Impossible Comeback Difficult To Fully Process And Other Leftover Patriots Thoughts

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

HOUSTON (CBS)­­ — Another ho-hum Super Bowl victory for Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.

Can’t these guys ever play a compelling game?

Of course, what took place Sunday night at NRG Stadium against the Atlanta Falcons remains difficult to process, but what I keep coming back to is this: Even though we’ve seen this team pull off incredible comebacks, even though we’ve seen this quarterback do the impossible many times before, this just seemed like too much to overcome.

When the Falcons led 21-3 at halftime, there was still a chance — however slim it may have been. But when Tevin Coleman whooped Rob Ninkovich in a footrace to the goal line to make it 28-3, it was over. Ballgame. Finito. See you next summer.

And it wasn’t just the deficit. It was the fact that nothing was going the Patriots’ way for the entirety of that game. Some of that was self-inflicted — LeGarrette Blount’s fumble, Brady’s interception, Julian Edelman’s and Chris Hogan’s drops, Shaq Mason allowing an ill-timed sack — while some of it had to do with how dominant the Falcons were performing. Grady Jarrett was crushing Brady whenever given the chance, and even Dwight Freeney was able to rise from the dead to sack Brady. Julio Jones was catching everything in his general vicinity. Taylor Gabriel was open on seemingly every play.

Atlanta looked poised to not only beat the Patriots but to run them out of the building.

But what happened next in all three phases of the game was utterly remarkable. I liken it to a locomotive engine getting rolling down the tracks. It starts off slow — caaaa-chug … caaaa-chug … caaaa-chug — as it begins its roll down the tracks. It starts to get all of its weight behind the force of movement, slowly and steadily gaining more steam — ca-chug, ca-chug, ca-chug — and before you know it, after you’ve doubted what’s coming next, the train is barreling along. Nothing can stop it.

That was precisely how Brady’s offense looked in the final three drives of the game, when they were a model of efficiency. Trailing by 16 points in the fourth quarter, the odds were slim enough to score the two touchdowns, let alone the pair of two-point conversions. But they did both. It looked easy.

And in overtime, forget about it. Atlanta lost that football game when they lost the coin toss. The Patriots were going to march into the end zone whether it was the 2016 Falcons or the 1985 Bears on the other side of the ball.

Somehow, after getting thoroughly dominated for the first 45 or so minutes of the Super Bowl, the Patriots managed to turn the tables and make it look like they were going against a peewee football team.

At this point in the run, we should not be surprised anymore. Yet here we are — amazed, stunned, speechless.

To be honest with you, it’s kind of too much to process, and speaking for myself, I know that I won’t have a complete grasp on this game until I’m able to watch it three or four times in full. But — come on! — it’s the Super Bowl. And we can’t let a little sleep deprivation rob us of some leftover thoughts.

–When you win a Super Bowl, especially in that fashion, it takes a whole lot of plays. So I don’t want to put too much emphasis on one play, but I do want to spotlight the very first play of the second half. After Matt Ryan and Devonta Freeman did anything their hearts desired in the first half, the second half began with Dont’a Hightower bursting through the Atlanta line and enveloping Freeman for a loss of three.

Again, it’s one play. But I think it was a tone setter, saying, ‘We’re not giving up and at the very least we are going to be a pain your ass for the rest of the night.’ They were. Two plays later, Eric Rowe broke up a third-down pass to Gabriel, forcing a Falcons punt. And after allowing 14 offensive points and a ton of yards in the first half, the defense made plays when needed to limit Atlanta to just seven points in the second half. At times in the fourth quarter, all the Falcons needed was a penalty to put the game out of reach. They never could get it.

Brady gets a lot of attention — deservedly so — but enough can’t be said about the defensive performance.

It was a bit of a throwback in the sense that it was a complete team performance, from top to bottom.

–Also, even though Stephen Gostkowski missed a PAT and committed a penalty on a failed onside kick, let’s not overlook the significant work of the kickoff team. After the Patriots’ second field goal cut the lead to 28-12, the Falcons kick return team utterly collapsed. They sent the hands team out when Gostkowski kicked it deep, which ended up setting up the Falcons at their own 27.

But after that, Gostkowski kicked to the 3-yard line, and the coverage team swarmed Justin Hardy at the 10-yard line.

And after the game-tying points were put on the board, 57 seconds still remained, which is a lot of time when you have Julio Jones. But Gostkowski kicked off right to the goal line, and the coverage team descended upon Eric Weems at the 11-yard line.

Kickoff coverage doesn’t put booties in the seats, but the Patriots’ special teams unit played a major role in this win.

–I don’t know what it is about impossible catches being made in Super Bowls involving the Patriots, but my goodness. Taking nothing away from David Tyree or Mario Manningham or Jermaine Kearse, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anything quite like Julian Edelman’s reception over the middle of the field to pick up a crucial first down prior to the Patriots tying the game.

The thing got tipped in the air, which is usually enough on its own to lead to an incompletion or, just as often, an interception. Then it hit a leg. Then Edelman grabbed. Then he let go. Then, with maybe a centimeter of clearance off the fake grass, he grabbed hold. While intertwined with multiple human beings.

This was a catch:

Julian Edelman makes an unbelievable catch in Super Bowl LI. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Julian Edelman makes an unbelievable catch in Super Bowl LI. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Julian Edelman makes an unbelievable catch in Super Bowl LI. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Julian Edelman makes an unbelievable catch in Super Bowl LI. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

In real-time (from the uppermost regions of the stadium), I thought no way, that the officials had just ruled it a catch because they couldn’t see, and that it would easily get overturned on replay. Then I looked down to update the live blog, starting a post about how Edelman made a catch but that it would not count, no big deal. But then the replay was shown on the video board. And if ever there was an “oh my God” moment, that was it.

I — like I imagine many others — muttered four words in disbelief: “He caught the ball.”

–Folks — folks! We’ve got a good sports photograph to share! Gather the family ’round!

Julian Edelman, Tom Brady, David Andrews (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

Julian Edelman, Tom Brady, David Andrews (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

–Another incredible catch that didn’t get nearly the attention: Malcolm Mitchell’s up-down routine before making an 11-yard gain up the left sideline. He fell all the way to the ground, and he might have been on his belly even after Brady had released the ball. But he popped up in an instant, made the catch, and moved the chains.

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

This was on the game-tying drive, mind you, and it got the Patriots out of trouble in their own end. Huge play.

The receiver became the first rookie to catch a pass from Brady in a Super Bowl, which is pretty amazing. And then he became the first rookie to catch six passes for 70 yards from Brady in a Super Bowl. Kid is good.

–There were a lot of standout performances on offense, which tends to happen when the QB throws for 466 yards.

Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan, Julian Edelman (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan, Julian Edelman (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

But what stood out to me, watching mostly in disbelief, was the absolute steel that defines that entire unit. Those guys are just nails. When the pressure is at its absolute highest, when the din of the stadium is deafening, they’re down they’re just using their hand signals, calmly waiting for the snap before the explosion. They fight to get open. They fight to make catches. They fight for extra yards and they fight to get into the end zone.

Just like the Patriots’ defense, the offense seems to pride itself on being a major pain in the backside for opponents. They may be able to deal with that offense for 10, 15, 30 minutes. But 60? That advantage is going to the Patriots.

–Do you know what’s crazy? Tom Brady threw for 466 yards but I feel like he left some plays out there. He overthrew a wide open Edelman inside the two-minute warning before halftime. And the pick-six was dreadful, as the view from behind the pocket showed that it looked like Brady was staring at Robert Alford the entire time, unaware that Edelman was uncovered over the middle. There was also a pass late in the first to Edelman that was thrown in a way that made Edelman turn his body and stop his momentum, preventing him from a potentially huge game.

So, if you were wondering what film Brady will be watching beginning, say, Thursday? Then there you go. He’s probably already wearing a stenciled “6” shirt.

–Just sharing this …

I mean. Are you kidding me?

–It was polite of the Patriots’ defense to show that they’re big fans of the leftover thoughts by employing the “ZERO HUMANS” defense multiple times throughout the night. I appreciate the homage!

But for real:

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

That came as a result of this:

Not good.

Later, there was arguably the ZERO HUMANS defense to end all ZERO HUMANS defenses.

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

I don’t know much about coaching, but you’ve just got to have more humans than that.

I thought that was the backbreaker, the 39-yard catch-and-run to kick off a drive after the Patriots had cut the lead to eight. Ryan later hit Julio Jones for eight yards and the Falcons had the ball on the New England 22-yard line.

Then the defense stuffed Freeman for a short loss before Trey Flowers (who was the defensive MVP) sacked Ryan for a loss of 12. The Falcons got back into field-goal range, but Chris Long forced a holding penalty on Jake Matthews, pushing the Falcons out of field-goal range. Ryan’s third-down pass to Gabriel missed by a mile, and the Falcons had to punt.

So many chances for the Patriots to lose. Unbelievable they won that thing.

–Not to harp on the negatives, but for a while, I was thinking that for the second straight year, the Patriots’ season came to a premature end because of poor offensive line play. Admit it, you were too. And without Rob Gronkowski to roll out to run go routes to nearly save the day, it looked like the struggles of the O-line would be the downfall once again, as Brady took sack after sack after sack.

I don’t know if they figured something out or if the Atlanta pass rush just got exhausted from being on the field for roughly 3,000 plays. But the O-line became a non-issue in crunch time. Funny how that works.

–Hey, if you want to talk crazy catches, you’ve obviously got to talk Edelman, and you’ve got to mention Julio Jones’ acrobatics. But you shouldn’t forget Chris Hogan. A minute into the overtime, Hogan ran up the left sideline, and with Jalen Collins’ all over him, he simply outmuscled the corner to make the catch.

 

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

Big-time play. (What’s up, Falcons mascot creeping in the back?)

Two plays later, Edelman made a catch over the middle (on that perfect Brady touch pass over the linebacker) to move the chains.

What do you even say about those guys? Nails.

–Oh, and after making that catch, Edelman went ahead and blocked his behind off for a James White screen (technically a rush):

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

That’s a bona fide stud wide receiver going all out to block. You’d think you’d see it all the time, but you don’t.

Belichick might adopt that young man, if he hasn’t already.

–A lot of people are getting on Dan Quinn and Kyle Shanahan for the Falcons’ abandoning of the run game. And I get it. Sure. Right. No doubt. Common sense.

But! Devonta Freeman had 71 yards and a touchdown on his first six carries.

Devonta Freeman finished the game with four yards on five carries.

The run game stopped working! And with Tevin Coleman getting hurt, the options were limited. And with a dynamic passing attack, that’s often the better choice.

So yes, maybe a dedication to the run would have brought about a more favorable result for the Falcons. You can say that. But don’t disregard the fact that the Patriots shored up against the run.

–Tom Brady’s done a lot of things in his life that I can’t understand. His holding on to the football, somehow, when getting smoked at this point in his life:

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

Yeah, I didn’t understand that. I reckon I might have fumbled.

–They say that football is a game of inches. It is not a cliché.

This is the difference between a game-changing strip sack and an incomplete pass:

(Screen shot from NFL.com/Gamepass)

(Screen shot from NFL.com/Gamepass)

Maybe 0.1 seconds? Crazy.

–Early in the game, Edelman was on the outside line of the out of bounds marker when he got railroaded by a Falcons defensive back. No call was made. The Falcons got away with one. But I think that’s the type of thing that you don’t want to do to Edelman. He thrives on that stuff. He’s a nut. Let that be a lesson: Don’t poke the bear.

–What’s crazy is that the trio of running backs was a significant position of strength for New England going into the game. Having a fully healthy LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis was supposed to be the difference maker from last year, when James White was the only real option out of the backfield. White was targeted 16 times in last year’s AFC title game loss, catching just five of them for 45 yards. It seemed to be a problem.

But then this year in the Super Bowl, Blount was not having much of a game, and he fumbled. Lewis hurt his hammy. White became their guy.

And unlike last year, he rose to the challenge in a way few could have predicted.

White was once again targeted 16 times, but this time he caught 14 of them for 110 yards and a touchdown. He also ran 29 yards and two touchdowns (including the overtime winner), and he ran in a crucial two-point conversion.

I mean, watching that game in real time, you knew White was having a great game. But did you really know it was that type of good? I didn’t. What a night for White.

(White had topped 100 receiving yards in a game exactly once in his career. He had zero games with two touchdowns. Nice time to break out.)

On Monday morning at his MVP press conference, Brady argued that White should have won the award. Hard to argue against the choice of the man who won his fifth Super Bowl and threw for 466 yards to do it, but … I’ll say that White came close. Very close. He out-Shane Vereened Shane Vereen.

–Do we have an explanation on why Shea McClellin jumping the line on a PAT was a field goal? No? OK, didn’t think so.

Boomer Esiason said on the radio broadcast that he believed it was called because McClellin briefly halted his momentum at the line before the snap, which would have made him “lined up” over the long snapper, which you cannot do. But replay showed McClellin clearly hurdling the guard. So … jumping the line is banned now? Cool, nobody liked seeing those anyway.

–OK, we could talk about this game forever. But let’s on this: the win probability chart, from Pro Football Reference.

At one point as late as the middle of the fourth quarter, the Falcons had a 99.9 percent chance of winning the game. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent chance.

Win Probability Chart of Super Bowl LI (From Pro Football Reference)

Win Probability Chart of Super Bowl LI (From Pro Football Reference)

The Patriots won the Super Bowl.

Unbelievable.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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