A ho-hum NFL playoff we said. Not so much anymore after a final game of the NFL season that gave us the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history playing out in shocking fashion right in front of our eyes. So shocking that it’s hard to wrap one’s head around.
The Atlanta Falcons seemed poised to win Super Bowl LI and upset the New England Patriots - who entered Super Bowl Sunday as 3 point favorites. Considering the history of the NFL's big final, the Falcons 21-3 halftime lead seemed insurmountable, up 28-3 in the third and the Falcons win appeared to be on ice.
Of course, that feeling quickly vanished as everything that could go wrong did for Atlanta and the Patriots completed, easily, the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.
With a moment to breath go back and review the stats and the film here’s what ensued to flip our pick and our predictive metrics on its head.
The Falcons couldn’t close
Lots of factors had to play into the Falcons blowing a 25 point lead and allowing the Patriots to score 31 unanswered for the seemingly impossible comeback. After all, a rebound of such massive proportions doesn’t happen in one or even two plays rather it unfolds slowly with endless factors coming into play.
Probably the biggest from a broader perspective was Atlanta’s inability to milk the clock and keep their defense off the field. Atlanta’s ‘D’ did a spectacular job three quarters into the game with standout performances from several unheralded players. Rookie linebacker Deion Jones was a major factor first and foremost with his big forced fumble on LaGarrette Blount early on and some crucial plays in coverage. Robert Alford had Atlanta’s biggest swing play of all with a pick-six that broke the game wide open for the Falcons and linemen Grady Jarrett was massive in creating pressure up the middle on Tom Brady. Three quarters in and Dan Quinn’s defense had done above and beyond anything that could have been expected of them.
But those performances began to dwindle as the Dirty Birds ‘D’ was left out on the field for 93 snaps (to the Falcons 46) and 40:31 minutes of game time (including overtime) to 23:27. Atlanta already gave more than anyone should have reasonably expected defensively it was only natural for them to wear out.
The Falcons on their end just couldn’t make enough plays on third-down where they’d been formidable in their first two playoff outings - converting 16 of 25 for 64-percent - but could only muster one of eight conversions Sunday while the Patriots converted 50-percent of their attempts.
Despite all that the Falcons offense had this game in hand with 5:56 left in the fourth quarter. Pinned back at their own 10 yard line a Devonta Freeman catch to the flats for 39 yards put Atlanta firmly back into the drivers seat with the clock running down and an 8 point lead. Even more so after Matt Ryan completed a 27 yard pass down the sideline for a masterful Julio Jones toe-tap catch on the sideline. But that’s when everything went wrong for the Falcons offense that’s been so prolific this season. In a disasters four play series the Falcons managed to slowly go back 22 yards while only burning a little over a minute off the clock. Those 22 yards were the difference between a field goal make that would have but the Patriots out of reach and a punt that gave Tom Brady the ball with two timeouts and 3:38 left in the game.
Of all the factors that made his comeback, the Falcons falling apart and backing out of field goal position was the one that most sticks out. In taking the Falcons we believed in their offense an offense that’s been by far the best per YPP in the league almost the entire season. Atlanta’s averaged 6.7 yards per play this season in that four play series they managed -5.5 yards per play. Simply staying put and burning the clock could have ended any chances the Patriots had. Instead the NFL's best offense - and eight best in league history - slowly lost yardage in the biggest series in team history, the chances of that happening with the game on the line were close to impossible.
Amazingly enough though the Patriots still had to score a touchdown and convert a two-point conversion against a defense that had held up well aside from a short field touchdown drive they’d allowed on the previous drive - coming off of the Ryan strip sack fumble. While the Falcons defense didn’t look great in the fourth as they slowly ran out of gas - playing dime defense that was easily exploitable by Brady - they mostly allowed short passes over the middle. That’s when on 1st-and-10 at their own 36 the Patriots found the play of the game and maybe Super Bowl history as Julian Edelman made an absolutely impossible grab with three defenders all around him.
The 23 yard conversion certainly was big as was the play in continuing the Patriots momentum. But most of all that pass had no business being thrown or completed, as Brady made one of his few bad passes and decision in the fourth-quarter and it could have cost him dearly. Alford had already been gifted a pick-six earlier and this time made a great play on the ball just barely missing the interception and tipping the ball in the air. If that’s an interception the game’s over, if it’s tipped in the air towards the two defenders over the top of Edelman same thing. Brady made a bad and slightly desperate throw - the Pats had wasted a full minute while only having gained 27 yards to that point - with underneath coverage draped over Edelman and extra coverage over the top. The possible outcomes of that play are several and most are bad for the Patriots. Getting out of that bad pass and read with a 23 yard gain was huge and New England never really looked back from there.
On top of everything else the Patriots still had to win the coin toss to officially cap the comeback and did. New England even decided to make things interesting by passing on 1st and goal in overtime 2 yards away from the win. Vic Beasly made a great play in coverage and could have had the interception which would have been poetic justice for Malcolm Butler’s Super Bowl XLIX clinching pick in the end zone. But again the Patriots were bailed out and won it all on the very next snap.
Ultimately there were just too many factors that slowly compounded on each other for the Falcons (and our pick) to fall apart.
Our two metrics were in opposition going into the contest with YPP favoring Atlanta and EW New England, though in YPP's defense the Falcons out gained the Patriots by 1.6 yards per play. On a holistic level the Falcons were the more efficient team, the more prolific of the two and outplayed the Patriots for three-quarters but in the end, as everything fell apart the Falcons just couldn’t make the final play to end the slide.
With this loss, we’ve gone 33-34-3 on the season with our picks against the spread with the unfathomable Super Bowl win by the Patriots putting us in the losing column for the year. There’s a lot more analysis to come on the season that was, plus early win projections for the 2017 season that we’ll modify as the Vegas over/under win totals come out and personnel changes occur throughout free agency and the Draft.
The football offseason will also be a time to dabble into other sports applying some of our same metrics to other leagues, giving you the same insights and statistical analysis that we’ve offered up throughout the football season.
Stay tuned and thank you for reading throughout the year.