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THE ARCHIVES: How New England Beat Atlanta
An examination of the Patriots' historic Super Bowl LI victory
(NOTE: This column was initially published February 11, 2017. It is being re-published in light of Minnesota’s December 17, 2022, comeback win over Indianapolis.)
My friends, THE GURU sat on the couch in disbelief during Super Bowl LI, speaking to my TV as if it were a real person (which it is). Yelling. Gasping. Gesticulating.
Did that really happen? Yes, it did.
The better question: was it a failure by Atlanta or an epic comeback by New England? My answer: the Falcons’ missteps, not the Patriots’ successes are probably the bigger the story as, without Atlanta struggling in the second half, the chances of the Patriots winning were almost nonexistent.
First, New England won this game for two reasons: 1) Atlanta made some unforced errors and 2) the Patriots kept playing hard.
It took both #1 and #2 for the end result to occur. No matter how well the Pats played in the fourth quarter, there was virtually no chance for them to come back without the Falcons obliging.
Second, the #1 reason the Falcons lost, plain and simple, was clock management. Period. Not Matt Ryan’s fourth quarter fumble, not Kyle Shanahan’s play calling, not Jake Matthews’ late holding penalty. None of those helped but, if they’d effectively managed the clock, none of these three mistakes – individually or collectively – would have led to an Atlanta loss.
Let’s think about this for a moment. You’re playing the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. And you’re ahead 21-0. Do you think there’s a chance Tom Brady & Co. will storm back? Surely. And is there anything in their history to suggest that the Patriots would lie down and get annihilated? Not that I’ve seen.
So, when you’ve got a huge lead against a formidable opponent, what do you do? You shorten the game. Take a bit longer in the huddle, run the play clock down, give your opponent as little oxygen as you can.
But the Falcons took they opposite approach. They actually lengthened the game, giving New England opportunities to win that, frankly, the Patriots never should’ve had.
A natural reaction from you, my dear reader, may be: “GURU, Atlanta took the 21-0 lead with 8:48 to go in the second quarter. They went up 28-3 with 8:31 to go in the third. Surely you aren’t suggesting that they should’ve been milking the clock at those junctures.”
My friend, that’s exactly what I’m suggesting and that leads me to a question I often ponder: why do teams only think about clock management in the last few minutes of a half or game? Why don’t they think about it from kickoff to final gun?
Take a hypothetical scenario: say I’m coaching a mediocre defensive team that is playing against a high-powered, fast-paced offense, but one that turns the ball over from time to time. I know I’m going to have a score a TON of points to win, say 40 points. And I’m going to need a lot of time to do it.
With that in mind, from the time the game begins, I could instruct my offense to stop the clock at every single opportunity. From the very first play I run on offense, here’s my mentality: I want to lengthen the game to give my team every chance to score enough points. I’ll run plays quickly, get out of bounds whenever I can to stop the clock and hope that the other team’s offense turns the ball over from time to time. Make sense?
I understand that NFL teams – or college teams for that matter – have never played that way. But maybe it’s time they think about it.
So, when Atlanta took the 21-0 lead with 8:48 to go in the second quarter, they should’ve started to milk the clock. So, when they went up 28-3 with 8:31 to go in the third, they should’ve already been in heavy milk mode, like FATBACK HOBBS devouring cereal from a mixing bowl. But the Falcons did the exact opposite.
Let’s look at the numbers, beginning near the outset of the second half.
I rewatched Atlanta’s third- and fourth-quarter offensive possessions and, from the time there was 12:06 left in the third quarter – the Falcons’ second possession of the half - they ran 14 plays with the game clock running i.e., the clock was moving in their favor. Here’s are a few facts:
On average, they snapped the ball with 12.4 seconds remaining on the play clock i.e., they were leaving time on the clock for the Pats to use to make a comeback.
On eight occasions they snapped with at least 13 seconds and, four times, at least 19 seconds.
On only four occasions did they snap the ball with less than 10 seconds remaining.
In total, during the aforementioned time span alone, the Falcons left 174 seconds on the play clock with the game clock running. That’s nearly three minutes. A football eternity.
And that 174 seconds doesn’t include the fact that, twice between the 8:48 and 5:07 marks of the fourth quarter, Atlanta players – running back Tevin Coleman and offensive tackle Ryan Schraeder - lay on the turf after being shaken up, stopping the clock both times.
That isn’t to say the players weren’t legitimately banged up – of course they were, these are tough guys – but the clock keeps running if, somehow, they’re able to get off the field instead of remaining on the turf. It’s my bet that an injured New England player would’ve dragged himself off the field or been pulled off by his teammates instead of taking an injury timeout and giving the opponent a breather.
As it was, Tom Brady got the ball with 3:30 left in the game, on his own nine-yard-line, trailing 28-20 with two timeouts remaining. The Patriots marched 91 yards to tie the game in 2:33 and Brady threw nine passes on the drive, completing six. Eight of those passes – eight! – were thrown in the middle of the field or far enough from the sideline that the receiver wouldn’t have been able to get out of bounds i.e. Brady and the Patriots were not worried about the clock at all because Atlanta had gifted them several minutes of time.
Now ask yourself this: how would the game have played out differently if Tom Brady got the ball on his own nine-yard-line with, say 90 seconds left, max, and no timeouts? Would he have been able to throw pass after pass away from the sideline? Would he have taken the risk of passing to Julian Edelman for a miracle catch in the middle of the field with no timeouts in his pocket?
And, just as importantly, if the Falcons had managed the clock differently, would its defense – which was eventually on the field for an astounding 93 plays – have been as exhausted as it was at the end of the game? Somewhere, the late Buddy Ryan is punching Kevin Gilbride for his “chuck and duck” offense.
As it was, Brady didn’t have to worry about the clock at all as having 3:30 remaining and two timeouts enabled him to call any play – pass or run – that he saw fit. And Atlanta’s clock management sure helped.
So, the Patriots score with 57 seconds left to tie the game, but Atlanta has the ball at its own 25-yard line with nearly a minute remaining and three timeouts. Plenty of time for Matt Ryan, who had thrown the ball well most of the night to seven different receivers, to march the Falcons down the field and set up Mr. Automatic, Matt Bryant. The kicker made 92% of his regular season field goals, including six makes in eight attempts beyond 50 yards. This duo knows how to win at the wire.
But that’s not what happened – Atlanta got the ball at its own 11-yard line with 52 seconds left and no timeouts remaining for the following reasons:
Kick returner Eric Weems elected to take the kickoff out of the end zone, costing the Falcons 14 yards and, just as importantly, five precious seconds.
Atlanta burned two of its three timeouts in the third quarter and neither made sense to me. With 12:57 left, the Falcons took a timeout with New England facing third down and 12 yards to go from its own 45. And with 58 seconds remaining in the quarter, Atlanta called time facing 2nd-and-11 from the Patriots’ 42.
Quinn lost a timeout by challenging the amazing – and clear - Edelman catch on the Patriots’ tying drive, leaving the Falcons with no timeouts remaining. No reason to challenge it as there was absolutely no evidence to suggest it wasn’t a reception.
(An aside: on that final drive, with 32 seconds left, Ryan made one of his few poor throwing decisions of the game, throwing a pass to his right to tight end Austin Hooper for a four-yard gain. On the play, Ryan missed an open Mohamed Sanu in the left flat with no defender within 8-10 yards.
Sanu probably could have gotten to about the 35-yard-line – and out of bounds - with about 25 seconds left, and, given his speed and quickness and the fact that a) he was fresh and b) New England’s defensive backs struggled at times on the night, it’s possible he could’ve taken the pass a long way and put Atlanta in field goal range immediately.
Finally, a brief word about the game’s announcers, Joe Buck and Troy Aikman. I like the work of both of these men and find them highly watchable but was surprised they didn’t spend time discussing Atlanta’s clock management or usage of timeouts. Now, it’s possible I missed them discussing these things as I was waddled back and forth to the kitchen to eat pepperoni roll after pepperoni roll but, I rewound the tape several times and couldn’t find either of them addressing the issues which led to the Atlanta loss.
As it was, the story lines of the game could’ve been a) a great Atlanta victory by a young team b) Belichick, for the third time in four tries, lost the big game and c) Brady just wasn’t in sync with his receivers for most of the night. But that’s not the way the cookie crumbled.
My Super Bowl pick – a 27-24 Atlanta win – crumbled as well, leaving the postseason record at 9-2 (81.9%) and the season mark at 132-77 (63.2%). That’s life in the National Football League.