As far as predicting events goes, the last calendar year has been pretty rotten. I thought I had found the love of my life, but I didn’t. I thought Hillary Clinton would win the presidency by a mile, but she didn’t. And I predicted the Atlanta Falcons would win the Super Bowl. For three and a half quarters, I was happy with that prediction. Except one thing kept gnawing at me. 28 points. I had said it multiple times, not so much intentionally, just as an off-statement when discussing football with others, and it was echoing louder in my head as Super Bowl 51 progressed. “If the Falcons score thirty points, the Patriots will lose this game.” And here the Falcons were, stuck at 28 points, unable to get past the number I sort of whimsically predicted because I didn’t think the Patriots could drop thirty on the Falcons over four quarters (and they couldn’t).
Soon, the 28-point voice was replaced by another.
At the beginning of the fourth quarter, I thought, “If the Patriots score any points on this drive, and there are ten minutes left in this game, the Falcons are going to lose.” Steven Gostkowski nailed a 33-yard field goal with 9:44 remaining. The attendees of my Seattle-Mom’s Super Bowl party tried to assure both themselves and me that the Falcons would win, but I started talking about a Falcons fall apart. And then the Falcons not only fell apart, they caved in such an enormous manner that even the smallest aspects of the game became insurmountable tasks. Play by play, the Falcons looked worse and worse. The Patriots toyed with them and… Wait. Tom Brady toyed with them, leading his offense up and down the field so calmly, so confidently, it was hard to believe he and his team were, at that time, almost certainly losing this game.
I felt a weird feeling, something I hadn’t felt since the 1990s. Something I’ve since learned I was not the only person to feel. I thought, “This is what it felt like to watch Michael Jordan.” And not Jordan when he was a hyper-athletic lunatic, because Brady is not a hyper-athletic lunatic, but Jordan when he was psychologically infantilizing an opponent. By the time Patriots’ running back James White sealed the victory, the Falcons defense was reduced by Brady’s head games they were ready to crawl back into the womb.
Of course, I wanted to see what Brady’s reaction was to winning his fifth Super Bowl, a massive achievement for both himself and NFL history. The man must have been ecstatic, right? He must’ve been over himself with emotion and joy! But when the camera cut to Brady, he was ignoring the confetti, ignoring the reporters, ignoring Matt Ryan offering congratulations. Brady knew the play would be reviewed, and his focus was so incredible that not even an entire stadium of people celebrating his victory could break it. If the replay said no touchdown, and the refs cleaned off the field, and it took ten minutes before the next play could be run, Brady would be ready for that one play, for ten more plays, for three more overtime quarters. Whatever it would take, he was ready to give it and more.
Some people call him Tom Terrific. Some people call him California Cool. Some people refer to him as The Pharaoh. Skip Bayless admiringly named Brady’s on-field persona as, “Psycho Tom.” I don’t quite know what batch of chemicals came together to create the space alien that is Tom Brady, but I do know that only Brady could win this game. Let’s recall: when Brady got hot, just about every phase of New England’s game had failed (they had even missed an extra point!), and not only had it failed, Brady himself had failed. He threw a pick-six! My God, he threw a pick-six in the Super Bowl and went down 21-0, why am I writing about a Patriots victory? How can you explain the unexplainable?
Well, I’m going to give it a try.
The Falcons’ Defensive Backs Got Soft
I chose the Falcons to win the Super Bowl but still had two major concerns. The first being that the Patriots would find a way to get Vic Beasley rotated out of the game, which Atlanta anticipated and game-planned against, and the second, I was concerned the Falcons’ DBs weren’t good enough at bump-and-run coverage. Being a Seahawks’ fan, I’ve seen these man-under defenses done right for years, and these Falcons were good at emulating Seattle but always lacked legitimacy within the five-yard bump zone. They frequently showed press coverage, but it was a dummy look. They’d dump out of it either right before or right after the snap, afraid to risk the the big play.
It took Brady a while to figure out that his receivers were running their routes untouched, but once he did, the game plan stopped being about getting in behind the secondary and became about hitting them either underneath or at their level. Instead of throwing at his receivers, Brady starting throwing away from them. He threw his receivers open and the Falcons’ DBs were too busy seeing ghosts to play football.
With 8:24 remaining, with the score 28-12, Tom Brady continued the comeback of all comebacks, in the midst of a drive for a crucial touchdown.
At the snap, wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell (19) takes a step outside. Cornerback CJ Goodwin (29) attempts to “jam” Mitchell, to disrupt the route, but Goodwin whiffs. With Mitchell approaching the outside of Goodwin’s hips, Goodwin turns away from Brady and the ball to stay in stride with Mitchell. Since Goodwin failed at the jam, Mitchell is running the route unobstructed, meaning Tom Brady (12) knows when Mitchell will stop and he knows where the ball needs to be. He throws it before Mitchell comes out of the break and it’s mostly there by the time Mitchell locates it.
Against Brady, a defender doesn’t have to jam on every play, but when a defender chooses to jam, making contact is vital. Once Brady establishes a rhythm with these timed throws, the focus should not even be on covering the receiver—as the receiver is not running to the throwing point—just in changing the true delivery point of the ball. By making solid contact within the bump zone, Brady must at least second guess his pre-snap read.
To me, this play proves Brady is in possession of some sixth sense, the MJ-like presence, that he uses to manipulate opponents. Cornerback Jalen Collins (32) practically looks hypnotized by Brady with how stuck his head is on the signal-caller paired with his lazy posture. When Brady signals wide receiver Danny Amendola (80) to step out, moving away from Collins, Collins should feel that Brady is not going inside with the pass—too much traffic with Keanu Neal (22)—yet Collins weirdly takes a step closer to Brady. To make matters worse, Neal either doesn’t realize or doesn’t have the authority to act on the fact that he’s free. There’s nothing for him to do but watch the touchdown catch happen. With no hat for him to lock down on, he could be a major disrupter. Instead, he’s a buffer defender, maybe there to snag a big INT should Brady have a wild throw.
At the snap, Brady deploys one of his favorite eye-tricks. Most defensive backs use a quarterback’s eyes to determine where to defend, but an inexperienced defender can be frozen when the quarterback isn’t looking for an open receiver but is instead looking directly at him. Collins goes from being hypnotized to an ice statue. Amendola easily approaches and steps left, catching the touchdown.
Can We Cut This Guy A Break?
I’m so tired of seeing this replays as a sign of how Brady struggled early. Edelman got chipped (by accident), and it took just enough off him to make this pass miss. Brady nailed this pass. It’s right where it needed to be. Perfect. End of story.
Was It A Miracle?
As a Seahawks fan, I could not be happier that the Patriots’ best Super Bowl victory is no longer Super Bowl 49. I was so tired of Chris Collinsworth recalling the 2014 Super Bowl loss for what felt like ten times per any Sunday Night Football game Seattle or New England played. Though, it goes beyond the simple pleasure of knowing the Falcons are now the kings of Super Bowl infamy. When I watched New England climb back into Super Bowl 51, I felt an emotional connection to the miracle I was witnessing. I had seen a very similar game. In Seattle, we call it, “The Rain City Miracle.”
In 2014, I decided to break the bank and go to the NFC Championship game between the Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers. I arrived at the stadium, got seated, and for the next three and half quarters, I was physically ill from both the play on the field and the self-inflicted wound to my checking account. I saw Russell Wilson throw four interceptions, one of them in the end zone. By the second quarter, the Seahawks were down 16-0 and that team averaged only 24 points per game, while the Packers averaged thirty.
It was clearly over.
But then, with 4:47 left in the third quarter, these events happened: The Hawks scored a touchdown on a fake field goal, then another touchdown on a Russell Wilson keeper, nabbed an onside kick, scored another touchdown on a twenty-four yard touchdown run from Marshawn Lynch (with 1:32 left in the fourth quarter and only one timeout), converted the craziest two-point conversion in NFL history—it was the most ridiculous, most impossible throw that somehow landed in the same zip code as tight end Luke Willson—and then, in overtime, the Hawks won the toss and scored a touchdown on the opening drive due to a thirty-five yard touchdown pass.
This is Jermaine Kearse winning the game. It felt like slow motion.
Never in my life had I experienced something as completely bonkers as that. The moment was so intense and so euphoric that my mind was swimming and I felt like I was in a dream. I was hugging rando fans beside me, behind me, sharing booze, smiles, whatever. Save the few thousand faithless “fans” who left the game early, the stadium was still full ten minutes after Kearse’s catch. No one wanted to leave. We all knew we were in this small slice of Heaven. The second we put one fingernail back into reality, the feeling would leave. This might be the only perfect moment of our lives, the only moment of total community and absence of conflict, all because of sport, all because of one impossible victory.
(Thanks for ruining the magic in Super Bowl 49, Malcolm Butler).
I never expected Patriots fan to understand that feeling. The Pats have taken some bad beats over the years, but they’re few and far between. Maybe it happens every two or three seasons, but the Patriots are usually the better team, and they usually win in a decisive manner. It’s annoying, but that’s what happens. Well, after almost two decades of watching a football team methodically outplay their competition, Patriots’ fans have finally gotten their version of the Rain City Miracle. It will be endlessly debated how exactly the comeback in Super Bowl 51 happened—when it started, who was most responsible, the xs and the os, the injuries, the experience—but any explanation will never fully equate the enormity of the victory, nothing will ever make the pieces fit together perfectly.
That feeling of “magic” will always be there. It will never dim. It will never fade.
Welcome to the club.
Belichick’s Jedi Mind Tricks
Super Bowl 51 will go down as two tales. The Falcons losing it, and Tom Brady winning it. And where you fall as a fan probably dictates which you will believe, but the Patriots defense should share some credit for the victory. Unfortunately, the numbers don’t reflect my opinion. During the regular season, the Falcons offense put up 33 points and 415 yards per game. During the Super Bowl, the offense scored only 21 points, okay, but still put up 388 yards. Matt Ryan was league MVP, averaging 309 yards, 2.3 touchdowns and 70% completion percentage per game. During the Super Bowl, he threw for 284 yards, 2 touchdowns and a 73% completion percentage. During the regular season, Devonta Freeman averaged 4.8 yards/attempt on the way to 68 rushing yards per game. During the Super Bowl, he averaged 6.8 yards/attempt for 75 yards. I could keep going, but the point is the same. Certainly, the Patriots defense was better than some of the bozos the Falcons plowed through during the regular season, but they were also part of the problem, weren’t they?
Re-watching the game, it felt like Belichick’s plan was all centered around third downs.
This example is an early third down and three with the game 0-0. The Patriots’ defense has nine defenders along the line of scrimmage with two safeties deep, which is an aggressive look that better befits third and long. Quarterback Matt Ryan (2) recognizes the alignment oddity, and seeing no linebackers or safeties in the intermediate zone, motions Julio Jones (11) from wide-out to a bunch formation. In doing so, Patriots’ star cornerback Malcolm Butler (21) sacrifices his coverage duties to cornerback Logan Ryan (26). Matt Ryan loves what he sees. Sure, the Patriots have a sure-fire blitz dialed up, but Matt Ryan has Jones on a hot route to the empty part of the field.
The problem? It’s all a ruse, and it happens in two parts.
Part 1: The Patriots want Jones to take the hot route, or at the very least they are prepared for it. At the snap, this risky blitz turns out to be a three-man rush. Logan Ryan does not even worry about taking Jones, he puts a massive chip into him. Eventually, Jones gets away from Logan Ryan but Matt Ryan hesitates to throw, as defensive end Jamaal Sheard (93)—who turns to locate Jones as he drops back—sandwiches Jones in coverage. The hot route is gone, and the Falcons have sacrificed their number-one throwing option to a trap.
Part 2: Prior to the snap, the defense is not only showing a blitz, the manner in which they are doing so—with tons of movement—forces the offensive line into a flurry of blocking adjustments. The goal of this movement is to create a situation where defensive tackle Alan Branch (6’6″, 350 lbs) is mano-a-mano with offensive center Alex Mack (6’4″, 311 lbs and one broken leg). To accomplish this, the defense lines up with four defensive lineman and two blitzing linebackers—Dont’a Hightower (54) and Kyle Van Not (53)—in the “A” gap between defensive lineman Branch and Sheard. By doing so, the Falcons adjust to pick up the changes, knowing they only have to buy Matt Ryan enough time to throw. However, once the offensive line gets their assignments straight, picking up the linebacker blitzes, the defense messes it up. Linebacker Van Noy goes outside of lineman Sheard, and Hightower goes outside of Branch, meaning both Sheard and Branch are now in the A gap on either side of the center. As discussed above, Sheard has no plans to rush. He will drop back into coverage. Branch will now be one-on-one with Mack. At the snap, Branch pushes Mack six yards into the backfield. When Matt Ryan tries to step up into the pocket, he runs into Mack. He is sacked.
Here is another aggressive third down formation. The defense is lined up with nearly everyone at the line of scrimmage, with no deep safety, essentially a casino blitz. Matt Ryan sees an empty second level, and he probably deduces, if he can get a receiver open on that level, it will be the easiest way to pick up yardage. Just like the first example, Ryan makes the “right” decision based on what the defense is showing him. And who knows, he might’ve been right, but not for Freeman, who makes one of the worst pass protection decisions imaginable.
Without Freeman’s (24) disclosure about this play, we may never know what happened. Long before the snap, Freeman is distracted, with his head facing away from Hightower. To me, when Freeman initially scanned for assignments, he saw Hightower playing at the linebacker level and never recognized Hightower moving down to the line, inserting himself inside of safety Patrick Chung (23). With Sanu having gone to the opposite side of the field, Freeman becomes more concerned about potentially crossing the formation to pick up a blitzer. It’s possible, having never seen Hightower move, Freeman mistook him for Chung and thought Hightower was going to drop into coverage on tight end Austin Hooper (81).
Either way, this is a tremendous failure for Freeman, but it only further proves that the Falcons were not ready for these insanely dangerous yet brilliant third down defensive looks.
Credit: NFL Trash Talkers
So What Does It All Mean?
They like to say no one foresaw Tom Brady being an NFL superstar, and while I can add myself to the list of people who doubted, I can say I know one man who did not.
In 2000, my father, a University of Michigan Wolverines fan, told me on the phone, “Just you wait, you wait… This Tom Brady is incredible. He’s got the ‘it’ factor.” I laughed and told him he was crazy, that no such factor existed, and that the pro game was so different from the college game. Brady wouldn’t be able to duplicate any success he had at Michigan in the NFL. (Later my father would predict the Miami Dolphins should sign Drew Brees and I was like, “Dad, he’s had two shoulder surgeries. I mean, come on, he throws the ball for a living.” Basically, I need to listen to my father more). My Dad insisted Brady was the type of leader who would absolutely succeed at the NFL level, that I was overlooking his intangibles, and well, I obviously was.
We now know Tom Brady is the best quarterback in NFL history and likely the best player in NFL history. Not only does he have five Super Bowls, if he plays as long as he intends to play, he’ll probably have most of the major passing records (assuming Drew Brees, who is also quite spry for a thirty-eight-year-old, doesn’t outlast Brady). But, none of these accomplishments fully explain what my father was trying to tell me in 2000.
Arguments about Michael Jordan often go the same way. When you try to explain Jordan to someone, you start with, “Six championships, six Finals MVPs,” and you go through the resume, but ultimately, you start saying, “You just don’t get it. You had to see him play.”
Any quarterback could’ve made the throws Brady made in that miraculous fourth quarter, yet why are so many quarterbacks unable to do so in the moment and Brady can always do it? What separates Tom is the way he steps up, the way he translates what he practices onto the playing field. And that is almost totally a product of the person living inside. He’s an athlete who has mastered his internal environment as well as his external one. There’s no award for that. No stat for it. No objective way of measuring it. You’re watching someone who has conquered the beast within himself and moved into a place where what he visualizes becomes reality.
I’m not saying the guy wasn’t ever lucky. I’m not saying he never needed someone to pick up the phone and make a call for him. I’m not saying he’s never had to apologize. I’m just saying… At some point, when you talk to young NFL fans fifteen years from now about Brady, you’ll start with the accomplishments, but you won’t linger there. The argument for Brady’s greatness will always move into the metaphysical. It will always turn into an argument about the strength of a human soul.
Congratulations to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots for their championship season. Something tells me I’ll be writing that at least one more time.