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As Super Bowls go, we can probably agree that there have been about a half-dozen truly sensational games, out of the 51 that have withstood NFL entanglements, interminable waits, and a by-now February conclusion to our favorite fall sport.
But we just saw one of the great ones, and maybe the best ever.
The New England Patriots astounded everybody by falling behind 28-3, and then astounded the Atlanta Falcons by rallying for a dramatic last-minute tie, and an overtime touchdown drive for a 34-28 victory.
I had picked the Falcons, 27-24. Not far off.
The quarterback duel was fantastic, and Tom Brady has gotten all the accolades necessary. He completed 43 of 62 passes in constructing the first comeback from greater than a 10-point deficit in Super Bowl history. That was good for 466 yards and two touchdowns with one interception. His quarterback rating was 95.2.
On the other side, Matt Ryan was even more efficient, but the Falcons had the ball so much less he didn’t have time to parlay it into a victory. Ryan completed 17 of 23 passes for 284 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, for a quarterback rating of 144.1. That’s exceptional, and so was Ryan, who also conspired for the most spectacular play of the entire game, which was his 27 yard pass up the right sideline that looked dangerous, but sent the ball just above and about a centimeter over the outstretched fingertips of the defensive back, and was grabbed in a sensational catch by Julio Jones, who somehow managed to clutch the ball, and amazingly got both toes down in bounds before crashing out of bounds.
The Patriots were the story, however, and they were the picture of composure as they strode back from that 28-3 deficit, and the replays of their tying touchdown drive, and 2-point conversion, to make it 28-all has been replayed repeatedly, as was the overtime drive, where the Patriots called heads, won, took the ball, and marched 75 yards for the winning touchdown.
The key play of the entire game was Ryan being strip-sacked for the only turnover Atlanta had all playoffs. With their big lead, the Falcons just needed something good to happen to prolong one drive, and victory would have been theirs. With 8:31 remaining, and still holding a 28-12 lead, Atlanta had third and two at its own 26 yard line.
Ryan and the Falcons have been second-guessed by all available second-guessers on the decision to pass. He dropped back, stepped up against the rush, then was hit by Dont’a Hightower, fumbling the ball, and the Patriots recovered. It took only five plays for Brady to get the Patriots into the end zone and cut the deficit to 28-20.
But the key play was that fumble, and I spotted an interesting item on that play. About a hundred times this past season, I’ve seen a similar fumble, and to my astonishment, when they reviewed the video in slow motion, it was called an incomplete pass. Often I have disagreed with that reversal. But this time, when they showed the replays, there was Ryan, back to pass, and an instant before Hightower hit him to jar the ball loose, his hand came forward as he tried to pass, never seeing Hightower coming. In real time, it looked like a fumble, but in slow motion, it was obvious Ryan’s hand was moving forward, and further evidence that it should have been declared an incomplete pass was that the alleged fumble bounced out forward, because Ryan supplied the force.
Incredibly, the Falcons didn’t challenge the call. So the Patriots came out swiftly and ran a play to negate any review. If the play had been reviewed, I’m convinced the call would have been reversed and an incomplete pass would have left the Falcons with the ball and fourth down, but with the chance to at least punt out of danger instead of turning the ball over deep in Falcons territory. A punt would have left a much more difficult chore for Brady and the Patriots, and could well have decided the outcome in Atlanta’s favor.
The second most pivotal play came with the Patriots having marched into scoring position in overtime, but still needing a big play at the Atlanta 13. Brady threw a pass, and it was incomplete, but De’Vondre Campbell, a former Gopher, was called for pass interference in the end zone. You can argue that it was a ticky-tack call, but it gave New England first and goal at the two, and James White barreled in for his third touchdown of the night, and the victory.
Once again, there is no certainty the Patriots wouldn’t have scored, had that call been merely incomplete. But even a field goal would have at least given the Falcons a chance with the ball. It is that maddening inequity that again underscores why the NFL needs to alter its overtime rule, to make sure both offenses get a chance with the ball.
But we won’t quibble. My older son was one of millions who quit watching at halftime because the Falcons had the game in hand. Those of us who kept watching saw an incredible battle with an outcome that, if it had been a movie, would have been ridiculed for being too outrageous to be possible.