay led the 49ers to a 31-28 win against the Cardinals in 2004. Yeah, that's about how rare it was for the Patriots to win the way they did here.
Super Bowl LI was not the best night for the various NFL win probability models. Many had the Falcons in the high 90s for much of the second half, including 99.8 percent at one point in the third quarter according to Brian Burke.
Low point for NE: WP model had ATL at 99.8% with 6:04 in the 3rd. Admittedly overconfident. Vegas was at 96. Right answer somewhere between.
— Brian Burke (@bburkeESPN) February 6, 2017
Given that we had a 28-point comeback by the Colts in the 2013 playoffs against Kansas City, and some other wild games in recent years, it is fair to say that these models have some work to do in keeping up with the current game. Specifically, since 2011 there has been a rise in 17-point comebacks, as well as one-minute drills where teams have at most 60 seconds to score. This is a very offense-oriented era, and it makes for improbable comebacks to be ever so slightly less improbable. Why 2011? That was the year of the lockout and new CBA. Passing numbers have just continued to go up each year since, even if the media is often questioning the talent level of quarterbacks around the league. And the new touchback rule that starts many drives at the 25 also makes comebacks a little bit more likely.
Even with Brady and the Patriots, this change can be seen in how big comeback attempts have gone for them. I knew Atlanta could never feel comfortable until it was really over, because the Patriots are arguably the "hardest kill" in the league right now. It wasn't always like that. From 2001 to 2010, the Patriots were 1-22 (.043) when trailing by at least 17 points at any time in the game. The lone win was a 21-point comeback in Chicago in 2002. Since 2011, the Patriots are 4-4 in such games, and they also gave the 2012 49ers and 2015 Eagles fights at home before finally falling by seven points.
|Patriots: Harder to Kill (Games Trailing by 17+ Points at Any Point)|
|Seasons||Games||Record||PF||PA||4QC/GWD Record||Win or Close|
|2001-2010||23||1-22 (.043)||14.5||30.0||1-3 (.250)||4-of-23 (17.4%)|
|2011-2016||8||4-4 (.500)||29.5||30.9||3-2 (.600)||6-of-8 (75.0%)|
Maybe if the Patriots are involved, the win probability model should cater to them. Believe it or not, but this Super Bowl had the largest deficit of any of New England's seven trips under Brady and Belichick, yet the final six-point margin of victory was the largest too.
Whether you love or hate the Patriots, they do always bring the drama and create instant memories with their Super Bowls this century. It took 51 Super Bowls for a monster comeback and an overtime game, and those things alone will always make this one of the most memorable Super Bowls in our lifetimes.
Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 73
Game-winning drives: 86
Games with 4QC/GWD opportunity: 156/267 (58.4 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 38 (and one tie)
Historic data on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives can be found at Pro Football Reference. Screen caps come from NFL Game Pass.