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Patriots come up with critical plays just in time to help a historic comeback end in elation

The comeback will be dissected for years to come, but on a Super Bowl Sunday when both teams traded haymakers, the Patriots were merely happy to be left standing under the confetti.

HOUSTON — While the rest of us tried to make any sense of how the Patriots came back from a 25-point deficit midway through the third quarter to beat the Falcons 34–28 in overtime in Super Bowl LI, New England just enjoyed it.

In the outside world, we get caught up in the why, how, who and what with a football game. We need to know immediately why something happened, how it transpired, who was responsible, and what it all means not only for that season, but going forward.

But for the players, coaches and personnel involved on the winning side, there’s none of that. They just relish being the last team standing in early February. There are no “What the heck just happened?” stunned faces; only satisfied smiles and quiet moments.

Patriots fans, get your championship gear here | SI's Super Bowl LI commemorative package

There was Patriots quarterback Tom Brady having a meaningful embrace with just about every one of his teammates. And it wasn’t just a bro hug, it was a, “Thanks for putting in everything you have, and I love you for it”-type embrace.

There was Patriots owner Robert Kraft, celebrating his fifth Super Bowl title, passing out cigars and enjoying a moment with each player. “You’ll never have another cigar as good as this one,” he told them with a wink.

There was Chris Long, son of Super Bowl XVIII winner Howie, tasting a world championship in his first-ever postseason after eight seasons with the Rams. Football locker rooms don’t normally have champagne celebrations, but Long and his defensive linemates brought along some cheap drugstore-variety bottles and enjoyed spraying each other in their corner of the cramped locker room.

For the Falcons and their Atlanta fans, the pain of losing Super Bowl LI is all too familiar

And there was left tackle Nate Solder, who endured testicular cancer treatments two years ago and then watched his young son, Hudson, be treated for a rare form of pediatric cancer (his wife Lexi is carrying the family’s second baby), giving an interview and suddenly interjecting, “Man, this is really heavy,” as he showed off the Lombardi Trophy with a huge smile.

There wasn’t much talk about what just happened, or how or who or what. At this point, those questions or the answers don’t really matter. The Patriots are world champions for the second time in three years and the fifth time since 2001. That’s all they care about.

And, now, onto the stuff that the rest of us care about, a Blanket Coverage–style look back at Super Bowl LI:

Go crazy, folks

Fatigue determined this game: New England obviously came into this game wanting to keep the Falcons’ defense on the field (keeping the Atlanta offense off it in the process). Even trailing 21–0 late in the second quarter, the Patriots were still trying to run the ball. Once they got down 28–3, the running game had to be scrapped out of necessity, but the Patriots did win the game because the Falcons wore down. Atlanta’s defense was gassed in the fourth quarter and overtime because the Patriots ran 93 plays (40:31 of possession) to the Falcons’ 46 (23:27). In the fourth quarter and overtime, the Patriots ran 35 plays (14:09) to Atlanta’s 13 (4:49). As Patriots right tackle Marcus Cannon recounted to a teammate after the game, the eyes of the Falcons’ defensive linemen were glazed over in overtime, and New England knew it would have little trouble scoring the game-winning touchdown. The Patriots got the end result they wanted, it just didn’t happen how they drew it up.

Both teams flip-flopped on opportunities: In the first half, the Patriots drove to the Atlanta 33- and 23-yard line before coughing up the ball (first on a LeGarrette Blount fumble, then a Brady pick-six) and failing to score. In the fourth quarter, the Falcons penetrated to the New England 32- and 22-yard line and got zero points out of both drive (thanks to a sack and a Jake Matthews holding penalty on each trip) when just one field goal would have likely won the game. That’s how you build a big deficit, and then erase one.

Falcons eased up on the coverage: Atlanta gave Brady so many problems in the first half by playing effective press man-to-man coverage, either with two deep safeties or one lurking in the middle of the field. That forces Brady to hold the ball a beat or two, which makes him uncomfortable and allows the pass rush to get home. In the fourth quarter, perhaps due to fatigue, the Falcons backed off and played more zone, which allowed James White (who totaled 110 yards on his Super Bowl–record 14 receptions) and Danny Amendola (eight catches, 78 yards) to exploit some gaps.

“[White] got the ball in a couple of those angle routes in zone coverage and he was able to make some good yardage there,” said Belichick. “Amendola, kind of the same thing. Atlanta switched back and played some zone at the end of the game and James was able to hit that. Danny hit it for the touchdown. Obviously against a lot of man coverage early in the game we didn’t do very well with it. Later on we got more productive, and then when they started mixing in some zone we were able to hit that too.”

White, who has always been a very good receiver but hadn’t shown a great deal of toughness entering Sunday, really grew up in this game.

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Jones and Edelman had dueling catches for the ages: Falcons receiver Julio Jones made an insane toe-tap sideline catch for 27 yards down to the New England 22 with 4:40 remaining. That looked like it had set up a field goal that would lock up the game before the drive went backwards to the New England 45. On the ensuing drive, the Patriots got revenge for David Tyree’s catch in 2007 with Edelman’s juggling catch of a deflected ball for 23 yards to the Atlanta 41 with 2:28 left in the fourth quarter.

Hightower delivers the biggest play of the game: The Patriots were trailing the Falcons 28–12 with 8:31 to play when Atlanta faced a third-and-one at its own 36-yard line. A first down would have made it very difficult for the Patriots to catch up. Instead of forcing a punt, the Patriots did one better when linebacker Dont’a Hightower steamed past running back Devonta Freeman and strip-sacked Matt Ryan to give the Patriots the ball at the Atlanta 25 with 8:24 to play. After a clutch third-and-11 conversion from Brady to rookie receiver Malcolm Mitchell, the Patriots scored and got the two-point conversion to make it a one-score game at 28–20 with 5:56 remaining.

“That was an unbelievable play,” said New England end Rob Ninkovich. “That play is something we’ve done for many years. I’m kind of spying the quarterback to see if he’s going to run out of the pocket and High’s coming off the edge at full blast and sometimes they screw that up thinking he’s in coverage and then boom, the back didn’t pick him up and then boom, strip-sack. Game-changer.”

Falcons, Shanahan will kick themselves for final sequence: After Jones’s circus catch to the Patriots’ 22 with 4:40 remaining, the Falcons ran on first down for a loss of one yard and then threw on second down (Trey Flowers broke up the play with a sack), third down (a Matthews hold negated the down) and third down again (incomplete). If the Falcons just run it twice more for zero yards, either the clock goes under three minutes or the Patriots burn two of their timeouts, and the Falcons attempt a game-clinching 47-yard field goal. Instead, the Patriots only used one timeout, and the Falcons punted. Three passes in a row were the wrong call.

A great QB duel: Both quarterbacks had a few mistakes, but mostly they played sensational. Brady (43 of 62 for 466 yards, two touchdowns, an interception and a 95.2 rating) and Ryan (17 of 23 for 284 yards, two touchdowns, 144.1 rating) were more than worthy of the QB spotlight that they shared the past two weeks.

Young defensive linemen make a name for themselves: Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett (three sacks) and Patriots end Trey Flowers (2.5 sacks) were outstanding in the game and served notice that you’ll be hearing their names in the future.

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Slow your roll

There was no big defensive adjustment by the Patriots: In the first half, the Falcons ran 19 plays for 189 yards (9.9 yards per play) and scored on their final two drives, with a pick-six by Robert Alford thrown in). In the second half, Atlanta ran 27 plays for 155 yards (5.7 average) and scored one touchdown in six possessions. To a man, the Patriots said there were no big adjustments made at halftime. “We stuck to the gameplan but we had to adjust to how we were playing against what they were doing,” Ninkovich said. “They came out and had some great plays, they gameplanned some really good plays against us, so we had to play better against those plays.”

This was not an Atlanta choke job: Many people will say the Falcons choked this game away, but outside of the playcalling on the final drive, I have a hard time saying that. The Patriots played just as bad of a first half. If they would have lost, would we have said they choked? Of course not. The Patriots just played a better closing 30 minutes and made the plays in the second that Atlanta made in the first. Hightower’s strip-sack was just a great play, although Devonta Freeman probably blew the protection. And while Ryan probably should have thrown the ball away at the four-minute mark, Brady did plenty of ball-holding himself in the first. It was just a football game. The last team with the ball won. If the Falcons won the overtime toss, they very well might have won the game. Stuff happens.