The five plays that turned Super Bowl LI for New England
Super Bowl LI is in the books, and the New England Patriots earned their fifth Lombardi Trophy with one of the greatest comebacks in NFL history, overcoming a 19-point deficit as the game entered the fourth quarter to seal the win in the first ever Super Bowl overtime.
As with every great comeback, there are plays that needed to happen for it to turn that way, and this game seemed to have a sequence of them, all of which needed to break in New England’s favor for the Patriots to pull it off. Here are the five plays that turned the Super Bowl:
1. Patriots RB LeGarrette Blount fumbles the ball. (First quarter, 14:19 remaining)
The scoreboard had yet to be bothered by any team by this point in the game, and the fumble actually led to the first points by the Falcons, so how did Blount putting the ball on the ground lead to the Patriots’ comeback? It fundamentally changed how the Patriots were approaching the game on offense, because it turned it from being a LeGarrette Blount affair to a James White one. Blount was on the field for 17 total snaps (out of a ridiculous 99 in the game, including nullified plays). Eight of those snaps were in the first quarter, and the ninth was his fumble. From that point onwards, he had just eight snaps over the rest of the game, as he went immediately to Bill Belichick’s doghouse for committing the cardinal sin—coughing up the football.
Patriots RB James White, by contrast, saw just six snaps in the first quarter, but became the primary back for the remainder of the game, getting 20 in the second quarter and finishing the game with 71—he was the player the Falcons just couldn’t match up with on defense. White touched the ball 20 times on offense, racking up 14 receptions, 139 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns. He beat five different Falcons’ defenders for catches, and was the one player that was consistently making plays while the rest of the receivers had relative off-days. There may not have been a comeback to make at the point this play happened, but the change in RB game plan laid the foundation for it later on.
2. Patriots TE Martellus Bennett prevents back-to-back interceptions. (Second quarter, 2:00 minutes remaining)
Tom Brady had just thrown a pick-six, and the Patriots were now in a 21-0 hole with two minutes remaining in the first half until the Falcons—having deferred the opening kick-off—got the ball back once again. New England needed points from this drive; at the very least, they needed to prevent Atlanta from putting any more on the board. Dwight Freeney beat LT Nate Solder for quick pressure on the play, forcing Brady to step up hurriedly in the pocket, and as he looked to put the ball in the air, he was hit by Vic Beasley, sending the ball up over the middle of the field where Falcons CB Jalen Collins was positioning himself to have it drop into his hands. Martellus Bennett, instead, elevated in front of him to snatch the pass out of the air, saving the interception and converting the first down in the process.
If Bennett doesn’t save the interception, the game is likely dead right there, and even if he only knocked the ball down or couldn’t bring it in, it would have put the Patriots in a very tough spot, facing 3rd-and-7 from their own 28-yard line with Atlanta having all kinds of momentum. This was arguably the play that really sparked the comeback—the place where it began.
3. Falcons RB Devonta Freeman misses the blitz. (Fourth quarter, 8:31 remaining)
This was the biggest momentum-swinger in Super Bowl LI. The Patriots had just scored, but only a field goal, and were still 16-points down with the Falcons looking at 3rd-and-1. If Atlanta converts this, New England is probably done. If the Falcons even just keep hold of the ball, punt, and force the Patriots to go the length of the field to score, they’re probably done. Anything but what actually happens, and the game is likely over, with Matt Ryan hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.
The Patriots showed pressure at the line and came with five rushers, but the Falcons had more than enough to pick it up—except RB Devonta Freeman looks inside first and never sees Patriots LB Dont’a Hightower coming off the edge until he runs right past him.
At that point it’s too late, and Hightower has a free run at Ryan, forcing a fumble on the sack and setting the Patriots up with a short field from where they would close the gap to 10, and then eight points just minutes later. Ryan will take some heat for the sacks he took in this game, and some of the criticism was deserved, but this play wasn’t on him.
Atlanta should have picked this up, and with Ryan working the left side of the field, the rush was effectively coming from his blind side, despite coming from the open side of the field. Freeman blew his assignment, and the rot had started in earnest.
4. QB Matt Ryan takes a sack to move the Falcons out of field goal range. (Fourth quarter, 3:56 remaining)
This had suddenly become a very real game out of nowhere. Atlanta had gone from cruising to needing to salt away the win that had seemed so certain mere minutes before. New England had made it a one-score game after the previous turnover, but blew the coverage on the first play of the ensuing drive, allowing Devonta Freeman to take the ball into New England territory. There are those that want to hammer Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan for being too aggressive and pass-happy in the game, but this play came on play action where the Patriots were expecting run, and it should have been a significant factor in Atlanta icing the win, so the aggression certainly had its moments.
Atlanta’s next play was a run that went nowhere before Julio Jones had one of the best catches in Super Bowl history down the sideline on the route that has been killing defensive backs all season. Eric Rowe actually played it well and was underneath it the whole way, forcing a ridiculous throw and catch from Ryan to Jones, who somehow got both feet down as he fell out of bounds. That set the Falcons up at the Patriots 22-yard line (already just a 39-yard field goal attempt for a kicker that was 22-23 from inside of 40 this season).
Atlanta’s next run again went nowhere, and on 2nd-and-11, the Falcons drew up a pass play. With under four minutes remaining on the clock, extending the lead to two scores would have put the Patriots in an enormous hole, so staying within field-goal range was crucial, but the Patriots got quick pressure and Matt Ryan was taken down for a loss of 12 on the play. The 39-yard field goal just became a 52-yard attempt. This really was Ryan’s first significant mistake of the game. The Patriots got quick pressure up the gut, but Ryan needed to get rid of that football the second he felt heat, because maintaining field position was vital to the team at this point. Losing a dozen yards put the Falcons in a hole they couldn’t climb out of on the drive—one that ended without any additional points and ultimately gave the Patriots a shot to come back and tie the game in the time remaining.
5. Patriots WR Julian Edelman’s catch. (Fourth quarter, 2:28 remaining)
Sometimes you just need the ball to bounce your way. Time was becoming a factor, and New England had already been forced into 3rd-and-long once on the drive, converting and then picking up a first down on 2nd-and-11 from their own 25-yard line. They had the ball at their own 36, but they had lost a minute of game time and had 150 seconds to work with. Tom Brady then throws the pass that should have sealed the win—for Atlanta. He tried to hit WR Julian Edelman on a post pattern over the middle of the field and threw the ball right to Atlanta CB Robert Alford, who dropped the interception that would have ended the game.
Edelman and both safeties went diving for the ball as it fell to ground off Alford’s deflection, and while everybody’s initial reaction was, “No way, incomplete pass,” replays showed that the ball somehow managed to stay in the air off Alford’s legs and the tangle of arms before Edelman gathered it to come up with the crucial reception.
This play will be remembered for the ridiculous nature of the catch, but it should also be remembered for the play that never was—a pass that hit a defensive back in the hands and could have ended the comeback right then and there.
The rest, as they say, is history. Brady rallied from his lucky break, didn’t make another mistake in the game, and the Falcons couldn’t answer, sending the contest to overtime, where the Patriots marched down the field against an exhausted Falcons defense to create legend.