Two years removed from their last Super Bowl win, the New England Patriots entered 2016 without their starting quarterback: As a result of the Deflategate farce/scandal, Tom Brady was suspended for the first four weeks of the regular season. In hindsight, however, it was only a minor blip on the Patriots' radar: Behind backup quarterbacks Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett, the team rolled to a 3-1 record to open the year.
When Brady came back, he did so in spectacular fashion and delivered one of the greatest individual seasons in NFL history. With the greatest quarterback of all time playing at the highest level and with a defense that led the league in scoring, the Patriots lost only one more game all season long en route to a 14-2 record and the top playoff seed in the AFC.
As such, New England hosted two playoff games and both were blowout wins. First, the Houston Texans were defeated 34-16, then the Patriots took on the Pittsburgh Steelers. The home team won 36-17 and punched its ticket to a ninth Super Bowl – one that would turn out to be a classic.
Super Bowl LI: New England Patriots vs. Atlanta Falcons
Date: February 5, 2017
Stadium: NRG Stadium, Houston TX
Final Score: New England Patriots 34, Atlanta Falcons 28
A half century worth of Super Bowls had never produced a game like the one that took place at Houston's NRG Stadium on February 5, 2017. The big game's 51st edition started rather slowly, though, and saw the Falcons win the coin toss and kick off the the Patriots. Three offensive plays later, New England had to send its punting unit onto the field.
Despite a 37-yard gain on its first offensive play, Atlanta also answered with a punt. This was followed by another kick exchange before the game's first turnover: On the ensuing Patriots possession, running back LeGarrette Blount fumbled the football and the Falcons recovered at their own 29-yard line. Only five plays later, Atlanta found the end zone for the first points of the afternoon.
A 5-yard run from Devonta Freeman put the NFC champions up 7-0. New England's offense failed to answer accordingly and instead had to punt the football away after just three plays. Again it took Atlanta only five plays to put points on the scoreboard again: On 3rd and 9, quarterback Matt Ryan connected with tight end Austin Hooper to put the Patriots in a two-touchdown hole.
Things would not get better on the Patriots' next possession – quite the opposite. The promising-looking drive started with New England marching into Atlanta territory but saw an abrupt end: On the series' fourth third down, a pass attempt from Tom Brady to Danny Amendola was undercut by cornerback Robert Alford, who returned it for an 82-yard pick-six that put the Falcons up 21-0.
While New England generally moved the football well, the team failed to score any points due to self-inflicted errors and a Falcons team that played aggressively on both sides of the football. It would take the AFC champions until the last drive of the first half to finally reach the scoreboard: The Patriots answered Atlanta's interception-return score with an 11-play, 52-yard drive that ended with a Stephen Gostkowski field goal.
Still, the halftime score was a bleak one from New England's perspective: Falcons 21, Patriots 3. To make matters worse, Atlanta would receive the second half kickoff and have a chance to expand its lead even more. Fortunately for the Patriots, both the special teams and defense started well into the third quarter and forced a short kickoff return plus a quick three-and-out afterwards.
Unfortunately for the Patriots, the offense did not start well into the third quarter. New England registered a three-and-out of its own and had to punt the football right back to the Falcons, who were then able to add to their lead. Atlanta drove 85 yards in eight plays and capped the series with a 6-yard scoring pass from Matt Ryan to running back Telvin Coleman.
Down 25 points with 8:31 left in the third quarter, the Patriots offense faced a daunting task – and one that could have proven impossible to solve had the team not converted a crucial 4th and 3 at its own 46-yard line on the next possession. But Tom Brady and Danny Amendola connected for 17 yards to keep the drive alive. Seven plays later – one of which a 15-yard Brady scramble on 3rd and 8 -, New England's quarterback found James White and the Patriots scored their first touchdown of the day.
Following an extra point attempt that bounced off the right upright, the Patriots opted to play aggressive and attempt an onside kick. However, the football hit Stephen Gostkowski and Atlanta's next possession started with prime field position. New England's defense needed to make a stop – and it did just that, forcing a three-and-out and a punt to open the fourth quarter.
New England continued to move the football well and needed only three minutes to move from its own 13-yard line into the Falcons' red zone. At that point, however, the drive stalled as Brady was sacked twice. The Patriots had to settle for a 39-yard field goal. Gostkowski – on his final field kick of the day – split the uprights to bring his team within two scores of the Falcons.
With the clock working against the Patriots, Matt Patricia's defense came through once again. On the third play of the Falcons' next possession, linebacker Dont'a Hightower ran a perfectly disguised blitz to get to Matt Ryan. The quarterback was hit just as he wanted to throw, lost the football and New England defensive tackle Alan Branch jumped right on it for a Patriots recovery.
The strip sack set New England's offense up at the Atlanta 25-yard line with 8:24 left in the game. It took the Patriots only five plays and roughly over two minutes to reach the end zone again: A six-yard touchdown pass from Brady to Amendola brought the Patriots within 10 and set up a two-point conversion to make Super Bowl LI a one-possession game. New England opted to go with a classic and ran a direct snap to running back James White, who converted the attempt.
With 5:53 left in the game, momentum was on the Patriots' side but it did not take long for the Falcons to snatch it back. Completions of 39 and 27 yards set up Atlanta at New England's 22-yard line. The Patriots defense, however, came through once again: A stuffed run was followed by a 12-yard sack by Trey Flowers that put the team on the edge of field goal range. A holding call and an incomplete pass would then end the drive with a punt.
With 3:30 left in the game and two timeouts in his pocket, Tom Brady went to work. Completions to Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell set up one of the greatest catches in Super Bowl history, a 23-yard gain by Julian Edelman off a deflection. Three more completions – one to Danny Amendola and two to James White – brought the Patriots to the 1-yard line with a minute left in the game.
On 1st and goal, White again found the end zone to bring New England within two points of erasing what once was a 25-point deficit. Again, the Patriots trusted one of the most reliable players in franchise history to score on a second critical two-point attempt: Danny Amendola. And the veteran delivered as he took a quick pass from Brady and crossed the goal line to tie the game.
With almost a minute left in the game, overtime was still no forgone conclusion, though. However, the Falcons were unable to get far on their next drive and instead punted after gaining only one first down. After a brilliantly drawn up fake kneel-down did not lead to the victory, Super Bowl LI was headed into extra time – the first Super Bowl to do so.
As the visiting team, New England was allowed to call the coin toss. Matthew Slater called “heads”, the coin landed accordingly, and, after a touchback, Tom Brady and New England's offense were back on the field again. At that point, the Patriots' quarterback and his teammates were total control of the game and it showed on what would turn out to be the game-winning series.
The Falcons had no answer for the Patriots' passing attack, as it took Brady and company only six plays to reach the red area. A pass interference call later, New England was set up with goal-to-go at the 2-yard line. Following an incomplete pass, it was James White who was trusted with the football. Rightfully so, as he was able to find the end zone on a toss run to the right.
White's touchdown – only the second walk-off score in Super Bowl history – was the final play of one of the most spectacular Super Bowls of all time. The game and its victors set multiple records during the contest, including the largest deficit overcome. And therefore, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell had to hand over the Lombardi Trophy to the team which he stripped of two draft picks and whose quarterback he suspended for a quarter of the season without any solid evidence. A fitting way to the season.