Monday Morning Digest: Patriots Dynasty Far from Over After Epic Super Bowl Win
HOUSTON — It was never in any doubt, was it, Patriots faithful?
Actually, everything the Patriots have trained us to take for granted was in doubt from the moment the Falcons took a 7-0 lead. The Falcons appeared to win Super Bowl LI, then win it again, then again. They spent the fourth quarter a tipped pass or a holding penalty away from winning it once and for all.
But the Patriots are only beaten when the clock reads 0:00.
And even that doesn’t necessarily mean they are licked.
The Patriots beat the Falcons 34-28 in overtime in Super Bowl LI to win their fifth championship of the millennium. Tom Brady took home the MVP award, though this may have been the greatest team Super Bowl effort of the Patriots’ many great team Super Bowl efforts.
From the fourth quarter until the final gun, anyway.
It was the greatest Super Bowl ever. It was the greatest Super Bowl comeback ever. It featured one of the greatest Super Bowl plays ever. Heck, it may have featured the greatest halftime show ever.
But what would you expect from the greatest quarterback ever on the greatest franchise ever?
Digest is here to break down all the action from Super Bowl LI and to answer the only question left: Will the Patriots dynasty ever end?
The Patriots: Football's Forever Dynasty
Patriots players brought their children to their postgame press conferences.
Alan Branch dandled a child on each knee. Matthew Slater and LeGarrette Blount each had tykes in tow. Nate Solder's son kept trying to fasten a sticker to his chest. Martellus Bennett's daughter, a chip off the block, kept interrupting her dad to offer the press her insights about puppies.
It was adorable. And also ominous. We all knew about the little brood of Brady-Bundchens, but the Patriots brood has fruitfully multiplied. Are the Patriots creating a next generation of superplayers? Are they gearing up to extend their dynasty for the next 20 to 200 years?
When will this domination end?
Now, the worst question to ask a player who just won a Super Bowl is whether he is thinking about the next Super Bowl. It's like asking a couple on their honeymoon if they are ready for their first mortgage or their midlife crisis. They aren't. And they don't want to hear about it.
"We're not thinking about that right now," Slater said when asked about the future. "We're the world champs. That's all we're concerned with."
"I'm just trying to enjoy this moment," rookie receiver Malcolm Mitchell said.
And so it goes. Patriots players aren't thinking about the future. Bill Belichick and the rest of the organization will probably not get around to that until the team plane lands in Boston.
When the Patriots do look toward the future, they will discover:
• While usually thought of as an old team, they have lots of talent under age 27: Mitchell, James White, Malcom Brown, Trey Flowers, Eric Rowe, Malcolm Butler, Dion Lewis, Dont'a Hightower, several offensive linemen and up-and-coming role players like Elandon Roberts.
• The Patriots have over $65 million in 2017 cap space, according to Over The Cap. Some of that will be spent on in-house free agents like Hightower, Branch or Logan Ryan. Or maybe it won't: Belichick may already have succession plans in place for players most teams would deem irreplaceable. Either way, the Patriots have the money to keep as much of their nucleus intact as they like.
• The coaching staff returns intact. Once again, other teams grew impatient and filled their coaching vacancies without cannibalizing the Patriots coordinators. It's one of the many little ways that Patriots success breeds success.
• Remember Rob Gronkowski? He'll be back next year.
So the Patriots won't need to rely on their children just yet. They are in great shape to remain contenders next year, and the year after, until Tom Brady gets too old to continue.
We've been waiting for Brady to grow old for half a decade. It will happen when it happens. It doesn't look like that will be soon.
We're living in Patriots world, folks. If you didn't believe it at halftime of Super Bowl LI, you believed it when momentum shifted in the fourth quarter and the Patriots began to impose their will on the laws of physics. Time plays by their rules, not the other way around.
That's how it has been for nearly a generation.
And it's going to be that way for a while.
Play to Remember: Julian Edelman's Circus Show
What happened!? Who knows? It defies explanation.
All that is certain is that three people had an excellent chance to catch Tom Brady's errant pass into heavy traffic in the fourth quarter, and Julian Edelman was not one of them.
Somehow, Edelman came back for the ball as it passed through cornerback Robert Alford's hands, dived to retrieve it and preserved a catch by bobbling and juggling as he laid across a firewood stack of Falcons defenders.
Words cannot do justice to the play. Edelman's catch belongs on a mural or a tapestry, not in some measly postgame wrap-up.
What They Said
"It was a bang-bang play. ... I knew I had a good feel on [the football]. I didn't know if a piece of the ball was touching [the ground]. I don't know what the dang rule is. I just felt like I got it." — Edelman
"Phenomenal." — Patriots receiver Malcolm Mitchell
"That was the best catch that I have ever seen in person." — Patriots defender Dont'a Hightower
"Whoa." — Pretty much anyone else who witnessed it
Lynn Swann. Dwight Clark. David Tyree. Julian Edelman. 'Nuff said.
Turning Point: Dont'a Hightower's Strip-Sack
With the Patriots trailing 28-12 and on the verge of surrender following a failed onside kick, Dont'a Hightower blitzed the edge on 3rd-and-short, faced little resistance from blocker Devonta Freeman and sacked Matt Ryan just as he was about to release the ball.
Alan Branch retrieved the loose ball, giving the Patriots great field position and a new lease on life.
What He Said
"Honestly, it was not a complicated blitz. I was blitzing outside. I actually think they ran that play once or twice in the previous series. I guess Freeman didn't see me outside, and I guess he went to chip, or check release, and just lost sight of me.
"I saw Matt Ryan with the ball in his hand and I wanted it, so I hit it and took it from him." — Hightower
In a typical Super Bowl, Hightower's sack would be a signature play that is talked about for decades to come. In Super Bowl LI, it was just another spectacular play in a whirlwind of spectacular plays. But it was the one that turned the game around.
Unsung Hero: James White
White caught 14 passes for 110 yards. He scored three touchdowns and a two-point conversion on a nifty "OMG the snap went over Tom Brady's head...no, wait, White has it!" trick play.
In the first half, he was the only Patriots player—Brady included—who was consistently able to make plays. In the second half, once the Patriots sussed out a Falcons game plan built on man coverage, White was the driving force behind the comeback.
Most "unsung heroes" don't score three touchdowns in the Super Bowl. But this was one unusual Super Bowl, and White's name was rarely mentioned in the millions of words spoken and written in the days leading up.
You can prepare for just about everything the Patriots throw at you. Then they unleash their third running back.
What He Said
"It's really surreal. I was just living in the moment. I wasn't paying attention to how many catches I had, how many yards I had. I just wanted to keep moving the chains, no matter what it took." — White
White is a fine multipurpose back. His contribution will be remembered forever. But next year is next year for Patriots running backs, so White must keep moving the chains. After all, when is the last time you thought about Jonas Gray?
Hating the Patriots May Be a Matter of Human Nature
Patriots haters are in for another rough post-Super Bowl week. Which begs the question: Why are there so many Patriots haters?
Michael Robinson, former Seahawks player and current NFL Network analyst, has a somewhat dark theory about why so many people hate the Patriots.
"I think human beings are inherently just haters," he said during the week. "I call myself a hater all the time."
Fans' penchant to vent over (real or perceived) Patriots scandals and fans' general Patriots resentment may be the result of primal psychology.
As this essay by Brian J. Barth from the science magazine Nautilus explains, fan behavior is based in the same ingroup-outgroup identification that prompted humans to form tribes and fight wars.
Researchers have found, for example, that Yankees fans experience a surge of activity in the ventral striatum, a reward center of the brain, when they see images of Red Sox batters striking out, even against a non-Yankees pitcher.
The ventral striatum is also associated with addictive behavior.
It’s a stretch to say that Colts or Jets fans can get "hooked" on watching the Patriots lose, but the research offers a sense of what powerful forces are at work inside the brain of a fan who perceives the Patriots as the ultimate archrival.
Robinson’s "humans are haters" theory, in other words, has some research behind it.
Research also shows that fans have a coping mechanism for losses called Cutting Off Reflected Success: diminishing the achievements of the winner, often with shadowy accusations of cheating.
As the Patriots roll on and create a new generation of mortal enemies around the NFL, the "hater" phenomenon will only grow more intense.
"But my motto is, 'If you don’t want me to win, come beat me.' If you wanna be the man, then beat the man."
Super Bowl LI: Do You Remember?
So much happened in Super Bowl LI that it's easy to forget some moments that, in other Super Bowls, would have been unforgettable.
Let's jog your Monday morning memory. Do you remember?
• That this hallucinogenic fever dream of a game was scoreless in the first quarter?
• How sure you were the Falcons had clinched the game when Julio Jones made his nigh-impossible fourth-quarter catch?
• Taylor Gabriel putting such a move on x that Butler's ankles nearly got tied into a slipknot?
• The resounding DOINK when Stephen Gostkowski's extra point bounced off the right upright? Metallica must have left their amplifiers beneath the NRG Stadium goalposts.
• That dumb screen pass to Martellus Bennett for a loss of three yards just before halftime?
• That the Patriots pinned the Falcons at their own 10- and 11-yard lines on their final two kickoffs? "That's something that we've done all year long," special teams captain Matthew Slater said. "They gave us the look that we wanted."
• Tom Brady trying to chase down Robert Alford during his pick-six return?
• The three first downs the Patriots got from third-down holding penalties before that pick-six?
• How breathtaking the Falcons offense looked in the second quarter?
• Bennett and Dwight Freeney getting the tops of their facemasks stuck together? We should have known at that moment we were entering the Twilight Zone.
• Grady Jarrett's three sacks? Jarrett was nearly this game's Justin Tuck.
• Lady Gaga playing the keytar?
• Thinking that the keytar was the lamest instrument ever invented until the moment Lady Gaga picked one up?
• Seeing commercials that focused on racial diversity, tolerance, equal opportunities for all and compassion for the less fortunate, and thinking "that's nice" instead of "that was a bold sociopolitical statement that is sure to rankle some folks in the corridors of power"?
• Actually believing the most compelling thing about Super Bowl LI would be what would happen when Roger Goodell handed Robert Kraft the Lombardi Trophy?
This week's Nuggets focus on some of the issue-related "real NFL news" emanating from Houston during Super Bowl week.
• The new policy barring Joe Mixon and other college prospects convicted of violent crimes from next month's NFL Scouting Combine protects the players from both media scrutiny and an intense round of team interviews that can crack an unrepentant player's agent-scripted facade. It also protects the league from unwanted headlines during its week of nationally televised 40-yard dashes. It's a canny, self-serving PR move disguised as a get-tough policy, and it's counterproductive to the problem it is trying to solve. In other words, it's the most NFL thing the NFL has ever done.
• The NFL and NFLPA sound like they are closer on marijuana issues than either side is willing to state. The NFLPA is taking a cautious, research-driven approach to embracing medical marijuana, while Roger Goodell didn't have his usual "get a haircut, you hippies" fastball when questioned on the topic. Both sides see a potential bargaining chip for future collective bargaining agreement negotiations.
• Speaking of the CBA, NFLPA director DeMaurice Smith, despite sounding less militant in his opposition to many NFL policies than in years past, made it clear there would be no extension of the current CBA.
• The league and union will have to return to the bargaining table soon, with issues like Goodell's discipline procedures and authority on the table. Expect those talks, still a few years off, to make a Steelers-Bengals playoff game look like a tea party with your niece's teddy bears.
• Here is NFLPA president Eric Winston's Thursday statement on the president's travel ban: "Our Muslim brothers that are in this league, we have their backs. And we'll do whatever we can. And I'll stand right with them. If people want to come and harass their families, I'll be there with [their families]. Not to get too broadly into this, but we're starting to turn away from our values as a country. But these guys who are players in the National Football League: Their families are our families. I take that seriously."
• Contrast that statement with Goodell's statement at his press conference, loosely paraphrased as I am King Ostrich! Watch me as I plunge my head into the sand and stick to sports!
• Leaders of NFL-sized institutions can usually be forgiven for steering clear of controversial topics. But these are unusual times, and powerful folks like Goodell need to be wary of what issues they allow to be redefined as "controversial."
Hall of Fame Inductee Digest
Say you were asked to pick the five greatest movies of all time.
No problem! The Godfather, Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Rear Window and The Empire Strikes Back.
Wait, you left Pulp Fiction and Lawrence of Arabia off the list. Did you SNUB them? Why did you "vote them down"? Do you have a problem with strong language, or sand?
Welcome to the world of Hall of Fame balloting. Many football greats are called, but only five modern-era players are chosen. Then everyone complains about the results, though if the complainers made their own five-candidate lists, they would end up attacking each other instead of the selection committee.
Anyway, here's a look at this year's class, with a little inside-baseball skinny on their candidacies.
Adam Vinatieri, who will be the next kicker in the Hall of Fame, is still 35 field goals behind Andersen. The fact that Andersen's kicking records survived an entire generation of challenges helped his candidacy gain momentum.
Davis is another momentum case; his candidacy had minimal sizzle when he first retired. The Hall has always been kind to short-career players with a handful of extreme-impact seasons. We needed a few years to get a full sense of how extreme Davis' impact was from 1996 through 1998.
The Senior Committee nominee. Easley was the best safety in the NFL for about six years, but he was overlooked when he retired because the Hall was even more backlogged than it is today.
The Senior Committee has slowly been sweeping up players like Easley for years: outstanding defenders on ordinary teams who got lost in a Super Bowl shuffle behind guys with rings (in Easley's case, the Steel Curtain Steelers).
He had the wisdom to hire Jimmy Johnson and the patience to not get into an ego war with him until Johnson built one of the greatest teams in history. You can probably tell how I feel about this one.
The committee had to sort among many deserving recent defenders this year: Taylor, Brian Dawkins, John Lynch, Ty Law and others. Taylor has exceptional qualifications.
The committee should have found room for two of these guys, however, especially with Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher about to clog the defensive arteries next year. (I know who we can swap out! See the last entry!)
I've been told there was no real argument here. Not even sure what an argument would sound like.
As stated before: Extreme-impact seasons get a short-career player in, and time makes the impact of those seasons stand out. The fact that I can write Greatest Show on Turf 15 years later without having to explain the reference is a fine shorthand explanation of Warner's enshrinement.
What about T.O.?
Read this. Not much has changed since I wrote it.
Around-the-League News Roundup
Raiders-to-Vegas plan hits stumbling blocks.
C’mon, guys. Everyone knows you can’t leave those brochures where your wives can find them.
Larry Fitzgerald plans to play another year.
At this rate, he will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer in the year 2037.
The two most successful plays in the Steelers game plan last year were "Brown runs wrong route" and "Le'Veon Bell runs into wrong hole." As for all the recent #Brownileaks: Geez, Steelers, why not just dox Brown's cell number on a Bengals message board and get it over with?
David Johnson sets a goal for 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards.
Better run that goal past Fitzgerald, bucko.
Colts punter Pat McAfee retires.
It’s a good thing Ryan Grigson isn’t around to replace McAfee by trading a first-round pick to give Marquette King a $100 million contract.
The same technology also blocked the signals from pay cable channels in the 1980s, though if you focus carefully on the blurry images of Cinemax at 2 a.m., you may see something embarrassing, like the Saints defense for the last four years.
Texans owner Bob McNair says the team will look for a quarterback in the draft.
BROCK OSWEILER: But that would leave me lingering on the payroll as an expensive, unused bad idea!
GENERAL MANAGER RICK SMITH: Welcome to my world.
2017 Power Rankings
These rankings represent how each team stands entering the offseason, including roster age and cap space, as opposed to where they finished in 2016.
32. 49ers: Meet the new brain trust: a general manager who would be a highly qualified secondary coach and a coach who leaves his laptop lying around in a room full of reporters and Patriots.
31. Browns: As close as a team can come to being an expansion franchise without a goofy color scheme.
30. Jets: They are not good, but they make up for it by being old, expensive and lacking in vision.
29. Rams: A team that thinks it has loads of talent and just needs to develop its quarterback but actually doesn’t have that much talent.
28. Jaguars: Things will start getting better the moment the vein in Tom Coughlin’s temple bulges out and throttles Blake Bortles.
27. Bills: They have some great players and some terrible players but lack the wisdom to determine which are which.
26. Bears: Getting rid of Jay Cutler is going to feel like sawing off a full body cast.
25. Colts: Part I of the Great Quarterback/Screwed-Up Organization Trilogy. Jim Irsay is fixing the franchise the way your grandpa fixed his truck: replacing parts one at a time until the engine finally turns over.
24. Chargers: Part II of the trilogy. Get your season tickets for the StubHub Center now before they are all bought up by members of Philip Rivers’ immediate family.
23. Saints: Part III of the trilogy. In the year 2025, if Mother Earth still survives, Drew Brees will throw for 7,000 yards and the Saints will finish 7-9.
22. Ravens: Guaranteed to be as good as a team that wins entirely with field goals can possibly be.
21. Texans: Don’t go back to Brockville and waste another year.
20. Lions: They must convince skeptics that the September-to-November Lions were real and the December-January Lions were frauds. And they must do it without a schedule full of Rams and Jaguars.
19. Redskins: This may seem low, but according to the collective bargaining agreement, every spot the Redskins rank higher adds $10 million to Kirk Cousins’ eventual contract.
18. Panthers: Team needs: 4) better offensive tackles; 3) depth and upgrades in the secondary; 2) an infusion of skill-position talent; 1) referees who will call a freakin’ roughing penalty on Cam Newton.
17. Buccaneers: The team most likely to have a giant leap forward by their young players negated by some ridiculous front-office decision. The early "ridiculous decision" favorites are "second-round long snapper" and "meet your new veteran mentor, Jameis Winston: It’s Jay Cutler!"
16. Eagles: They could climb into the top 10 by spending all of their draft picks on cornerbacks and wide receivers.
15. Cardinals: They could win the NFC West by fixing their special teams or could finish in last place if Carson Palmer suffers one hit too many.
14. Bengals: Meh.
12. Dolphins: They can get much better just by getting much healthier.
11. Giants: Casual observers think the team must overcome maturity issues. But it really needs to upgrade its offensive line. And also overcome some maturity issues.
10. Seahawks: The Seahawks don’t lack direction. They are drifting downward just fine.
9. Titans: No, this isn’t too high. Look at their roster. Look at who they beat and who they played tough. The Titans are two defensive backs away from a deep playoff run.
8. Broncos: Anyone else have the sneaking suspicion that John Elway plans to show up at minicamp in a helmet and shoulder pads?
7. Steelers: They would rank higher if the quarterback wasn’t talking about retirement, the running back wasn’t a free agent, the wide receiver wasn’t an amateur cinematographer and there was anyone else on the roster under 30 worth getting excited about.
6. Chiefs: Either another year of banging their heads against Alex Smith’s performance ceiling or a year of rookie-quarterback growing pains. If the latter happens, the Chiefs would rank closer to 15th, and a large part of their fanbase would be overjoyed.
4. Raiders: Everything that happened after Derek Carr broke his leg was just a dream sequence.
3. Cowboys: When your biggest offseason problem is figuring out how to get rid of a quarterback who threw for over 34,000 career yards, you don’t have many offseason problems.
2. Falcons: The Falcons are well aware that this is a Chutes and Ladders slot. The young defense and explosive offense have a bright future if they avoid the broken cookie jar known as the Super Bowl Jinx.
1. Patriots: Always and forever.