The first week of February marks the end of the NFL season, and I always like to take a look back at the recently completed campaign. I spent much of Super Bowl Sunday this year reflecting on the season and attempting to decide what was good, what was bad and what was downright ugly.
Football returned to Los Angeles, with the Rams moving back to Southern California after more than two decades in St. Louis. The Raiders took another step towards reestablishing prominence. Oakland made the playoffs but went out with a whimper after quarterback Derek Carr broke his leg. The Cowboys were resurgent, and the Titans, too, returned to respectability, but the latter team saw their young field general, Marcus Mariota, also break his leg in Week 16.
All these things offered talking points and impacted how the season will be remembered, but nothing that happened this season could compare to what football fans saw in Houston on Sunday, Feb. 5.
The New England Patriots entered Super Bowl LI as slight favorites over the upstart NFC South champion Atlanta Falcons, only to see the Dirty Birds open a seemingly safe 28-3 lead by early in the third quarter. The Pats were sleepwalking during the first half and were; quite frankly, left for dead after league MVP Matt Ryan hit Tevin Coleman with a short touchdown pass in the third quarter.
The Pats then pulled to within 28-9 later in the frame when Tom Brady found running back James White for a short scoring strike but kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed the ensuing extra point and then botched an onside kick when the ball hit him in the arm before traveling the required 10 yards.
At that point, Atlanta still had to be feeling pretty good about their chances, but then things went south. While Brady and New England were finding their groove on offense, the Falcons’ counterparts fell apart, with Dan Quinn and his coaching staff contributing to the demise by making some rather questionable play calls.
Leading 28-20, Atlanta had a chance to kick a field goal to put the game out of reach, but a sack and a holding call knocked the Falcons out of field goal range.
The game proved to be Kyle Shanahan’s last as Atlanta’s offensive coordinator; the next day it was announced that he would be leaving the franchise in order to fill the head coaching vacancy in San Francisco. His late-game play calling may leave the 49ers brass rethinking their decision to hire him, though.
Fox analyst Troy Aikman questioned Pats OC Josh McDaniels for his play calling during the game, as well, but the one-time Broncos head coach deserves credit for not hitting the panic button and having faith in his game plan.
Everything worked out in the end for New England because Brady and James White finally took care of business when the line began to block for them.
White got into the game only after LeGarrette Blount’s lost fumble set up an Atlanta touchdown. For the mistake, Blount ended up in coach Bill Belichick’s doghouse on the sideline for the rest of the game.
White, like many others on New England’s loaded (if largely anonymous) roster have, made the most of his chance. He was his team’s leading receiver (14 receptions, 110 yards and a touchdown), and he scored two late touchdowns on the ground, including a game-winning 2-yard dash in overtime that ended one of the greatest games in NFL history.
Brady won a fourth Super Bowl MVP honor, a record fifth championship and was able to (ever so diplomatically) thumb his nose at Roger Goodell, a polarizing figure and one of the most disliked commissioners in North American sports. Brady, as he always does, took the high road during the post game award ceremony.
Brady had set records for completions (43) and net passing yards (442) in the first overtime game in Super Bowl history. The Pats orchestrated the largest comeback in the history of the championship game. In all, 24 Super Bowl records were broken and six more were tied in Houston.
As far as the Falcons are concerned, they let a big one get away, as they unfortunately are wont to do. That’s been the one knock on Ryan, as the regular-season MVP hasn’t been able to win big games in clutch situations. But the team does have a young roster and may be back if they can recover from their epic collapse. Shanahan’s decisions likely cost them the game, but his departure opens the door for a fresh start for Ryan and the offensive playmakers. Both Quinn and Ryan say Atlanta will be back, but there are no guarantees. Just ask Dan Marino about that.
The Patriots, meanwhile, did what they always do during game week. They kept their mouths shut and went about their business, which is what Belichick expects and mandates. They did their jobs, and their perseverance paid off.
Even when New England faced a huge deficit, there was a nagging suspicion that they weren’t completely out of the game. And the one thing we learned (as if we didn’t know it already) is that you can never count out Tom Brady in big games.