Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Patriots Mug Falcons In Overtime To Take Fifth Title

The New England Patriots found themselves in quite a situation on Sunday evening.

Down by 25 points to an upstart Atlanta Falcons team that was hell-bent on bringing their fans a first-ever professional football championship, the Patriots fell back on their default settings of superior conditioning and meticulous fundamentals to try and make a game of a Super Bowl that for the first 40 minutes had them teetering on the brink of being blown out of Houston's NRG Stadium.

New England head ball coach Bill Belichick always emphasizes what he calls, "situational football.", the ability to adapt to any circumstance that may arise in the ebbs and flows of a football game, and his teams practice them relentlessly, be it in practice preparing for a game, or when given an opportunity to do so in an actual game.

So when presented with the opportunity to apply what they had learned throughout countless hours of preparation, his Patriots put on a clinic in what playing situational football looks like in practical application - and even then, it took a record-setting performance by the Patriots' offense and a handful of mistakes by the Falcons to set up a singular ending to perhaps the best Super Bowl in the history of the game.

Quarterback Tom Brady completed 42 of 62 passes for 466 yards - all Super Bowl records - and running back James White shed his one-dimensional passing back label, rushing for nearly five yards per carry and scoring twice on the ground - including the game winner in overtime -  as the Patriots scored 31 unanswered points to win their fifth Lombardi Trophy, defeating Atlanta by a score of 34-28.

The situation, of course, was caused by a combination of a talented Falcons' team taking full advantage of the Patriots handing them the football.

White was used sparingly in the running game during the season as power back LeGarrette Blount carried the load, but accumulated sixty receptions - good for second on the team behind wide receiver Julian Edelman - while showing a subtle elusiveness that earned him the nickname "Sweet Feet" while playing college ball at Wisconsin.

How elusive? Consider that of his 110 yards gained on 14 receptions against Atlanta, 74 of those yards came after the catch, Brady putting the ball on him in the short flat or on the underneath crosser and allowing him to break ankles and tackles - and with the game on the line in the fourth quarter and in overtime, and especially in the red zone, Belichick and Brady trusted White with the fate of the team.

In fact, more than half of his touches came in crunch time - catching six passes for 36 yards and taking the handoff from Brady six times for 23 yards, gaining the line for six first downs, two touchdowns and a crucial two-point conversion on a direct snap, as the third-year player looked every bit the prospect we was coming out of college...

...where he not only ran for over 4,000 yards and caught 73 passes for almost 700 yards, but also fumbled the ball just once in over 700 career touches - and that has carried over into the pros, where he hasn't put the ball on the ground in 250 career touches.

That's 950 times that White has handled the football in his career, and he has fumbled just once - and if there was one thing that the Patriots needed as part of their epic comeback, it was to hold onto the football and not give the Falcons anymore free gifts.  White gave them that.

After all, Blount had fumbled to kill a promising drive in the first quarter with no score on the board for either team, and Brady threw a pick-six two possessions later that made the score 21-0 for Atlanta, so ball security was paramount if the Patriots were going to get back into the game - a score that could have just as easily been tied or even reversed, were it not for the turnovers.

Because it wasn't like the Patriots weren't moving the ball on offense in the first half, they just keep shooting themselves in the foot.

In the first half, which ended up with New England trailing by 18, the Patriots ran 42 plays, gained 215 yards in total offense and doubled up Atlanta's time of possession, 20 minutes to ten - while in the second half, New England ran off 43 plays for 274 yards and held the ball for 17 minutes to 13 for Atlanta, the only difference being that they didn't turn the ball over and finished their drives.

"The Falcons didn't do anything differently on defense in the second half, we just executed a little bit better." Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said after the game, "They were playing a little more man-to-man in the first half. We adjusted as the game went on."

The man-to-man was designed to slow down what the Falcons perceived to be the strength of the Patriots' passing game, wide receiver Julian Edelman, deep threat Chris Hogan and primary back Dion Lewis - and it worked, initially - but the sheer number of plays run by a Patriots' offense that manufactured a Super Bowl record 37 first downs took it's toll on the entire Atlanta defense and forced them to resort to more zone coverages...

...but while Edelman and Hogan continued to struggle with separation throughout the game, White, receiver Danny Amendola and rookie wideout Malcolm Mitchell went off with nine, eight and five catches in the second half, respectively, accounting for 16 first downs, two receiving touchdowns and a receiving two-point conversion between them.

"That's the thing about this team, we've always got." Lewis said when asked about White's contribution, "It is always somebody different."

The same could be said for the Patriots' defense, which turned in an effort worthy of a world championship, holding quarterback Matt Ryan to his lowest passing yardage total of the season (240) and the Falcons' high powered offense to their second lowest total offensive production (344) - sacking Ryan five times and shutting them out for the final 23 minutes of regulation.

Because, that's what Matt Patricia's group does, right?

For the season, the Patriots' defense surrendered an average of  8 points in the second half of games, and just under eight points per game in the first half - but the caveat is that this squad gives up next to nothing in the first quarter, averages a touchdown in the second quarter, just about a touchdown per game in the third quarter and next to nothing in the final frame.

And that's pretty much exactly the way things went down in Super Bowl 51.

Of the Falcons' ten offensive possessions, six ended in punts and one on a strip sack of Ryan by Patriots' middle linebacker Dont'a Hightower.  Of course the other three ended in quick-strike scores totaling 218 yards - their longest drive of the game was eight plays in 4:14 -  the other seven accounted for 104 yards, and only 48 of those in the second half.

Of course, if one were to calculate the Patriots' chances of winning after giving up only 21 points to the highest scoring offense in the league, you'd have to like New England's chances - and if one were to suggest that the Patriots' defense were to hold the Atlanta offense to just 240 passing yards, you'd be giddy enough to preorder championship gear.

But when you factor in that the Falcons scored 14 points off of Patriots' turnovers, it skews that thinking - in fact, without those turnovers, given the fact that New England's offense consistently moved the ball well all game, the Patriots likely don't need overtime and the heroics of so many players - and the game would have been a blowout in the other direction.

In the end, the universe unfolded as it was supposed to, with the superior team coming out on top in perhaps the most epic Super Bowl ever.

Next - Part 2: Patriots' pass defense shuts down Falcon's running game

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