How the Patriots engineered the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history

Senior Analyst Mike Renner breaks down the improbable second-half comeback by the New England Patriots.

| 4 months ago
Tom Brady

(Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

How the Patriots engineered the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history


The game should have been over.

The league’s highest-scoring offense owned a 25-point lead with 8:31 left in the third quarter. Not only would the Patriots have to put on an offensive clinic they in no way looked capable of, but they would also have to completely shut down the Atlanta offense that was swiss-cheesing their defense.

It was the perfect confluence of ineptitude for New England in the first half. The offensive line was overwhelmed, the receivers couldn’t separate, quarterback Tom Brady was uncharacteristically off, and two turnovers had them behind the eight ball. In a four-score game with 23 minutes remaining, every single possession was a must-win.

And that’s precisely what the Patriots did. Any semblance of the game plan they had offensively heading into the game flew out the window. Brady was in shotgun almost exclusively the rest of regulation (only four snaps under center, three of them runs) and the transition to a short, quick passing game commenced.

Easily the most surprising issue for New England early on in the game was Atlanta’s defensive line. To put it bluntly, Patriots LT Nate Solder was getting his butt whipped. He was responsible for a ludicrous 10 QB pressures throughout the first 37 minutes of the game. At that point in the third quarter, Brady had been under pressure on 14 of his 32 dropbacks (43.8 percent). That’s a sizable jump from the 30.5 percent he had seen in his 14 games prior this season. Brady’s average time before release on those dropbacks, though, was 2.67 seconds, another noticeable increase from his 2.54 average time before the Super Bowl.

With the added emphasis on getting rid of the ball quicker, though, Brady’s time to throw dropped to 2.43 seconds over his final 38 dropbacks to close out the game. Those callous misses we had seen from Brady in the first half disappeared. On his 33 attempts during the comeback, only two fell incomplete due to being off target from the wide receiver—a ridiculously low rate. He went 26-for-33 for 284 yards, two touchdowns, zero interceptions and a passer rating of 122.7. Those stats are even crazier when you realize that only 206 of those 284 yards (72.5 percent) came prior to the catch. That represents a glaring departure from Brady’s season average of 53.9 percent.

With Brady’s ability to both get the ball out quicker as well to sustain drives, the Falcons’ defense became absolutely gassed. They managed to get pressure on Brady only six times over his last 38 dropbacks, and didn’t affect him once on his last 15 dropbacks of the game.

Of course, to execute a comeback of such grandiose proportions, one needs some breaks to go their way. WR Julian Edelman’s amazing, juggling 23-yard catch could just have easily ended up in the hands of Falcons CB Robert Alford, and will likely go down as the most improbable Super Bowl catch since David Tyree’s helmet grab for the Giants in Super Bowl XLII. It also took two timely sacks—one from Dont’a Hightower that forced a crucial fumble, and another from Trey Flowers that took them out of field-goal range. It was flawless football all around.

One of the most difficult things to do in the NFL is run an effective offense when you’re forced to be one-dimensional. Tom Brady proved once again that no one can match his ability in that regard. He engineered four straight scoring drives with little to no legitimate threat of the run in what was the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.

| Senior Analyst

Mike is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has also been featured on The Washington Post, ESPN Insider, and 120 Sports.

  • JT

    Atlanta was mainly getting pressured because Brady was holding the ball for 7 seconds…..by the 4th quarter they finally tired out so the 7 seconds could actually work lmao another article trying to bash the Pats Oline that kept Brady clean for an absured amount of time and blaming Brady’s problems on them even though the pick six happened on a no pressure play.

    • James Winslow

      I mean he was hit 16 times and sacked like 5 times they definitely didn’t help him early on. Down the stretch they were brilliant though.

      • JT

        I don’t get it thought because they had 3 of 5 of their Lineman in their top 5 for their offensive grades in the first half? It feels like most of the pressure was due to Brady holding the ball too much outside of a couple of the Jarret sacks and Dwight beating Nate.

        • James Winslow

          I mean those three sacks weren’t blocked well, sometimes his protection was great sometimes it was awful. The good outweighed the bad, but those defender got home way to easily some sacks.

  • AJ

    Minor note, but if Atlanta really wanted to challenge the Edelman catch, they shouldn’t have done so at 2:03. They should have waited for the clock to run down to 2:00 and not give the Patriots an extra timeout. The downside is the defense doesn’t get additional rest, but that didn’t seem to help them there anyway.

    • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi

      good point

    • Chiryder55

      they couldn’t. The Pats were running up to the line to snap the ball. They were close to being set at 2:13. The broadcast was in replay but if they hadn’t thrown the red flag NE would have gotten a play off before the 2:00 warning and ATL there wouldn’t have been a review from upstairs.

  • crosseyedlemon

    An entertaining game from the perspective of most fans but how does this championship game stack up when compared to others? Both teams played inconsistently and the winning team gave up nearly 6 yds per play.

    • DaStrongSKRAWN

      It’s not best ever. Game was too lopsided until last quarter to be. Both Giants/Pats, SEA/Pats & PIT/ARI were better in recent memory.

    • Mustard

      Do you need explosions in the stands to keep your excitement level elevated? What the hell more do you want, child?

  • James hannagan

    Why isn’t anyone discussing the fact that ATL just had to go jumbo three qb sneaks or SHORT hands-off to fb had the ball at NE 28 in fg range with less than six minutes left game over not a NE hater admire them in fact Raider fan but it seemed scripted to me

    • Mustard

      There we go. The fix is in rants. Do you believe in Santa Claus too?

    • Bill Ewall

      It is perfectly clear that the Falcons threw this game. They are notorious Trump fans, and were trying to please The Donald, who was not even watching!

    • Chiryder55

      it’s what they’ve been doing all year. They’re aggressive and they wanted to stomp them out. They could have ran the ball all fourth quarter. But, they came out throwing. Though, I think they saw that NE and figured them out in the run game and their passing game was more effective.

  • JudoPrince

    “One of the most difficult things to do in the NFL is run an effective offense when you’re forced to be one-dimensional. ”

    I disagree with this concept. Exclusively running pass plays against a defense that is so exhausted it can’t generate a pass rush, is easy pickings for just about any decent QB in the NFL. At this point, its a 7 vs 7 drill in practice. Now being forced to pass every play against a defense that is well rested is obviously difficult, but that wasn’t the case on Sunday. The Falcons defense was probably on the field for twice as many plays as New England’s defense was.

    • Mustard

      Debbie Downering all the way, huh? Wonderful. Falcons made some miscues of their own. They could have mad even more and thag doesn’t just ho-hum a 31-pt eruption. Brady made countless plays with no room for any error. And he did that. With the world clamoring to take a dump all over him after they were to close.

      “Easy pickings and basically a 7-on-7 practice drill”

      That’s laughable. Stay minimizing that improbable, historical comeback

      • JudoPrince

        If my theory is incorrect, why was Brady so erratic earlier in the game..when a fresh Falcons defense had his number? The same trend occurred in New England’s previous super bowl win.

        • Albert Heisenberg

          Without his WRs drops, he completed nearly 80% of his passes. Again, no Gronk either.

          He had 2 bad throws, the miss to Edelman over the middle and the pick-6. That was it. Brady must be held to a higher standard than everybody else apparently. 31 point comebacks must easy to do 😉

    • Bill Ewall

      Agreed. The Jets would have won this game!

    • Albert Heisenberg

      Lol Well-rested? You do realize WRs also have to run routes. You do also realize that the defense is ONLY on the field if the offense continues to make first down after first down (Brady threw for a playoff record 27 first downs), while Matt Ryan was 1 for 9 on 3rd down.

      The reason it is so hard to WIN/i.e. be successful when throwing exclusively is that you have to cut your playbook in half: no run plays and no play-action. The greater the pass attempts the increased likelihood of a strip sack or an interception from a tipped ball (which nearly happened). You cannot underestimate how difficult it is to win a game throwing that many pass attempts:

      That was Tom Brady’s 27th game throwing 50+ attempts (62) most in NFL history, 18-9. Understand this significance. No other QB has a winning record W/ 50+ attempts (minimum 8 games)

      Tom Brady –>18-9 (66.7%) Win/Loss ratio 27 times 50+attempts

      Drew Brees 4-15 21.1% 19 times 50+attempts

      Peyton Manning 4-13 23.5% 17 times 50+attempts

      Dan Marino 5-11 31.3% 16 times 50+attempts

      Drew Bledsoe 4-9 30.8% 13 times 50+attempts

      Brett Favre 3-9 25.0% 12 times 50+attempts

      Joe Flacco 3-9 25.0% 12 times 50+attempts

      Matthew Stafford 1-10 9.1% 11 times 50+attempts

      Eli Manning 3-7 30.0% 10 times 50+attempts

      Warren Moon 5-5 50.0% 10 times 50+attempts

      Vinny Testaverde 3-6 33.3% 9 times 50+attempts

      Kerry Collins 0-8 0.0% 8 times 50+attempts

      Carson Palmer 0-8 0.0% 8 times 50+attempts

      ….And he did it with No Gronk lol.

      Crazy stat:

      There had been 105 playoff games where a team trailed by at least 18 points entering the 3rd quarter of a playoff game. Teams had been 0-105. And now they are 1-105.

      It is NOT easier to throw when the defense knows you are 100% going to throw. Period.

      • Chiryder55

        hmmm. You do realize that WR don’t have to run routes. They can block too. Plus the DB generally run to the ball to make tackles. Receivers don’t always have to. ATL had 3 corners on the field and both safeties that played 90+ snaps out of 99 possible (they also added 15 special teams snaps). NE WR’s only had two that played 90+. If you watched the game, they were chasing running backs and TE’s as well. The middle linebacker had 99 snaps and he was chasing down running backs and TE’s that were rotating (none of them had 90).

  • Bob

    pats ran all those plays but never seemed to be in hurry up..
    cant remember another nfl team go for onside kick late in game not get it and then still win game..
    brady pass to endelmen should have been picked..
    experience paid off pats looked stronger at end due to conditioning as well…

    • Bob

      obviously pats dont defer in OT, but defering in the beginning is a mistake..the double score only happens twenty percent of time and thiat is by the best team at it the pats..yet it never translates to TD TD its usually TD FG…you have no shot at a blow out in first quarter like pats used to do to opposnents before the started this insanitiy of defering

      • Bill Ewall

        Agree completely. This foolish deferring policy has made them a big loser.

    • Albert Heisenberg

      Minor quibble: Julian Edelman said after the game that the tipped ball by Alford was actually his fault; Alford was playing inside leverage and Edelman was supposed to cut his route inside 2 yards prior (making it a straight forward catch and not a tipped ball). More to the point, the tipped balls off the hands of his receivers against Houston could’ve easily been catches. The Falcons could’ve easily picked off Rodgers 4 times but didn’t. If Tyree doesn’t make a ridiculous catch they go 19-0. The If and But game is cool to play but reality is reality. Falcons got gassed because Ryan was 1 for 9 on third down while Brady threw for a playoff record 27 first downs. That was the game.

  • James hannagan

    Not suggesting it was fixed and hardly a rant it just had a Hollywood vibe to it just like last year and Payton almost in Marino territory and not really in the discussion for goat then goes off into the sunset a champ a type of theme if you wish happy for him by the way it didn’t seem Atlanta used good judgment for highly paid and focused pros like their coaches and no one seemed to hold them accountable that’s all maybe that will clarify things for you saint nick

  • Jim

    Atlanta runs twice and kicks the FG with 2:30 left to go up 11…GAME IS OVER. PERIOD. Wasted Freemans long catch/run and Julio Jones greatest catch ever, depriving both of a deserved SB ring. Kick the FG, GAME OVER. Kyle Shanahan has to be the second stupidest OC of all time, right behind Seattle’s from 2 years ago. If not for brain dead play calls with each game won, Brady is 3-4 in SB’s (with those 3 in question due to the Pats relentless and forever cheating). If not for idiot OC’s and cheating, Pats may be 0-7 for SBs.

    • Bill Ewall

      Losing creates bitterness -so sad.

  • Albert Heisenberg

    I stated this in a post below, but it bears repeating: That was Tom Brady’s 27th game throwing 50+ attempts (62) most in NFL history, 18-9. Understand this significance. No other QB has a winning record W/ 50+ attempts (minimum 8 games).

    Tom Brady –>18-9 (66.7%) Win/Loss ratio 27 times 50+attempts

    Drew Brees 4-15 21.1% 19 times 50+attempts

    Peyton Manning 4-13 23.5% 17 times 50+attempts

    Dan Marino 5-11 31.3% 16 times 50+attempts

    Drew Bledsoe 4-9 30.8% 13 times 50+attempts

    Brett Favre 3-9 25.0% 12 times 50+attempts

    Joe Flacco 3-9 25.0% 12 times 50+attempts

    Matthew Stafford 1-10 9.1% 11 times 50+attempts

    Eli Manning 3-7 30.0% 10 times 50+attempts

    Warren Moon 5-5 50.0% 10 times 50+attempts

    Vinny Testaverde 3-6 33.3% 9 times 50+attempts

    Kerry Collins 0-8 0.0% 8 times 50+attempts

    Carson Palmer 0-8 0.0% 8 times 50+attempts

    …And he did it without Gronk, his top weapon.

    Crazy stat

    There had been 105 playoff games where a team trailed by at least 18 points entering the 3Q of a playoff game. Teams had been 0-105. And now they are 1-105.

    I’m an Eagles fan but Tom Brady is the GOAT.