How Did We Get Here?
A Review of New England and Atlanta’s Run to Super Bowl LI
Now that the combatants for Super Bowl LI have been determined, here are the 51 of the many reasons these two teams will play for the Lombardi Trophy February 5th in Houston, Texas.
New England garnered much of the news cycles in the off-season as Tom Brady finally dropped his appeal of the NFL’s Deflategate scandal, sacking Brady for the seasons first four games. It was believed that once Tom returned in Week 5, the Patriots would be in full on “FU Mode” and just take out their frustrations on the teams on the schedule. When the Patriots started 3-1 with Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett filling Brady’s spot behind center, most people cringed at the thought that with 12 coming back, New England would just fall back into form and dominate as they have during most of this dynasty’s run.
Since then, New England has lost only once and has been a ferocious opponent for everyone in the AFC en route to their eighth consecutive AFC East title, and eventually earning the right to play in their seventh Super Bowl under Bill Belichick.
They won in almost every way imaginable during this 13-1 run. Brady won his 200th game with late game heroics at Metlife Stadium, hitting Malcolm Mitchell for the go ahead score with 1:57 left in the fourth quarter to beat the Jets 22-17. The Patriots won in convincing fashion against teams they are noticeably better than, (Bengals 35-17, Rams 26-10, Jets 41-3, and Dolphins 35-14), and found ways to win even when they didn’t have their best stuff (Broncos 16-3 and Texans 34-16 in the playoffs).
Truth be told, this might be the worst of the seven Super Bowl teams New England has had in the Brady/Belichich era. No Gronkowski, defense is inconsistent despite leading the league in scoring, and their special teams have at times created more issues than they have solved. Don’t get me wrong, this team is damn good, but comparing this squad to the 2007 or 2005 team, it just doesn’t have the same punch those groups had. I realize it is unfair to compare them to their past teams considering the 2016 group went 14-2, but there aren’t a lot of great teams in today’s NFL.
New England’s ability to continue to find guys who fit their system is unparalleled, and Kraft, Belichick, and Brady have spots awaiting in Canton.
As for the Falcons, they were not expected to be here.
In head coach Dan Quinn’s second season, there was not a lot of expectations heading into 2016. Off an 8-8 year in 2015, Atlanta came in picked second or third in their own division behind Carolina and New Orleans, and even Tampa was considered a bit of a sexier pick with Jameis Winston’s continued growth. After the Week 1 loss to the Buccaneers, there was plenty of reason to consider this another “building year” for Atlanta, Quinn, and the franchise as a whole with the giant birds nest of Mercedes-Benz stadium being constructed next door.
Atlanta recovered from the opening week hiccup to beat the upstart Raiders in Oakland, outlasted shootouts at New Orleans and against reigning NFC Champs Carolina, but it wasn’t until the Falcons went into the Mile High City and won at Denver that people started to ponder if Atlanta was for real.
After all, the Falcons started 6-0 in 2015, only to sputter down the stretch, and after back-to-back losses at Seattle and at home to San Diego, any public perception the Dirty Birds had earned had quickly been erased.
The Falcons season turned on its current up tick with a last minute win against Green Bay in an absolute shootout, 33-32 on an 11 yard pass from Ryan to Mohammed Sanu capping off an 11-play, 75 yard drive right after the Packers took the lead with just over three minutes to play. From that game on, the Falcons shredded defenses posting point totals of 43, 38, 42, 41, 33, and 38. While they did drop two games in that span, losing a memorable game on Eric Berry’s Pick-2, and a clunker at Philadelphia, the Falcons rolled into the playoffs as the number two seed, earning a first round bye.
Even then, with the Cowboys resurgence, the Seahawks reputation, the Lions great year, and the magical run the Packers went on, there wasn’t a lot of talk nationally about the Falcons chances of advancing to Houston.
Atlanta caught a couple breaks as they got to face a banged up Seattle secondary and when Green Bay upset Dallas in a shootout, earning that home game in the NFC Championship Game set the stage for the Falcons coming out party.
Ryan’s 394 passing yards, four passing touchdowns, and rushing score, coupled with Julio Jones’ monster 180 yard and 2 touchdown performance was too much for an outmatched Packers squad who had Jordy Nelson playing for the first time after breaking his ribs, and lost Ty Montgomery to an in game injury.
Jumping up to that 24-0 halftime lead put the game out of reach and sealed the Falcons second NFC championship.
We have two weeks to analyze, breakdown, and predict, but this game is going to be a fun one.