The Atlanta Falcons could not pinpoint exactly what went wrong in Super Bowl LI, when they blew a 25-point lead, failed to secure the first title in franchise history, and made Dikembe Mutombo miserable. They made plenty of mistakes, committing costly holding penalties, allowing a debilitating sack on Matt Ryan in the fourth quarter, and losing a late fumble that set up a crucial Patriots score, but none of those were the problem. They were the symptoms of the problem, the byproduct of the one thing the Falcons could not control: They had to play the New England Patriots.
Other than the henchmen in Bond movies, who fall down at the most inopportune moments, no one makes more mistakes than teams playing New England in Super Bowls. The Seattle Seahawks threw from the 1-yard line against the Patriots with a championship on the line despite employing Marshawn Lynch at the time, and Malcolm Butler promptly picked off the pass. The Philadelphia Eagles ran the slowest hurry-up offense in history against them in the Super Bowl, playing with no urgency and all but ensuring they’d never get close late. The Panthers kicked off out of bounds before the final possession of their Super Bowl, giving the Patriots amazing field position and setting up a game-winning field goal. The Rams famously wouldn’t move away from Marshall Faulk even though the Patriots were roughing him up on every play and Rams players were begging head coach Mike Martz to change the game plan.
In essence, the Patriots turn every opponent into a Gus Bradley team. That isn’t luck; it’s strategy. As I wrote after New England sealed its 34–28 victory on Sunday, consistency is the key: Bill Belichick’s team does the correct thing over and over until the opponent does the wrong thing. Think about how Rafael Nadal plays tennis, or how the Fast & Furious franchise remains essential: It’s about constant quality; it’s about always returning serve.
Here’s the problem for the NFL’s other 31 teams: For the bulk of the Super Bowl, the Falcons put up an Oscar contender and fired ace after ace, and it still wasn’t enough. They played nearly flawless football, building a 25-point lead behind an MVP-winning quarterback and overachieving defense, and then the Patriots still did what the Patriots so often do. Hell, New England is so good that Belichick capped his fifth championship by complaining about wasting five weeks of 2017 prep time.
How can anyone hope to compete with that absent a Giants-esque playoff miracle? Here are the three keys to one day toppling Belichick’s seemingly unstoppable force.
1. Don’t Overthink It
From now on, when young coaches come up through the NFL ranks, the vets will show them the Falcons’ fourth quarter as a prime example of how not to close out a game. Past Patriots wins have reinforced some basic football know-how — seriously, people, don’t ever throw the ball from the damn 1-yard line! — and this game reminded us all that running the ball to drain clock is generally pretty wise.
Sure, NFL coaches have theoretically known this for 100 years, but that didn’t affect offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who called just five run plays after Atlanta went up 28–3 in the second half. Running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman had proved to be perfect complements to Ryan’s passing all season, but instead of handing off late, the Falcons kept passing, and worse, they also routinely snapped the ball with more than 10 seconds on the play clock in the fourth quarter. The Patriots finished regulation with two timeouts left, while the Falcons had blown theirs before crunch time.
The Falcons wasted a 25-point lead in part because they put almost no pressure on the Patriots from a time perspective. Knocking off Belichick and Tom Brady requires smartly managing the clock.
2. Get in Shape
After the loss, Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn admitted that his team ran “out of gas” in the fourth quarter. A few feet away from where Quinn was speaking, the Patriots were widely discussing their outstanding conditioning. Fitness was a talking point for both sides because it truly mattered late. The Patriots ran almost double the plays the Falcons ran, so it’s no surprise the defense was tired, but that doesn’t account for the Atlanta offense losing so much steam. Also, uh, the Patriots were on the field for all of those offensive plays as well, and they managed to maintain plenty of zip on offense.
Belichick spoke after the game about how important conditioning was in the contest, echoing something he’s long preached. He noted specifically that superior conditioning is the main attribute that former lacrosse star Chris Hogan brought with him from his prior sport. Wide receiver Julian Edelman, who notably got significantly better in the fourth quarter and made a will-be-shown-in-every–New England–bar-forever catch on a pass everyone who lives in Atlanta bobbled, talked after the game about the New England hills that coaches make the players run. “We’ve got these stupid hills in Foxborough that we have to run, and we all bitch and complain about it, but we do it,” Edelman said. The next team that faces the Patriots in a big game better find some hills, because that training clearly mattered on Sunday.
3. Make Adjustments — Because the Pats Rarely Will
No Patriots opponent will have a better coach or quarterback, since the Pats have the best ever in both categories. But there are other edges to gain if the opponent is willing to make more adjustments to combat the Patriots’ typically rigid defensive game plan. The Pats force offensive stars like Julio Jones and Faulk out of the game, and if an opponent switches to an offense that accounts for that reality, it stands a far better chance of scoring, even if the points don’t come from the offense’s usual bread and butter.
Quarterback Matt Ryan detailed on Sunday night how the Patriots brought slightly more pressure in the second half without wavering from or altering their game plan. No matter what, they were going to bracket Jones with double coverage and make the Falcons’ running backs or non-Jones receivers beat them. And the Falcons were enjoying roaring success with Freeman, who averaged 6.8 yards per carry on the night. Quinn and Shanahan had the chance to be coaching legends by capitalizing on what was working, shifting toward the effective ground game to gain yards and burn time. Instead, Ryan continued to pass, and the Atlanta offense stalled as the Patriots started to soar. It actually is possible for a coach to go toe-to-toe with Belichick, but doing so involves finding the confidence to attempt the midgame adjustments that many NFL coaches are too stubborn or too uncomfortable to make. That hesitation plays into the Patriots’ already-loaded hands.
Maybe the next team that plays the Patriots in a Super Bowl will learn from these lessons. But if Sunday night’s game — and the past 15 years — have taught us anything, it’s that the next squad that squares off against New England with the Lombardi Trophy on the line will likely make the same silly mistakes.