Did the New England Patriots Win Super Bowl 51?
By Ha Kung Wong
Hey, I know.
If you’re a Patriots fan, you’re having the time of your life. You’re also likely weren’t at work/school/anything the day after because you were out late celebrating after the game. I totally get it. I’m a Chicago Cubs fan, so when they won the World Series last year, I was on cloud nine for like a month straight. Or perhaps that was just all the drinking, I don’t quite remember.
— CNN (@CNN) February 6, 2017
But if you were NOT a Patriots fan, like close to 70% of the people who watched Super Bowl 51, including most of the folks in Atlanta, you are NOT having the time of your life. In fact, you’re probably dissecting everything that went wrong in the game 51 different ways from Sunday…or you’re still in shock. I totally get it. I’m also a Chicago Bears fan that lived through the Super Bowl XLI “Devin Hester is Awesome but Rex Grossman is a terrible QB” fiasco, a Notre Dame football fan than paid tons of money to watch my team get stomped by Alabama in the 2013 BCS National Championship Game, and an University of Illinois basketball fan that saw my team choke away the 2005 NCAA Championship Game in the final seconds to North Carolina.
In short, I understand your pain. And that’s why I immediately wrote why I thought Matt Ryan should have taken a knee near the end of the game and essentially won it for Atlanta.
But this article is going to focus on the other side of the ball. I want to take closer look at whether the Patriots actually WON Super Bowl 51, or whether it was the Falcons that gave it away. There’s plenty of debate out there, but let’s look at the facts.
I specifically noted in my article breaking down the matchup that ball control would be critical in Super Bowl 51. Essentially, the one place a terrific offense can’t hurt you is sitting on the sidelines. And even though the Falcons got out to a fast start, the Patriots, who had the 5th highest average time of possession during the regular season, masterfully employed this philosophy (partially aided by Falcons defensive penalties) in staging their comeback. Just take a look at the numbers:
Time of Possession
Third Down Conversions
13 (including OT)
If you look carefully, you’ll see that the Patriots actually only had 12 drives in regulation, only 1 more drive than the Falcons. Yet they controlled the ball for almost 2/3’s of the game. In fact, coming into the second half, Matt Ryan hadn’t ran a play in over an HOUR. Sure, part of that was because of a long Patriots drive that ended in a pick-six, but regardless, Ryan was unable to impact the game or stay in rhythm with so little time behind center. And although the Patriots took a few a shots downfield to keep the Falcons secondary honest, they made their bread-and-butter underneath the coverage with short to medium pass plays, running over twice as many plays and garnering over twice as many first downs as compared to the Falcons.
Perhaps most important was the Patriots third down efficiency. Getting to third down, instead of converting first downs on second down or earlier, in part means you’re controlling the ball longer. But all that is meaningless if you can’t convert on third down. The Patriots did so 50% of the time, while the Falcons only converted once all game.
Hold the ball, sustain drives and score. The Patriots had a plan from the beginning, and didn’t give up on it even when they were down by 25 points in the 3rd Quarter. Sure, they made adjustments at halftime, but sticking to their primary approach is a big reason why they won the game (in addition to, of course, Julian Edelman’s ridiculous catch of a deflection that should have been an interception).
Julian Edelman on Tom Brady calling it best catch he's seen: "I think that's because of our bromance." pic.twitter.com/dQYewYKVwv
— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) February 6, 2017
The Falcons, on the other hand, inexplicably went away from their game plan. After successfully running the ball to the tune of 5.8 yards per carry on 13 total carries with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, essentially making swiss cheese of the Patriots 4th ranked run defense and going up 28-3 in the 3rd Quarter, the Falcons decided to suddenly switch their offensive strategy. They decided to essentially abandon the run with only 5 running plays from that point forward. One has to wonder why the Falcons didn’t continue to pound the football and eat clock, and whether they started to play scared. Sounds crazy when you’re up by 25, but what else could it be?
Wild stat. Falcons called only 5 running plays after securing a 28-3 lead. @NFLonFOX
— Peter Schrager (@PSchrags) February 6, 2017
The Patriots, as I predicted, had a ground game tailored specifically for the Falcons defense that struggled to contain fast, pass catching RBs, and they stuck with it. It was clear that LaGarrette Blount would be sprinkled in on occasion to ensure linebackers didn’t drift too far away from the line, but James White was a weapon the Falcons weren’t equipped to counter. White racked up 114 receiving yards and a TD on 14 receptions, pacing all New England receiving options, as well as 29 rush yards and 2 rushing TDs. Bill Belichick is the master at scheming to take advantage of the weaknesses of specific defenses, and he did exactly that with his backfield throughout the playoffs. Dion Lewis had his day, LaGarette Blount had his time, and James White had the game of his life.
Both of these teams led the league in securing the football with 11 league-low giveaways each during the regular season. And Matt Ryan hadn’t thrown an interception in 6 straight games. But like I said in my preview, it only takes one to change the game.
In all, there were several key turnovers. There were the uncharacteristic Patriots miscues in the first half, including a Blount fumble that was converted into a TD and the first Super Bowl pick-six of Tom Brady’s career (and that’s saying a lot seeing as how he’s been in 7 of these). But none was worse than Ryan’s fumble with 8:31 left in the 4th quarter.
Why? Well, part of it was the terrible blocking by Freeman, who basically just whiffed on Dont’a Hightower as he came around and completely took out Ryan. But more importantly, it gave the ball to the Patriots at the Falcons 25 yard line with plenty of time left, essentially handing over a score when they were down by only two scores.
— Sean Pendergast (@SeanTPendergast) February 6, 2017
At that point, I could question the play call and ask why it is the Falcons just didn’t run the ball. But honestly, it was blown protection and incredibly athletic move by Hightower that caused the fumble.
— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) February 6, 2017
At the end of the day, you might believe the Falcons choked the game away, but let’s give credit where credit is due. I’m no Patriots fan, and I certainly was not rooting for the Patriots to win a 5th Super Bowl, but Belichick proved once again that he’s the master of halftime adjustments and Brady proved yet again that no matter how much you hate him, you have to respect him on the field. I doubt we’ll see a better Super Bowl for quite some time to come. As for the Falcons, it’s gotta sting for Dan Quinn, who’s now lost a Super Bowl to the Patriots with the Seahawks and the Falcons, but I have a feeling that we haven’t seen the last Quinn, Ryan and Jones.