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TGS SUPER BOWL REPORT...BEFORE A LOOK AT LII, RECALLING LI

                                    by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

     Twelve months on, and we’ll still can’t quite believe what we saw in Super Bowl LI. The fact the same New England returns once again to this week’s “Supe” in Minneapolis prompts us to remind all about what happened last February 5 in Houston. Moreover, it’s a good read! And where this “Patriot generation,”   win or lose come Sunday at US Bank Stadium, ranks among the all-time NFL dynasties.
 
    What Tom Brady & Co. accomplished last year vs. Atlanta continues to astound and amaze. And not just because we can no longer say we have never had an overtime Super Bowl. Old LI took care of that last February, as the Patriots rallied in unbelievable fashion from a 28-3 deficit to steal a 34-28 win over the deflated Falcons, who looked on their way to an easy win well into the fourth quarter. Never had a Super Bowl winner rallied from more than 10 points down, much less 25.
 
    In retrospect, that was merely another in a long line of examples of Bill Belichick’s team keeping its composure and cool under fire. Much like the Super Bowl win two years previous vs. the Seahawks, New England avoided key mistakes and was ready to pounce on any opportunity.   The Belichick/Tom Brady Patriots rarely beat themselves, something Seattle three years ago, and Atlanta last February, will be painfully reminded of for a long time.
 
    Of those two Pat “Supe” wins in recent years, Falcon fans will be particularly galled by the result, though we had seen their team cough up (vs. San Diego) and nearly cough up (vs. New Orleans) similar leads earlier last season, while also conspiring to blow another game (vs. Kansas City) in spectacular fashion.   Still, there were several key points in Super Bowl LI when the Falcs might have been able to put the contest beyond reach.   One such pivotal moment came late in the second quarter when Atlanta still led 21-0. Brady was hit as he threw and tossed a wounded duck which was about to be intercepted by the Falcons until Pat TE Martellus Bennett raced in to snatch the ball, keeping alive a drive that would cut the Falcon lead to 21-3 at the half. A turnover at that point, with the Atlanta offense in a groove and having driven easily for a pair of TDs before Robert Alford’s long interception TD return, could have put the score at 28-0. A deficit that would seem be too much for even Brady to recover from.
 
    The Patriots, however, might have even derived some benefit from the long Alford interception return, and subsequent drive to the Stephen Gostkowski field goal with 2 seconds left in the half, as the hot Atlanta offense was kept off the field for the final 8 minutes of the first half, and in real time, for 68 minutes through the halftime show and into the third quarter. The Falcons never seemed to regain that rhythm they had on their two second-quarter TD drives, though the Belichick defense had much to do with that in the second half.
 
    Atlanta would also hurt itself with key penalties, several of those impacting drives...both ways. None perhaps so important as the holding call on second and one just outside the Patriot 40 in the 3rd Q after Atlanta had recovered the onside kick after the first Patriot TD had cut the score to 28-9 late in the 3rd Q.   Momentum had yet to really swing back to New England at that point, and had the Falcons been able to post any sort of a score (even a field goal) on that drive, they would have maintained a healthier edge into the 4th Q. Instead, the holding call pushed the ball back to near midfield, and QB Matt Ryan could not sustain the drive, which ended on a key sack.
 
    Still, into the middle of the 4th Q, it seemed like Atlanta’s game, even as the Patriots cut the advantage to 28-12.   New England was not making enough progress, and still had to achieve quite a parlay (a pair of TDs and 2-point conversions) to level the score. A couple of first downs by the Falcons might have prevented a momentum swing.   But on the 3rd and 1 call, o.c. Kyle Shanahan ordered a pass, and Ryan was stripped of the ball in the pocket by Dont’a Hightower, creating the big-play turnover that New England badly needed. Now working from the Atlanta 35, Brady was able to engineer a quick TD drive, and a nifty 2-point conversion run by James White (and some deft faking by Brady) cut the deficit to 8.
 
    The sequence that will forever haunt Atlanta, however, was on the next series, when the Falcons temporarily seized the momentum on a spectacular sideline catch by Julio Jones, putting the ball at the Patriot 22. That should have been the deciding play of the game, as it put Atlanta easily within FG range of PK Matt Bryant, almost automatic from inside 40 yards in his career. With no reason to do anything but set up Bryant for what would have likely been the clinching points and a 31-20 lead, while forcing Belichick to use his remaining timeouts, Shanahan instead provided the Patriots an opening by ordering a deep drop-back on 2nd down. Ryan would have been well-served to simply throw the ball away instead of taking a big sack back to the 35-yard-line.   By us, way too cute by Shanahan. (If Shanahan wanted to throw at that time, what was wrong with a bubble screen, or a short flair, anything other than dropping Ryan deep? Or how about the "Wildcat" with Mohamed Sanu, which might have come in handy at that stage if wanting to be a bit bold, but not reckless?) Still on the edge of Bryant’s range, Ryan would complete a 3rd-down pass inside of the New England 30, giving Bryant a better chance. But a holding call negated the gain, and on the subsequent 3rd-and-33 from the 45, Ryan threw incomplete. Which gave Brady plenty of time to navigate the 90+ yards to the tying score and 2-point conversion.
 
    The highlight play of the tying drive was obviously the spectacular tipped-pass grab by Pat WR Julian Edelman, with a couple of Falcons inadvertently bumping into one another and ruining their chance at a game-saving interception. Another key error by Atlanta HC Dan Quinn came on the subsequent challenge, which anyone who saw the replay knew could not be overturned.   Atlanta thus wasted its last timeout, one it might have been able to use on a subsequent drive after Brady and the Patriots tied the game.   Continuing the Falcon mistake-fest in the last few minutes, they would return the high kickoff from two yards deep in the end zone and get no further than their 10, instead of a more-manageable 25-yard-line, where Aaron Rodgers had begun a game-winning drive with roughly the same amount of time remaining in the last minute of the NFC Divisional Round vs. Dallas three weeks earlier. Belichick’s deft kickoff strategy, which we had seen in action early in the season (in the Arizona opener in particular), worked again like a charm.
 
    As overtime beckoned, the only drama was in the coin flip. By this time, New England had so seized momentum that it was inevitable it would score if it won the flip, which, calling heads, it did. The only scary moment for the Patriots in OT was Brady’s first-down lob pass from the Atlanta 2-yard line that Falcon LB Vic Beasley, Jr. might have had a chance to intercept, and perhaps gallop the other way toward the end zone 100 yards away, had he better coordinated his footwork. Instead, all he could do was break up the pass, and then Patriot ex-Wisconsin RB James White gamely fought his way to the goal line on second down.   Game over!
 
    In the end, it was a remarkable win for the Pats and their bettors, as well as for the “over” wagerers as the game looked headed for an “under” until the last moments of the 4th Q. The only result that would have really hurt the Las Vegas sports books would have been if the game landed on 3, where the spread stayed almost the entirety of the two weeks. Spared that disaster, the books would report a healthy profit for the “Supe.”
 
    But when analyzing what transpired last February in Houston, as well as two years before in Glendale vs. the Seahawks (another classic that might warrant expanded review in the near future), we are also reminded about how much of a tightrope New England has walked in its last two Super Bowl excursions, which in fact were not too dissimilar from all previous Belichick/Brady “Supe” appearances. Therein, however, also lies the greatest strength of the Patriots in the Belichick era. While several comets have roared across the NFL skies in the last half-century (like the 1985 “Super Bowl Shuffle” Bears, destroying all in front of them), there remains something endearing about a team that simply finds a way to win. With the exception of their 1961 title game rout of the Giants, Vince Lombardi’s Packers were similarly tested in their championship decade of the ‘60s, especially in their last two NFL title games vs. the Cowboys in ‘66 and ‘67 (though not necessarily in the first two Super Bowls after each of those seasons).
 
    The “Belichick Era” is not the first ultra-sustained, multi-decade run of excellence in pro football annals. The best of the Tom Landry era in Dallas would last for 20 seasons (1966-85), with the Cowboys only missing the playoffs twice in that span. But Dallas also won just two Super Bowls (the ‘71 and ‘77 teams) for Landry. The aforementioned Lombardi glory era in Green Bay lasted only from 1960-67, though there has never been such a concentration of titles (five) in a short span (1961-62-65-66-67). The Steelers decade of dominance in truth only lasted from 1972-79, and Pittsburgh didn’t win the first of its four “Supes” in the decade until the ‘74 season. San Francisco’s era of dominance stretched from 1981 thru the entirety of the ‘90s, though the last of the five 49er Super Bowl wins came in the ‘94 campaign.
 
    But we believe the “Belichick era” can officially separate from its closest “dynasty” competitor (which we believe was the San Francisco stretch of excellence) with a win in Super Bowl LII, sixteen years after the first Patriots “Supe” win with the Belichick/Brady combo. After all, they’re still at it; by the time the 49ers won the last of their Super Bowls, Joe Montana was out and Steve Young was in at QB. Moreover, HC Bill Walsh had turned over the reins to George Seifert in 1989; many are surprised when they realize it was Seifert, not Walsh, who coached the last two San Francisco Super Bowl winners (though it was Walsh who certainly built the foundation, especially for the ‘89 champs, a defending Super Bowl winner that Seifert inherited). Walsh, for those who might not recall, was several years removed from the 49ers in their last title year, and in fact coaching at Stanford, in 1994!    
 
    Now, back to Super Bowl LI: Where do we rank it in our much-discussed all-time Super Bowl rankings? That it was the greatest comeback in “Supe” history is unquestioned. (There have been a couple of near-comebacks almost as big, including the 49ers against the Ravens five years ago.) But after letting the result settle for a while, we settled upon the No. 5 spot all-time for LI.  
 
    Why? By any measurement, LI was quite a game, mostly because of that hard-to-believe Patriot rally, but we don’t think it was the greatest Super Bowl, any more than Buffalo’s rally from 32 points down vs. Houston in 1992 is the greatest playoff game of all-time. By Atlanta making so many tactical errors in the late going, the contest never had the sort of back-and-forth that really marks the greatest games like the few “Supes” we still have rated above LI. Indeed, LI was like two different games, first with the Falcons dominant for almost three quarters, then the Patriots in a one-sided 4th Q and OT. Though New England had much to do with Atlanta eventually collapsing, the Falcons did so many things wrong in the late going, when the proceedings became one-sided, that LI lacked the one key element (true back-and-forth) that, in our estimation, makes for a best-ever argument.
 
    Best Super Bowl comeback? For sure. Best Super Bowl ever? Close, but, by us at least, not quite. After SB LII, we'll update our much-discussed TGS Super Bowl ranking list, from No. 52 to No. 1...with the Patriots’ previous Super Bowl in Houston, vs. Carolina fourteen years ago still at the top....at least for now.
 
SUPER BOWL LII!
 
    With a couple of exceptions in recent years (Seattle’s 43-8 romp past Denver four years ago at the Meadowlands immediately comes to mind), most recent Super Bowls have been competitive and exciting.   This also reflects a trend toward the underdogs, which have now covered 6 of the past 9 “Supes” (and it would have been 7 of 9 had the three-point dog Falcons not conspired to blow a 25-point lead in spectacular fashion last year). This after an extended run of chalk-dominated and often-blowout results for much of the ‘80s and early-to-mid ‘90s; since then, underdogs have closed the gap on favorites, whose all-time Super Bowl edge has been cut to 25-23-2. There has been one pick ’em clash, when the 49ers and Bengals met for the first of their two title clashes in Super Bowl XVI at the Pontiac Silverdome, which after sitting in ruins for several years, was finally brought down a few months ago, joining the old Orange Bowl, Tulane Stadium, the Metrodome, old Tampa Stadium, old Stanford Stadium (though a new Stanford Stadium sits on that site today), and the Georgia Dome (imploded just last month) as past “Supe” venues that no longer exist.

   Yet even with many recent competitive Super Bowls, almost half of them (24 of 51) have still been decided by 14 points or more, which relates to many historical results in pre-Super Bowl days when lopsided scorelines in title games were commonplace. Championship-game blowouts didn’t begin with the Super Bowl Shuffle ‘85 Bears; they’ve happened since the earliest days of the league, with several eras featuring more of them than others (such as the mid ‘50s, when a succession of NFL title games featured scorelines of 56-10, 38-14, 47-7, and 59-14!). And, as we have mentioned in past conference championship previews, the all-time NFL blowout occurred in the 1940 title game, when George Halas’ Bears overwhelmed the Washington Redskins... 73-0!

    Which team do we like, Eagles or Patriots, at Minneapolis this Sunday? Check out our detailed forecast to find out!

SB PERFORMANCE BREAKDOWN

Favorites/Underdogs                          25-23-2 (1 pick)
Favorites straight up.............................. 33-17 (1 pick)
Favored by 0-3...................................................... 7-6
Favored by 3½-6................................................... 7-7
Favored by 7-9½................................................ 4-4-1
Favored by 10-13½............................................... 5-4
Favored by 14 or more                                        2-2-1
Overs/Unders.................................................. 25-24-1
MARGINS OF VICTORY
MARGIN                                            NO. OF GAMES
1-3.......................................................................... 8
4-6.......................................................................... 8
7-10......................................................................... 7
11-13....................................................................... 4
14 or more............................................................. 24


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