Though it was the final game of Peyton Manning’s illustrious career, Super Bowl 50 just didn’t seem special, aside from the fact that it served as the golden anniversary of the AFL/NFL merger.
Carolina and Denver both had stellar defenses, led by star cornerbacks and linebackers. The matchup also featured two quarterbacks, Manning and Cam Newton, that had been named NFL MVP at some point in their careers. The setup for a classic was there, but it did not pan out.
The game began as a defensive battle, but ended up being a very one sided affair. Neither quarterback played all that well, and Von Miller, the game’s MVP, wrecked the game for the Panthers. His two strip sacks of Cam Newton, including one that was recovered in the end zone for a touchdown, served as the deciding factor.
Even with the age old phrase that a game is “never over ‘till it’s over,” you know a game is over when the losing team’s players begin to shake the hands of the winning team and congratulating them. Super Bowl 50 was over way before it was actually over. What Super Bowl 50 lacked in excitement and overall competitiveness, Super Bowl 51 made up for, and then some.
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Over the past calendar year, American sports fans have been treated to a Villanova buzzer-beater to win the NCAA Men’s Basketball National Championship, the most tortured sports city in the world earning an NBA Championship after coming back from a 3-1 deficit to the best statistical team in NBA history, the Cubs finally bringing a World Series home to Chicago after winning a Game 7 in ten innings, and Clemson scoring a walk-off touchdown in the College Football Playoff National Championship to take down the ever powerful Alabama Crimson Tide. Yet, the football game broadcasted by Fox on Sunday night is the best of all of them, and possibly even the best American sporting event that’s ever been played.
Atlanta, led by the NFL MVP Matt Ryan, had perhaps the best overall offense in NFL history. Their ability to score at-will in so many ways made them almost impossible to defend. I’ve said for years that the 2013 Broncos had the best offense in NFL history, but my opinion has officially changed, mostly because of Atlanta’s backfield. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman both have power, top-end speed, and the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. The Falcons defense wasn’t too shabby either, showcasing NFL sack leader Vic Beasley and the incredibly athletic Dion Jones, a nominee for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
While the Patriots’ roster is not nearly as physically gifted as that of the Falcons, their ability to create impeccable game plans and schemes make them nearly impossible to beat. Seemingly every week, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia put no-name players in positions to not just shine, but shine at a level that allows the Patriots to be Super Bowl contenders every single year.
For example, players like WR Chris Hogan, DE Rob Ninkovich, RB Dion Lewis, and CB Malcolm Butler have starred for the Patriots this season. Hogan was cut by four different teams before joining the Patriots, Ninkovich had bounced around a few teams’ practice squads, Lewis had just been cut by the Browns and hadn’t played a snap of football in two years, and Butler went from un-drafted free agent to Pro Bowl corner in less than two years with New England.
The matchup itself was a great one. But, unlike Super Bowl 50, Super Bowl LI lived up to the hype.
It began with sloppiness from both sides, with each quarterback taking multiple sacks in the first quarter and neither offense looking to be in any sort of rhythm. As former NFL GM Charley Casserly noted on Twitter, however, the first quarter of Super Bowl games often feature “sloppy football as teams try to find their rhythm.” The lack of rhythm didn’t last long, for the Falcons anyway.
Atlanta proceeded to score touchdowns on their next two drives, all while keeping Tom Brady and New England’s offense from accomplishing anything. Matt Ryan looked completely locked in, and it seemed as if Devonta Freeman could not be tackled because of his incredible quickness, reminiscent of Lesean McCoy in his prime with the Eagles. Mike Shanahan also had a big role on the two touchdown drives, orchestrating play calls to perfection. Much like in the NFC Championship game, the Falcons’ offense was an unstoppable work of art.
When the Patriots’ offense took back over, things began to click. Brady began to look in-sync with his receivers, and Dion Lewis had some success on the ground. The drive that looked so promising ended in disaster, with Brady throwing an ugly pick to CB Robert Alford, who returned the interception for a touchdown.
FOX cameras cut to Falcons owner Arthur Blank and his wife celebrating ecstatically in their suite. It seemed that the game was already over, even with 2:30 left in the first half. New England got the ball back, and drove down the field to kick a field goal before time ran out. When Lady Gaga took center stage at halftime for a performance she absolutely crushed, it still felt like the game was over already, with a score of 21-3.
Both teams exchanged punts to start the second half, but the lack of offense did not last long. On their second possession of the third quarter, the Falcons executed another artistic and masterful drive. WR Taylor Gabriel accounted for 52 receiving yards as Matt Ryan drove his team straight down the field again, capping it off with a six yard TD pass to Tevin Coleman. The game that already seemed over now seemed like it had ended yesterday.
In 2014, Brian Hoyer and the Cleveland Browns executed the biggest road comeback in NFL history against Charle Whitehurst and the Tennessee Titans, erasing a 28-3 deficit against a team that would ultimately win only two games that season. That game shares similarities with Super Bowl LI in that the game seemed over long before it actually was, but ended with a far different outcome. Like the Patriots, the Browns erased their deficit because their defense made stops and created turnovers, and their offense finally found a rhythm.
The difference: significance. The Browns beating the Titans affected absolutely nothing in the final standings of the 2014 season. Both teams were horrible and picked in the top five of the 2015 NFL Draft. What the Patriots managed to accomplish was not in a meaningless regular season game that no one cared about, it was in the biggest single day sporting event on the planet. A game that, if you wins, grants you the dream you’ve had since you threw the football with your neighbors and siblings in the backyard as a child: hoisting the precious Vince Lombardi Trophy.
After Coleman’s touchdown, the Falcons led 28-3. The Falcons would not score another point.
The ensuing drive saw something that had not yet happened in the game: a Patriots touchdown drive. Tom Brady dinked and dunked his way down the field to make it a three possession game. There was a problem, though. The drive took a great deal of time off the clock, 6:42 to be exact. Nonetheless, the game that seemed over had clearly just come off of life support.
Stephen Gostkowski soon added a field goal following a Falcons three and out. The score was 28-12, and game’s true turning point ensued.
Atlanta got the ball back after the field goal and put together a disastrous three play drive that saw Tevin Coleman take his last carry of the game, missing the remainder with an ankle injury. On third down, LB Dont’a Hightower blitzed from the right side of the offensive line. The man assigned to block him, 5’9″ Devonta Freeman, had no chance. Hightower ran right past Freeman and forced Matt Ryan to fumble. The fumble was recovered by Alan Branch of the Patriots. For the first time since the Falcons led by 14, the game was alive and well.
Brady took only five plays to get the Patriots into the endzone, capping the short drive with a six yard touchdown pass to WR Danny Amendola. Josh McDaniels dialed up some trickery on the two point conversion attempt, calling a direct snap to James White who fell forward into the end-zone. New England trailed by only 8.
The following drive by the Falcons joins the ranks of Kevin Dyson’s “one yard short” play with the Titans and Scott Norwood’s missed game winning FG attempt with the Bills as some of the most heartbreaking moments in Super Bowl history. Julio Jones, the best receiver in football, made one of the greatest catches anyone will ever see at the Patriots’ 22 yard line to set his team up to kick a field goal and finally put the game on ice. It is safe to say that things did not go as planned.
Instead of attempting a field goal from the 22 yard line, a sack and a holding penalty forced the Falcons to punt from the 45. Tom Brady had 3:30 and two timeouts to drive the ball 91 yards. He did it.
A ten play drive that took 2:33 off of the clock ended with a one yard James White touchdown, his second of the game. Thanks to another successful two point attempt, the game was tied. Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels, and Matt Patricia proved to the world that it really never is over until it’s over, especially when the most successful quarterback to ever put on a football helmet is on your team.
The first overtime in the fifty-one year history of the Super Bowl was played, and the Patriots methodically trotted down the field to score a touchdown and win the Lombardi Trophy, Brady and Belichick’s fifth.
So what is it about this game that makes it so much more special than all of the other incredible championship finishes we’ve seen in the last year? It starts with the game’s magnitude.
The World Series lasted seven games. The NBA Championship lasted seven games. The Super Bowl lasted for just over a few hours. What gives the Super Bowl its uniqueness and significance is the fact that each team has one shot to either fulfill their dreams or watch the confetti fall on their opponents.
The Cubs and Cavaliers both put together multiple poor performances in their respective series, but neither the Falcons or Patriots could have afforded to do that. In series championships, there’s always the next game if you have one bad night early on. In the Super Bowl, there is no tomorrow.
Though both Villanova and Clemson won exciting single-day championship games, they did it in the NCAA. I will not deny that I enjoy watching collegiate sports and that the NCAA has become one of the most profitable and entertaining businesses in America today, but it massively lacks parity.
As Colin Cowherd, host of FS1’s “The Herd” frequently points out, the teams who finish well in collegiate athletics get the best recruits. Alabama and Clemson will always be in the running for football championships just like how North Carolina and Villanova will always be contenders in basketball.
In the NFL, the team who wins the Super Bowl often loses key pieces because they cannot afford to keep them around. The best teams also pick last in the NFL Draft, making it even harder to build a consistent winner. What Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick, and Tom Brady have managed to do in a league designed to have 32 teams finish 8-8 is simply astonishing.
Super Bowl LI’s excitement, competitiveness, and magnitude should be reasons enough for it to go down in history as one of the greatest sporting events ever played. Add the incredible achievement of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, and you have a game that the term “classic” simply does not do justice to.
These recent NFL Playoffs were generally boring, as most games ended in blowouts. Many fans of the game, including myself, complained. After enduring painfully uncompetitive football for a month, we were treated to the greatest American sporting event that has ever been played.