History will likely remember Super Bowl LI as the setting of the best comeback in the game’s history, but the New England Patriots’ furious rally was also the Atlanta Falcons’ historic collapse.
The Falcons threw away their first Super Bowl win in franchise history, allowing the Patriots to come back from 25 points down to steal a game they had no business winning in overtime. New England’s comeback shattered the previous record in a Super Bowl of just 10 points.
Here are five reasons why the Falcons couldn’t put away the Patriots and win Super Bowl LI:
1. Number of plays discrepancy
By game’s end, the difference was staggering. The Patriots ran 93 total plays (a Super Bowl record), compared to just 46 for the Falcons. In fact, New England nearly has as many first downs (37) as Atlanta had total plays. The Patriots also held the football for over 40 minutes of the roughly 64-minute game.
The effect was cumulative. In the second half, Atlanta’s defense simply wore down, especially up front. And once the Falcons’ pass-rush disappeared, Tom Brady started dissecting a young secondary with surgical precision. No defense can be expected to hold up for that long, especially against a quarterback like Brady.
2. Falcons offense made huge mistakes
The Atlanta defense ran out of gas in the second half, but there would be no Super Bowl comeback if the Falcons offense had just played safe, mistake-free football over the final 30 minutes. After going up 28-3 with a third quarter touchdown drive, the Falcons did nothing but hurt themselves on offense.
Atlanta lost 15 yards and punted after three plays on the possession right after New England scored its first touchdown and then tried a surprise onside kick. One drive later, Matt Ryan lost a fumble at his own 25-yard line after Devonta Freeman missed a blitz pick up, setting up another Patriots touchdown.
Arguably the worst sequence came after Julio Jones made a circus catch along the sidelines with just under five minutes left and Atlanta up eight points. The Falcons could have run three safe plays—to both burn clock and force the Patriots to use timeouts—before kicking a short field goal to go up 11 points. Instead, a comedy of errors turned 1st-and-10 from the Patriots’ 22-yard line into 4th-and-33 from the 45. The Falcons punted, and then Tom Brady went to work.
3. No answer for James White
Brady was magnificent, especially during the second half and into overtime. But he got a lot of help, primarily in the form of running back James White. The former Wisconsin Badger was a menace as an underneath receiver and New England’s go-to option in the red zone.
White caught a Super Bowl record 14 passes 110 yards and a score, and he scored two touchdowns rushing (including the game-winner) and a two-point conversion. Play after play, the Falcons looked content to let White catch underneath passes and gobble up mostly free yards. The result was a death by a thousand paper cuts.
4. Struggles on third down
The Falcons offense tore through the Green Bay Packers in the NFC title game, thanks in part to a devastatingly effective third down package that converted 10 of 13 opportunities. The success on the pivotal down did not carry over into the Super Bowl, however.
The Falcons converted just 1-of-8 third downs against the Patriots. Ryan was sacked four times on third down, including Dont’a Hightower’s strip sack that jump started the rally. Ryan also failed to get the Falcons into reasonable field goal range on the important 3rd-and-33 play late in the fourth quarter, throwing incomplete to set up a punt.
5. Kickoff return issues
The Patriots did a fantastic job of pinning Atlanta deep with their kickoff strategies, especially in the second half. The Falcons started drives at their own 19, 10 and 11 after getting short returns on high but short kicks designed to trap the returner. Atlanta punted on all three drives, including the final drive of regulation with the game tied.
With a good return to start the final possession, maybe Ryan could have advanced the Falcons into field goal range. But pinned back at the 11-yard line, he had no chance. The gaffes on special teams only highlight the total team collapse that allowed the Falcons to lose a Super Bowl it otherwise had won.