My Favorite Football Game

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I became a New England Patriots fan about forty years ago when Steve Grogan began playing quarterback for them. They had some other good players too, but it took them a long time to get anywhere in the playoffs. Still, when I moved to New England myself, that kind of reinforced my being a fan.

It was 1985 when they made their first Super Bowl, and that was against the Chicago Bears team with the tremendous defense. New England got stomped. Their next time to the Superbowl was in the late 1990s. They didn’t get slaughtered that time, but still lost pretty badly.

Two things changed all that: the arrival of Bill Belichick and the arrival of Tom Brady. Belichick became one of the most successful coaches in the NFL. Brady became arguably the best quarterback in the game today, and one of the best all-time. I understand why a lot of people don’t like the team: they win an awful lot. But they didn’t used to, and I rooted for them before they became this good. That said, this year’s Super Bowl was possibly the best football game I’ve ever watched.

The Atlanta Falcons were a very good team this year, both offensively and defensively. They pretty much started the game hitting on all cylinders.

The game was scoreless when I began watching, but didn’t stay that way long. Brady was intercepted, and the Falcons quickly scored a touchdown. It didn’t take long for them to score a second one too. Meanwhile, their defense was putting pressure on Brady and covering the receivers well. Brady threw another interception, which was run all the way back for a touchdown. At that point I thought I’d never seen the Patriots play so badly in a big game, and began thinking about congratulating friends rooting for the Falcons. A field goal late in the first half didn’t seem to make much difference.

This was accentuated early in the second half when the Falcons scored another touchdown. At 28-3, a Patriot’s win seemed impossible. An article I read the next day said at that point the chance of their winning was less than 1 %. But at that point things began to change.

The Patriot’s defense began to be more effective, holding the Falcons scoreless the rest of the way. Julio Jones made a pretty amazing catch on the sideline, but the Falcons couldn’t take advantage.

As the Patriot’s defense became more effective, Atlanta’s defense became less. As Atlanta’s offense spent less time on the field, the defense became tired and less able to put pressure on Brady. In Denver’s win against the Patriots last year their ability to put pressure on Brady consistently all game was a key element. Atlanta began well, but couldn’t keep the pressure on. When Tom Brady isn’t being pressured he picks defenses apart.

The Patriots scored a touchdown in the third quarter, but missed the extra point. They then scored a field goal, which made the score 28-12. A win still seemed impossible.

But when the Patriots scored a touchdown and made a two-point conversion to cut the lead to 28-20, the momentum had definitely changed. I think it was on the next drive that Julian Edelman made possibly the greatest catch I’ve ever seen. Brady passed to him when he was surrounded by three defensive players. The pass bounced off his hands, but he was able to turn, grab it in the air, and keep it from hitting the ground as he fell. The Patriots scored again, made the two-point conversion again, and were tied. They couldn’t score again before the end of the game, so it became the first Super Bowl game to go to overtime.

But not for long. By this time it seemed pretty inevitable. The Patriots got the ball again and scored the winning touchdown. After a difficult start Brady completed some 43 passes for 466 yards. After falling so far behind, it would have been easy for him and the team to give up, but they never did.

Arguably, this was their most challenging Super Bowl. Every one they’ve been in since Belichick and Brady arrived has been close and competitive. But they never fell as far behind as in this one. This was their seventh appearance in the fifteen years Brady has been quarterback, and they’ve lost two of those seven, both very close games to the New York Giants. That means they’ve won five, a record for one quarterback.

Bart Starr and the Green Bay Packers won the first two Super Bowls, which were part of five NFL championships, mostly before the Super Bowl began. The Packers lost only one championship under Starr, so they were arguably a better team than the Patriots. It’s an interesting discussion, though, since they were also arguably much more talented, probably equivalent to an all-star team at every position. There have been other teams comparably talented, but no others as successful.

The Patriots have been unique because they HAVEN’T had great talent at every position. They had Corey Dillon for a couple of years and have LeGarrett Blount now. Those have probably been their best running backs.

They had Randy Moss for one season ten years ago when they went undefeated in the regular season, but lost the Super Bowl. Julian Edelman is a fine one now, as is Rob Gronkowski (who was injured and couldn’t play in the Super Bowl). Otherwise, they were good but not great.

Their defense was pretty good all season. One way of measuring that is that they won three of the four games Brady didn’t play in, using two quarterbacks with relatively little experience. The two played well, but so did the defense. That’s why it was surprising they gave up twenty-one points in the Super Bowl. I have to give Atlanta a lot of credit there, but they weren’t able to keep the pressure on, which is at least partly a tribute to New England. Bill Belichick is a master of making adjustments, and he made them throughout this game.

It almost seemed inevitable when New England scored early in overtime to win the game. The momentum had completely shifted, and Atlanta’s defense, good as they were all season, just couldn’t stop the Patriots offense.

This sixteen year run has been pretty amazing, though not as amazing, perhaps, as the Packers run during the 1960s. One difference has been the Patriots sustaining excellence over a longer period of time. After the 1967 Super Bowl many of the Packers veterans retired (at the same time Vince Lombardi left to coach the Washington Redskins), and they weren’t very good again until the 1990s. In the case of the Patriots, the continuity is been mainly Belichick and Brady. Others have come and gone, but they’ve stayed at the top of the AFC East, and usually at or near the top of the NFL.

To say that no one saw that coming is an understatement. Hardly anyone knew anything about Brady when he was drafted. Belichick had been head coach in Cleveland, with little to show for it. He was named head coach of the New York Jets, succeeding Bill Parcells, but changed his mind after one day, and took the Patriots job. He had one losing season, then went to the Super Bowl the next year, which was when Brady became the starting quarterback. They followed that up with two more Super Bowls in the next three years, winning each one of them. They’ve been near or at the top just about every season since.

It’s not that I want New England to win every year. I grew up loving pro sports teams from Cleveland, Ohio, and would love to see the Browns get somewhere in the NFL. I was thrilled last year when the Cavaliers won the NBA title and the Indians went to the World Series.

But Brady can’t play forever, and Belichick can’t coach forever. I expect New England will fall back to mediocrity eventually, as every team does. But I’ve enjoyed this run, and especially this last game.

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