Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Super Bowl LI: Was it More Patriots Winning or Falcons Losing?

What exactly happened in Super Bowl LI? Everyone who watched it was trying to figure that one out, ever since the Patriots completed that improbable comeback from 28-3 down, to win the game in overtime - the first overtime in Super Bowl history. 

All day, people seemed to be debating the most obvious question, which was this: Did the New England Patriots win it, or was it more a case of the Atlanta Falcons losing it? 

Truth be told, I think that it was both.

Yes, the Patriots were unbelievable, and you just simply cannot take anything away from what they did on Sunday. They kept focused and did not give in to fear of humiliation or cracking under the pressure, or perhaps the blame game of pointing their finger at someone else, or simply giving in when things appeared to tough. No, the Patriots continued to believe in themselves and in each other, as well as in the system that has given them so much success in the first place. The Patriots remained poised, and it seemed to me almost a bit like Muhammad Ali's "rope a dope" strategy. It was not that they wanted to fall behind by 25 points. But once there, they seemed to understand that the Falcons had exerted all of their energy to build up that kind of a lead, and that they could not sustain that level of play throughout. To me as an observer, it felt a bit like they leaned on the ropes in the corner of the ring - possibly with wobbly knees at that point - and then somehow turned it around and managed to back the Falcons into that same corner.

But the Falcons were complicit in their own demise. They made mistakes - a lot of them. Not just the obvious ones that everyone points to, either. But some more subtle ones, such as the clock management, which was absolutely abysmal from their end. Ryan would snap the ball when there were still anywhere between 15 to 20 seconds before the play clock had wound down, which means that they could have killed - regularly killed - at least 15 to 20 extra seconds for numerous plays while they were in possession of the ball. Then we get to the more obvious ones that everyone, experts and fans alike, seem to be fixated on. The lack of running plays, which is a basic no-brainer for teams when they are trying to protect a sizable lead and running out the clock on the other, losing team. That was particularly glaring on the play when Ryan was sacked and lost the ball, which he never should have done. At that point in such a big game, the number one thing that you have to do is protect the football at all costs, and the Falcons failed to do that. On their next drive, after the brilliant catch by Julio Jones that got Atlanta back to field goal position, all they had to do was kick a field goal. That would mean that the Falcons call several running plays in a row, without any real expectation of moving the ball forward, but just to play it safe and not do anything to jeopardize the opportunity to kick a field goal that would essentially ice it for them. When the cameras panned to Belichick on the sideline, he looked absolutely livid, and knew that Atlanta had his team beaten, that all they had to do was get that field goal, and the game is basically over. Instead, they ran one play, and had Ryan drop back on second down...and get sacked for a 12-yard loss. Still in field goal range, so you would think that they would play it safe on the next play, right? Wrong. They opted for a pass play again, and actually made a fairly decent gain...until a holding call not only negated the play, but pulled them back 10 yards further still, and out of field goal range. When asked why he was so aggressive when he could have played conservative football and essentially won the game, Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn said that this was how they had played all year long. Yet, on the final drive of regulation, which wound up being the last time that the Falcons would have the ball, they suddenly played it conservatively. At exactly the point when they finally should have shown aggression, they looked timid and afraid to do anything. Had they gained some decent yardage on a few plays, they just might have gotten themselves into field goal range.

All of that was instrumental in giving New England the opportunity to pull off this historic comeback. And if anyone still doubts that the Patriots have the will of a champion by now, then they probably are just haters who will find every possible excuse to not give them their due. Because ultimately, despite the Falcons giving the Pats every chance to get back in this Super Bowl and win it, New England still had to actually do it. They were down by 25, which meant that they had to score at least three touchdowns and a field goal, which is exactly what they did. First, the touchdown late in the third quarter that only seemed to make the outcome more respectable, but hardly made it a close game. Then, the fourth quarter drive that saw them settle for a field goal, but which made it technically a two possession game. But down 16, that meant they still needed two touchdowns, with successful two-point conversion attempts needed after both. Meanwhile, they needed to stop Atlanta's dangerous offense not only from scoring, but from killing too much of the clock.

Somehow, they did it, and for that, they deserve all the credit in the world. But again, they needed help, and Atlanta gave it to them. The coaches should clearly have seen what almost all of the viewers - football experts or not - saw. The defense was tired, and suddenly, they just could not stop the Patriots. That should have told Atlanta's head coach Quinn and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan that the defense needed a rest, and that the offense needed to keep them off the field. And again, that means relying a bit more on the run, and milking the clock for all it's worth. This was the Super Bowl, after all. Obviously, the stakes could not have been higher. And in the biggest game in the history of the franchise, the Falcons will now be forever known as the team that somehow surrendered a 28-3 deep in the second half, and wound up losing in the first overtime game in Super Bowl history. Instead of their first Super Bowl championship ring, they gave the Patriots their fifth Super Bowl ring.

For New England, this is a defining kind of a moment for them. They have enjoyed such tremendous success before already. But when they win this kind of a game, they have largely overcome the couple of glaring failures in their own past, which includes the undefeated season that ended in a Super Bowl loss, or the rematch with the Giants four years later which they also lost, or even the AFC Championship Game loss to the Colts back in the 2006-07 season that they led by 18 points themselves at one point, yet found a way to lose. All of those failures now only seem to underscore how rare it is that these Patriots beat themselves under the Belichick/Brady era, and just how close they came to still more titles, to still more success. Now, they are the team that has seemingly mastered the approach a football team should take in this era of free agency. They won three titles in a four year span from 2001 to 2004, and remained highly competitive in almost every season since. They returned to the Super Bowl and almost won, but lost narrowly both times. Then, finally, they returned, and somehow beat Seattle (although much like with this game with the Falcons, they needed help from the Seahawks first). And now, a franchise defining Super Bowl comeback for the ages, obliterating the old Super Bowl comeback record of 10 points, which looks rather pedestrian by way of comparison.

For Atlanta, on the other hand, this crushing defeat defines them, every bit as much as it defines New England in a glorious way. The Falcons were flying high early in the game, jumping out to a 21-0 lead, and still holding a 21-3 lead at the half. The offense looked truly unstoppable, and in the third quarter, they added another impressive touchdown to go up 28-3. The owner, Arthur Blank, was already doing his trademark funny dance, and laughing, having the time of his life! And then, suddenly, it all unraveled. As completely as Atlanta's early dominance came, it went, and without any warning. Suddenly, the defense that had been shocking in it's dominance, coming up with big play after big play to stop New England's own dangerous offense, and getting to Tom Brady with shocking regularity, were exhausted and being pushed around. Suddenly, the Falcons offense was no longer moving the ball at will against the Patriots defense, which looked fired up. Suddenly, Ryan himself was seeing a lot more pressure. Suddenly, it almost looked like the Patriots had been toying with the Falcons, like some football version of Indiana Jones watching the swordsman doing all of his tricks, before pulling out his own weapon and ending it abruptly and efficiently.

Yes, for the Atlanta Falcons, the enduring legacy of such a great season was not those fireworks through most of the first three quarters which they dominated, but the complete and utter collapse at the end. To be so close to victory, only to have the far more experienced team snatch it away from them right at the end. 

Truth be told, I think that this might just be the most crushing sports defeat that I have ever witnessed. Yes, there have been plenty of others that stand out. There was the even bigger comeback, when the Bills overcame a 35-3 deficit to beat the Houston Oilers - and the Oilers never really recovered from that one. Two seasons later, they were among the very worst teams in the league, and a few years after that, they were no longer even in Houston, relocating and eventually becoming the Tennessee Titans. The Chiefs lost a similar game a few years a go, blowing a 28-point lead against Indianapolis not once, but twice (they led that game 28-0 at one point, and 38-10 at another point). But those were both Wildcard Games. It was not like the Oilers or Chiefs were definitely going to reach the Super Bowl, let alone win it. There was that loss by the Bills to the Giants, by a single point. But they made it back to the Super Bowl - four times! Indeed, that fourth Super Bowl loss may have been even more devastating, and indeed, like the Oilers team that they beat a year and change before that final Super Bowl loss, the Bills have never really fully recovered from that loss. The Packers and Rams both seemed to be emerging dynasties in the late-90's or early 2000's, but they both lost Super Bowls that they were heavily favored in, and never seemed to recover (well, the Packers clearly recovered years later, when they won XLV). More recently, there was a series of them following the 2014 season, when the Packers lost that NFC title game that they had dominated until the final minutes. And the team that beat them, the Seahawks, had that infamous 2nd and one, and foolishly opted a risky pass instead of pounding it in, and that was against this same Patriots team! It was intercepted, and everyone knows that Seattle has never seemed quite the same since. And let us not forget the Patriots themselves. They went undefeated, looked like the most dominating team in history, back in 2007. Then, they played their worst game at the worst possible time, and lost to the Giants. They had a chance for revenge four years later, but lost again on the biggest stage to those same Giants. 

And all of that is just in football! Let us not forget last season's Golden State Warriors, who like the 2007 Patriots, set all sorts of records. Best start in professional North American sorts history at 24-0. Best overall regular season record, at 73-9. First team not to lose more than one game in a row all season (regular season, anyway). They were the defending champs, and coasted through the western playoffs, until the Conference Finals, where they fell behind to OKC, three games to one. But they came back and won, and then had a three games to one lead over Cleveland. Then, they started to get dominated, and watched helplessly as LeBron James and the Cavaliers turned it up several notches, and just found a way to win, denying Golden State what likely would have been the status as greatest NBA season ever. Or how about the 2004 New York Yankees, who owned a three games to none lead over their hated rivals, the Boston Red Sox, only to see them start to finally win, and build up momentum, and get better and better with each successive game, until they were dominating in Game 7 and clinched the series victory, going on to sweep the World Series and finally end their 86-year drought? Maybe this year's Cleveland Indians, who owned a three games to one series lead against the Chicago Cubs, only to fall short in the end, and lose the series? Or maybe one of several NHL teams to have given up three games to none leads, only to lose the series? Perhaps that drubbing that the Brazilian national team took in front of their home fans in that last World Cup? 

Nope. None of those are quite as devastating as this loss by Atlanta. 


Because at this moment, and surely for some time in the future, this franchise is defined by this. Certainly, at least right now it is, because they never played in a more important game. Sure, they had been to one Super Bowl prior in it's history. But they were pretty heavy underdogs in that one and, rather fittingly, they played like it throughout that game. They probably made more mistakes - both players and coaches - in that game against Denver than they did on Sunday against New England, for that matter. But since they played like that consistently throughout that game, that Super Bowl was not particularly memorable. 

Frankly, a Super Bowl title is the only thing that could finally erase this bitter disappointment, and even then, it would have to be a spectacular Super Bowl in which Atlanta manages to best their opponents in order to help people forget this epic collapse. Possibly, even that kind of a Super Bowl win, and another one or two, to boot. Because people will not forget this one. After all, think about the Seahawks, who like Atlanta, had never won a Super Bowl before. They finally won one, and in dominating fashion, but they still remain defined by what came the year after, when they were on the verge of winning back-to-back titles, only to have that horrific, disastrous 2nd and 1 play deny them that opportunity. When you think of the Seahawks these days, does that not come to mind still? Does it look like they have recovered from that? They have not been nearly so good in either of the two seasons since. 

Yes, other teams have had crushing disappointments, as mentioned earlier. Even in the NFL. Perhaps especially in the NFL, because unlike the other North American sports, the fortunes are defined by single games, not series. And so, Houston's epic collapse to Buffalo was devastating, but again, it was a Wildcard Game. So was Kansas City's similar collapse a few years ago. The Packers lost that NFC title game to Seattle two years ago, but they looked pretty solid this season, until getting routed in Atlanta two weeks ago. Plus, Green Bay has a long history of championship success, which probably helped them to overcome that other huge, crushing defeat, when they lost in a shocker to Denver in the Super Bowl, when it seemed that they were on the verge of being crowned a dynasty. Bad losses or not, that does not define the Pack as much as this will define the Falcons. The Rams lost a similar Super Bowl (to these Patriots!), but when people think of the Rams in that era of "The Greatest Show on Turf", it is not usually this failure that people remember. Indeed, the Seahawks are the same way in many respects. Their spectacular Super Bowl failure probably defines them more than the Rams one did, probably because so much rode on that one, stupid play, but still, Seattle did win a title before that. So, when people will think of that era in Seahawks history, they will likely remember the "Legion of Boom" defense, and not just that unbelievable failure on one play, however crucial the stakes. A Super Bowl championship will help to balance that kind of thing out quite a bit. Buffalo's losses in the Super Bowls also defined them, although the sheer resilience of continually getting back there was enough to impress many people, and is a legacy in itself. 

The only team that faced this kind of thing in the NFL that I know of are these Patriots, with that unbelievable loss in Super Bowl XLII, after going 18-0 to that point. The miracle plays that were needed, the physicality that seemed to take Tom Brady out of the game, and forced New England out of their comfort zone. I think that was the most devastating loss in sports history that I had ever seen, prior to last night's game.

Yet even then, the Patriots still had those three championships in a four year span to fall back on. They were already a dynasty, already basically the "Team of the Decade" by 2007. So one loss in one game might mar that legacy a bit, but at least there was a legacy there.

The Falcons? There legacy of late has to be one of failures. Four years ago, they held a 17-0 lead in Atlanta during the NFC Championship Game, but still lost to the 49ers. That came a week after they barely hung on to beat Seattle after another huge lead almost turned into an epic collapse. 

For that matter, two years before that, the Atlanta Falcons had surprised a lot of people with their regular season success, finishing 13-3, and earning the top seed. But the Packers came in and completely dismantled Atlanta before their home fans, and basically proved that the Falcons were not as good as their record had indicated. Go down the line, and those seasons where the Falcons enjoyed success were ultimately limited by the failures that the Falcons faced at the very end. Even their most successful season, the 1998 season when they went 14-2 and shocked the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC title game, ended with a disappointing blowout loss to Denver in Super Bowl XXXIII.

Indeed, entering this game, the Falcons were trying to erase that legacy of being the team that kept either falling short or outright choking at all the wrong times. They wanted people to forget about their first and only Super Bowl appearance prior to this past Sunday, where they received a beat down. They wanted to forget years of losing, like most of the 1980's, when this franchise was basically a doormat. They had wanted more regular success in the 1990's, but only really broke through for the occasional playoff berths here and there - in 1991, in 1995, and in 1998. In the 2000's, they got Michael Vick, and he seemed to promise them a brilliant future. They made the playoffs in 2005, and made it to the NFC Championship Game, but lost to the Eagles.

Irregular playoff berths, or a lack of success once in the playoffs, seemed to be yielding early in the 2010's to possibly much better potential. They went 13-3 in 2010, but got crushed by Green Bay in their first playoff contest, but at least the Packers won the Super Bowl. They went 10-6 in 2011 and qualified as a Wildcard, but got crushed by the New York Giants, but at least the Giants won the Super Bowl. Maybe this team was starting to get good? In 2012, they started off with a very impressive, franchise best 8-0 record, and finished 13-3. They took a big lead against Seattle, then barely hung on for the win. In the NFC title game, they took another big lead, 17-0, against San Francisco, but wound up losing that one.

This was their opportunity to erase all of those memories, and finally win their Super Bowl. They could beat the dynasty of this era, the New England Patriots, in order to do so, and indeed, for most of the game, they looked fully capable of doing it. The players and owner were in a celebratory, cocky mood. Finally, they were doing it.

Unfortunately, then came the collapse. An exhausted Falcons defense that the Patriots offense finally had worn down. An inept Atlanta offense that could not have done much worse in handling the clock. The early success and big lead swept away by the fury of the will of the much more experienced New England Patriots, who landed one well-placed punch after another in a late flurry that, in the end, completely knocked out their ultimately weaker opponent.

Yes, this Super Bowl defined the Patriots as the stronger team. They won another championship. More glory.

For the Falcons, they had hoped to erase the memory of all of those past failures, and in a funny way, they kind of did. That NFC title game collapse four years ago was overshadowed by the even larger, and far more dramatic, collapse in the Super Bowl. Now, the Falcons will be remembered for what they almost, but not quite achieved in this biggest of all games. Now, the Atlanta Falcons will forever be remembered as being on the wrong side of the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history. 

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