It’s been impossible for me to watch any sports channels or late-night talk shows, or read any articles regarding Super Bowl LI. It’s been too painful and, frankly, I’m not sure I can get past feeling like this game was scripted by some of Hollywood’s best screenwriters. It kind of felt like watching a baseball doubleheader, where the two teams split two very uncompetitive games.
For me, it’s either a conspiracy theory, or it’s all in the numbers. Of course Tom Brady gets No. 5. Of course the Patriots have now won three out of four Super Bowls (does that phrase sound familiar?) when they go 14-2. Of course they would be the team to win the first-ever Super Bowl overtime game. Of course Brady would win a playoff overtime game because that’s the way he started his playoff career. Of course the Patriots wouldn’t be 4-5 in Super Bowls. Of course the Patriots would avenge the two heartbreaking losses to the Giants with two doubly heartbreaking wins. Of course, of course, of course.
But the Falcons led by 25 points.
Lost in all of this is the fact that there were six or seven plays that the Falcons could’ve done literally nothing, which would have been better than what they did. Why did they not capitalize on a short field when New England went with an onside kick down 28-9 late in the third? Why did lame-duck, San Francisco-bound offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan call a pass on third-and-one with his team up 16 points when a first-down run might have iced the game? Why did the Falcons simply not run the ball three times when they were in field goal range up eight with three minutes to play, rather than inexplicably end up in a 4th-and-33 and forced to punt?
Why, why, why? Indeed, there are no answers.
Baseball season is almost back. Remember baseball? The sport that doesn’t have a Tom Brady or Bill Belichick, and just gave us not only one of the most heartstopping World Series but also one of the most heartwarming? The sport that has seen the Kansas City Royals and Chicago Cubs go from laughingstock to world champions seemingly overnight? Seeing this Super Bowl unfold in this fashion truly made me yearn for a more competitive sport and a more competitive time. It was, perhaps fittingly, the worst of the worst in a 14-year nightmare that won’t end (yes, I’m counting 2003 as the start of the New England nightmare, not 2001 when we didn’t know any better).
I won’t lie to you – the underlying emotion here is one of sadness. As a Baltimore native, I began to pay attention to the NFL once the Ravens arrived in 1996. The first season I started watching football intently was in 1999, which, as I know now, truly spoiled me and set the bar far too high. In case you don’t remember that NFL season from 17 years ago (odds are you don’t), here’s a refresher course: in a nutshell, it was the year the existing dynasties all died, and the Super Bowl featured the most heartwarming fairytale ending you could possibly draw up.
Kurt Warner, who not long ago had been bagging groceries, led the downtrodden St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl championship a year after the team went 4-12. The Tennessee Titans played the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC championship game (yes, that actually happened). Rookie Shaun King led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the NFC championship game. The two-time defending Super Bowl champs, the Denver Broncos, went 6-10, while perennial powerhouses San Francisco, Green Bay, and Dallas all failed to post winning records (although the Cowboys did qualify for the postseason with an 8-8 record). Life was good, and it got better a year later when my hometown team, the Ravens, won Super Bowl XXXV.
And then came the Patriots.
As Brady and Belichick started winning, fans started to dislike the Patriots. I took it a step further and aimed my disdain at all Boston-area sports teams, so you can imagine how difficult it was to stomach the Bruins winning the Stanley Cup in 2011, giving all four Beantown teams a championship within the span of a decade.
Until Brady and Belichick are out of the NFL, expect more of the same. It isn’t fun for anyone outside of New England anymore (and I think it’s fair to wonder how it’s even still fun for them, either). The celebrity backing that Tom Brady has makes it difficult to even pay attention to the late-night TV circuit, because I don’t need Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, or Mark Wahlberg trying to convince me that they somehow contributed to Brady and the Patriots’ success. It was easy to enjoy the Cubs and the Chicago celebrity brass soaking up the World Series, but this Boston act has gotten old, fast.
But before I sign off, let’s talk about the real sad story here: the Atlanta Falcons. Whether you are the conspiracy theorist that I am or not, there is something basic and undeniable at play here: winners win, and losers lose. What I mean by that is, teams and cities with winning cultures continue to find ways to win, and teams with a history of choking continue to choke. Atlanta as a city has one major professional sports championship, and it showed on Super Bowl Sunday.
Even if you are a Patriots-hater, more of your anger should be directed at the Falcons. It is beyond inexcusable to squander a 25-point lead at any point, let alone late in the third quarter. I remember saying out loud to my father recently, “you have to be up four touchdowns on the Patriots to be up by one touchdown” (I was referring to a game against San Francisco in 2012). It turns out that truer words were never spoken — the Falcons were only up 25 points, not 28.
And it wasn’t just that the Falcons blew the big lead. It was that the Patriots literally tried to give the game to them, and Atlanta simply refused. When it was 28-3, New England went for it on 4th-and-3 in their own territory. Had the Falcons made a stop, the final score likely would’ve been 42-10. When it was 28-9 after a Patriots touchdown, Stpehen Gostkowski missed the extra point. Then, he botched the onside kick to give Atlanta possession at the Patriots’ 41 after a penalty. Essentially, the league’s most potent offense needed a 10-yard drive to cement a Super Bowl championship, and instead went backwards.
When it was 28-12 with eight minutes to play, Atlanta faced a 3rd-and-1 in their own territory. Even if a running play was stopped, the clock would have kept running and a punt would have pinned New England deep. Instead, Shanahan had Ryan drop back (what looked like about a 12-step drop), and Ryan fumbled to give New England a short field. After a touchdown and two-point conversion, it was 28-20.
But that still wasn’t enough. Julio Jones made a circus catch on the sideline and you figured it was still Atlanta’s night as they were set up at New England’s 23. Somehow, someway, the Falcons went backwards to a 4th-and-33 — 4TH-AND-33!!! — and had to punt. Then, Julian Edelman made the most outrageous catch in NFL history, and the die was cast. Touchdown, two-point conversion, coin toss, touchdown, and… CHOKE.
You’d think Dan Quinn, who had an up-close-and-personal view of the worst play-call in Super Bowl history two years prior, would have learned that you can’t outsmart yourself against Bill Belichick. Instead, he and Shanahan got cute, and like virtually everyone before them, got burned. You really can’t blame the Falcons defense, because if I had told you prior to the game that they would sack Tom Brady five times AND run an interception back to the house, you would have jumped for joy. But it wasn’t to be, because of B & B.
I’ll close this article with another bit of wisdom from my father that I hope will help anyone else still feeling the sting from this game: If you can get over this game, you can get over any game.