Forest’s Fast Take
Issue   |   Tue, 02/07/2017 - 23:00

This past year of sports has truly been a blessing. Three out of the four major sports saw fireworks in their respective championship games. First, the Cleveland Cavaliers came back from a three games to one deficit to beat the winningest single team in NBA history. Come autumn, the Chicago Cubs pulled off the same comeback to win their first World Series since 1908, ending the longest championship drought in MLB history. Then, this past Sunday, the New England Patriots came out of a 25-point hole to mark the biggest comeback in the game’s history as well as the first overtime Super Bowl matchup. That’s a whole lot of history to be written in one year of sports. If the Penguins were to have made their Stanley Cup series more dramatic, then we could have the conversation arguing this year to be the best year in sporting history – alas, we’ll take it.
I would like to describe this game as a tale of two halves, but the cliché doesn’t quite fit the bill for Super Bowl LI. In fact, the largest lead of the game was found as the third quarter ran towards the fourth. Thanks to a Patriots extra point try that boinked off the upright in the third quarter, the Falcons’ 18-point lead going into halftime extended to 19 as the fourth quarter rolled around.

The first half saw the Falcons running the scoreboard up on the Patriots. New England was only able to rebut the three unanswered Atlanta touchdowns with a field goal as the first half dwindled to triple zero. However, Bill Belichick and the rest of the Patriots coaching staff must’ve seen the stat sheet on the way into the locker room for the halftime break and scratched their furrowed brows. At the break, the Patriots led the Falcons in total yards (215–189) and first downs (10–7), which usually serves as a barometer for which team should be winning the game.

So where did this massive lead come from? Two pivotal plays. The first quarter started with the teams trading punts, likely feeling each other out with some Super Bowl jitters mixed in. On their third possession, the Patriots offense began to put together a drive that looked to have a score waiting at its end. Just as they entered field goal range, LeGarrette Blount coughed up a costly fumble. With wind in their sails, the Falcons stormed down the field for 71 yards in five plays to score the first points of the game on a Devonta Freeman touchdown run. The second play was more abrupt. Once again the Patriots drove down the field, this time into the red zone. New England fans’ hearts sank and Atlanta fans’ arms rose when Falcons cornerback Robert Alford ran an interception 82 yards to the house as halftime approached. This play proved doubly devastating for TB12 and company because it took away a sure score and added a full touchdown in the other direction — a full ten or fourteen point swing in a single play. These two plays dictated the tide of the first half. After the game, Julian Edelman said, “We turned the ball over twice near the red area and that’s the formula to lose against a team like [the Falcons].” He and the Patriots knew that if these mistakes were to be nixed from the game, the score would treat them more favorably.

Hollywood has taught us that a comeback of this size and magnitude can only come about as a result of a dramatic speech or revelation. In a postgame interview, Martellus Bennett answered a classic question regarding the late turnaround after the halftime break with a less-than-dramatic answer: “The only thing said at halftime was just adjustments. There was nobody giving out team speeches.” That’s exactly why Hollywood isn’t real. Real success isn’t achieved through grandiose miracles, but rather through a systematically prepared approach towards a goal. That methodology, applied to a talent, is how a franchise wins five Super Bowls in 15 seasons. However, if you must have your cinematic script written in reality, there was one player who reportedly rallied the troops out of the 25-point deficit. Backup safety Duron Harmon went from teammate to teammate, especially those on the defensive side of the ball, and told them, “This is going to be the best comeback of all time!” Maybe it was Harmon’s motivation, maybe it was Matt Patricia’s play calling, but the Falcons didn’t score for the last 20 minutes of the game.

This game was more complicated than an outright Falcons “choke-job,” but there were definitely moments where they could have put the game to bed. Looking at a third-and-one from their own 25-yard line, the Falcons elected to throw the ball. The Patriots forced Matt Ryan into a turnover when a strong pass rush strip sacked the Falcons QB and gave the Patriots the ball deep in Falcons territory. This moment marked the first time Pats nation had uttered a word in almost two hours. However, they were still murmurs growing in the distance. The second moment where Dan Quinn’s decision making and, even more so, the players’ performance came into question happened at the end of a drive that put the Falcons within scoring range. Because of a sack and a holding penalty, the Falcons moved back from the New England 23-yard line all the way to the New England 46. Eerie calls from Super Bowl XLIX where the Seattle Seahawks elected to pass instead of run for the game-winning touchdown echoed around the Super Bowl arena once again. In both cases, the Patriots capitalized and were crowned world champs.

Yes, those were bad decisions, but the capitulation that we all watched ran past coaching decisions. It’s hard for us viewers to pick up on this through a TV screen, but fatigue played a huge role in how this game unfolded. In the first half, the Falcons defensive front demolished the Patriots offensive line. The script totally flipped in the second half due in large part to two factors. For one, the Patriots dominated in time of possession, forcing the rampant Falcons defense to absorb 93 plays worth against the Falcons’ 46 offensive plays. The Patriots controlled the ball for two-thirds of the game and that’s a tough ask for the high-200 to 300-plus pound fellas who have to go balls to the wall to reach Brady on every play.

If I were to be able to separate my prejudices and look at the Patriots objectively, I’d be the first. Anyone who watches football names either their dog or their punching bag Tom Brady. There’s no in-between. A civil war of different opinions has dominated the narrative of the NFL because the Patriots have been in the Super Bowl conversation every year. This puts them in the spotlight to be either ridiculed or praised, so they are both. Many call the Patriots cheaters as a result of “spygate” and “deflategate.” Everyone, regardless of position on the pro-Pats to anti-Pats spectrum, would agree these scandals were blown out of proportion, but they did break the rules. I would argue that this is not the source, but rather, a symptom of Patriot outrage. People hate the Patriots because they win a lot, and they win by a lot. Belichick and the Patriots have been known to run the score up against teams in the past and play with an air of arrogance. It’s the ‘we’re better than you and we’re going to make you know it’ attitude that prevents millions of football fans from liking the Patriots. When that attitude combines with a decade and a half of dominance, people sour on the achievement at hand.

So now what? How do we digest the amount of success this team has arrived at? With their victory on Sunday, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick surpassed their historic rivals Joe Montana and Chuck Knoll by winning their fifth ring. As I mentioned, the Patriots are not well liked and the Brady-Belichick duo are at the center of this scorn. With that in mind, it’s hard to not call them the best head coach/quarterback combo in the history of the sport. It is also difficult to not call them the greatest individual of each other as well. A riveting year of sports seems to have been capped off by another historic milestone and in exciting fashion. The final question is, does Brady get his fifth fitted for his thumb or does he embark on the other hand?