Patriots stun Falcons with record comeback to win Super Bowl LI

Just when we thought we’d seen it all, this was a game for the ages. The New England Patriots delivered the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history from 28-3 down to beat the Atlanta Falcons 34-28 in overtime, on a night when records galore tumbled at NRG Stadium in Houston.

The Falcons were left to contemplate what might have been after surrendering what looked to be an insurmountable lead as the Patriots staged a late comeback to secure their fifth Vince Lombardi trophy, and the fifth of the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era. Atlanta, meanwhile, playing in their first Super Bowl since the 1998 season, drop to 0-2 all time in the showpiece game.

Winning the turnover battle was likely to be decisive and it looked for long spells as if it might be in this one. Limiting a high-powered Falcons offense is a very different proposition as the Patriots fell behind three scores, with a comeback looking the most unlikeliest of prospects at that stage. Cue Brady and co. with the most astonishing performance to snatch victory.

By the game’s dramatic standards, the first quarter was exceptionally quiet with both defenses suffocating the others’ ability to make plays. Both teams went three and out on two occasions, but it was the Falcons who were showing all the big play potential in the opening exchanges.

New England’s first drive though would commence a familiar theme as they went three and out. The best they could muster was a nine-yard completion to wide receiver Julian Edelman though the Atlanta defense would stop LeGarrette Blount on third and short.

Up stepped the newly crowned NFL MVP Matt Ryan and things began promisingly enough. The dynamic play of Devonta Freeman was an invaluable asset for the Falcons as he burst through to just shy of midfield on their first play from scrimmage.

But the Atlanta offense would come unstuck following a short three-yard gain for Freeman and a three-yard reception for fullback Patrick DiMarco, going three and out as Trey Flowers almost stripped Ryan of the football.

Brady began to move the chains as the Patriots threatened to open the scoring, hitting strikes to receivers Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan for first downs. Another completion, this time to Malcolm Mitchell, had the momentum on their side but two big plays by the Falcons defense ended the drive prematurely.

First Courtney Upshaw broke through to sack Brady and set up 2nd and 19 before the disruptive Grady Jarrett, on what would be a record breaking night for the defensive lineman, hauled Brady down again to force the punt.

The dynamic Freeman and Tevin Coleman would be utilised to good effect on Atlanta’s next drive, the latter picking up gains of nine and five yards with Logan Ryan on the stop. But critically it was New England’s turn to be disruptive defensively as Alan Branch collapsed the pocket and suffocated Ryan with the sack. It left things nicely poised without a score after the opening quarter.

A 13-yard strike to Edelman was quickly followed by a 27-yard reception as the Patriots offense threatened to click into gear. Brady, so often pressured in the first half, found just enough time to find his trusted wideout for a big gain.

But turnovers in any game are so vital and the Falcons defense came up big to force the first takeaway of the game. It looked innocuous enough as Blount took off on one of his trademark power runs only to be met by Deion Jones who ripped the football out with Robert Alford seizing the loose football to recover for Atlanta.

It would prove to be the catalyst for the opening points of the game. The superb Ryan looked impeccable on this possession hitting Julio Jones on back to back plays of 19 and 23 yards. Much of the pre-game talk had spoken of Jones’ bruised toe but he showed no signs of immobility here highlighting why he is among the top wide receivers in the league.

The explosive Freeman would carve open the Patriots defense, taking the ball to the 14 yard line for a first down as Atlanta moved into the red zone. And a gain of nine for Freeman was quickly followed by a five-yard dash for the touchdown with 12:15 remaining to hand the Falcons a 6-0 lead.

It was impressive stuff as the Falcons offensive line pulled to the right, allowing Freeman the opportunity to cut back the other way and stride into the endzone untouched for the score. Matt Bryant added the extra point to extend their lead.

If you needed any reminder of the importance of the running game we had our answer. Blount’s fumble for the Patriots’ stuttering rushing attack was put away by Freeman who was causing havoc in the backfield.

Another New England three and out gave the ball back to Ryan and the Atlanta offense and they clinically rammed home their early superiority to make it a two score game.

It was another well-orchestrated drive as Ryan hit Taylor Gabriel for 24 yards and Jones in quick succession for a red-hot Atlanta offense. At this stage Ryan was 6/6 for 96 yards.

And their second touchdown would come with 8:48 to go. Austin Hooper, working on Patrick Chung, showed good feet on a neat double move to create just enough separation for Ryan to find him for the score. Things looked ominous for the Patriots who now found themselves two scores down, but it was well deserved from the Falcons’ perspective.

Brady was clearly cutting a frustrating figure on the Patriots sideline and things were about to get a lot worse before they got better. Incompletions, including balls in and out of the hands of receivers, were only negated by two holding calls against Dwight Freeney and Brian Poole.

With the Patriots struggling to establish the run, Brady was forced into a series of check down passes that were becoming more predictable by the snap. And with the Falcons collapsing the pocket, Brady made his poorest decision of the night.

On 3rd and 7, Brady’s pass was intercepted by Falcons cornerback Alford and returned 82 yards for the touchdown. It was Brady’s first pick six in a postseason game. Atlanta lead 21-0 with 2:21 to go in the half and the Patriots would require the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history to win. Things looked bleak.

The Patriots needed a score before the half to give themselves something to cling to but an overthrown pass for Edelman typified a disjointed offense that struggled to get into any sort of rhythm.

They could, however, count on running back James White – on what would be a memorable night for the player – as he dashed for the first down and more to the 30 yard line.

New England would have to settle for a Stephen Gostkowski 41-yard field goal with time expiring, putting them on the board at 21-3 but still looking heavy underdogs at this stage. At the half it was firmly Atlanta’s game to lose.

What adjustments Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia made at half-time seemed to pay immediate dividends. Freeman was stuffed on a run for a loss of three with Donta Hightower on the stop, before Eric Rowe broke up an intended pass on 3rd and 6 to force a quick three and out.

But New England did not fare much better, stuttering once again on their first possession of the second half. An Edelman drop on 3rd and 12 summed up his and the Patriots’ night to that point as Ryan Allen came on to punt.

The game was slipping away by this point and Atlanta looked to have put the gloss on a first Super Bowl win in franchise history with 8:31 to go.

It was another slick drive by Ryan connecting with Gabriel for 17 yards and again over the middle to the same target for 36 after Malcolm Butler, the hero of the Patriots’ Super Bowl win two years ago, fell over in coverage.

Things got worse for the cornerback soon afterwards when he was assessed a pass interference call that gave the Falcons an automatic first down. And they would strike on the next play from scrimmage.

The speedy Coleman had the edge to evade the attention of Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich for the score. 28-3 looked an unassailable lead.

But as it happens things were far from over, though few would have thought so at the time. Brady connected with White for 12 yards and Amendola for 17 on a 4th and 3, with the Patriots now in four down territory.

And with 2:06 to go, New England finally found the endzone. After Blount had bulldozed his way for a first down, Brady connected with White for the score. The running back made a neat move on Jalen Collins to make the game 28-9. Gostkowski would, however, strike the post on the extra point try.

A gamble by Belichick did not pay off on the restart, attempting an onside kick that the Falcons recovered. It gave Ryan’s high powered offense short field but the Patriots would incredibly force a three and out.

The catalyst for that quick series was a holding call against Jake Matthews and then Kyle Van Noy who, on a blitz, breached the defences of the Falcons’ offensive line to sack Ryan. At 28-9 after three quarters, things still looked distinctly one sided.

You sensed the Patriots needed a quick score in the fourth to give themselves any hope and Brady’s connection with Mitchell certainly looked encouraging. The rookie wideout gained 15 yards and then a quick seven on the next play to get them rolling.

But Brady would be sacked by Jarrett for a second time, stalling their momentum just when it looked like kicking into gear. Two sacks for Jarrett became three, tying a Super Bowl record, as Brady went down for the fourth time on the night.

New England had to settle for a 33-yard Gostkowski field goal, roughly the same distance from which he missed his extra point, but this time he connected to make it 28-12. It was clear the Falcons were specialising in big plays, scoring twice off turnovers, with New England having over twice as many offensive snaps as the Falcons to this point.

The Patriots needed a big play and they got it, forcing Atlanta’s first turnover of the game. Hightower stripped Ryan of the football and Branch recovered to give possession back to Brady.

And when Freeney recorded the Falcons’ fifth sack of the night to set up 2nd and long, things did not look promising.

But a huge strike to Mitchell on 3rd and 11 gave them a new set of downs and they duly cashed in. Brady had enough time to assess his options and throw a dart to Amendola for the six-yard touchdown with 5:56 to go.

New England were in two-point conversion territory and it was no surprise to see them go for it, with White crashing over for their seventeenth unanswered point to make it 28-20.

Things were still favouring Atlanta. One good drive with management of the clock would eat up time, force New England to use their timeouts and potentially set them up for the score that would seal the win.

The only criticism we can perhaps throw at the Falcons is the fact they got away from their run game which had proved so effective earlier in the game. That did not look to be too much of an error though when Jones hauled in a superb catch at the sideline, dragging his heels inbounds for the reception.

But New England made a play when they most needed to. Flowers penetrated deep into the backfield to haul down Ryan, a drive that would result in a punt rather than a Bryant field goal as had looked likely.

It gave the Patriots one last chance. Brady though would have to drive 90-yards to score. After two incompletions, Mitchell made a huge grab, his sixth of the game, to set up a fresh set of downs.

If we thought Jones’ catch was something special, we were about to witness the play of the game. Brady’s pass was tipped by the disruptive Alford and looked destined to be intercepted, yet Edelman wrestled the ball away from Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen and crucially held on. It was reminiscent of David Tyree’s helmet catch for the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII.

And when White bundled over from a yard out with 57 seconds left, the Patriots were a two-point conversion away from tying the game.

Amendola on a pass from Brady just about broke the plane to knot the game up at 28-28, the Patriots’ 25th unanswered point – the biggest comeback in a Super Bowl. There was another record broken on that drive as Brady surpassed Kurt Warner (416) for the most passing yards in a Super Bowl.

The drama would continue. 57 seconds is enough time for any offense, let alone one as explosive as the Falcons’, to get into field goal range. But Ryan was forced to punt as we entered overtime for the first time in Super Bowl history.

You felt the coin toss would be decisive. Win the toss, score a touchdown and you win the game. New England won it and critically it put a tired Atlanta defense back onto the field.

This was vintage Brady. A shaky performance early in the game was put to one side as he capped one of the most incredible comebacks in recent memory.

With time to make his reads and survey the field, Brady was in his element connecting with White on a check down pass and both Amendola and Hogan.

His strike to Edelman in tight coverage highlights the extent to which New England’s adjustments had worked, hauling in the pass to keep the chains moving. Atlanta looked a beaten team.

But just when it looked inevitable that New England would strike, Martellus Bennett dropped the would-be game winning touchdown under duress though the Atlanta defense were guilty of pass interference.

Up stepped White, who would break a Super Bowl record for most receptions (14) and points (20), who did just enough to evade the attentions of several Atlanta defenders to score.

The greatest comeback in Super Bowl history had been completed. From 28-3 down and 28-9 down at the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Patriots had stormed back to deny Atlanta a first Super Bowl crown.

For the Patriots it is their fifth in franchise history and a fifth for the Brady-Belichick partnership, further strengthening calls that they are the greatest quarterback-head coach duo in NFL history.

Brady became the first quarterback to win five Super Bowls and surpassed Joe Montana by winning his fourth Super Bowl MVP award.

Spare a thought for Atlanta who looked certain to win at one stage. New England’s offense could not get anything going and their defense continued to make plays. Ryan and the Falcons offense looked to have run out into an unassailable lead but back came New England in dramatic fashion.

For Brady, he has repeatedly said he does not have a favourite Super Bowl win and that they are all equal. If Super Bowl XLIX two years ago was not up there, this certainly will be. Nobody saw this coming with Atlanta in control but New England made the improbable possible with 31 unanswered points.

This was a classic with several records smashed along the way. The first Super Bowl to ever go to overtime certainly delivered. What an incredible story.

 

Image courtesy of SAB0TEUR

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