Let’s start with this.
If I told you this was a blueprint for a roller coaster, you’d have some qualms. Why is the entire middle portion of the ride so flat and boring? And why does the track break 90 percent of the way through and kill everyone on board? This is disconcerting. Maybe just go ride the teacups and sit this one out.
It’s not really a roller coaster blueprint, of course. It is, in fact, the win probability chart for Sunday night’s Super Bowl.
The game stories were completed by halftime. The Patriots had been outmatched by the Falcons. Devonta Freeman ran for a touchdown, then Matt Ryan threw for one. Late in the second quarter, Tom Brady threw an interception to Robert Alford, who returned it 82 yards for a third Atlanta score. It was 21-3 at the half, and Ryan’s passer rating was perfect. The Falcons were winning the turnover battle 2-0. The Pats had outgained Atlanta by 26 yards, but needed a ridiculous 23 extra plays to do it.
The celebration was on in Georgia as the good times rolled on into the third quarter. Ryan threw for another touchdown with 8:36 left to put the Falcons up 28-3. The Patriots would get that touchdown back on the following drive, but for all intents and purposes, it was over. Entering the final quarter, Atlanta held a 28-9 lead and was on the verge of the city’s first major championship in over two decades.
Then the track broke.
New England’s fourth-quarter drive log:
-Field Goal (12 plays, 5:07)
-Touchdown (2PT Conversion Good) (5 plays, 2:28)
-Touchdown (2PT Conversion Good) (10 plays, 2:33)
Atlanta’s fourth-quarter drive log:
-Fumble (3 plays, 1:20)
-Punt (6 plays, 2:26)
-Punt (4 plays, 0:54)
Putting aside that an all-time great Falcons offense managed just 21 total points in this game, the failure to score is not what is so mind-numbingly egregious about this fourth quarter…it’s that the Falcons chewed up just 4:40 of the game clock. Let’s rephrase that point for added emphasis: entering the final quarter of play with a 19-point lead in hand, the Falcons allowed the Patriots to control the ball for 10:08 of the game’s final 15 minutes.
Let’s focus on Atlanta’s first two drives of the quarter, the ones where they still had the lead. The first one, beginning at 9:44 and with Atlanta holding a 28-12 lead, started with two run plays to Tevin Coleman. This was good! He picked up nine yards on the two runs, setting up a 3rd and 1. Then, for whatever reason, Atlanta chose to pass. This resulted in a sack-fumble of Matt Ryan for an 11-yard loss, setting the Patriots up at the Atlanta 25. Good job, good effort.
After the Pats scored, the Falcons got the ball back again, now with 5:56 remaining. Nursing only an eight-point lead, they remained aggressive. This paid off at first, with a dumpoff pass to Freeman going for 39 yards and a 27-yard completion to Julio Jones that will go down as one of the great forgotten catches in Super Bowl history. Actual good job, actual good effort. No snark this time.
At this point, Atlanta holds the ball at New England’s 22-yard line with just 4:40 left. This, as many have now pointed out, is a perfectly good time to STOP being aggressive. The SOLE objective for the Falcons at this juncture is to NOT LOSE YARDAGE. They could literally take three knees, deplete New England of their remaining time outs and kick a safe field goal to put them up 11, effectively ending the game and sealing the first Super Bowl win in franchise history.
Instead, after Freeman lost a yard on a first-down run, Matt Ryan EATS A 12-YARD SACK. *head explodes*
THEN! On third and 23, he finds Mohamed Sanu for a nine-yard gain (after which he goes out of bounds, of course) only to have that CALLED BACK BY A HOLD. *new head grows in old one’s place, explodes even harder*
Atlanta, now pushed all the way back to the 45, throws incomplete on 3rd and 33 and punts the ball back to New England, primed with 3:30 left on the clock and two time outs. Predictably, Tom Brady does some Tom Brady shit, the Pats tie it up, win the overtime coin toss and then the game.
After this baffling series of events, many an internet-user stepped forward to proclaim this as the greatest Super Bowl in history.
Was this the best Super Bowl ever?
— NFL (@NFL) February 7, 2017
Tom Brady didn’t just have the best Super Bowl ever. He played the greatest football game ever. https://t.co/RWk003Iv9u
— Washington Post (@washingtonpost) February 6, 2017
Great, of course, is subjective. If you’re a Patriots fan (I am not), then far be it for anyone else to tell you Sunday night wasn’t great. Likewise, if you’re a Falcons fan (also, thankfully, not) there are at least six circles of Hell you’d assuredly rather visit than relive Sunday’s game. Approaching it from a reasonably objective standpoint though, was it the greatest Super Bowl of all-time? Was it even close? Shocking? Definitely. Greatest comeback ever? Ok, sure. Unequivocally great, though?
Unless you remained tuned into the game simply to revel in the Patriots’ misery (which, granted, a lot of people did), the game was so unwatchable through three quarters that such banner Patriot fans as Mark Wahlberg and Donald Trump quit watching altogether. So then, the game’s ‘greatness’ completely hinges on the fourth-quarter comeback, which we’ve already established was made possible only by some of the most baffling play calling and game strategy imaginable.
Maybe it’s just a spur-of-the-moment overreaction, like when I swore The Book of Eli was a cinematic masterpiece upon leaving the movie theater. I certainly get the sentiment. It just happened, emotions are running high, recency bias and all that. It was a crazy ending. No one saw it coming. And the Super Bowl was pretty surprising, too.
I just find it difficult to dub the greatest-ever a game where:
- One team played three quarters of terrible football
- The other team played even worse football in the fourth quarter
- The outcome was essentially decided on a coin flip
I don’t mean to rain on anyone’s parade (yes I do), but Super Bowl 51 was lousily played, lousily coached and lousily decided. If that’s what we’re collectively deciding to call the greatest, maybe it’s time to rethink the word.