If we hadn’t seen it for ourselves, we wouldn’t believe it.
When Atlanta took a 14-0 lead with 8:48 remaining in the first half of Super Bowl 51, erasing that deficit would have counted as the greatest comeback in the game’s history. An ensuing 57-yard drive by New England that took 15 plays (including two Falcons defensive holding penalties) and 6:27 off the clock was terminated by a devastating interception return for a touchdown. With 2:21 left in the half, the Patriots trailed 21-0.
After an 11-play drive in which they had to settle for a field goal, New England went into the half down, 21-3. By the 8:31 mark of the third, that disadvantage had risen to 28-3 on an all-too-easy Tevin Coleman touchdown reception.
Then, somehow, overtime. And then, after a favorable coin toss, the improbable thing became inevitable.
As much as New England fans celebrated, a part of them must have felt like Tom Brady did at the 0:17 mark of the James White touchdown video, where he was just trying to make sure that what happened did, in fact, actually happen.
For a detailed review of the comeback, please see our rundown in the last Patriots Thursday Observations column of the season, “It’s Not Over Yet.”
With time comes perspective, and with that perspective, some thoughtful looks back on the biggest comeback in NFL championship history.
Soo many thanks to all the sports reporters who took the time to offer their points of view: Matt Chatham, former Patriot linebacker and founder of FootballByFootball.com; Mark Daniels of The Providence Journal, Chad Finn of The Boston Globe; Tanya Ray Fox of USA Today Sports Media Group; Mike Giardi of CSNNE; Mike Reiss of ESPN.com; and Bob Socci, play-by-play announcer on 98.5 The Sports Hub and host of The Bob Socci Show on patriots.com.
For an insider look at reporting on the NFL championship (and, really, the experience of writing up any away game), I recommend Christopher Price’s column “What it’s like to cover a crazy Super Bowl finish.” Great work by Chris here.
Ah, remember February 5? To the WABAC machine!
All of our media members predicted the Patriots would win. As Socci said, “Initially, my expectations were consistent with conventional thought, that Super Bowl LI figured to be a high-scoring, closely-contested game. As the game drew nearer, my confidence in the Patriots increased based on a number of factors: I believed they had the advantage at head coach and quarterback, possessed a better defense, and would enjoy success running the ball against Atlanta’s defense. In truth, after also considering the contrast in experience between the teams, I said to myself and others, ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if the Patriots end up pulling away.’ It goes to show what I know – or, more importantly, don’t know.”
“I expected a competitive Patriots victory,” said Chatham. “From my pre-game study, I expected the Patriots to control interior play on both sides of the ball – was shocked to see that not happen for about three quarters. I also expected better Patriots ball security all around. That, too, was an unexpected problem in the game. With those two unlikely things swinging dramatically to Atlanta’s side, many of my pre-game assumptions were predictably way off.”
Though most of our pundits correctly laid out a few basics of the contest, including some prescient score predictions, no one foresaw the tectonic shift in momentum. Giardi said, “Coming into the game, I didn’t think the Falcons defense was good enough to keep the Patriots under 30 points. And while I still don’t think the Pats defense is this elite unit, I love their toughness and their ability to tighten up inside the 20. So while I figured (Matt) Ryan and company would get into the high 20s, I assumed they’d never be in control. I ended up getting both predictions right, but it didn’t play out like I figured. Not at all.”
Like Socci, Reiss grew more confident in the Patriots’ chances as Super Bowl week went along. “I had predicted the Patriots to win, 37-31, but as the game drew closer I was thinking that I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a more comfortable victory for New England. So much for that,” Reiss said. “The whole atmosphere leading up to the game was special – what a great Patriots turnout – and it just felt like Tom Brady wasn’t to be denied. No doubt, I didn’t see the game unfolding the way it did. Not many did.”
Finn said he “picked the Patriots to win 34-31, which wasn’t too far off from the final score but was way off in terms of how they got there. I thought it would be a tight back-and-forth game throughout, with both teams’ defenses struggling to stop the opposing offenses, with Stephen Gostkowski ending it with his own Vinatieri moment. Obviously, it wasn’t a back-and-forth game. It was 28-3, and now let’s see what you’ve got, Brady. I like the way it played out much better. Watching Gostkowski lining up for a winning kick might have caused half of New England to black out.”
Fox, looking at New England’s history, also anticipated a taut thriller. “I’m pretty sure I texted my Mom that the final score would be 27-24, Patriots. I was sure that it would be a last minute, one-possession game because that’s the only way the Patriots win (or lose) Super Bowls! Little did I know.”
Though he came the closest in his score prediction, Daniels believed the Patriots could follow an uneventful path to get there. “Well, after diving into the numbers, looking over the two rosters, and comparing the schedules, I honestly thought the Patriots were going to roll over the Atlanta Falcons. I didn’t think it was going to be a blowout, but thought the Patriots would win with relative ease. I thought the Patriots were a superior team defensively and that the Falcons weak offensive line was going to be their biggest downfall. My prediction was actually close to being right – Patriots 34, Falcons 27 – but certainly didn’t think it would play out like it really did.”
Socci, for one, saw pretty quickly a couple of the problems with his prediction, saying, “Chief among the things I didn’t fully realize is just how much team speed and quickness Atlanta had on both sides of the ball. Nor, despite expecting Freeman and Coleman to be keys for the Falcons, did I fully comprehend what kind of trouble they could create for New England’s defense.”
When The Patriots Were In Trouble
Finn said he saw what he called “real trouble” at the point “When Robert Alford left Brady lunging at air on the pick-six to make it 21-0 with a little over two minutes left in the first half. We all knew the stat: the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history is from a 10-point hole, which the Patriots pulled off two years ago against the Seahawks. The 21-0 deficit didn’t feel insurmountable, but a comeback felt very unlikely, especially the way Brady and the offense were struggling.”
Chatham felt that having to settle for a field goal late in the first half foretold how the game would play out. “I thought they were in trouble when they couldn’t convert the first and 10 from Atlanta’s 15 into seven points before the half. Not as an indication that there wasn’t time to come back, or that they weren’t capable of coming back – more that they were prone to missing opportunities on this day. That’s never (typically) something you want happening when you’re chasing a championship. This was the standard-breaker of all standard-breaker games.”
For Socci, a turnaround during a recent championship helped him maintain hope for a similar second-half performance by New England. “Despite the halftime difference, at 21-3, I still believed the outcome was far from decided,” Socci said. “At one point, I even referenced Super Bowl XLVII on air. In that game, the Ravens led the 49ers by the same score until the final seconds of the second quarter (it was 21-6 at the half) and eventually held on to win only after surviving a first-and-goal threat by San Francisco in the final half minute. With somewhat of a nod to Mohamed Sanu, I wondered aloud on the radio if the long halftime would help the Patriots and hinder a young team like the Falcons. After a three-and-out to start the half and good field position for their first possession of the second half, I fully expected the Pats to begin their comeback. Of course, it didn’t happen then and there.”
Fox maintained some optimism for New England coming out of halftime, but that was short-lived. “Knowing the Falcons were going to get the ball to start the second half, I thought to myself, ‘if the Pats can stop them right out of the gate, they have a shot at this.’ Then they did! The Falcons went three-and-out, and the Patriots got the ball, and it was their time to get something going. Then they went three-and-out and ended up with negative yardage. It was then, before the Falcons even scored that touchdown to go up 28-3, that I thought the game was over. I figured if Brady and the offense couldn’t get it together to take advantage of that opportunity, it was over.”
The lead reaching its 25-point peak sent Giardi to the archives. “Anyone who tells you they didn’t think the Pats were in trouble is either a) a fool b) a blind optimist (and I guess I can appreciate that, too!) or c) the ballsiest SOB on the planet,” Giardi said. “At 21-3, I had doubts. At 28-3, I was looking up the worst losses in the Belichick era. There aren’t many, for what it’s worth. A 20+ point loss to the Chargers in a regular season game eons ago, another regular season loss to the Colts when half their team was hurting, and then those couple of playoff losses to the Ravens – 24-0 after one quarter (in 2010), and that 28-13 AFC title game loss at home (in 2013) when it just wasn’t that close.”
Reiss said that at “28-3, midway through the third quarter was my starting-to-have-significant-doubts point. I have the text-message evidence from a halftime exchange with my wife that I hadn’t ruled out the Patriots at halftime. I had been checking back on how our kids had reacted to the 21-3 deficit, and wrote, ‘Let’s see if they can pull off biggest comeback in SB history. Wouldn’t put it past Tom Brady.’ (Note: Here is a screenshot of said text.) After 17 years, I’ve learned to never count out Brady, although I have to admit, at 28-3 I was thinking how disappointing it was for him and the Patriots that they didn’t bring their ‘A’ game to the most important game of the season. It happens. But I also knew that they would still go down with a fight, and make the Falcons earn it. That’s the one thing you can always count on from Bill Belichick’s teams – you have to knock them out. They lie down for no one.”
That 25-point deficit also sounded the game knell for Socci, who said, “They gave the ball back to Atlanta and soon fell behind, 28-3. That’s when I resigned myself to the reality that a come-from-behind win was improbable, at best.” Socci then had to get into the right frame of mind to deliver the unfolding bad news to his listeners. “During the ensuing break, I told myself to remain focused, to concentrate on being a ‘pro’ and having a broadcast I could be proud of. Part of my thinking at the time was to be sure to chronicle the success of the Falcons – and tell their story – as well as the disappointment for the Patriots.”
As I said three weeks ago in the aforelinked column, the lede I scribbled onto my notepad after the pick-six made it 21-0 was “No heart-stopper tonight. No, ‘Well, if this didn’t happen, or this.’ Atlanta is just better.” Then I hunkered down for what I expected to be a disappointing-yet-predictable finish, with the Patriots putting together a couple of touchdown drives in the second half to make the score somewhat respectable. Happy to learn I did not stand alone in writing up and then tossing out a few sentences that described a different fate.
Reiss said, “Mine was something along the lines of, ‘This had a familiar feel to some of the Patriots’ most gut-wrenching playoff losses: Offensive line struggles to protect, no running game to help settle things down, and costly turnovers. Instead of vindication, it was heartbreak.'”
“When the score was 21-0, I started to work on my Super Bowl LI lede,” said Daniels. “With my job, I need to send in a game story as soon as the game ends. A blowout always helps because I essentially get started in the second half. When the Falcons extended the score to 28-3, I tweeted, ‘I thought this game was a mismatch, but definitely picked the wrong team’ and started to write my game story. I didn’t think the Patriots would be able to comeback from a 25-point deficit with the way the Falcons were moving the ball.”
Daniels got deep into this version of the report, and I mean deep. “I had several different ledes that I was working on around this time. I started working on this:”
HOUSTON – Super Bowl LI was supposed to be the place for poetic justice. Instead, it turned out to be a night of heartbreak for Tom Brady and the Patriots.
It was thought that Brady suffered enough at the hands of Deflategate, but inside NRG Stadium, the Atlanta Falcons thought otherwise.
Brady was under pressure and off the mark. Receivers couldn’t hang on. Running backs couldn’t run the ball. Defensively, they struggled to stop both the Atlanta run and the pass. Add in a few turnovers and what was supposed to be a remarkable 2016 season turned into a forgettable Super Bowl as Atlanta handed the Patriots a BLANK-BLANK Super LI loss.
As the Patriots took the first, for the first time in Super Bowl LI, chants of ‘Brady! Brady! Brady!’ broke out. The Patriots were hoping to get off to a fast start on Sunday night and the fans were there in full force, but the first half was anything but celebratory for Brady and his team.
Instead, it was misery for the Patriots.
Due to the nature of how he constructs his game columns, none of Finn’s worst-case-scenario statements made it past overtime. “It’s funny, my usual post-game assignment is to write a goofy but fun X-number of thoughts column that goes up immediately after the game. The X is the number of points the winning team scores. It requires that I write constantly throughout the game, and naturally a lot of it dies on the vine as the game takes different twists and turns,” Finn said. “In this one, well, at one point I probably had 35 thoughts about, you know, underestimating the Falcons, and the Patriots’ offense’s no-show, and all of that stuff. When the Patriots cut it to 28-20, I thought, there’s a great chance a lot of what I’ve written never sees the light of day. And it didn’t. I wish I’d saved it, but as I banged out all of the stuff about the Patriots comeback and the unreal turn of events and so on, I just deleted what I’d written about the Falcons. Wish I’d kept it on a separate file.”
As a play-by-play announcer, Socci found himself in a different situation than most. No unusable ledes for him, because his reporting on the game happened in real time. “As the comeback unfolded – including the third-and-10 conversion (from their own nine-yard line) that prolonged the game-tying drive – I stopped trying to anticipate what was going to happen and became consumed by calling what was actually happening. As strange as it sounds, and not to suggest in any way that I called the end of the game perfectly – far from it, I know – but thinking back to the final few series I remember being more or less ‘in a zone’ trying to react and describe what I was seeing. In other words, for the most part, I stopped thinking ‘big picture’ to focus on the snapshot of each succeeding play.”
When The Falcons Were In Trouble
The Dont’a Hightower strip sack at 8:31 of the fourth with the Patriots trailing 28-12 seemed to get the team going. This gave New England’s offense the ball in Atlanta territory, leading to a touchdown (Danny Amendola catch) and two-point conversion (White run) to make the score 28-20 with six minutes remaining. This cut a daunting 16-point deficit in half, with a lot of time left on the board. At that point, I wondered, if I – who had all but given up on this team – now believe the Patriots have a good chance, what must the Falcons be thinking?
Despite the lopsided score at the half, Giardi saw some positive signs for New England. “At halftime, I tweeted that the one thing you could hang your hat on in regards to a comeback was that Atlanta’s defense was on the field for way too long in the first half, but while I figured there would be a run, as I said before, I never thought it would go like that. Hightower’s strip sack was the first thing that made me think maybe, but I wasn’t sold until James White took the direct snap and crashed in for the first two-point conversion. That’s when I believed we had a chance at something special.”
Fox sensed a change in momentum at a time when many (including myself) believed the Patriots offense had failed to generate it, settling for three points with 9:44 left. “When Gostkowski made the 33-yard field goal to close it to 28-12, that was when the mood really began to shift,” Fox said. “The Patriots were suddenly playing their game, and while they’d only scored nine points on their last two possessions, they were methodical. Five-to-six minute drives, 70-plus yards. The Falcons were rushing and spending very little time on the field. That’s always the death knell against Brady and Belichick. You can’t give them the field. Hightower’s strip sack was absolutely a byproduct of the fact that the offense was not only giving the defense time to rest, but also changing the entire mood on the sideline.”
That field goal affected Chatham’s outlook in a similar way. “When the score hit 28-12 with (9:44) remaining, I remember thinking that’s WAY too much time to leave Brady and the offense. Two scores in eight-ish minutes for this offense isn’t unprecedented at all. Neither is two consecutive defensive stops. It took both together to pull it off, but at that point the comeback possibility seemed very reasonable.”
“For me, it was the Hightower strip sack,” said Daniels. “When a team is down by this much, you need a game-changing play by either the defense or special teams. When Hightower strip-sacked Matt Ryan and Alan Branch recovered, I quoted Rocky Balboa and tweeted, ‘I didn’t hear no bell.'”
Daniels began to see fatigue setting in for Atlanta. “At this point, it was clear that the Falcons defense was really tired. I think one huge thing we didn’t think about during the game was the amount of time the Patriots had the ball. Although they weren’t always scoring, the long drives were wearing Atlanta down. As soon as the Patriots were in striking distance, I knew my original gamer was in trouble. I turned to my coworker Kevin McNamara and said, ‘the Patriots are going to f*** us.’ What I meant by that was, after settling on what I was writing for a game story and he was writing for a column, we were going back to the drawing board with our deadline minutes away. Around this time I tweeted, ‘RIP my game story’ and started to write about the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.”
“Well, the Hightower strip sack was the biggest play and momentum-shift of the dozen or so things that absolutely had to happen for the Patriots to pull off the comeback,” said Finn. “But even then, when he made that play, I was skeptical that the clock was going to be the Patriots’ friend. I really started thinking it could happen when the Patriots marched down and scored on the Amendola TD, then converted the two, making it a one-score game with roughly six minutes left. That’s the first time it felt like time wouldn’t run out on them. I’m not a big believer in momentum in sports, but it was a palpable feeling at that point. Of course, even then the Patriots needed the Falcons to bumble their way out of field goal position to give themselves a chance to tie.”
“One of the many remarkable things about the Patriots’ comeback is the number of turning-point plays for both teams,” said Socci. “For example, the Pats scored to make it 28-9, only to see the extra-point try careen off the upright. Then Atlanta recovered an on-sides kick, only to squander the opportunity to expand its lead. And even after Hightower’s strip sack and the ensuing touchdown to pull the Pats within 28-20, the Falcons drove to New England’s 22-yard line in three plays. So, there were many instances where I sensed trouble for the Falcons, only to change my mind seconds later.”
Full belief in something special going down came later for Reiss. “So many things still had to happen for the Patriots to win, even after the Hightower strip sack,” he said. “So the first time I really felt like the Falcons were in trouble was after Danny Amendola’s two-point conversion to tie the game at 28. Once it got to overtime, it was hard for me to envision anything but a Patriots victory and once Matthew Slater called heads and the coin came up heads, I turned to a colleague and said, ‘Can you believe they’re going to win this?’ And that’s when I began writing the first few paragraphs of my final piece with the anticipation that they were pulling off the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.”
Some New Perspective
In terms of picking up on more aspects of the game over the past few weeks, Reiss said there are “so many, and they come mostly from watching many of the NFL Films-produced pieces with on-field and post-game sound. This Patriots team had a special chemistry. There was a lot of love among this group and you heard that come through in the celebration. You can’t order up team chemistry at the start of the year, but this team had the magical mix – from the coaches to the players.”
“I’ve watched it more than I care to admit. I mean, get a life!” said Giardi. “The Pats’ physicality with the Falcons skill guys is more and more impressive as you hit the replay button. They really made Julio Jones work. Logan Ryan played a damn good football game (again). Atlanta played softer as it increased the lead. Understandable. Hell, a couple of those Pats drives took an eternity. But the one thing it did was allow Brady to get into a rhythm. And once the Falcons needed to get more aggressive, it was too late. Brady was locked in.”
Finn didn’t think he’d gained much perspective recently because he had immersed himself in replays of the Super Bowl so soon afterward. “Like most Patriots fans and observers, I devoured everything in the days after the game: all of the SoundFX stuff, the DVR’d Fox broadcast, Inside the NFL, the abbreviated replay on the NFL Network, all of it. Hell, I wished there was more.”
“Super Bowl LI was so enjoyable that I think I watched it over and over again about five or six times,” said Daniels. “At this point, if my wife sees it on the TV again, I’m in trouble.”
“To be honest, my perspective hasn’t changed much,” said Fox. “It was a miraculous win, and it always will be. Sure, in hindsight we can recognize the signs that the Patriots were never as badly off as it seemed – chiefly time of possession and total plays – but a 25-point deficit is still a 25-point deficit. I think that when we watch that game back, when they make the ESPN ’30 for 30’, it will have the feel of re-living the 2004 ALCS. I don’t think it will ever get old.”
The Patriots solidified their reputation as winners, said Daniels. “It’s literally impossible to count the Patriots out. We live in a world of hot takes when it comes to football, but it’s getting increasingly harder to be negative when it comes to Bill Belichick and this team. Even when they’re down by 25 in the Super Bowl, there’s always a way. Even when they trade Jamie Collins and Chandler Jones, their defense still looks elite. Super Bowl LI was so hard to process because games never play out that way.”
Did this game define the Patriots? Chatham believes it may have done the opposite. “This was the game that will force anybody who responsibly covers this team or dutifully roots for this organization to forever stay away from absolute statements about them. This thing broke all the proverbial rules. Outlier City. But since it happened, from here on out, who the hell knows…”
Over time, and with repeated viewings, certain aspects of the contest start to set themselves apart from others. “For me, it’s also interesting to see which players step up big on the biggest stages,” said Daniels. “We all know Tom Brady was going to bring it in Super Bowl LI. After seeing Dont’a Hightower making a stop on Marshawn Lynch in Super Bowl XLIX, it wasn’t shocking to see him step up again in Super Bowl LI. For me, it was great to see James White and Trey Flowers elevate their status to the sports world. Flowers was one of the best stories last season and he’s about to turn into a star. I’ve always been a big supporter of White, so to see him go off was enjoyable. He’s a good person and I always thought he was a little underrated when it came to his pass-catching ability.”
Multiple looks helped Reiss see one of White’s overlooked contributions, a moment of rock-solid execution. “As for specific plays in the game, I could go through no shortage of a dozen of them that stood out to me, but No. 1 on the list is the third-and-10 from their own 9-yard line on the game-tying drive with 3:17 remaining – Tom Brady to Chris Hogan for 16 yards. The Falcons blitzed off the defensive left side and running back James White helped pick it up. It was a huge pickup, which I’m sure was aided by Brady’s pre-snap communication, but I’m not sure it’s received its due (the Patriots are probably punting if they don’t convert there). Think about it – White makes that blitz pickup to extend the game-tying drive, while Falcons running back Devonta Freeman blows his assignment earlier in the fourth quarter and it leads to a game-turning Hightower strip sack. If ever there was an advertisement for the importance of blitz pickup among running backs, this is it.”
Over the past few weeks, Socci said, “I’ve also thought more about the various turning-point plays and unsung contributions of so many. For example, as enormous a play as Hightower’s sack was, Trey Flowers’ 2.5 sacks were equally important. One occurred after the on-sides recovery by the Falcons and another after the Jones grab that could have helped to clinch the game.”
Giardi has a theory as to how New England got so far behind. “Hell of a turnaround by Nate Solder in the 2nd half. His first half was about as bad as I’ve ever seen him play, by a long shot. I think it took the Pats longer than they thought to adjust to the Falcons’ speed. Lot of misses early on that you hadn’t seen from that group. Same held true offensively. Couple of those matchups, Atlanta was just so much faster/quicker early on.”
Reviewing footage helped Finn assess what happened to Atlanta’s speed. “The one thing I noticed on the repeat viewings that I didn’t pick up on during the game was how gassed the Falcons defense was because they were constantly on the field. That’s common knowledge now, but in the heat of the moment it was a crucial detail that I didn’t pick up on. It’s not just that the Patriots offense wore them out. Their own offense wore them out, too.”
Socci thought back to before the Super Bowl started and considered what it would mean. “Shortly before the game I was chatting with some colleagues just outside our booth. At one point, one of them asked, ‘Do we all agree that the overriding story entering this game relates to Brady and his legacy?’ I did. And immediately after the game, many of my on-air comments and thoughts were centered around Tom and what he accomplished in the wake of a remarkably trying time, enduring the Deflategate saga and suspension, as well as his mother’s battle with cancer. Of course, much was also said about what the win meant to Patriots fans, Belichick, and the organization as a whole, including mention of the ‘D’ word – as in dynasty. With a little more time and space, I realize just how much that game demonstrated qualities we heard about early in the season, as the team’s personality was taking shape: togetherness and toughness. A very close-knit team never fractured from the circumstances they faced early, including Brady’s suspension and Garoppolo’s injury, through those they confronted in their final game, falling behind by 25 points in Super Bowl LI. All along, they showed great toughness, physically and mentally. The Pats never lost their poise.”
Chris Warner likes going outside and screaming, “Let’s Gooooooo!” to no one in particular. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter @cwarn89.