(Trivia question: the 25-point deficit was the largest comeback win of Brady's career. Can you name the team, quarterback, and number of points that was his largest comeback before yesterday? Answer below.)
The first three quarters were forgettable for Pats fans. Atlanta led 28-3 with 18 minutes left, in the game and a lot of that was aided-and-abetted by bad Patriots plays. In the first half, it was LeGarrette Blount's first fumble in 16 games, Tom Brady's first playoff pick-six, piss-poor run defense, and bad play-calling in the red zone. In the third quarter, it was dropped passes, blown coverages, and two special teams mistakes by Stephen Gostkowski (more on those later).
Not to take anything away from Atlanta. Their offensive execution was masterful, as coordinator Kyle Shannahan's plan slowly picked apart the Pats D. They got chunk plays running and passing, and some absolutely sick catches by Julio Jones. They executed well and showed great poise for the first three quarters.
But everything changed in the fourth quarter. After a third-quarter touchdown, the Pats entered the final 15 minutes down by 19. And all they did was score on every drive, blank the Falcons, convert two two-point tries, and double-up time of possession as they methodically worked closer and closer until they tied the game. And in overtime, they won the coin toss and scored yet another touchdown to claim the win
In that fourth quarter, Brady cemented his status as the greatest quarterback to play the game. In the final 19 minutes (including overtime), he went 22 of 29 (77.2%) for 248 yards, 1 touchdown, 0 interceptions, a QB rating of 112.4, and four straight scoring drives.
Running back James White was the man in the second half, after both Blount and Dion Lewis struggled to contribute. White caught a Super Bowl record 14 passes for 110 yards and a touchdown, and he scored the team's last two touchdowns and added a two-point conversion. He was everything Blount and Lewis weren't: poised, effective, gutty, and clutch.
Among receivers, rookie Malcolm Mitchell proved the indispensable man. He caught five passes in the second half, four of them for important first downs. He and White became Brady's go-to guys as the Falcons doubled Julian Edelman and Martellus Bennett. Bennett and Danny Amendola had a few big catches, especially Amendola's important fourth-down conversion on the Pats first touchdown drive, and his quick-out for another TD.
But the catch of the game was a tipped-ball-dive-forward-as-defenders-fall-all-around-you-and-grab-it-just-before-it-touches-the-field-and-control-it-among-defender's-feet-over-the-middle 23-yard catch by Edelman. This was the Pats version of the David Tyree and/or Jermaine Kerse catches of the past.
The offensive line picked a really bad time to have their worst game of the year. Atlanta had five sacks (24 yards), and officially eight QB hits (though they listed it at 15 during the broadcast). The Falcons didn't do any special blitzes, they just overpowered the Pats line, pushing them around in both the pass and run game.
Brady ended up with a SB record for yards and completions, but that was despite the line, not because of them. The best protection Brady had all day was throwing the ball quickly or tiring out the D-line with long drives. Oh, and the running game was mediocre, again testament to how poorly the O-line played.
The real defensive star of this game was coach Matt Patricia (more on him later). But among players, it had to be defensive lineman Trey Flowers, who tied for the team lead with six tackles and had 2.5 sacks (for 26.5 yards in losses), two tackles for loss, and five QB hits all on his own. The rest of the line was invisible on the stat sheet, but Alan Branch played well stuffing the inside runs.
Linebacker Dont'a Hightower turned in the defensive play of the game, a strip-sack that gave the Patriots the ball and life in the game. The Patriots scored a touchdown on that possession, making it a one-score game. Other than that, it was a very weak game for the LBs. Elandon Roberts was out of position or overmatched much of the game and Rob Ninkovich couldn't cover the backs out of the backfield. The entire linebacking corps totaled seven tackles; a paltry number for a Patriots defense.
The defensive backs were a real mess for much of the game. But you can't disrespect them too much; they had 25 of the team's 44 tackles. Logan Ryan mostly covered Julio Jones and by game's end, Malcolm Butler had Taylor Gabriel. But the Pats changed coverage multiple times throughout the game, looking for something that worked. They never really shut down Atlanta. Every DB got beaten at some point; though each of them made important plays, too. And with the changes in coverage it's just too difficult to judge who played well without additional film study.
Special teams saw its share of ups and downs. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed an extra point and then screwed up a perfectly good onside kick. But he also booted two perfect kickoffs late in the game to pin the Falcons deep and give the Patriots a chance to comeback. In all, he forced five returns and the Falcons averaged just 8.4 yards per return. Oh, and that also speaks very well of the coverage teams.
The coaches had two stars and one underwhelming performance. First, head coach Bill Belichick deserves a lot of credit for not panicking down by 25 points. He just kept his players focused on the task ahead and put his team in position to make progress toward a win.
On defense, Patricia's charges kickstarted the comeback with the strip-sack, and they held the Falcons scoreless for the final 23+ minutes. His defenses always get stingier as the game goes on, and it's a puzzlement why he doesn't get more head-coaching buzz than offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
Speaking of McDaniels, he had a poor game for three quarters. His last play-call of the first half was just plain strange (screen pass to Bennett with 11-seconds on the clock). And once again, he got schooled for most of the game by a seasoned NFL defensive coordinator. McDaniels is good at putting together a game plan, but if his first plan doesn't work, it takes him too long to adjust to Plan B.
One last note on the coaching, the Patriots are not Super Bowl champs today without a big mistake by the Falcons coaches. Atlanta had the ball on the Pats 22 yard-line with a first down and 4:40 left in the game. If they take a knee three times, it either runs the clock or takes all of the Pats timeouts. And then they can kick a field goal for a two-score lead.
It's head coaching malpractice to pass the ball there. But that's what they did; leading to a 12-yard sack, a holding call, and eventually, a punt back to the Pats with a one-score lead.
So where does that leave us? Super Bowl Champs, natch! The off-season will start soon enough, but for now, this was a great game that will merit much discussion. And the other discussions will be about where Brady, Belichick, and the Patriots dynasty rank among the all-time greats. In other words, it'll be your favorite week ever!
Non-Brady MVP of the Week: James White, who merited serious MVP consideration.
Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Patriots are the Super Bowl team to run more than twice as many plays as their opponent. Their 93-46 ratio is the most lopsided in Super Bowl history.
Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The NFL should stop hating on the Pats and put them in the Super Bowl every year. Every game they play there is great!"
Keep the faith,
PS. 17-2 & 3-0!
PPS. Trivia answer: Three years ago, I was at Gillette Stadium when the Patriots trailed the Peyton Manning-led Broncos 24-0 at halftime. A Denver fan said at the time: "No lead is safe; you guys have God playing quarterback." His hyperbole was not out of line -- the Patriots mounted a furious comeback to force overtime where they won the game. Until last night, that was the biggest comeback of Brady's career.