Monday, February 06, 2017

Super Bowl 51: Slip Sliding Away

As good as the Falcons were, the Patriots aren't exactly chopped liver. Greatest QB in history. Greatest head coach - who had two weeks to game plan. A slew of receivers. A top-ranked defense.

Atlanta built their lead, but how they did it was quickly forgotten by fans with Lombardi Trophies dancing in their eyes. Two New England turnovers, including a pick six. Take those away and it's a close 14-3. In the first half Brady's passes were just slightly off the mark. The Falcon defense was bending but not breaking - struggling to cover receivers and committing several holding infractions.
Then came the 45 minute halftime, surely an eternity for the Falcons. Lady Gaga put on a good show. Her piano playing reminding me a of certain worship leader at one of the churches I attend. Social media was full of sage observations from "fans" obviously watching their first football game of the year. The Super Bowl is like New Year's Eve: all the amateurs come out.

The Falcons led 28-3. All the experts who'd picked the Pats were in full "there's plenty of time" mode. Atlanta started making plans for a parade.
What spurred the comeback? Brady's fire was surely fueled by Robert Alford's disgraceful downfield frolic. Young Alford is surely too young to remember Cowboy Leon Lett's premature Super Bowl celebration that cost him a touchdown. Dan Quinn and company were surely displeased, based on their displeasure in the red shoe photo below.

As expected, the Pats charged back. Things still went Atlanta's way: a missed extra point and failed onside kick, but the Birds were unable to put points on the board. After a strong first quarter running back Devonte Freeman was suddenly unproductive, perhaps quelled by the karma that comes from having his agent demand more money the Monday before the Super Bowl.

Brady's passes were suddenly on target. Surprise surprise. Atlanta was blitzing on two out of three plays, pressuring and sacking Brady. But the long New England drives were wearing out the Falcon defense. Like Clemson in the national championship game, the Pats would finish with more than 90 offensive plays. Atlanta ran less than fifty.

In the fateful fourth quarter the Falcons' offense ground to a halt. Their long string of no three & outs turned into a much-discussed string of two straight three & outs. But to Shanahan's credit, both series featured two 2nd & ones as well as two 3rd & shorts. Impartial announcer Joe Buck squealed with delight as the Pats separated Ryan from the football. Though the Falcons still led, Fox chose a similar moment to compare Boston's three dozen championships to Atlanta's one - failing to mention how Atlanta didn't even have a franchise until the mid-60's.

Up eight but backed up on the eleven yard line, Ryan passed the Falcons downfield. Great catch by Julio. First and ten on the Pats 21. Under similar circumstances Falcons Pro Bowl kicker Matt Bryant had made 31 of 32 field goals of 40 or fewer yards. But he never got the chance. Holding penalties and a sack pushed the Birds out of field goal range. All the Monday Morning quarterbacks said Ryan should've called three running plays and kicked the field goal, but there was a reason why they did what they did. Fans aren't privy to what the coaches base their decisions on, but it's much more than a whim. Bosher's perfect punt was fair caught inside the ten yard line.
The Pats didn't need the 2-1/2 minutes remaining on the clock to drive 93 yards. The football gods did grant them Julian Edelman's amazing catch among three defenders. The signature play of the game: out of four bodies, eight arms, and eight legs, the ball could have bounced anywhere, but dropped into the waiting arms of Edelman. The Falcons' desperate replay challenge cost them their final time out. The touchdown brought the score to 28-26, and I quickly tweeted "Maybe they'll go for one." They didn't.

When New England scored with almost a minute left on the clock, Buck and Aikman could only heap praise on Brady. No mention of the countless last-second drives Matty Ice had racked up in his career. I held out hope that it was enough time for one last miracle. When Quinn elected to punt with eleven seconds remaining, I might've been the only one in the country wondering whether the Pats would attempt a game-winning 75 yard fair catch kick. A sudden death Super Bowl is one thing, but ending the game with a play 99% of rabid fans have never heard of would've been tremendous.

The Patriots even got lucky with the overtime coin toss. At my party I had to explain the NFL overtime rules three times. Then it was just a matter of time, and the Patriots scored to win the game. To his credit, 74 year old owner Arthur Blank stuck to his custom of coming down to the sidelines in the fourth quarter. His three piece pinstripe suit looked older than his 47 year old wife. It had been a long week for Blank. Even the loud-mouthed comedian hosting Saturday night's NFL Honors roasted Blank's dancing. The owner didn't look charmed.

Plenty of blame to go around for the Falcons. Did Shanahan pass too much - especially with the lead? Only eighteen rushes compared to 23 passes, close to the usual mix. Fickle Falcon fans were quick to blame Matt Ryan for "blowing it," quickly forgetting that his MVP season was the main reason why Atlanta was in the Super Bowl in the first place.

Give credit to the Pats, and Tom Brady. Otto Graham, Bart Starr, and Joe Montana won all their championships before the era of free agency. During his run the 39 year-old Brady has passed to 34 different receivers, handed off to 25 running backs, behind the blocking of 50 offensive linemen - further cementing his legacy. In the 4th quarter of his last two Super Bowls Brady went 34-47 for 358 yards, three touchdowns, and a near perfect 115.4 passer rating.

On Lang Whitaker summed it up: "Supporting a sports team is almost like buying a lottery ticket. You know the odds are against you, but you're willing to part a little piece of yourself in the hopes that one day you will receive a big paycheck."

How true.

No comments: