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Monday, February 6, 2017

In the Best Super Bowl That We Will Likely Ever See, the Patriots Beat the Falcons 34-28 in OT

Special nights like the one that we all just experienced this evening make me extremely thankful for two things: 1) that I'm a sports fan and 2) that I happened to have been born in New England not too long before this era of unbelievable professional sports dominance (10 titles in 15 years!) began, the likes of which we'll probably never see again in any city let alone ours. The Patriots (17-2) beat the Falcons (13-6) 34-28 in overtime at Houston's NRG Stadium in Super Bowl 51. We live in a world where everything is dripping in hyperbole-the best or the worst-but is there any logical argument that concludes that wasn't the greatest Super Bowl ever?

After a scoreless first quarter (the Pats somehow haven't scored a single point in their 7 Super Bowls under Bill Belichick and Tom Brady), Atlanta took a 21-3 lead into halftime which expanded into a seemingly insurmountable 28-3 advantage early in the third quarter. Game over, right? Considering that the previous largest Super Bowl comeback was a modest 10 points, who but the most irrational Patriots honk (redundant, I know) could possibly believe that they could make it competitive again? Well there is a reason that Belichick (5-2 as a head coach) and Brady (a Super Bowl record 466 yards with 2 TDs) both further cemented their place as the best head coach and quarterback respectively with their fifth Super Bowl title (a record) for New England.

The Patriots reeled off 31 straight points to tie it at 28 with 57 seconds left in regulation (on James White's 1-yard TD run and 2-point conversion catch by Danny Amendola) then ended it in the extra session (the 1st time ever that a Super Bowl has gone to OT) on White's 2-yard TD run. New England won the coin toss in overtime, because of course, and Brady (named Super Bowl MVP for a record 4th time) marched them down the field (8 plays, 75 yards, 3:58) for the game-winning score. The Falcons never saw the ball since a touchdown was in essence a walk-off score, no big deal right?

In epic sporting events like this (not that it has truthfully has many peers), it's always tough to deduce which was a bigger factor: the winning team overcoming almost impossible odds or the losing team choking in unfathomable fashion. When you look at the final stats, the only thing you can objectively say is that the Patriots wore down the Falcons. That makes zero sense when you consider that Atlanta was up 28-3 and had a win probability over 99% (seriously), but New England ran more than twice as many plays as them (93-46). The Pats had 20 more first downs (37-17) and more than 200 more total yards (546-344). Atlanta had way more penalties (9-4) for nearly three times as many yards (65-23) and finally, New England had the ball for over 17 more minutes than them (40:31-23:27).

Everyone knows that the Falcons have an amazing offense but conversely, their defense was the question mark and despite a flawless first half, they fell apart (as probably every defense would) when they were stuck on the field for so long. It also helped that the Patriots forced Atlanta's first turnover of the postseason (a Matt Ryan fumble that was recovered by Dont'a Hightower) at a key moment-midway through the 4th quarter with the Pats trailing 28-12. Literally nothing went right for New England for the first 2.5 quarters and even their first touchdown (a 5-yard TD pass from Brady to White) was tempered by Stephen Gostkowski missing the point-after.

There are a million plays and moments to remember from this instant classic but looking back on it this soon, you have to marvel at how the Patriots appeared to never get rattled. Atlanta looked like world-beaters in the second quarter as Devonta Freeman (11 carries, 75 yards) ran for a 5-yard touchdown then Ryan (17-for-23, 284 yards, 2 TD) hit Austin Hooper for a 19-yard touchdown. When Brady threw an 82-yard pick-6 to Robert Alford with 2:21 left in the first half and the Falcons suddenly led 21-0, you couldn't help but sit in stunned silence (maybe punctuated by a few choice swear words). Gostkowski's 41-yard field goal with two seconds left in the second quarter was devoid of meaning other than for your Super Bowl squares.

We'll never know how much of a factor the extra long Super Bowl halftime played (it's 30 minutes and by the way, Lady Gaga was fantastic) but you have to think that the Falcons were just a bit too overconfident (keep in mind this is a team that's never won a Super Bowl and only played in 1 other, in 1999) while the Patriots likely used the time to calm down and regroup. New England's defense forced Atlanta to go three-and-out to start the third quarter but then they did the same thing and that was magnified by the Falcons going 85 yards in eight plays on the ensuing drive which ended with Tevin Coleman catching a six-yard touchdown pass. Who could have guessed that would be their final points of the entire game?

How fitting that this impossible comeback by the Pats was fueled by unsung players like White (Super Bowl record 14 catches, 110 yards; 6 catches, 29 yards; record-tying 3 TDs), Danny Amendola (8 catches, 78 yards), rookie Malcolm Mitchell (6 catches, 70 yards), Martellus Bennett (5 catches, 62 yards) who has reportedly played through bone chips in his ankle for weeks and Trey Flowers (4 tackles, 2 assists and 2.5 sacks). Julio Jones (4 catches, 87 yards) even made one of the most insane catches you'll ever see (shades of Giants wide receivers David Tyree and Mario Manningham in their 2 Super Bowl wins vs. Patriots) but it was quickly overshadowed by Julian Edelman's (5 catches, 87 yards) juggling catch that had to be seen to be believed.

Rob Gronkowski, arguably the greatest tight end of all-time, was lost to another season-ending injury (back) in Week 13 and all the Patriots did was readjust their offensive gameplan (kudos to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels) and they never lost again. Think about that (Tony Mazz voice). Similar to the fourth quarter vs. Seattle two years ago in Super Bowl 49 when Brady was simply brilliant (with a major assist to Malcolm Butler), he went to work in winning time yet again. Gostkowski kicked a 33-yard field goal to cut it to a two-score lead for Atlanta then Amendola caught a six-yard touchdown pass from Brady and White ran in the two-point conversion (the old Kevin Faulk direct snap run up the middle!) with 5:56 left.

Without consulting what I wrote in this exact space two years ago, I'm sure it went something along the lines of "enjoy this while it lasts, because it won't be forever." As we all know, Brady missed the first four games of the 2016 regular season due to Deflategate yet ultimately it didn't matter one bit and if anything, it just might have galvanized the team an extra amount. In a depressing reality where Donald Trump is President of the United States (pardon me while I puke myself to sleep), I can't pretend that it's a perfect world by any means. The older you get, the more you realize that some things in life truly suck like relatives and friends passing away (especially when it's premature) and unfortunately there is nothing that you can do about it.

That's what makes victories like this so special: what else can bring together so many different groups of people better than sports? I'll pretend to wait for an answer that truthfully doesn't exist in the universe. There are countless other enjoyable facets of our lives but these are some of the moments that young or old, rich or poor, we will never forget for as long as we live. You can't put a price on that and it's one of the million reasons (what up Gaga?) that we watch all these games and invest so much time in a particular team in hopes that every once in a while we are treated to an event remotely resembling like this.

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