Did the Patriots win Super Bowl 51? Or did the Falcons lose it? More importantly, how did the Falcons lose it? Before this game, the largest Super Bowl comeback was 10 points, the Patriots were down by 25 at one point. Before this game, teams were 93-0 heading into the fourth quarter with a 19 point lead or higher, now they are 93-1. It just doesn’t make sense. The Falcons absolutely dominated the first half of the football game, in fact, they dominated the first 45 minutes of it. But as we all know, football games aren’t won in the first three quarters, they are won in the fourth.
By no means is this a knock to the Patriots, they played with resilient effort, and refused to give up when the whole world had counted them out. They made the plays, they won the game, and that is how it goes. But it is impossible to look at multiple moments down the stretch of the game and not see that the Falcons blew an easy win.
We all know the story of the first half. The Falcons dominated, Brady looked confused and frustrated. Let’s fast forward to the start of the collapse. Six and a half minutes into the 3rd quarter, the Falcons scored yet again to make their lead 28-3. At this score, the Patriots were going to need three touchdowns, a two point conversion (eventually needing two of them due to a missed extra point from Stephen Gostowski), and a field goal just to tie the game.
The biggest flaw in the team’s 2nd half was their coaching and poor clock management. Following a drive where the Patriots seemed to dig themselves into a hole after taking up six minutes, the Falcons seemed to continue running a hurry up offense. The team played as though they were the ones trying to mount a historical comeback, constantly hurrying to the line and leaving 15-20 seconds on the playclock.
The team played like offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s offense only had one gear. In a big situation, he was unable to slow down. In a game where running back Devonta Freeman was absolutely dominant, they seemed to abandon him when the situation to use him couldn’t have been more clear. The team continued to throw early and often, running the ball just five times following their final touchdown of the game, which came half way into the third quarter and put the team up by four possessions.
While they abandoned the run game, the team not only missed out on opportunities to kill some clock, but managed to go three and out and lose a fumble on their next two drives, leading to 11 more Patriot points, which put the Patriots one score and a two point conversion from tying up the game.
The team got the ball back with 5:56 to go in the game. In a clock killing situation, Kyle Shanahan’s ego continued to take over, and the Falcons continued to throw the ball and leave precious seconds on the clock when it was not necessary. Luckily for them, they had Julio Jones.
With 4:47, the Falcons took a chance down the field on 2nd and 8, which ended with one of the greatest Super Bowl catches of all time by Julio Jones, and a first down in field goal range. With just under five minutes left, the game seemed to be over.
All Shanahan had to do was call three run plays, and the game should have been a lock. Following the three runs, even if they did not pick up the first down, the team could have kicked a chip shot field goal, and the Patriots would have either burned all of their timeouts, or only have three minutes left to comeback from an 11 point game, either of which would have been nearly impossible.
As we all know, this isn’t what happened. The Falcons ran on first down, but then Shanahan dialed up a pass on 2nd, which resulted in a sack, pushing the Falcons to the borderline of kicker Matt Bryant’s range. The next play, they dialed up yet another pass, and got caught holding, assuring that they would be out of field goal range, and facing them with a 3rd and 33. On third down, the team threw yet again, in a play which went incomplete, stopping the clock for the Patriots once again.
With the Patriots eventually tying the game up, and winning it in overtime, one must wonder what Dan Quinn and Kyle Shanahan were thinking. They were playing the game as if it was over after the first half, even though there was another yet to be played. Their unwillingness to abandon the hurry up pass-happy offense likely left upwards of at least three minutes or so on the clock in incomplete passes and leftover time on the playclock.
The Patriots time of possession seemed to take a major toll on the defense as well. While early in the game the team’s defense was absolutely dominant, little by little, Tom Brady wore them out. By the time the Patriots had over 30 minutes of possession time, the Falcons’ defense was too worn down to be able to keep up with Brady and the rest of the Patriots’ offense.
While the coaching was poor, not all of the collapse can be blamed on it. Devonta Freeman missed his blocking assignment leading to Matt Ryan’s key fumble, the team gave up not one, but two key two point conversions, missed out on multiple potential interceptions (including two on Julian Edleman’s circus catch), and overall they took too many penalties in big moments of the game. However, while many will look back at this game as Tom Brady’s greatest feat, the Falcons will look back at it as the time their coaching doubted Tom Brady.