We’ve seen the Patriots win before. We’ve seen Tom Brady hoist the Lombardi Trophy and scream “LET’S GO!” and Bill Belichick let his permafrown quietly transform into a slight smirk in the background. We’ve seen the red, white, and blue confetti pour around them and heard all of New England simultaneously yell “TAWMMY” loud enough to be heard from outer space.
But as Brady and Belichick repeated their time-tested celebration once more, pulling off an astonishing comeback to beat the Atlanta Falcons 34–28 in overtime on Sunday night, 15 years after winning their first title, it somehow felt fresh. We’ve seen the Patriots win four titles, but we’ve never seen them win one like this. We’ve never seen anybody win like this.
It’s been a remarkable 12 months for sports: The NCAA men’s basketball championship game ended on back-to-back ridiculous shots; the Warriors won 73 games behind the unanimous MVP yet still blew a 3–1 lead in the NBA Finals; a slew of American heroes set world records in Rio; the Cubs won the World Series for the first time in 108 years in extra innings of a decisive Game 7; Clemson stunned a seemingly unbeatable Alabama team with a last-second touchdown in college football’s title game. Now we can add this to the tally: Brady set the record for most Super Bowl wins by a quarterback, while Belichick tied the mark for most titles by a coach, by pulling off the largest comeback in Super Bowl history, culminating in the first overtime win in Super Bowl history.
The matchup between New England and Atlanta presented a slew of possibilities. With the Falcons ranking no. 1 in scoring offense and the Patriots ranking no. 1 in scoring defense, we knew we could see a fascinating chess match. And with the Falcons ranking no. 1 in offensive DVOA and the Patriots ranking no. 2 in offensive DVOA, we knew we could see an offensive shootout. Of course, with Brady under center and Belichick on the sidelines, there was also the possibility of a Patriots blowout.
But the start of the game didn’t really deliver on any of those possibilities. Yes, Matt Ryan looked like the player who won league MVP honors the day prior, and Julio Jones snagged circus catches despite double-teams. But the middle-of-the-road Falcons defense also thumped the Patriots, repeatedly dragging Brady to the ground.
The blueprint for beating Brady has been reinforced time and again: pressure him. The Falcons did, and they did it without even blitzing. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett had three sacks, as many as he’d managed all season. And even when Brady managed to get the ball off, he was often drilled as he released it. Brady devolved, showing the wear and tear of the pressure. He was overthrowing, he was underthrowing, and he was making bad choices. It seemed like the game’s signature image would be this one of Falcons cornerback Robert Alford returning a Brady pass for a pick-six to make the score 21–0 in the second quarter:
The first Super Bowl victory in Atlanta history seemed to be sealed. When the Falcons pushed the lead to 28–3 in the third quarter, ESPN’s win-probability chart gave them a 99.7 chance of winning:
But the Patriots scored on their final five possessions (excepting the one-play, three-second “drive” at the end of the second half when they tried a fake QB kneel-down in an attempt at winning in regulation). And they converted each of their two two-point attempts, which are generally successful only about half of the time. And the Falcons, who had the best offense in football, the league MVP, and an offensive coordinator who earned “genius” and “mastermind” labels all season long, didn’t score after the midway mark of the third quarter. They got into scoring range, down to the New England 22-yard line with 3:50 to go and up eight points. Kneeling three times and kicking a field goal would likely have won them the game; instead, the best offense in football lost 23 yards on a tackle for a loss, a sack, and a holding penalty, forcing them to punt.
We can yell at win-probability formulas all we want. But I’m going to stand up for the computer that spit out those ridiculous numbers. Teams up 25 in the third quarter tend to win, and no team had ever blown a lead of more than 10 points in the Super Bowl. The Patriots achieving sudden perfection when there was no margin for error just as the Falcons become completely inept does seem like something that happens roughly 0.3 percent of the time. We won’t find out unless they play this Super Bowl another 300 times, but I’d be happy to see them do just that.
How did the Falcons blow it? How did the Patriots pull it off? One possibility is magic, and with plays like this Julian Edelman catch, that’s a tempting explanation:
But there’s also a nonmystical answer for what happened on Sunday night. This was a tale of endurance, both on the macro scale — Brady and Belichick are still winning titles, 15 years after their first — and on the micro one. Even as the Falcons ran up the score, the Patriots kept running offense, and at the end, New England had life left as it trampled over the broken bodies of a defense pushed past its limit.
Atlanta’s dominance was — at the risk of sounding dumb — too dominant. Two of their touchdown drives lasted less than two minutes; a third came on the pick-six. In total, the Falcons ran just 46 offensive plays. The only team to run fewer offensive plays in a Super Bowl was Miami back in Super Bowl VI; the Dolphins lost that one 24–3. The fewest plays run by an NFL team this year was 41, and only four teams managed to run fewer than 46 in a game this season (the Dolphins did it twice).
New England ran 93 plays, more than double the Falcons’ total. The last time a team ran 93 plays in a game was in 2013; before then, nobody had done so since 2002. According to Pro-Football-Reference, this is the first time in NFL history that a team ran 90 or more plays against an opponent that ran fewer than 50.
It’s a similar story to what we saw in the college football championship game, when Clemson ran 99 plays against an Alabama defense that seemed unbreakable until it was too gassed to get a stop late. Few teams are built to withstand such a high number of defensive snaps; the Falcons, whose defense is based on speed, certainly were not. Sprinters don’t run marathons, and the Patriots dragged the Falcons for 26 miles.
No teams, whether or not they’re keyed by speed, are built to withstand such a high number of snaps against Brady. He completed 10 of his last 11 passes on two touchdown drives that covered 166 yards. He finished with 466 passing yards, smashing Kurt Warner’s Super Bowl record of 414.
I’m not a Patriots fan — and according to polls, most of America was rooting against them on Sunday night. As the Falcons coursed toward a dominant win, I smiled. Even though it was a blowout, it was stunning and thrilling to watch. A team with a history of sporting mediocrity was demolishing legends, and doing so in a defense-first way nobody could have expected. When the defense slowed, so did the demolition.
I’m also not a Falcons fan, but watching their world crumble pained me. There were few ways a Patriots win could have been thrilling for a neutral observer. This was basically it, a one-game manifestation of the Brady brilliance that had become boring. After the game, LeGarrette Blount, one of his running backs, had a message for him.
They’re supposed to bleep out the cusses on live TV, but how can you write a complaint to the FCC about the truth? Whether you love Brady or hate him — and every football fan in America falls into one of those camps — he is the fucking greatest, and so was this game.