The writing was on the wall and everyone could see it.
The New England Patriots were DONE! Their football dynasty OVER!
Down on the NRG Stadium field in Houston, for an entire half of Super Bowl football, the Patriots looked old and worn out. Tom Brady didn’t look like himself… maybe Father Time had finally caught up with him. And atop of it all, the Patriots looked to be overwhelmed by a younger and feistier Atlanta Falcons… on both ends, offense and defense.
The 2016 MVP Matt Ryan was flawless with a 158.3 passer rating; Devonta Freeman was beating down the Patriots’ defense on the ground for an average of 11.8 yards per carry and Julio Jones was well… Julio Jones, athletic and taking full advantage when an opportunity came his way. And that Falcons defense… all over Brady keeping the four-time Super Bowl champ on his toes.
Indeed, the writing was on the wall and the New England Patriots could see it. The whole team was looking at it, only that, in the crowded locker room at the NRG Stadium, away from Lady Gaga’s halftime show, the wall was actually a big whiteboard. And the writing sent a message different than the doom everyone else boldly predicted. It sent a simple message coach Bill Belichick had been preaching for years: DO YOUR JOB WELL! And contrary to what many imagined, the messenger wasn’t at all fazed by the score – his team was down by 18 –and continued to preach as composed as if the score was 0 – 0. No drama and definitely no Any Given Sunday motivational speeches.
“He told us to stick to the game plan. He didn’t go crazy or anything,” defensive tackle Alan Branch explained for NFL.com.
He just told us to go out there and we were able to definitely come back from that score deficit, so he said: ‘If everybody does their job, we have a great chance of coming back to win the game.’
Business-as-usual Bill Belichick.
But what was the game plan for Super Bowl 51? Amidst the many plays broken down to the very basics, on the right side of the board, a special list of MUSTS stood out waiting to be discussed after 30 minutes of not-good-enough championship football. A numbered list that ultimately sparked the largest comeback in NFL Super Bowl history. A list that goes like this:
1. Start Fast & Do Your Job Well
Unfortunately for the Patriots, the ‘start fast’ part didn’t go that well. And it hasn’t gone well since Bill Belichick took over the franchise. In fact, in all Super Bowls in the Belichick/Brady era, the Patriots failed to score in the first quarter. Super Bowl 51 made no exception. So with a 21-3 deficit at the half and with an even bigger 28-3 margin in the third quarter, New England took a different approach: they instead took their time and kept the Falcons defense on the field for most of the second half. Let’s just mention the Patriots’ 6-minute-drive in the third that led to James White’s first touchdown. YES, six minutes and 5 first-downs.
Overall, for the game, New England ran 93 offensive plays for a total of 41 minutes; the Falcons only 46 for over 23 minutes. As a result, Atlanta’s defense got worn out and faltered towards the end. Thus Patriots’ big comeback.
2. Stop The Run
Devonta Freeman gave Belichick a lot of headaches in the first half. The coach knew Freeman is a legit top running back who can make you pay if you focus too much on Matt Ryan. He was hot in the first 30 minutes with 71 yards on 6 carries yet in the second half plus overtime, the Patriots’ defense understood the message very well and shut Freeman down. The running back had 5 more carries for only 4 yards. YES, that means under ONE yard per carry.
3. Get After #2 & Attack The Spot
Obviously, coach Belichick was talking about the 2016 MVP Matt Ryan and the absolute must to pressure him and take him out of his comfort zone. In the second half, Ryan continued to be aggressive and his aggression may have cost his team the Vince Lombardi trophy. Indeed, he made some big throws but he fumbled the ball midway in the fourth, on his own 36 and was sacked for -12 yards when his team needed a field goal badly to put the game out of reach for New England.
In the second half alone, Patriots’ defense sacked Ryan 4.5 times. In the first 30 minute, only Alan Branch got close to the MVP for half a sack. That’s pressure in a nutshell.
4. Eliminate #11 & No Big Plays
No. 11 is Julio Jones and the Patriots did their job in containing the versatile wide receiver. Jones had some special moments on the field and made a huge ‘Smooth Criminal’ catch with 5 minutes to go in the fourth quarter. That catch moved the chains deep in the New England’s territory, in their own 22. But Matt Ryan and a holding penalty ruined everything for the Falcons.
That was Julio Jones’ sole catch in the second half by the way. Eliminate #11? You can say that!
5. Win Turnover Battle = Win Game
That was the difference right there between the first and the second half for New England. If we have looked only at the first half stats and NOT at the scoreboard, we would have believed Tom Brady & Co. had the upper hand: 210 vs. 189 total yards in the first half, 13 vs. 9 first downs, 2 for 15 vs. 4 for 22 penalties and yards lost. So how in the world the score was 21 – 3 for Atlanta? Simple: TURNOVERS! New England had one fumble and Brady threw one pick-six in the second quarter. At the half, the Falcons were winning the turnover battle and score showed it.
In the second half however, New England had ZERO turnovers and forced Matt Ryan to fumble the football; that Dont’a Hightower sack was huge giving the Patriots much-needed hope to complete the largest comeback in Super Bowl and playoff history.
Message delivered yet again.
6. Tackling Is The Game
In the first half, New England made 8 tackles to stop the offense, in the second 21 which is more than double. OK, OK but what about the Falcons? Yes, Atlanta made twice as many overall – 59 (47 after Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl show) but you know why? Because the defense was on the field for most of the second half.
They couldn’t catch a break and they got tired which led to less pressure on Tom Brady, looser man coverage and more mental mistakes. In other words, the recipe for disaster for the Falcons. But if you are Bill Belichick and the Patriots this is the perfect opportunity to make the largest comeback of them all.
7. Situational Football
What does this mean? One play at a time, don’t rush and make the best possible decision you can on each and every play. Like, for example, the four-and-three with 6:04 to go in the third. The Patriots were in their own 46 and many coaches would have punt the football just to be safe – even though the scoreboard showed 28-3. But coach Belichick took the risk as he knew he would run out of time eventually. Tom Brady found Danny Amendola and extended the drive that led to New England’s first touchdown.
And also the two-point-conversions that helped the Patriots tie the game late in the fourth. “We worked on those two-point plays all week. I don’t know. (Offensive coordinator) Josh (McDaniels) and I had a sense that we may need a couple of them,” Belichick said half-joking after the game.
And the Patriots put the two-point plays to good practice on Sunday night, in Super Bowl 51.
8. Play Smart & Aware
An extension of Situational Football: read the defense, keep them guessing on offense, find ways to disrupt Matt Ryan and make the running backs work for every inch.
9. Most Physical Team!
In the second half, the Patriots stopped Matt Ryan & Co. and let the Falcons’ defense do most of the work on the field. New England’s defense finally got to the 2016 MVP and made him pay for his relentless aggression. And Ryan felt it the most.
10. It’s All About US!!!
Indeed it was. They believed when most considered them DONE. They kept going when most called it A GAME. And Tom Brady was their leader going all out in the second half (282 passing yards!!!) and silencing the doubters once and for all. Before Super Bowl 51, the NFL teams were 0-124 all-time in the playoffs with a deficit of 17 points or more entering the final quarter. The New England Patriots were down 19…
BUT before eclipsing Lady Gaga’s halftime performance, the Patriots had one more bullet point to talk about, written in capitals with a red marker:
DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS!!
And this time, history was on their side: seven times the top defense met the top offense in Super Bowl history. On Sunday, Falcons was the number one offense in football with 33.8 points per game scored in the regular season (540 total, eighth-most in NFL history). In the divisional and championship round, the team scored 80 total points, including 36 against the much-talked-about Seattle Seahawks’ defense.
The Patriots were number one in points allowed per game in the 2016 NFL season with 15.6 per game. In the playoffs, they allowed 16.5 points per game.
So what happened before Super Bowl 51? The top defense won 6 times and the top offense only once.
The writing was on the wall but everyone misread it. It wasn’t about New England’s misfortunes BUT about the greatest comeback in all football history.