Did situation football win the Patriots Super Bowl LI?

Posted Feb 10, 2017

The BBC's Mike Carlson looks for the key reasons why the New England Patriots won Super Bowl LI?

Turned out to be a pretty good Super Bowl after all, didn’t it? I’d picked the Pats, first by 27-24, and then 31-27, and at halftime Osi was giving me the needle again (though we stood at 1-1 at Super Bowls after his taking Denver last year) with a lot of justification. But beyond the excitement of one of the great games ever, I want to make two points today. How the Pats stayed in and got back into the game was an object lesson in situational football, and Tom Brady’s performance may well have propelled him into Greatest of all Time status.

I said at the top of our BBC show that the Patriots specialised in situational football: their bend but don’t break style of defense is predicated on it, on getting you to third down where knowing the yardage needed on this one specific play can give your defense an edge. The Falcons, despite the explosiveness of their offense, which tore the Pats to pieces, converted only one of their eight third downs, and that was on a borderline pass interference call on Malcolm Butler. This proved crucial in the fourth quarter. When they needed crucial yardage, Atlanta stalled. New England brought pressure late, with Hightower getting a crucial sack as Freeman looked to the inside first (I believe to help Alex Mack) and Flowers who went right over Mack, who had turned in a Herculean performance playing with a cracked fibula. 

The Pats, for all their offensive troubles (Brady being off for much of the game, his receivers dropping balls, the run game static) converted 7/14, plus a fourth down, making them eight for 15. They called plays designed to get them that yardage, even if they required lots of deception or build up to get it. It was the same with their two two-point conversions, plays they had confidence in calling to pick up two yards against a defense that had out-quicked them most of the game, but was slowing down just slightly as the game drew on.

Situational football: Stephen Gostkowski, who missed a nearly crucial extra point, and had the bad luck to let his own onside kick hit him in the leg, twice executed coffin corner kickoffs to pin the Falcons inside the 15. If he misses, Atlanta gets the ball on the 40. But he didn’t, and when New England stopped them on downs, they got the ball in great field position. And got a huge return from Julian Edelman when Matt Bosher outkicked his coverage.

Situational football: It was ironic, given that this game was in Houston, but the Falcons failed to learn from the example of the Oilers against Buffalo. That run and shoot team failed to switch their strategy and work even a little clock. They handed the Bills the time to come back and win, in the NFL's biggest, and until this game, most amazing comeback. Atlanta had a first and 10 at the Pats 22, 4:40 to play, they needed to work clock as much as score points, and if you do the first, a field goal would suffice for the second. It doesn’t mean they have to run, but with Julio Jones and the slant pattern both available, there were options beyond a run game that was basically working.

Spare a thought for Julio, held to only four catches, his last one was one of the greatest I’ve ever seen, catching a ball through almost perfect double-coverage and getting his trailing foot down as momentum carried him way out of bounds.

Situational football quick quiz: which team ran for more yards? Answer: it was even, Pats 104 on 25 carries, Falcons 104 on 18. Think about it. Brady threw 62 times, no pass over 28 yards, and they still ran for 104 and 2 touchdowns.

Before the game I had argued that its result shouldn’t determine whether or not Tom Brady is the greatest, that his career value didn’t rest on his seventh Super Bowl. After the game, Osi, who has consistently argued against Brady, on the very good grounds that he’d beaten him twice in big game, turned to me and said, ‘he’s the greatest’, and I’m inclined now to agree.

This was the first Super Bowl overtime, but not the first in an NFL championship game. Looking at Brady’s face after the first completion to Amendola in overtime, you could see he knew exactly how he was going to cut that tiring Atlanta D apart. The close up of his face reminded me exactly of Johnny Unitas on the overtime in that 1958 Greatest Game Ever Played against the Giants. And for a long time, until the passing rules changed, and Joe Montana had his great run, and Marino, Elway, Favre, Peyton and Brady came along, Johnny U was the herd’s consensus as the GOAT.

People argue Brady is a system quarterback. Only with the Pats, it’s been three or maybe four different systems. Montana was a system QB too. Peyton was a system QB, and it was his system. QBs get credit for wins, which is not really fair (absent Edelman’s catch, New England doesn’t win, right?) but they get blame for losses too. There is a lot of truth to the idea that Brady wouldn’t be the greatest were it not for Belichick, but that was also true of Montana and Walsh, and for my previous choice as the GOAT, Otto Graham, and Paul Brown. All we have to judge on is how the quarterback performs with the tools he’s given, and how he performs when the pressure it at its greatest, and when the scent of winning is in the air. That’s what Brady has done. That’s why he may well be the Greatest.

LAST WEEK’S PICKS: 1-0 PLAYOFFS: 10-1 SEASON: 178-87-2 (67.2%)

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