Sports

Boy, the Falcons Almost Did This, Huh?

After tonight, there's absolutely no doubt about it: Tom Brady's the greatest quarterback ever to play, and this was the greatest Super Bowl ever.
February 6, 2017, 5:33am
He just filled one of those fists with rings. Photo by Mark J. Rebilas—USA TODAY Sports

Matt Ryan was flawless. Devonta Freeman was unstoppable. Julio Jones did Julio Jones things. Most impressive of all, the Atlanta Falcons defense rocked Tom Brady early and held them to a measly field goal into the middle of the third quarter.

So how in blue blazes did Robert Kraft and Tom Brady end up on stage, accepting their fifth Lombardi Trophy in an avalanche of confetti?

Through five-eighths of the game, the Falcons' would-be win was nearly as complete as the Seahawks' demolition of the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII. But while XLVIII started with a quarter-long perfect storm in the Seahawks' favor, LI ended with the Falcons trapped in a half-hour-long nightmare.

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Sunday's game started with almost 17 minutes of a scoreless struggle, with both teams moving the ball well, but repeatedly stalling in a heap of third-down sacks and penalties. The Falcons got the upper hand in the second quarter, when Falcons rookie linebacker Deion Jones ripped the ball away from LeGarrette Blount.

On the ground, the Falcons were relentless. Injured center Alex Mack looked none the worse for wear, leading his unit in a butt-whooping of a Pats front seven that finished fourth in Football Outsiders rush-defense DVOA. They dominated at the point of attack, especially at the second level—freeing Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman to pick up yards in chunks.

In the air, Matt Ryan was near-perfect, carrying a maximum 158.3 passer rating well into the fourth quarter. He threw just eight passes in the first half, and 23 overall, completing all but six of them. The Falcons offense compiled a ludicrous average of 7.5 yards per play—far above their league-leading regular-season average of 6.7 yards per play.

Defensively, the Falcons let the Patriots move the ball sporadically, but shut them down as soon as they approached the red zone. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett got two of his Super Bowl record-tying three sacks on one fourth-quarter drive, forcing the Pats to settle for a second field goal. This red-zone stop temporarily denied the Pats their second touchdown—and seemingly took away their last, best chance to get back in the game.

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But then a blown protection led to a strip-sack on Ryan, and the Patriots cut the Falcons' lead from 16 points to eight. Suddenly, what was once a 28-3 beatdown was a one-score game.

In the next Falcons possession, Ryan flipped a dump-off to an all-alone Freeman, who reeled off 39 yards. Ryan did his best Aaron Rodgers impression to get away from a rush and deliver a perfect pass, and Julio went full Julio:

It looked as though "Matty Ice" was about to live up to his name, until his ass got sacked. And then a screen pass got called back on a holding penalty, denying them adequate field goal range. They had no option but to punt the ball to the greatest playoff-closing QB ever known.

But even in terms of his exalted reputation, what Tom Brady did on the game's final two drives beggars belief.

Brady started with an exorcism of the demon named David Tyree, when a near-interception turned into a gobsmacking multiple-deflection catch:

The ball bounced off Falcons cornerback Robert Alford's hand, off his right shin, fell into Edelman's hands, was kicked back out of Edelman's hands by Alford's ankle, unwittingly kept alive by Falcons safety Ricardo Allen's extended right hand and pounced upon, again, by Edelman. More tangled limbs than a contortionist's game of Twister.

The Falcons defense—gassed by the Patriots' 93-46 advantage in offensive plays and gutted by a game-sealing interception turned game-saving reception—provided little resistance to Brady as he led the Pats to the game-tying score.

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You can heartbreakingly try to count the infinite, tiny what-ifs in regulation that could have led the Falcons to clinch their first ever Super Bowl. It felt just that close. But then came overtime.

When the Pats won the coin toss and took the ball, everything felt all-but sealed. Brady and company drove inexorably towards this game-winning touchdown plunge:

Astonishing, sure—but can we use the word "best" right now? When it comes to "best," pundits like me can (and will) quibble over whether Brady's the best quarterback who ever played the game. Hell, you make a pretty good case he wasn't even the best quarterback on the field in Super Bowl LI.

But after tonight, it's hard to see it any other way: Tom Brady's the greatest quarterback ever to play. Bill Belichick's the greatest coach ever to coach. Their New England Patriots are the greatest dynasty ever to dynasty. And this was the greatest Super Bowl in the long and glorious history of Super Bowls.