Going into this game, I did not think Super Bowl LI would alter Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and the Patriots legacy much. Brady and Belichick already had a claim for the greatest quarterback and greatest coach of all-time whether they won or lost the game. Sure. 5-2 looks better than 4-3 in the Super Bowl. However, 4 wins and 7 appearances would not diminish their greatness. A fifth Super Bowl would only add to their legends. Winning the 2007 Super Bowl that would have made them the only 19-0 team in NFL history would have been the only thing that made Brady and Belichick immortals and undisputed greatest of all-time. I was wrong. I did not account for how this game could develop. At 28-3 and the Patriots looking like they would be blown away, 4-3 in the Super Bowl with a blowout loss would have hurt their legacy. It looked like a foregone conclusion. Before Super Bowl LI, the largest Super Bowl comeback was 10 points, which was pulled off by Brady and the Patriots two years ago. However, a 25 point deficit and 19 points going into the fourth quarter should be insurmountable. It is unbelievable that Brady rallied his team back to tie then win the game in the first overtime in Super Bowl history. No team or quarterback have come back from anything near a 25 point deficit. For this reason, this historic comeback is almost equivalent to finishing off the 19-0 season. Accordingly, I am finally willing to concede and accept Tom Brady as the greatest quarterback of all-time. His greatest challenger for the title is his childhood hero, Joe Montana. Montana is a perfect 4-0 in the Super Bowl with an epic, long drive to overcome a late lead against the Cincinnati Bengals in one of those victories. Brady is 5-2 with the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history. Although he lost two games, he still staked his team with late leads in those two losses but his defense could not hold on. Moreover, Brady can add in all his division championships and AFC Championship Game appearances with the Patriots. He is the greatest quarterback ever and the debate is over for me.
Without a doubt, Bill Belichick is the greatest head coach in the Super Bowl era. No one else is close. In terms of the greatest coach of all-time, I have heard Mike Francesa, WFAN and NFL now, discuss the topic and agree with everything he has to say about it. Belichick is in the conversation with Vince Lombardi. Of course, the Lombardi trophy is named after the Green Bay legend for a reason. In Lombardi’s first playoff game which was the NFL Championship, his Packers came up a few yards short of winning. He promised his team “This will never happen again. You will never lose another championship.” He stayed true to his word as his Packers would never lose another playoff game. Their postseason record ended up at 9-1 as they won 5 NFL Championships, including the first two Super Bowls, in 7 years. It has become mythic. If old schoolers still want to rank Lombardi above everyone else, I am fine with it. Of course, the game is completely different and significantly more complex today. Supporters of Belichick can point to that point. If greatest coach means impact on the game, then a case for Paul Brown could be made. He revolutionized the coaching profession to what we see today. In terms of impact, Tom Landry also has a case. He was the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys from their inception and coached them for almost 30 years, 1960-1988. He made 5 Super Bowls, won 2 of them, and could have won the three he lost. His longevity is uncanny and will never be duplicated again. Next, Chuck Noll won 4 Super Bowl with the Pittsburgh Steelers and was 4-0 in the Super Bowl. He is obviously up there in the rankings too. Nevertheless, Belichick has a great case as the best and I am fine with anyone who believes he is.
Back to Super Bowl LI, the game was unbelievable. The Falcons got everything they could have wanted early in the game. Their defense got a pass rush on Brady and the speed of their defense stifled the Patriots for most of the game. In addition, Devonta Freeman made his presence felt immediately by breaking a big run. Once the Patriots realized they could not contain the run with their defensive game plan, Belichick adjusted to slow down Freeman but it unleashed Julio Jones. Since the Patriots offense had no answers to the Falcons defense and their defense had no answers to the Falcons offense, it appeared clear they would be blown away. The Patriots also helped the Falcons. LeGarette Blount fumbled the ball. It lead to a Falcons touchdown. Once Brady was intercepted by Robert Alford and it was returned for a touchdown to make it 21-0, the game looked like it was over even though it was only the first half. Once the Falcons scored another touchdown in the third quarter to make it 28-3, it seemed like they would run away with it. It reminded me of the Super Bowl three years ago between the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks when Seattle won 43-8. Of course, Dan Quinn was the defensive coordinator of the Seahawks then and is the head coach of the Falcons now. His defense is young but their amazing Super Bowl performance for most of the game made them look like a future dominant defense. The Patriots would finally score a touchdown in the third quarter but their kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed an extra point. It seemed like a final blunder that would seal their fate.
Of course, the Patriots never give up and compete for the entire game. It is no question that the game changed when Dont’a Hightower blindsided Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and forced a fumble with under 9 minutes left in the game. Without that play, there would not have been enough time left for the Patriots to score 2-3 times. It also gave the Patriots a short field. Brady quickly drove his team to a touchdown and a two point conversion to make it a one possession game again. Nevertheless, the Falcons were still fine. Ryan quickly hit Devonta Freeman for a screen pass that he broke to midfield. If the Falcons held on to win, I would have picked Freeman as the MVP because he changed the Patriots defensive game plan and opened up everything for his offense. Shortly after, Ryan hit Julio Jones for an incredible catch that put them in short field goal position. At this point, the Falcons just needed to not lose any yards to win the game with under 5 minutes left in the game. Adding a field goal that late in the game would have sealed the outcome. Instead, Ryan took an unconscionable sack. Then, his lineman took a terrible holding penalty that knocked them out of field goal position. The Falcons lost a crucial twenty yards after they were in point blank field goal position. Once they punted to the Patriots, you just had a feeling Brady would drive his team to a touchdown and the two point conversion to tie it. With the help of an unreal Julian Edelman catch snatching it from three Falcon defenders, who looked like they were in prime position to intercept a pass, Brady did it. Afterwards, the Falcons had a minute to drive for the game winning field goal. However, they looked flustered and the drive went nowhere. When the Patriots won the coin toss and received the ball first in overtime, I knew they would score a touchdown to win the Super Bowl. The Falcons defense was just too tired and demoralized. In the end, James White rushed it in from two yards to win the first Super Bowl to go into overtime.
As much as the Patriots won the game, the Falcons completely blew the game. I do not blame their defense. They did their job. They had Brady and his offense completely shut down for three quarters. Matt Ryan just did not close out the game. He turned the ball over then took a terrible sack. If he protected the ball or completed the drive for the field goal, the Atlanta Falcons are Super Bowl champions. Owner Arthur Blank waited a long time to win a Super Bowl. He was ecstatic when his team blew the game open. It was difficult to see his facial expressions drop when they blew the lead. The Falcons still have a lot going for them in them in the future. Their offense will still be elite next season. From their playoff run and Super Bowl performance, their defense has shown a ton of talent and promise. They are very young and have a chance to be special. Of course, it is no guarantee that they will ever make it back to the Super Bowl. Fortunes and rosters can change drastically from season to season. You need to be good and lucky to win a championship. For this reason, the loss is total devastation for the Falcons franchise and its fan base. It is also a shame for Matt Ryan’s legacy. If he won, he would have received his due as one of the top quarterbacks in the league after winning the NFL MVP award for the regular season. In all honesty, I do not know how the Falcons recover from the loss. They have suffered gut wrenching playoff losses before but this loss was in the Super Bowl with an insurmountable lead. For this core group of Falcons, doubt will creep in the next time they are in a close game in the playoffs and something goes wrong. They have been accused of not being tough enough in the past. Crumbling when they were punched in the face but still had a healthy lead will not help that narrative. Unless they win a Super Bowl in the future, they will be stuck with that stigma forever.
In my Super Bowl Preview, I ranked the Patriots previous six Super Bowl teams. If they won Super Bowl LI, I noted I might rank this year’s team at 4 over the 2014 team. Even though they won this year, I still have the 2014 team higher up on my rankings. That team had a healthy Rob Gronkowski in the offense and more defensive talent, which included a Darrelle Revis who was still in his prime. Nevertheless, I definitely agree with Robert Kraft that Super Bowl LI is the sweetest Super Bowl for his franchise. After Deflategate, it must have been satisfying to receive the Lombardi Trophy from Roger Goodell. When Goodell spoke during the trophy ceremony, you could barely hear his speech as it was drowned out by boos. In addition, the 25 point comeback ends any doubt that the fifth Patriots Super Bowl win is the sweetest for them. More importantly, Brady put on an epic show in front of his mother. She is seriously ill but made her way to watch her son play. It is an incredible tribute to his beloved mother and an amazing story.
The Patriots now have 5 Super Bowl wins and 7 Super Bowl appearances to go along with all the regular season success and AFC Championship Game appearances since 2001. They are obviously one of the greatest dynasties in NFL history. Where does the Patriots dynasty rank among the best dynasties? In terms of best teams, the NFL has changed drastically. With the advent of free agency, teams can no longer load up their rosters on both sides of the ball. In my opinion, the San Francisco 49ers from the 80s-90s had the greatest dynasty and teams in NFL history. They had arguably the greatest quarterback in Joe Montana. They also had another Hall of Fame quarterback, Steve Young, backing him up and who eventually took over the reins to prolong the dynasty. Of course, the 49ers also featured the greatest wide receiver of all-time in Jerry Rice. In addition to those three Hall of Famers, they had many other All-Pros and Pro-Bowlers on offense and defense. The Steelers of the 1970s won 4 Super Bowls and had 9 Hall of Famers play for them. The 1990s Cowboys had the triplets (Troy Aikmen, Emmit Smith, and Michael Irving). They also had a dominant offensive line and great defense. In today’s NFL, the Steelers would never be able to roster 9 Hall of Famers over their run and the 90s Cowboys would have only been able to keep the triplets and maybe most of the offensive line. They certainly would not have had a dominant defense to match. As a result, those dynasties definitely have much more dominating talent than the Patriots dynasty. Nevertheless, the Patriots accomplishments rank as high or higher than any other dynasty in NFL history.