Greatest comeback ever? Absolutely. Greatest Super Bowl? Debatable at best. Most memorable Super Bowl? It’s up there. There were too many storylines to count in Super Bowl LI, but it delivered when it came down to the most important part of any sporting event: it was incredibly entertaining.
Where do you even begin with this game? In the spirit of transparency, I was rooting for the Falcons starting at about halftime of the NFC Championship Game, when Matt Ryan’s Dirty Birds were stomping the life out of my beloved Green Bay Packers. Best offense in the league (by far), best receiver in the league, elite QB in the midst of an MVP season (who also doesn’t receive enough respect for how good he’s always been), team trying to win its first championship; what’s not to love?
Meanwhile, New England entered the biggest game in American sports as hated as ever. It comes naturally to us, we hate teams that win all the time, especially ones that are so smug about it all. Tom Brady is the pretty boy who seemingly does no wrong (although Bridget Moynahan may disagree). Bill Belichick is one of the greatest coaches to ever live and he does it in such an unemotional way that it drives us insane. They collect “scrappy white gym rats” like they’re goddamn baseball cards.
It seemed like a battle of good and evil, the upstart good guys from the Dirty South and the evil annual winners from snobby Boston. For a half, it looked like David was going to topple Goliath, like the good guys would triumph over the empire. In all honesty, it’s embarrassing we didn’t get that ending.
Atlanta had the weapons to win. The MVP behind center, the best receiver in the league in one Quintorris Lopez Jones (you may know him as Julio), an improved line and the best one-two punch of running backs in the league this season. That’s all in addition to an underrated defense, not quite the fabled Grits Blitz, but one that could hang with anyone nonetheless. Jones was getting open and making plays. Devonta Freeman was finding open holes and exploiting them for all their worth. Ryan was slinging it like he did all season long on his way to the top individual honor in the game.
But one series is what changed the whole game. One series in which Matt Ryan made uncharacteristic mistakes. One series in which the offensive line melted down in the worst way.
You can argue the fumble deep in Atlanta territory was the turning point of the game, but I’d refute that by saying the Falcons had a golden opportunity to ice the game in spite of the fumble and still blew it. After Jones made a legendary catch on the near sideline, Atlanta had a chance to run a couple simple plays, force the Patriots to burn timeouts or let the clock wind painfully toward the game’s bitter end. Instead, future San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan decided to get indefensibly cute, and it cost his team dearly.
First and 10 at the New England 22. Freeman runs for a loss of a yard, an inconsequential yard lost while valuable seconds ran off the clock. This was inexplicably followed by a pass play with a deep dropback. That disastrous call resulted in a big sack of Ryan and a loss of 12 yards. New England called a timeout. Clock stopped, Atlanta is barely in field goal range.
I understand you don’t expect a huge sack on that play, but that doesn’t make it a better play call. It’s an absolutely ridiculous decision. Just because something is conventional doesn’t mean it’s wrong; run the damn ball and ice the game.
Ryan completed a pass on the next play, but it was called back due to holding. Two plays, one down, 22 (important) lost yards. Ryan threw an incomplete pass on third and forever. Atlanta punted. New England took a foolish-at-best call by Shanahan, mixed in with poor execution from the Falcons’ offense, and turned it into its game-tying drive. That one series is what truly changed the game; the decision to get overthink the situation instead of doing the blatantly obvious thing led directly to the Atlanta loss.
Granted, the Falcons did plenty of things wrong throughout the second half, and the game as a whole in some cases, to cost themselves the game. The defense fell apart down the stretch, with their dominant pass rush falling by the wayside late. Play calling throughout the second half was dreadful. In the same vein, only targeting Julio Jones four times in the biggest game in franchise history is a fireable offense.
New England deserves plenty of credit for the win, of course. Brady’s claims as the greatest quarterback of all time only became stronger in the wake of the comeback. He broke Kurt Warner’s record for passing yards in a Super Bowl before the game even went to overtime (and on the weekend Warner was elected to this year’s Hall of Fame class, no less) in one of the greatest performances ever, title game or not. The defense stepped up in the most crucial moments. Nine years after David Tyree’s iconic helmet catch for the Giants against the Patriots, Julian Edelman converted his own luck-filled, barely comprehensible catch late in the fourth quarter. The Patriots played very well in the second half, most notably in the sense they took advantage of terrible Falcons plays and decisions.
This isn’t necessarily the best Super Bowl ever, if one can measure those things, considering great comebacks don’t always mean the game itself was great (that’s all subjective, of course). Will it be remembered forever? Absolutely, how could it not be? Any moment as preposterous as this one will be remembered forever.
Santonio Holmes’ tip-toe touchdown in Super Bowl XLIII. The helmet catch in Super Bowl XLII. Mario Manningham’s catch in Super Bowl XLVI. Vinatieri’s first game-winner in Super Bowl XXXVI. Malcolm Butler’s interception in Super Bowl XLIX. This comeback is now in the pantheon of iconic Super Bowl moments.
Complain all you want about certain parts of this game. Complain about the Patriots winning again. Complain about the bad overtime rules. Complain about bad commercials. In terms of in-game action, this was the epitome of entertainment. Emotionally investing from end to end for one reason or another. I don’t understand how anyone wouldn’t have enjoyed this Super Bowl. Maybe you just don’t like football. Maybe you refuse to admit to liking anything produced by the NFL for some bizarre ethical reasons that probably make you a hypocrite. Maybe you refuse to like sports because you think they’re beneath you (they’re not, by the way). If any of those scenarios applies to you, I’m sorry, because this was incredibly entertaining and fun to watch, even in the agony of defeat (Falcons fans, you’ve got a pass for not enjoying this one).
I love the NFL and I miss it already. I can’t wait for next September, when the Packers get back on the field with a chance to finally make it back to the Super Bowl. I can’t wait to see the 32 member teams of the best league in the world get back on the gridiron in seven months, when they’ll give us the best product in sports.
Thank God we got a great game to tide us over until then.